I was a reluctant immigrant who moved to the United States to go to Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine on a full scholarship when the universities in Sri Lanka were closed for the good part of three years. Those closures were a response to a right-wing crack-down on a left-wing uprising (which, over the course of two years, lead to the brutal murder of nearly 60,000 people at the hand of the government), compounding the difficulties of a country that was, at the time, in its first decade of a war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the people of Sri Lanka. I followed in the footsteps of one of my older brothers, who was awarded a similar scholarship by Harvard and, later, by UCLA and Cornell. My mother maintained until her death in the year that the war ended in Sri Lanka, that America saved the lives of two of her children.
America is not an easy savior for those of us who are not white. And yet, to live here as I do is to be both fiercely loyal to my country of birth and equally committed to the politics of this country. As most immigrants do, I bring to this country the cornerstones of my own culture of upbringing. I raised my daughters to honor the commandments of that culture: respect for the old, care for the young and the sick; to speak against injustice no matter where they found it; to value personal integrity above the expediency that defines the easier path. But the influence of a parent can only go so far. Experience is the more lasting teacher. My daughters have had to grow up loving a home which they’ve only inhabited for a month at a time, and live in a country that often treated their mother as an outsider, while carrying the blood of both countries in their veins.
Their world is not limited by borders and their sense of themselves in that world is not contained by their skin, or its difficult and ambiguous color. When eight bombs were set off in Sri Lanka a week ago, many hearts were shattered. Each of us put ourselves back together differently. This is an account of how three people did that. One of us dedicates her writing to her activism. One of us has committed herself to repairing America through electoral politics. One of us is intent on articulating human fragility and strength through writing, photography, visual arts, and film. Oddly enough, despite our vastly different experiences and preoccupations, the message of solidarity remains the thread that unites us. I call that hope.
By Ru Freeman
The death toll today, one week after the Easter Sunday attacks on civilians in Sri Lanka has been lowered to 259, from an over-count of approximately 100 attributed to counting parts of the same body as separate deaths, with more than 500 others injured. Those numbers are unlikely to be stable, alas, as the critically injured join the ranks of the deceased. Other investigations will continue to impact that number: a further 87 detonators have been discovered, a bomb defused near the country’s international airport, and several explosions and firefights have contributed to more deaths.
May 17th, 2019 will mark the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE, a group that terrorized the citizenry—of every stripe—for three decades. Yet even at the height of its powers, the LTTE were not able to orchestrate this level of sophistication in the deployment of its suicide bombers, nor unleash coordinated attacks from the coast of Batticaloa in the North to the coast of Negombo in the South.
Attention must turn, therefore, to the purposes of such attacks, and what they do not only to a nation, but to a world. While the media is wont to highlight the way this attack strikes a blow against a specific economy, one that is thriving after recovering both from civil war and the destruction caused by the tsunami of 2006—tourism to the island went from 448,000 in 2009 to 2.3 million in 2018—what the attacks strike at is far more significant. It aims to stir disunity among a population that had progressed toward healing its rifts at the national level, and hopes to dismantle the solidarity of like-minded people and peacemakers at the global level.
We must resist. We live in a world where we have either borne witness to large-scale man-made tragedies, or where the idealism of our leaders is being tested anew, as just occurred for the populist Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. They, together with younger activists from Sweden to Pakistan from America to Zimbabwe are arguing for a new way of considering what we mean by security, and the means by which it might be achieved. Each one places their local conflicts within a global framework and make the point that the threat to peace, like the threats to our climate, to economic stability, to the rights of women, and the safety of children are all global. As such, the response must be shaped by a global consciousness that values inclusiveness over marginalization and ostracism. Sri Lanka’s predicament today is a case in point. The threat to its peace is not local—though a local militant group, Nations Thawahid Jaman (NTJ) has been identified—it is global in its connection to an international network of terror. To isolate these incidents as being particular to Sri Lanka, would be misguided.Inside the country, citizens must resist the temptation to play identity politics in the face of this tragedy.
Clearly, Sri Lanka’s government failed its people because of political animus within its own rank and file. It has to be said clearly: the government had prior knowledge of the attacks and chose to ignore them. While the President, Maithripala Sirisena, and the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, blame—and asked for the resignation of—the Defense Secretary and the Inspector General of Police, it is their own negligence and myopia that lead to the unleashing of violence in the country. Together, they embarked upon a politically motivated witch-hunt incarcerating many of Sri Lanka’s more accomplished intelligence officers, demoting a host of others and leaving the entire corp demoralized, and the country unguarded. That kind of short-sightedness, the tendency to fragment our efforts, to pursue personal vendettas at the cost of our collective wellbeing, must be avoided also at the global level.
