by Adrian David
Jaffna, Sri Lanka—1996
The Civil War in Sri Lanka is worsening with every passing day. Imagine, this has been going on since 1983, destroying homes and displacing thousands of people. Ever since the war began, the predominant insurgent group, the Tigers, have been fighting for a separate state for the island country’s largest ethnic minority, the Tamils.
I’m rather appalled seeing the loss of lives on both sides—massacres, suicide bombings, enforced disappearances, assassinations, and the worst of all, state-sponsored genocide.
Despite international interventions, Sri Lanka is unable to stop this carnage. Every morning, I wake up to the news of bloodshed. God only knows when all this will end.
I’m hungry as hell.
Why did I scribble this line at the end of today’s journal entry? It’s no surprise, given my rumbling stomach. The good news is that my lunch will be here soon. Sitting in front of an empty table, I look around the interior of the nondescript restaurant I’m in, trying to spot the waiter.
Within seconds, a plate of steaming egg hoppers and a bowl of lamb curry adorn my table. Ah, nothing can beat the heady aroma of authentic Jaffna cuisine. I wield my fork and spoon like a hungry animal about to ravage its prey. Did I hear a familiar tune? Oh, not now!
I dig my phone from my shoulder bag as the ringtone plays.
“Is this Hannah McCarthy from Reuters?” comes a hoarse voice over the phone.
“Meet me at City Park in fifteen minutes, sharp.”
“Hold on, who’s this?”
“You will know soon.”
“Sorry, I’m busy. I have a press conference to attend in a few hours.”
“Never mind! I have a lead for an explosive news story. That’s all I can give you over the phone. Are you in, or should I find another journalist?”
“Wait!” I blurt out. “I’ll be there.”
Without wasting time, I wolf down a few bites of the egg hoppers before paying the bill and heading out in desperate hope of finding a cab. After close to ten minutes of waiting, I hail a cab. A stream of questions clouds my mind along the way to the park.
Who is he?
Of all the journalists in Sri Lanka, why me?
Is it because I’m an expat who doesn't have allegiance to either the Sri Lankan or the Tamil side?
Or is it because I’m a journalist of exceptional repute?
The last question isn’t valid. Ever since I was deputed as the war correspondent in Sri Lanka three years back after covering the Yugoslav Wars, I’ve not made my mark here. Though I’ve covered quite a few stories, I’m still searching for an interview that will catapult my career.
“We’ve arrived.” My cabbie brought the car to a jolting stop in front of a serene park. Reaching for some rupees in my shoulder bag, I pay him the fare, along with a handsome tip for speeding up despite the traffic.
Within minutes, I’m inside the park. It’s scorching hot. The park is empty except for a few pigeons.
“Hannah!” A voice calls out to me. Walking further, I spot a man on a bench.
“You’re late.” He points to his wristwatch. I scan him—mid-20s, brown-skinned, thick beard, well-oiled hair, and a dark green T-shirt. A backpack rests on his shoulders. His bloodshot eyes shuttle left and right to see if anyone else is around.
“Sorry about that.” I extend my hand.
“No time for pleasantries!”
“You were the one who called me, offering a scoop.”
Silly me, I should have hung up, rather than agreeing to meet a total stranger.
“Not just a mere scoop. It’s beyond that.”
“Well, I’m all ears.” I settle myself on the bench.
“I’m a Tiger. I want to give you an interview—about our struggle, our pain, our cause.”
Many journalists in my circle, who share a clandestine relationship with the Tigers, have interviewed quite a few militant leaders. It’s not that I don’t want to interview a Tiger. Judging by this guy’s age and demeanor, he doesn’t seem to be a high-ranking militant. Going by his English, he seems educated, but that’s not a reason to consider him. Though I’m desperate for a break, I’m not desperate enough to interview a rookie. I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m quite busy today. Maybe we could do this tomorrow or some other day?”
“I won’t be alive tomorrow.” His face is stone cold.
My jaw drops.
“I’m a Black Tiger on a mission,” he adds.
Gosh, he’s talking about the Black Tigers, the wing that carries out suicide bombing missions! To date, they have assassinated ministers, politicians, and even an incumbent President.
He continues, “And I’m going to blow myself up three hours from now.”
I gulp, trying to process what I just heard.
“What?!” My head swirls with confusion. “If you’re telling the truth, why are you revealing it to me? What if I...”
“Do you think I’m so dumb that I didn’t think of that before? We always have a Plan B. If you turn me in, my substitute will bomb the place. Our mission will succeed no matter what.”
“I don’t want to get involved in your mess.”
“I’m here on my own accord. My high command doesn’t know. The reason I’m meeting you is to get some things off my chest. Whether you publish it or not is up to you.”
