What happened in 1983, I wasn’t there to see it – but of course, I, like many others of my generation who came after, are privy to a collective memory, an experience felt by association, by default; the muscle memory of our parents, relatives, their friends and their relatives, passed on through stories, recollections, little photographic bits, fragments. In every family there are stories we’ve inherited, directly or indirectly; and the stories are everywhere. Over the last ten years of my life, growing from teenager into adult, seeing the world a bit clearer for what it is, I’ve found these stories spring up in the most unusual places; they are everywhere. I’d be standing in a plush corporate office, speaking to one of Colombo’s most successful corporate women, and she’s telling me how she lost her home, her belongings, her jewellery, having then been newly-married to her Tamil husband. I’d be talking to a cinephile who tells me something I never really knew before about Black July; that all of Colombo’s leading film studios, Tamil-owned, were burned to the ground, and lost along with them were irreplaceable, precious reels of film – Sinhala cinema losing out in anti-Tamil riots, who’d have thought. I’d be scouting for a location for a new theatre project to come across a straight-laced Tamil businessman with perfect, clipped English who shows me a somewhat charred skeleton of a building, once a hotel his father had proudly built and run, partially burned in 1983, looted from, and unused ever since.
So, you see, the stories are everywhere, if you care to ask, or notice. It seems so impossible to me that there is a way to not know¸ to not remember, to forget.
It’s been 30 years now and this year, most people I know seem to be asking for an apology. The UNP government should apologise for 1983; the Rajapakse regime should apologise for everything that came after. We should apologise, as the Sinhalese people, to the Tamil people, as those who didn’t lose families and homes, to those who did, as those who didn’t have to flee, to those who did. We should say sorry for the Sinhala-only Act and the burning of the Jaffna Library and the 1983 riots that destroyed so many homes and sent so many Tamil families running for safety, permanently, away from Sri Lankan shores. We should apologise for the injured and the dead and the displaced of this nearly 30-year war, particularly those who suffered as a result of the state’s brutal military crushing of the LTTE in 2009. We have so much to be sorry for – so much to demand apologies for.
But is our own willingness to leap up at the chance to hand out a somewhat righteous apology a sign of our willingness to continue seeing us as ‘us’ and them as ‘them’? When we say we’re sorry for the burning of the Jaffna Library, we’re remembering the irrevocable loss of Tamil culture, Tamil history and Tamil identity, but we’re quick to forget this as the irrevocable loss of Sri Lankan culture, Sri Lankan history and Sri Lankan identity. What about the part of my identity that was erased forever when that building went up in flames; what about the part of my cultural heritage that I will never have access to because it was lost forever in that fire? When we say we’re sorry for the 1983 riots, are we forgetting that it is an irredeemable horror which we have all, in one way or another, suffered? Even I, who came after, know I lost something important that day; something I will never have the chance to experience. There were homes lost to some families, loved ones lost to others, and yet there are things we all lost that day: a chance to ask for forgiveness, to forgive, to move forward, to turn this thing around. We lost civility.
So who is going to say sorry to us, as the Sri Lankan people, for everything we lost in 1983 and in the aftermath of that calamity, in the brutal war that followed? Who’s going to say sorry for the lost lives, the families torn apart? Who’s going to say sorry for those things we lost as a people, as a nation: respect, trust, decency? While remembering what happened 30 years ago, we must not forget the truth of it, as difficult and complex as it may be; to see ourselves as somehow unharmed and to see our lives as unchanged in the process of the last 30 years could be another grave mistake we make. Apologies are simple enough to make, but to truly seek forgiveness from the other; that’s harder. And as those apologising, are we willing to forgive, too?
30 years after 1983, we are still nowhere near ready to give the kind of apology that is required of us; neither are we ready to truly forgive. And in the aftermath of such sustained violence, hatred, distrust and despair, the toughest question about peace and reconciliation facing us as a nation is entirely to do with saying sorry, asking for forgiveness and being forgiven. It comes down to how much we are really willing to say sorry for, and who is listening. While simplistic apologies can be rendered to appease the guilt and shame we’ve carried around for years, what kind of apology can allow us all to move forward? More importantly, what kind of apology can actually move our collective hurt towards forgiveness? Simply, can those who have killed, and those who speak for them, ever say they are sorry? And can those who are the families of the murdered ever forgive them?
No apology could ever render the horror of the experience we have lived through as the Sri Lankan people nullified; but certainly an apology, one that is meant sincerely, one that is seeking forgiveness and also forgives, could be the beginning of a crucial part of a process that may eventually lead to healing wounds and moving on.