Inside the country, citizens must resist the temptation to play identity politics in the face of this tragedy. Sri Lankan Christians suffered a terrible loss of life, Sri Lankan Muslims fear being tarnished by the association of their faith to that of the perpetrators, Sri Lankan Hindus are reliving old fears, and Sri Lankan Buddhists are susceptible to the ravings of their own extremists. Yet all of these groups required, yearned for, celebrated, and attempted to embrace peace. The majority of them still do. The myopia and villainy of seven suicide bombers must not be read as tarnishing the character of the many who read of peace, not terror, in the same holy books. What should not be forgotten in the midst of mayhem, is that the real victim is the psyche of a nation which is, in the end, the psyche of its people.
Easter is not a Buddhist holiday. Yet, like Christmas, Ramadan, and Deewali, Sri Lankan Buddhists see it as another reason for celebration. The favor is returned by the people of those faiths who share their special meals, decorations, and gifts with their Buddhist neighbors. Sri Lanka has the highest number of public holidays in the world. We are a nation of people who prefer to have a party than toil, and that tendency has united our people even in the midst of the deepest division. Church bails, the call to prayer, the bells on the Vel cart, and the chanting of pirith were unbroken over three decades of news of destruction, mayhem, riots, and curfews. It is this national sensibility that has held together and holds together now.
The country is united against the acts that took place—Sri Lanka’s blood-bank had to turn away the donors who flocked there in advance of the curfews, Buddhist priests have held pooja to honor their Christians neighbors, mosques have offered their spaces for the conducting of Christian services, and multi-ethnic voices have gathered to record and transmit a message of firm solidarity. For some that stance will not be hard because accidents of birth/faith/fate place them more easily among the innocent. For others their solidarity with their fellow-citizens will have to co-exist with a terrifying fear for their own lives because they may share some forms of identity with those who committed these crimes. The Sri Lankan government should not conflate the prosecution & rehabilitation of those responsible with the persecution of any ethnic or religious group whether in the minority or the majority. And Sri Lankan citizens should insist that this is the only sustainable, compassionate position to take.
Similarly, at the global level, we must recognize that simply finding someone or a group to blame, and identifying an environment, before flinging up our hands and moving on to the next brutality is to repeat the lessons of our past. Solidarity is best expressed in our thoughts which become our words, which translate into our deeds, and come to define our character. We often ask ourselves, what kind of world we live in, what kind of world our children may inherit, yet we do so little to create that world. Instead we continue to rely on borders, walls, armaments, and militarism. We imagine that our wealth or poverty or relative distance from the loci of such events protects us yet the poorest policeman died alongside three of the four children of a Danish billionaire who owns more land in the UK than the Prince of Wales.
The collapse of Notre Dame Cathedral hurt our hearts. It should. Not because Europe’s monuments are more important, but because it is an iconic testament of the human potential to create beauty. We should continue to mourn the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Hazarat not because it was an atrocity committed by the Taliban but because those statues, too, were evidence of our better natures. Likewise, as we consider these attacks, we must dwell on the potential for darkness among us. It is not something that can be addressed piecemeal, by governments but collectively, as global citizens. In the same way that across the land of this tiny island people of all walks of life, of all faiths, are walking the walk of peace and unity today by embracing what is good about each other, so should all of us, no matter where we are. The work of peace is not contained by the specificities of geographic borders, but by the expansiveness of our hearts. We must remember that what befalls “them” also befalls “us.”
As American poet, and Universalist Edwin Markham once wrote, in his poem, “Outwitted,” we too must consider drawing circles that repair that darkness not by ostracism but by inclusiveness. But to do that we must first recognize that each of us has the capacity to do this work, to resist the easy narratives of exclusion, and to puts our hats in the ring as peacemakers. That is the only lesson to be drawn from this atrocity and we must learn it now.
By Duranya Freeman
This is my youngest sister, Kisara, and our cousin, Dayadi. They are nearly identical in both age and personality.
One was born in the US, one year after our family relocated from outside New York to central Maine after 9/11. The other was born as Sri Lanka was in its final decade of a civil war that began in 1983. Neither one has ever known a world without terrorism.
From the day these two met, they were always together. They would stand up for each other, get in trouble together, create things together, and wreck things together. Our family often referred to them as the “two demons,” especially by each of their older sisters, Hasadri and Mithsi, who are also very similar in their intelligence and intensity.
We live in a time where, for children, terrorism is normal. Where both my sisters have regular school shooting drills. Where Kisara yells “School!” in answer to a word game, where the prompt was “Where many people are shot at one time” (The real answer: war). A time where my friends who teach in the Denver system had a day off last Wednesday because a woman “obsessed with Columbine” flew to Denver and immediately purchased weapons, just days before Columbine’s 20th anniversary.