I brush off his cocky attitude and excessive self-confidence. It’s not every day a journalist gets to interview a suicide bomber. Who knows? This could even give me my much-needed break.
“Let’s do it.” I pull out my voice recorder from my bag. “Give me ten minutes. I’ll think of some questions.”
“I can’t spare that much time.” The restlessness in his tone is obvious.
I turn on my recorder and set the ball rolling for an impromptu interview. “Let’s start with your name.”
“It doesn't matter. What matters is my cause—the reason I am still fighting.”
“Hmm, tell me. What makes you fight for your cause, even if it costs you your life?”
“Before that, I want to ask you a question.”
What does he think of himself? Am I interviewing him or vice versa?
“Do you know what the world calls Sri Lanka?” His left eyebrow twitches.
“Teardrop of the Indian Ocean.”
“The teardrops…” He points to himself. “The teardrops belong to us. For decades, the government has denied us our rights in all walks of life—jobs, education, housing, and even basics.”
“I hope all this will end someday.”
“Do you mean it?” He looks devastated. “Even if the war ends, what about my people? Will their lives get better, or will it worsen?”
“If you care so much about your people, why are you going to blow yourself up?”
“Let me ask you another question.” His bloodshot eyes pierce through me. “If someone barges into your home and tries to rape your mother, will you be a silent spectator? Or will you grab the kitchen knife and defend her chastity?”
“You have a point. But that’s completely different.” I reason.
“No! Our land is our mother. If someone tries to uproot us, we will retaliate. Journalists like you continue to speak up for conflicts in the other parts of the world like the Middle East, but you turn a blind eye towards the bloodshed in Sri Lanka. Our war is the forgotten war.”
“Please understand. I’m neither belittling your cause nor trying to lecture you. What I’m saying is that violence is never the answer. If you all had peacefully protested instead of taking up arms in the first place, things would’ve been much better.”
“A peaceful protest is a prerogative of the privileged.” He smirks. “It’s nothing but a farce that gets ignored by most.”
“Says who? Remember South Africa—look at what Nelson Mandela did. Look at what Aung San Suu Kyi is doing in Burma.”
“Remember Tiananmen Square?” he shoots back. “They butchered the protesters like street dogs. I could give you more such examples. Peaceful resistance isn’t an option. We need a revolution.”
“I disagree. Change begins with you. Take to the streets, hold placards, and make your voices heard.”
“Not over here.” He shakes his head. “The government turns a deaf ear to our cries. The sound must be loud to make them hear. It has to be that of an explosion.”
“Eleven years back, militants from your outfit shot dead 146 Sinhalese civilians who were praying at a Buddhist shrine. Is this your revolution? For God's sake, how could you kill someone who’s praying without even a bit of empathy?”
“That was collateral damage. But I’m not saying what we did was right.”
“Are you even weighing your words?” I stand abruptly. “The blood of countless innocent civilians is on your hands.”
“We’re retaliating, not openly declaring war.” He stands up too. “Don’t look at us using the same lens through which you view the other outfits who are wreaking havoc worldwide. We are neither religious fanatics nor extremist ideologues. Rather, we seek freedom from the shackles of oppression. When the Sri Lankan government fires shells on our people, you can’t expect us to hand them flowers in return.”
“I understand but stop justifying your actions like an apologist.”
“You won’t understand.” He clenches his teeth. “You Westerners don’t give a damn about what happens over here, or any other third world country for that matter. Close to one million were ethnically cleansed in Rwanda. The so-called international media never covered it enough. Be it the US, the UN, or the EU; no one came to help.”
“That’s sad, yet true. I can empathize with your suffering.”
“How could you empathize? Have you suffered? Have your people suffered? No! My mother was stripped naked and killed, her breasts were severed. Was yours? My fourteen-year-old sister was sexually assaulted by a gang and left to die. Was yours? You know nothing!”
“Oh God, I’m terribly sorry for you. I can’t fathom what you went through. But that doesn’t mean you should take an eye for an eye.”
“No! The government destroyed my family. Now, they must pay.”
As I look into his grief-stricken eyes, I’m filled with sympathy, with a need to save this man in front of me. My mind jumbles together. I imagine the possible locations he’s heading to. There might be government officials or worse, civilians in it. I can’t allow this to happen. Wait! Didn’t he say that there’s a Plan B—the substitute bomber? Though I know I can't do anything to save the lives of those in the location, I feel the least I can do is keep him from doing it.
My eyes no longer see him as a murderer, but as a victim of countless murders committed in front of his eyes—the ethnic violence fueled by majoritarianism, along with the rapes, the hatred, the bloodshed caused by forcing people to think one person bleeds blue and the other, red.
Turning off my recorder, I search for my next words as if my life depends on it.
He stares at me with deep attention, searching for a sign.
