Note: This post originally appeared in the Global Post.
Last year, I watched children running in and out of the waves on Sri Lanka’s southern shore. Life felt almost normal, almost as if the tsunami that claimed some 230,000 lives from Thailand to Madagascar 10 years ago had never happened.
On the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, I had watched from my living room in Tucson, Ariz., as film footage showed places my family and I knew and loved disappearing into the Indian Ocean.
The island had been our home in 2001-2002 when I taught at Peradeniya University in the central hills. I had been back several times, but the trip six months after the tsunami would be a very different one. I returned to an island where 35,000 had died within the space of half an hour. The coastal area lay in ruins, lives were shattered and bodies lost to the sea.
I frequently pause and revisit that day when, as the Sri Lankans say, “the sea came to the land.”
The war in Sri Lanka has been over for almost two years. I've been back to the island twice in that time. My most recent trip took me up to Trincomalee on the northeast coast this past December where I was doing some volunteer work at a home for girls. I also wanted to see how the city and its people were putting the pieces of their lives back together again since war's end. Government propaganda aside, no one on this island believes that this is going to be an easy process. Ethnic distrust and hatreds between the Tamils and the Sinhalese; 300,000 civilians forced into IDP camps after the war; families separated from one another; civilians used as human shields in the last days of the conflict-- these are memories that are not dislodged easily.
This was my second trip to Trincomalee. My son and I had been there during a short-lived cease fire in 2002 and had witnessed a city nailed shut by war. I remember how silent it was. This December, Trinco, as it is known here, had shaken off war's stupor and come to life again. The sounds of buses, trishaws, and cars competing for one square lane in the center of town told me that there was petrol again. I was plunged into a shopper's paradise. Plastic Santas, Christmas tree ornaments, and toys all hung outside the Muslim shops, and the downtown area was marching to the beat of shoppers and bala music. Religion wasn't a factor here. Christmas was an excuse to celebrate. For Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, it was a time to eat, dress up, give gifts, and visit with family and friends. People were cleaning their houses and cooking in preparation for the festivities.
Along with everyone else in Trinco, I went down to the open air market in the center of town and bought vegetables and curry leaves. But mainly what I bought were mangoes. Lots of them. Jaffna mangoes to be precise. They are known as karatacolomban . I knew about them because for the better part of 20 plus years, no one south of the war zone could get hold of them. Roads were closed. Trains had stopped. Commerce between north and south had come to a standstill. Someone had told me "You'll know when the war is over when the Jaffna mangoes appear again."
And they had!
I made a little fist of victory with my hand, stuffed them into my straw basket, and headed back to the orphanage. In my other bag I had a kid's badminton set, a couple of stuffed animal, two puzzles, some Bombay sweets, and lots of hair clips.
Make no mistake. War's residue remains part of the daily fabric of life in the northern part of this island. And it will be that way for years, if the present is any barometer. The final bloodbath in this civil war took place in Mullaittivu, less that 100 kilometers north of Trinco. Fishermen displaced from their homes in the last weeks of the conflict still wait in Trinco to be allowed to return to their villages. Half an hour inland sit Sinhalese villages that were overrun by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The villagers are in the process of moving back to their land that was razed and burned, their homes destroyed. Many are still trying to find family members from whom they were separated in the final weeks of the conflict. Others, newly released from the IDP camps, come home to houses with no people in them, or to no home at all. The wounded wait for the government to deliver on its promises of rehabilitation. Tamil fruit sellers in town worry that the Sinhalese have retained control over the market. And almost two years after war's end, roads that scream for repair are still lined with Sri Lankan Military, young Sinhalese soldiers in bunkers bearing rifles. The aftereffects of war linger with stunning tenacity.
There is also the small matter of several very large waves that destroyed 900 lives on Dec. 26, 2004. This December, on the day after Christmas and under a driving rain, Trincomalee stopped and remembered. The Buddhist temples held special ceremonies, the Hindu kovils special poojas. We took the girls from the orphanage out onto the beach and organized an impromptu ceremony of our own. From there we went inside and lit candles in memory of the victims. I looked at the girls standing there. Some were too young to have much of a memory of what had happened. Others had lost family members that day, a moment in time that explained why they were standing in front of me now.
Part of recovery from war's trauma, from any trauma, is the process of re-finding the life and the person you were before the trauma. This past Christmas, the people in Trincomalee did just that. The women got out their saris, wrapped themselves in elegance and set off bearing fruits and cake to see friends and relatives. A friend went to buy a new shirt. We had cake and chicken at the orphanage, swam at the beach and dove between each other's legs. It was all part of the process.
There is much still to do on this small island of twenty one million people. Part of that long, slow journey towards recovery begins with a cake, a pot of something boiling on the stove, a new shirt and a bala dance. Sometimes the rest can wait for another day.
On the wall in my study is an index card with a quote on it from Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. "We are communal histories, communal books," it says. I carry those sentiments into the classroom with me five times a week at the university where I teach, as I try to communicate to my students why stories matter, why books matter, and why, by God, we should all read. Sometimes I am so busy proselytizing the virtues of literature that I forget to look inside and ask myself "Why does my own writing matter?" I write because I love writing and because I think it changes lives—sometimes in ways that we can't possibly anticipate. I suppose our books are, in this sense, like our children. We send them into the world, and they do things that we never intended them to do, things that are sometimes confounding, often improbable and even heart stopping. They make their way in the world totally independent of us. Maybe that is ultimately what a book launch is all about.
Having said this, I've also had moments of real doubt over the past four years about whether writing has the power to change anything. I have spent the past eight years of my life writing about Sri Lanka, a country that has been at war with itself for thirty plus years. I lived there with my son in 2001-2002 and then returned after the 2004 tsunami. In the fall of 2005, a cease-fire hung in the balance, and it became possible finally to get up to the Tamil north. I felt that I really needed the Tamil perspective on this war for the book I was writing. In Jaffna I stayed in a makeshift guest house where I was the lone guest on a street where every house had either been destroyed or abandoned. I spent my days talking to students, to people who were part of demining operations, to people whose children had been forcibly recruited by the Tamil Tigers, and to people who had suffered war loss compounded by tsunami loss. And at night I came back to the guest house and wrote about them. I struggled with what I was doing up there as a writer. The people in Jaffna didn't need me sitting at my computer; they needed aid and they needed for this war to be over, the very things I could not give them. Was I using these people, I wondered, as nothing more than material for my book?