When Civil War Becomes Personal

By Haig Bailan

Colombo, Sri Lanka — For the past month, while the front pages of world newspapers were dominated by news of bombs flying in Lebanon and Israel, the headlines here in Sri Lanka focused exclusively on one thing: the escalating war between the Army and the Tamil Tigers.

To the rest of the world, these conflicts may seem quite different. To the people caught in the middle, however, the results are the same. Masses of people are displaced by violence, leaving their homes to forge a life in unfamiliar, and sometimes hostile, environments.

In my increasingly unsafe perch in Colombo, I’ve been watching both these conflicts with interest. Two generations of my family – my parents and their parents – left their homelands in search of peace and stability. In time, they were able to find what they were looking for. When I look at the refugees streaming away from their homes, I have to ask myself: Will they find what they’re looking for?

The future looks bleak. In Lebanon, a fragile ceasefire could give way at any point, perhaps to another civil war. Even if peace holds, the rebuilding will last for years, possibly decades. Many Lebanese, so hopeful after 15 years of stability, are wondering whether a viable future can be found in their native country.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, a ceasefire signed in 2002 has already unraveled. Two weeks ago, a bomb exploded barely 500 metres from the front steps of my apartment, killing a three-year-old boy. Last week, another bomb, this one packed inside one of the three-wheeler taxis that are so ubiquitous in this country, exploded on a busy commercial street I’d been walking on just an hour earlier. Seven died and scores were injured. And that’s just in Colombo.

In Eastern Sri Lanka, on the other side of the country, the situation is more depressing. Muttur, a largely Muslim town set on a bay popular with European sun-worshipers in normal times, was laid to siege in late July. The Muslims, truly the forgotten group in a conflict that has pitted Tamil against Sinhalese for 30 years, tell stories of terror and broken promises.

Many Sri Lankans who are forced to leave their communities are not designated as refugees but as IDPs, internally displaced persons. Like the victims of Hurricane Katrina, they are rootless in their own country. One notable exception are the Tamils who live on the Northern tip of the country. Some are lucky and make it to Tamil Nadu, an Indian province just across the channel from Sri Lanka. However, boatloads of refugees are intercepted every day by the Sri Lankan Navy. In mid-July, there were over 50,000 IDPs in Sri Lanka, according to the UNHCR. After a month of fighting, there is little doubt that number has ballooned. Slowly, IDPs have been trickling to safety. Recently, 158 Muslims reached Negombo, a town north of Colombo best known to tourists for its beach resorts. When I visited, they were sleeping in classrooms at a Muslim school, but hopeful that a move to a camp administered by the local Red Cross was coming soon.

Their leader was Mohammed Subair, a man whose small stature could not conceal a simmering rage. There’s a lot of anger at the camp, most of which is directed at the Tamil Tigers. I’d been told that the LTTE were anything but popular here, and now I learned why.

“We spoke with the LTTE leader, he promised us security,” Subair said. “The LTTE armed guard also promised food and goods, and that he would not harass us. He said, ‘We are checking only the perimeter.’ But they arrested around 50 youths and they bound their hands behind them… [From this 50,] they arrested two youths and killed them both. The public asked, ‘Why did you kill them?’ Then they answered, ‘If you ask that question, you will be killed also.’”

The Asian tsunami ravaged Muttur, displacing thousands. Many had returned to their newly rebuilt homes, ready to begin their lives again. This war has wiped away the gains of 20 months’ hard work.

My maternal grandfather, my Dédé, had the misfortune of being born in 1905 in what is now Eastern Turkey, a time and place not overly kind to Armenians. The Armenian genocide, which culminated in 1915, expanded the Armenian diaspora to unprecedented proportions, and no community was larger than the one found in Beirut.

It was in this city that Dédé found a haven, and for a long while he and his family lived under a veneer of stability. He made a name for himself as a mechanic, then opened a corner store. He became a deacon at the local church. His five children – of whom my mother is the youngest – received a good education at the local Armenian schools, learning Arabic, English, and a smattering of French.

But in 1976, near the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, it was my mother’s turn to flee. Sixty years of building roots in a country were insignificant when faced with unceasing rounds of mortar.

“I remember one night when the artillery shells were just passing by, and you feel that it’s going to explode in your building,” my mother recalled. “That’s when my family decided it’s time for me and my sister to leave Lebanon.”

They weren’t alone. By some estimates, the civil war in Lebanon resulted in an exodus of up to one million people, roughly a quarter of the country’s population. While many returned, a sizable proportion, including my mother, settled in the West.

Eventually, after years of struggle, she too found her haven. Today, my mother is a counselor at a women’s shelter, owns her own home, and has seen two sons attain a higher education.

But what of the refugees and IDPs streaming out of their homes now? What about their dreams?

For the Muslims in Negombo, the chances for finding refuge in Canada are slim. They have no possessions to speak of, little money, and no knowledge of French or English. Only a few are educated. Unlike the Tamils in the North, they don’t even have the option of attempting a run for India. In a country where poverty is rampant, the West is a viable option for only a few. For better or for worse, the IDPs’ futures are tied to Sri Lanka.

In Lebanon, where a flight to North America or Europe is less than a pipe dream, there seems to be a determination to rebuild once more. True, some will leave, never to go back. But most are now returning to their homes, and will attempt to reconstruct their shattered lives.

But these dreams can never be attained without a measure of stability. And the responsibility for providing this, at least in the short term, seems to be governments who have other priorities in mind.

In short, what the refugees and IDPs are looking for is what my family finally attained. They’re looking for peace.

And it’s completely out of their hands.