Still Counting The Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War, by Frances Harrison, Portobello Books, RRP£14.99, 272 pages
As Sri Lanka’s increasingly desperate rebel army retreated northwards, one family caught up in the latter stages of the island’s 26-year civil war mounted its own struggle for survival.
Fearful that their 17-year-old daughter would be taken as a child soldier, the parents hid her in an oil drum buried in their garden, with instructions to emerge only at night. Yet, unable to bear the heat, she emerged once during the day and was spotted by a neighbour, a fellow Tamil who, distraught that her own child had already been taken off to fight, reported the family to the militia. Soldiers turned up that night to take the girl; they returned three months later with her body, draped in the Tamil flag.
There are many other tragic examples in Frances Harrison’s powerful Still Counting the Dead, which describes the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s civil war through a dozen personal portraits. Observers including a doctor, a journalist and a rebel commander see their lives grimly converge, trapped amid thousands on a small stretch of beach where, in May 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were wiped out and their charismatic leader killed.
That victory ended a war that had pitted the island’s mostly Hindu minority Tamils against the largely Buddhist and Christian Sinhalese. But while the outcome was conclusive, the truth of what happened has yet to emerge in full – part of the reason Harrison returned to a country from which she had reported for the BBC between 2000 and 2004.
Sri Lanka’s conflict was marked by atrocities on both sides. The Tiger rebels murdered thousands, pioneering suicide bombing as a tool of war and plucking ever more children to fight. Yet it is the role of the government that most concerns Harrison. She is angered, too, by the international bodies that largely stood by as President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s troops won the day at huge human cost.
A UN panel has cited evidence of six categories of war crimes committed by his forces, alongside two by the rebels, in those last months of fighting that killed as many as 40,000 people – a figure Harrison suggests could be higher still. Sri Lanka’s leaders say there has been a proper investigation of such claims but many observers disagree, a view backed up this year by a resolution from the UN’s Human Rights Council.
Harrison recounts desperate scenes, as women’s saris became prized as material from which to fashion sandbags for makeshift bunkers. Doctors struggled to treat the injured and dying while hospitals and three state-designated safe zones were shelled by government troops, sometimes seemingly deliberately.
Some of her portraits provide glimpses into the operation of the war itself, as with the chapter on her relationship with “Puli”, a thoughtful rebel spokesman with whom she had regular Skype and satellite phone calls even as the fighting reached its climax.
“Mostly Puli wanted to escape the butchery,” she writes, “to talk about the heavy snow that lay on the ground that winter in England, the books he’d read and my mundane domestic life.” In common with many of the Tigers’ most senior leadership, he was killed on the war’s final day.
Ultimately, it is hard to read this book and not agree with the need for a fuller reckoning. But the conflict raises other issues too, not least over the best way to end a civil war.
The island is now relatively peaceful. Some look at this unflinchingly and say that the costs were worth it. There are even academics who support the conclusion that civil wars are more likely to end for good after a crushing military finale than through a negotiated solution that leaves both sides in place but fails to fix underlying problems.
Even so, the appalling scenes recounted here provide the sharpest possible rebuke to those who might feel comfortable with the idea of a peace won in this way. More to the point, they raise doubts as to whether the Tamil and Sinhalese populations are likely to be able to move forward until both have faced up to their shared history.
“The wounds go very deep,” as one of those featured here, a nun, notes. “All those memories are buried in the people.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai bureau chief