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. This is the fourth installment.
Wednesday, December 2. “Speak on our behalf,” a human rights activist in Trincomalee urged us today as we watched a short PowerPoint presentation on the history of injustice and violations of human rights endured by the Tamil people of the north and east of Sri Lanka over the past 60 years.“Speak on our behalf because we have no voice,” he repeated. Many of us were shaken by the presentation’s photos of atrocities committed against the Tamil civilian population. One of the facilitators of our reconciliation workshop has lived through the brutal years of partisan bloodshed in Northern Ireland and has spent much of his life there in the difficult struggle for peace and reconciliation. Visibly shaken, he reflected on the photos of human slaughter by saying in a choked voice, “I had never seen a picture of a child hanged.”
In fact, as a Sri Lankan present explained, the harrowing photo was only a small piece of a larger, more brutal story. In 2006, a Tamil woman was raped and murdered while her husband and young children were forced to stand by and watch helplessly. Afterwards, the children themselves were slashed with machetes and hanged in front of their father who was then himself finally killed.
This story and so many others like it fill the pages of the sad history of Sri Lanka’s recent conflict — a conflict marked by inhumanities committed by all sides of the conflict. In a real way, these crimes against humanity force us to ask ourselves not simply what has become of the people of Sri Lanka, but what has become of humanity itself. How can we, as humankind, face and understand such brutality?
A key moment for me in our struggle today to understand the incomprehensible came when Fr. Joel Joseph, the Country Director of JRS-Sri Lanka, suggested to us that, in the face of such inhumanity, perhaps we can find a glimmer of grace in realizing that we — all of us — form the Body of Christ, but in a way different from our past understanding of this theological concept. For, if one of us suffers, all of us, indeed, should suffer. But, if one of us suffers and another ignores or feels not the slightest pain at such suffering, then a kind of paralysis sets in that part of the body that is insensitive to the pain of the other. It is, perhaps, this paralyzed part of the body that has need of more help and attention than the part that suffers. Perhaps this is the beginning of the grace of reconciliation within us all.
I am beginning to see that JRS’ work of advocacy for the Sri Lankan people should have at its heart a desire to achieve both solidarity with the victims as well as reconciliation between the victims and victors alike in the latest Sri Lankan war. To help reach any form of post-conflict reconciliation we must go beyond the spirit and values that energize and support one side or other of the conflict. It is the spirit of common humanity that we must re-discover, a spirit that breathes in each of us, in every nation and in all ethnic groups, calling us to aspire to become our own best self.
It is this spirit of humanity that reaches out and tries to work with all side in a conflict situation, inviting them in most hard-headed and pragmatic ways possible to work for healing, reconciliation and lasting peace for all.