With its sunny skies, swaying coconut trees and luscious palms it’s easy to see Sri Lanka for what it looks like - beautiful beaches, fertile surrounds and soaring temperatures. But beneath the surface one finds a land recovering from a 25-year civil war that has left an indelible mark upon its people. My first briefing was with our programmes officer who plonked a map on the table, followed by a land mine. That was a conversation starter.
The civil war, fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the government troops, took the lives of over 70,000 people and displaced more than 280,000*. The LTTE were fighting to establish a separate state in the north.
On August 22, we headed into the north of Sri Lanka with TEAR Fund’s partner, World Concern. We handed over our passports at the check point and after the security procedures were complete, made the 1.5 hour trip into what was the centre of the war zone a mere four years earlier. As I looked out the car window with land mine fields, burnt-out buildings, and bullet holes filling every blink; my heart sank. How had I missed this?We arrived at the home of a farmer and his family. Outside their house there was a massive hole about four metres in circumference in the ground. He told us it was from a bombshell. The trees in front of his home were riddled with bullet holes and his former home was a pile of rubble. He told me, “My wife and I were forced to flee our home due to the war, 11 days after our first child was born. I took everything I could physically carry. Both my mother in-law and my brother died. Because we had little food to eat, my wife was unable to breastfeed our daughter. I had to take out a loan of US $100 and give a pint of my blood to buy 400gms of milk powder. We moved 25 times before we finally settled at the refugee camp. I saw shell attacks and plenty of bombing and thought I would die. When we were told we could finally re-settle, I couldn’t even get to the road to reach my land. Even though our situation is improving, I still believe I will never have a good future. My only hope is my children’s future. I do not feel safe. I wish I could leave.”
Later that day we drove through the place where the majority of the war was concentrated. As you look out the window all you can see is houses, libraries, orphanages, businesses and buildings that are nothing but a taunting reminder of the aftermath of a war that ended in 2009. Bullet holes still riddle everything from concrete to palm trees. Abandoned ruins line the streets. The silence and stillness as people carry out their lives amidst this backdrop, palatable and haunting. It was as if they were frightened to see who or what was passing by.
We finished our day in silence. Standing on the beach where the war was reported to have come to its bloody end. Digging my toes into the warm sand and watching the sunset felt surreal. Here it was widely reported by international press that over 20,000 people lost their lives in a ‘safe zone’.* I can’t even begin to describe how I felt driving away in my air-conditioned car to the safety of my motel an hour and a half away from the war zone these resilient people call home.
For these people, I have no deeply satisfying answers. I can’t see justice on the horizon for them. But I can see the first ray of hope. Justice is God’s and he promises this life is not the end. When I came home I was so deeply moved by the time I spent in Sri Lanka that I spent hours ‘debriefing’ with my husband. You know it’s an important conversation when your 6’1 hunter gatherer of a man has tears running down his cheeks. Of course, that set me off.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the scene in the Book of Esther where Mordecai is outside the gates of the palace pleading for Queen Esther to save her people. We too could have been the ones outside the gate. This ‘accident of latitude’ means we could have been the ones born into war, raped for profit or starving.
This Christmas, TEAR Fund is doing all we can for these people. Our campaign, Wipe Away their Tears is our opportunity to declare God’s promise in Revelations 21: “He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” May your kingdom come.