This Easter Sunday, my cousin’s world and half of my family’s world was shaken once again as hundreds of people were murdered while praying in churches or relaxing with family in hotels.
Most Sri Lankans aren’t wealthy people; they are family people who celebrate each other’s religious festivities with unparalleled passion. Religion is taught in every school and that means every school, whether secular or not, had teachers trained in each of the four major religions practiced in Sri Lanka—Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam—so children could study the religious teachings of their own faith. My mother attended a Catholic convent and a Christian Missionary school growing up, although she herself was Buddhist. She studied her own religion while also becoming familiar with the faith of her classmates. All religious holidays are celebrated in Sri Lanka.
This attack was not a religious or political one. It was an attack on Sri Lankan culture. An attack on a country which, despite difficulties, has stood united in the decade following the end of the war in 2009. This is an attempt to spread hate, misinformation, and distrust and it is linked to a global effort to destabilize unity and create chaos among peace loving people who make up the majority not only in Sri Lanka but in the world.Most Sri Lankans aren’t wealthy people; they are family people who celebrate each other’s religious festivities with unparalleled passion.
I was never taught Sri Lankan values before I visited, they were simply woven into our daily life here in America and in Sri Lanka. Respect your parents and anyone older than you. Take care of your siblings. Be kind. A one hour journey could take six, or sometimes a whole day, because we would have to stop and pick up something for a relative that they needed, or stop for lunch for someone we ran into from the past on the street, or have tea with someone my grandmother knew decades ago that was a 30-minute detour in both directions. Sri Lankans are a unit. Everyone knows someone else. Stories that my grandfather tells often begin with something along the lines of “There was once a man I knew, the sister of your great-uncle’s mother in-law’s best friend’s second cousin whose boss once did this…”
My mother came to the US originally for college because of the war. Her parents thought it might be safer here. Yet terrorism and hatred, unfortunately, do not know geopolitical boundaries. Terrorists have a way of targeting us in our most joyful times, those that we associate with the best of ourselves. At school, whether we are six year olds in Newtown, growing up at Columbine or Suzano or Parkland, or beginning careers at Virginia Tech. At times of celebration, whether it’s love at a club in Orlando or a bar in Thousand Oaks. While we push our physical limits in Boston. While we appreciate art and music, in Las Vegas or London or Aurora. When we treat ourselves, in Nairobi or Sousse or Bamako or Colombo. And finally, while we worship, whether it’s at a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a mosque in New Zealand, or a church in Sri Lanka.
Every terrorist has a goal: to make us fear what we love the most. To force us to feel that nowhere is safe. Yet terrorists only truly succeed when they divide us. When our inner fear turns outwards and we start pointing fingers at one another.
Sri Lanka is dear to me for how much love can be packed into an island of just 25,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia. An island whose victims of this Sunday will be mourned by everyone. An island which has survived 30 years of deadly political turmoil, and a tsunami that quite literally ripped it apart. An island which will also survive this.
I have never known love greater and more far-reaching than the love I feel in Sri Lanka. And I still believe in the youngest of all our world’s children because of the love that radiates within the country and across the hemispheres between our families.
I send all of my heart to Sri Lanka today.
By Hasadri Freeman
Sri Lanka has been a faraway place for most of my life, yet it often sits closer to my heart than America does. To be biracial in America is to inhabit an often placeless identity—your heart often lies where your eye color, your hair texture do not. The way your skin burns before it browns in the sun betrays you. Your hair is too thick for Pantene, but use a curl definer and it pastes to your head. People call the earrings that made you a girl at birth child abuse.
This the complicated way in which my sisters and I have lived up until now. Last Sunday, in the dearth of western attention on this senseless terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, what I have realized is that all this history of mine is invisible to America, a place shaped by appearances. I am the American Girl Doll’s exotic friend who talks too often about a country across the world that will, in their opinion, never really be hers. We are the girls that are a little bit darker in America, a little bit curlier; but is it the height of the American relatives or the reediness of Sri Lankan youth that makes us so slender? We stiffen at Thanksgiving, uncomfortable with celebrations of colonization.
It is a relief to go home.
I land on the tarmac and my hair curls the way it is supposed to in the humid heat. I know how to braid and style that thick, unruly, Lankan hair, like that of my baby sister as we went off to school that morning, even though my own is lighter, shorter, fairer, finer, likened to my father’s instead of my sisters’ and my cousins and my Amma and my nendas, because I have spent hours combing, washing, tangling, and detangling it on the heads of others. We stood underneath the gutter once in a monsoon and washed our hair and our bodies gleefully with rainwater that did not taste sour, like it does in America. Holy water.
