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Still Counting The Dead: Survivors Of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War

Book Review By Sathish Kumar Thiyagarajan

25 February, 2013

Harrison, Francis. Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War. London: Portbolo Books, 2012. xxvi+264 pgs.

I was so disgusted. The whole system failed. It wasn’t only the UN, but the whole international community. Tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan government and the world just moved on. It [the brutal carnage]just passed us by (13). - UN aid worker

With a guilty conscience, that my life just moved on while hundreds of thousands of people suffered unimaginable cruelty right under my nose, I write this review. Every time I go back to the book Still Counting the Dead, I am ashamed of my insensitivity to those suffering masses, men and women stripped of their dignity. It wasn’t that I was ignorant of the situation in 2009. I knew. What embarrasses the most was my negligence despite the repeated updates about the brutal carnage in the other side of the ocean. My life just moved on. I was no better than those tourists who were enjoying their winter-sun holidays lying on the Sri Lanka’s southern beaches during the brutal climax of the war in 2009 (6). I failed. The UN aid worker has put it rightly that we failed, the whole system failed and everyone of us failed to protect their lives, their dignity and their rights – the innocent civilians who were unjustly made to pay the price for the mistakes of a handful. Things have fared no better. It is alarming to know that I belong to a country (India), which conveniently remains inactive for reasons no meaner than selfish politics.

Though the disturbing videos of the Channel 4 about the war crimes, leaves ripple effects, yet we required a consolidated objective reportage to break the myth of ‘the war’ to face the facts in the phase of a hurried cautious destruction of the evidences by the Sri Lankan government. One such most appreciated initiative is Francis Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War. The author has served as the resident BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2004. Her confidence and sympathy as an insider familiar with ongoing dialogue and conflict between the warring parties, the living conditions and sufferings of the civilians at both ends has shaped her work sensitive and objective. Though the book appears to be an anthology of testimonies, it stands as an authentic reportage of the ‘Sri Lankan War 2009’. The author has crosschecked the evidences from testimonies with the parallel reports, data collected from other authentic sources and further substantiated with empirical data on the human casualties. The ten chapters presenting the testimonies of survivors respectively, the relevant empirical data at the end of every chapter, with the couple of maps, introduction, conclusion, and appendices, set a holistic, detailed picture of the war tone civilization. The testimonies in the book include persons from different walks of life; from the well informed insiders like Pulidevan – the LTTE Spokesman, a Tamil Journalist and the fighter; the volunteers like a Doctor and a Catholic Nun; to innocent civilians like a Teacher and a Shopkeeper.

Sensitive to the global audience who may be caught unaware on this subject, the author has sandwiched sections between war stories that explain socio-economic and political situation of Sri Lanka. The book informs the reader about the country, its multi-ethnic culture, religions, the history of the ethnic conflicts, the rise of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the parallel government established in the north, their relationship with the Tamil community in Diaspora, and the events that lead to the war. All this - the history, the war, and the post war situation – is presented with an objective critique from the perspective of the defeated – the innocent civilians.

In her book, Harrison does not spare either of the warring parties for the violence unleashed on innocent civilians living in two ends of the nation. In the reportage of the war, Harrison condemns both the rebels (their forceful recruitment of adolescents in the middle of the war, and their cover behind the civilians), and the Sri Lankan military (with their deliberate attack on civilians in the No-fire/Safe Zones and Hospitals) for the unaccountable damage on the Sri Lankan Tamil community. She writes, “It was just much bloodier than it needed to be” (8).

Today, the book stands as an important ‘witness’ to the carnage staged by the Sri Lankan government. It tells the world about the cruelty of the war: strategic attack on innocent civilians in safe zones, the indiscriminate shelling on hospitals and people queued to collect rations, the sexual assault on rebel-captives and innocent civilians irrespective of their age and gender by the military, the unjust post-war treatment, the dehumanizing living conditions of the survivors, the mysterious disappearances of the young Tamil men and women, brutality of the detention centers and the trauma of their survivors. The credit goes to Harrison.

In fact, one of the anxieties of the survivors was that the war would go unaccounted with the diplomatic isolation of the International Community and media from the war zone. It is therefore a must read for everyone involved in promoting justice and peace, not to mention about those concerned with this war. More than anything, this book is a reassurance to the survivors that their suffering is accounted; that there is a hope for justice in the future.

The unimaginable suffering and cruelty that pours out from every other testimony yearns for no consolation in anything less than justice:
The wounds go very deep. It’s not only the war and the present, it goes back decades. So all those memories are buried in the people. National reconciliation is wishful thinking. Justice has to be done. It’s not enough simply to talk of peace. You cannot have injustice and speak of peace (113).

Sathish Kumar Thiyagarajan is a research student, qualified in philosophy and sociology sathishkumar.sdb@gmail.com





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