“Being a war correspondent, I’m no stranger to the horrors of war. I have felt the blood-bathed blankets of silence and seen the ruin of famine. Five years back, when I reported the Yugoslav Wars…”
I’m hoping he listens through the cacophony of my mind. The screams of the dying. The bombs. The clang of shells bouncing off the ground to accompany the drum-roll cadence of automatic rifles salvaged from the wars. Sounds that might play all day inside his mind. I imagine these are the thoughts that haunt him.
“Stop it!” he yells. “You believe we are the same because you have seen such things?” He grabs me by the crook of my arm, bringing me closer to his face. “You know nothing!”
He lowers his head and disengages his grip. Tears are now battling to crest over his lids. Are these tears of sorrow, or the tears of a man no longer wanting to live?
Sweat stimulates the hair follicles along my neck. I shake off the shiver.
“Do you believe this is the only path to justice?” I demand an answer. “Is this the example you want to set for the next generation? Would the elders, long gone, be proud of your actions?”
His eyes lower in shame, gazing at my shoulder bag.
“Dammit... Look at me! Does this make you better than any of them? Do you even see an end to all this?”
“Th... they... they must all pay.” He whispers as if he needs to convince himself more than me.
I want to comfort him. This can’t be right. He is a monster who is ready to destroy the lives of many. But I can’t help but think that there is still some good in him.
“Let me ask you a final question.” My inner thoughts flow through my words. “If you still think this is a necessary act, I will forget this meeting happened. All I need is an answer. Okay?”
Intrigued, he takes a step back. A pain so evil and deep-rooted, a tsunami of hurt, is evident. “Fine. Ask your question and let me be on my way.”
Millions of words string together in my mind as I prepare to ask this one final question. A question that might soon save this one life. I know that today won’t be the day I will save lives, plural. What I do know is that today is the day I will save him.
“When it’s all done, once you have finished your mission and there is nothing left but ashes, what then? What will happen when your spot in the ranks is replaced by the next willing mind? To what end?”
Looking right into his eyes, I continue, “When will this war end if the government keeps adding names to the list of people they’ve killed? When will this war end when innocents are massacred because they are around the ones responsible? When will this war end if every time your people kill a murderer, they produce one? When does this all end?”
My feet move forward, slow and steady. I am now chest to chest, face to face with him. My instinct tells me that I should embrace him, despite my mind knowing that he would take it as an attempt to disarm him.
“This is for my people…for their right to call their home, home.” He mumbles midway. “The mission... this mission... my mission...”
“Which mission? This was never your mission, to begin with. You were exposed to the collateral damage caused by tyranny and the ensuing retributive violence brought forth by militants. It’s not that there was much hope for diplomacy, but since the start of the bloodshed, no one has attempted to cease attacks either. What difference will your life make if tomorrow, your death is equated to terror? You could live, rather than die in a war where nobody really wins.”
He buries his face in his palms. “All I thought about until now was this day. The day I would gain my place among my courageous comrades. One step closer to freedom for my people. I searched for redemption, a way to clear the debt of lives lost. But…”
“But… but what?”
“But in hindsight, I think otherwise.” Rivulets of tears stream down his cheeks. “I think living is the real redemption. I don’t want to die. There are many other ways to fight for our cause.” He
I hug him in a desperate bid to console his wretched soul. We remain in a comforting embrace for quite some time. The optimist in me assures him that everything is going to be all right soon.
Finally, he wipes his tears and tries to pull himself together. “I feel like a changed man.” The lines of misery slowly disappear from his face. “I won’t die today. Thank you for helping me.”
With a faint smile plastered on his face, he leaves the park. I wave goodbye, not knowing what he would do or where he would go next. But I’m sure of one thing—the Tiger won’t die today.
While thinking of all this, I glance at my wristwatch. Oh God! Amid the hell of an encounter I had, I totally forgot about the press conference. Starts in thirty minutes.
With short, quick steps, I leave the park, and get into a cab. Deep inside, I’m proud of the transformation I brought out of someone today. I’m not sure whether I’ll file the story just yet, but soon. Maybe someday, it could be a chapter in my memoir.
The cab driver wades through the traffic. Finally, I reach the conference hall at the last minute. A standee of the political activist, who’s expected to preside over the conference, greets me at the entrance.
I flash my press ID card at the security check. As the guard waves the metal detector over my shoulder bag, it starts beeping. He signals me to empty it.
My fingers rummage inside my bag, taking one thing out after another. I catch hold of something strange. It wasn’t there before. I pull the object out and examine it with close attention. A slight ticking sound reverberates in my ears.
The guard backs off, shouting something in Sinhalese.
My heartbeat hits a crescendo.
I gasp as the Tiger’s words echo in my ears, ‘I won’t die today. Thank you for helping me.’
Oh no! This isn’t happening.