Panel of speakers (Pix Waruna Wanniarachchi)
“It is through their eyes that we will attempt to understand their struggles. The beauty of it, as well as it’s ugliness” - (Bilbatua, 2014)
The latest book on the most discussed, yet seldom reflected topic of the once war-ridden country’s recent past, ‘Voices of Peace’ was launched recently at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, Colombo. The memoirs of ten ex-Sri Lankan soldiers and ten former LTTE cadres have been compiled after more than 2 years of extensive research and interviews.
Sarah Kabir, a researcher and humanitarian worker whose focus has primarily been on peace-building and development work has authored this balanced narrative, accompanied by compelling images captured by photographer Munira Mutaher.
“They were just like us” is the pang of realisation the author has attempted to invoke in the reader. However, it is apparent that this realisation has already dawned upon this group of storytellers, for, it was the same battle they faced despite them having fought on opposite sides. Empowering through storytelling is a novel and effective approach to reconciliation. The empathy and compassion that follow after one listens to the accounts of the spoils of war, first-hand from those who battled at the front lines, is what will move our nation forward from this stagnant state of “negative peace”.
Empowering through storytelling is a novel and effective approach to reconciliation
Negative peace, or, the absence of war/ overt violence, is only a transient state and it’s high time the country moved past and proceeds to build ‘positive peace’, which ‘creates approaches to reconciliation, addresses past injustices and moves toward long-term, sustainable peace’. The recent tensions between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities further stresses the crucial need for sustainable peace, in a culturally diverse country as ours.
“It was my interactions with the other side that truly changed how I feel about them”- (Ponkalan, a storyteller)
The launch of ‘Voices of peace’ was attended by a diverse audience including the former Defense Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Economist and Parliamentarian Dr. Harsha de Silva, Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa, members of foreign missions in Sri Lanka, political luminaries, media personnel, academics, professionals, activists and book enthusiasts.
“Your presence is a first step” said Sarah Kabir, as she addressed and acknowledged the invitees and those present. “Hopefully this leads to more listening; listening to the people whom you actually want to help”. Drawing her inspiration from the internationally acclaimed Tunisian activist Aya Chebbi, who urged the world to listen, Sarah implored the audience to view both sides of a story, thus, to be protected from the danger of falling prey to binaries of “us and them”.
Dr. Jehan Perera, the Executive Director at the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka moderated a distinguished panel of invited speakers. Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Saliya Pieris (PC) and Aranya Rajasingham each offered their perspective and shared their insights.
“Communication is absolutely pivotal” remarked Dr. Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, as he pointed out that the testimonies of the sufferers are not being given the prime time that they deserve. He also lauded the sheer commitment and determination of the author in her journey of bringing together this commendable and controversial project.
Saliya Pieris (PC), Chairman of the Office on Missing Persons, stressed that it is of importance that we as a nation recognise that there are multiple narratives to the conflict. He invited the author to include a third point of view, that of the civilians in her next project.
Aranya Rajasingham, a women’s rights and peace activist, urged to see the humanity in those at the battlefront, regardless of the factions they represented. She persuaded that they need not be defined, or rather, reduced a to a mere ‘uniform’. She also noted that the combatants were seldom included in policy making and as beneficiaries. Apart from the obvious binary of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army, there are multiple angles to be considered such as the para military groups, different political factions, Aranya stated, dwelling deeper into the subject.
A question and answer session took place, where the concerns and insights of the visitors were entertained.
The author, in her final remarks, added that she hoped that the book would offer insights on the conflict and the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka and that she also welcomed constructive criticism and feedback. The content is narrated to the reader along a timeline, and one is able to journey with the storyteller throughout the decades of struggle towards the present day. Even though it is close to impossible to fact check the stories told, this project is not about fact-finding or a quest for the absolute truth, but rather highlighting what these experiences meant and the impressions left on them.
Hopefully this leads to more listening; listening to the people whom you actually want to help
More than just a book, ‘Voices of Peace’ is more of a tool to influence policy on peace-building and it is hoped that the ownership of the peace building process be shifted to those on the front line, and also thereby relieving the veterans and victims of the burden of untold stories.We, the readers, need not await those who are tasked with reconciliation efforts, to make a difference. An abundance of opportunities exist and await our attention. We need only open our minds and welcome any effort that promotes peace, and this case, by listening to the ‘Voices of Peace’.
‘Voices of peace’ is the first book Kabir has authored. She hopes to have this book translated into Sinhala and Tamil, for a wider readership. Priced at LKR 1200, the English Edition will be available soon at leading bookstores.