Dispatches from Sri Lanka, Day One

Father Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J., the Regional Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, is in Sri Lanka this week for a meeting of JRS Regional Directors. He will be writing daily updates on what it is like in Sri Lanka, seven months after the end of a devastating civil war that left tens of thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

The conflict in Sri Lanka forced this man to flee multiple times from various places he sought shelter. (Ken Gavin, S.J. - Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

The conflict in Sri Lanka forced this man to flee multiple times from various places he sought shelter. (Ken Gavin, S.J. - Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)


Sunday, November 29. I land in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, at 8 a.m. this morning after nearly 16 hours of flying time from Washington, D.C. I am here to attend a meeting of the worldwide regional directors of Jesuit Refugee Service on the theme of reconciliation and its role in the mission of JRS.

The choice of locations was far from arbitrary. After more than 25 years of conflict between federal forces in the south and a northern rebel group known as the Tamil Tigers, the government of Sri Lanka finally defeated the Tigers this past May. The victory was not without devastating losses to both sides and the number of civilian deaths in the conflict was shocking. Both sides in the war have been accused by the international community of violations of the Tamil people’s human rights.

The Tigers forced Tamil families to surrender their young children to serve as soldiers and in the final weeks of the conflict used civilians as human shields. The government engaged in non-judicial arrests and trials of civilians and shelled thousands of Tamils citizens trapped behind the Tiger lines during the last tragic days of the war. Many would say that, while the government of Sri Lanka had a plan for victory, they had no plan for a peace to follow victory.

As we travel by taxi to the JRS office in Colombo, I ask an older member of the JRS staff who met me at the airport what the political climate here in the capital was like. While he admitted that there was now a welcome sense of calm in the area of the capital city, he also assured me that the south knows little of the suffering that hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils currently experience. “The heart of authority,” he said, “has no charity.”

During the week ahead we will be asking ourselves what our own JRS experience of reconciliation has been in each of our regions and how we can imagine reconciliation as creating physical, social and internal spaces where traumatized people can be safe and free from the burdens of their past.

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