We grew up callousing the skin of our feet, barefoot down storybook lanes with cousins-turned-sisters, scrambling up rooftops to scorn the disapproval of an elderly grandfather, being chased out of gardens but inviting ourselves back in to curry favor by ridding that garden of an unruly cow. We squatted naturally, greedily stuffing food with our little fingers, pleased for the absence of cutlery. Sri Lanka accepted us where America didn’t/doesn’t.
At home in America, my younger sister, trying to connect to a heritage no one in America allowed to us, used The Mother as an example for her third grade Exceptional Women project, and, stumbling over a language she was not taught and thus now foreign to her tongue but determined to pronounce a South Asian name properly for those classmates who struggled with even the three syllables of her own, pranced around our house the day before the presentation, chanting: “SiriMAvo BandaranAIKE. SiriMAvo BandaranAIKE. SiriMAvo BandaranAIKE.” On Easter Sunday, I whispered the name to myself, not for meaning but for prayer alone at my desk, trying to comprehend my selves in the wake of this tragedy.Your hair is too thick for Pantene, but use a curl definer and it pastes to your head.
The day of the disaster, I dropped a pair of gold earrings down the back of my bed, where they disappeared into the carpet. I pulled it out of the carpet in the night when looking one last time, but still I felt I had lost something in my inability to wear them all day. They were hoops, and I wear hoops now because the gold is more visible than the studs my grandmother gave me, and if I drape myself in gold jewelry perhaps someone will see that it is not just fashion but my dowry and that I am richer in this way than my father can ever make me. But this gold, for all of its visibility, is most likely cheaply processed in a factory, purchased at Old Navy for 9 USD, without a sit-down consultation by a Mallika Hemachandra or Vogue or Stone N’ String jeweler who would place first the jewelry box, then the calculator, pad, and pen off to the side on the glass table across from me.
My mother and I talk at length about the tragedies that have befallen holy places of worship lately, the burning of the Notre Dame, yes (a tragedy we both feel in our learned-French-in-school, have-been-to-Paris hearts), but also the razing by the Chinese government of the equally ancient Keriya mosque, the shooting of worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the burnings of black churches in Louisiana, the fire in the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Amma was the one who introduced us to prayer of all kinds—we inhabited temples and churches and mosques with equal reverence. This was not unique to her, but simply a result of her Sri Lankan, multicultural upbringing. At home, in front of our Buddhist shrine, we would repeat prayers, again, without comprehension but still song-like, in the same way my sister chanted the name of The Mother, closing with our three sets of palms pressed and a sadhu sadhu, eyes upturned not to the shrine but to Our Mother. But when we traveled, she pulled us by the hand through the doors of churches, into mosques, into Kovils, to Chinese Buddhist temples different from our own. We worshiped The Mothers of every faith, and suddenly we saw the similarities between the gods they bore. As we do now, in the wake of this tragedy.
Nine syllables are divided fortuitously and evenly between my mother’s three daughters, the mispronunciation of our names by teachers, relatives, and friends alike floating above our heads like little ghosts. Almost, but not quite. We three are the only ones who know ourselves, as indeed, the Hari lasanai, so fair and lovely, Daddy must be white sounds exactly like the Why yes, Susan, we haven’t seen the girls in ages but they’ve all grown into lithe exotic beauties we are apt to hear in either place. But Sri Lanka says my name.
That is the culture I am aware of. I know Sri Lanka’s history is fraught, and I still have much to learn about it. But in the end Sri Lanka takes care of her children, however scattered they may be. It may seem that I love the minutiae of the country in a somewhat foreign manner, and I am destined to always see it so. But I have never felt foreign there. She has always been my idea of multiculturalism. We may pray in different languages or to different gods, but Sri Lanka comes to each of her children and calls them by their name; she spends their lives saying that name in its entirety, giving each syllable its meaning, thereby affording each child a prayer for their well-being. She is a noble, loving place. She is a mother.
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan and American poet, writer, and critic, whose work appears internationally. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (2013), a New York Times Editor’s Choice, both appearing in translation, and editor of Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine (2015), and Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security (2018). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Poetry, Narrative and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA program at Columbia University.
Duranya Freeman is the Policy & Communications Fellow at the Colorado Center on Law & Policy. She was awarded a South Asian Journalism Association grant to document the stories of former combatants in the Sri Lankan civil war, and has worked in Colorado and Palestine in both the literary and political arenas. She studied EU politics, international security, and literature at University College London, and is a 2018 graduate of Colorado College.
Hasadri Freeman is an 18-year-old filmmaker, artist, and writer, whose work centers around femininity, youth, and duality, especially as it exists upon the American landscape. Her debut short film, A Wonderful Thing, premiered at the West Chester Film Festival. She will be studying Film, Photography, and Media in the fall at the University of Leeds.