personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

A Letter to My Sons, Part 2: Uncivil War

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

I’ve been in Sri Lanka for almost a day now, and have managed to stay awake despite having only a few hours sleep last night. The hotel I’m staying at is called the Grand Oriental Hotel, and like most hotels I’ve been to, the pictures on the website make the place look better than it actually is. There’s an expression that goes, “Nothing to write home about,” and as a result I will not describe my club sandwich to you. There’s a nice view of the port from the restaurant, but I can’t show you a picture of what it looks like because there’s a sign saying “NO PICTURES NO VIDEO.” I looked more closely at the port and there are navy ships with the occasional soldier walking around with a rifle slung over his shoulder. I guess they don’t want people taking pictures of their war toys.

Speaking of war, this hotel was designed to be an army barracks for British soldiers back in 1837; that’s a place where soldiers live. My room is probably where at least a dozen soldiers slept every night in cramped, hot conditions. Looking at it that way, I shouldn’t complain. If you’re wondering why the British had soldiers in Sri Lanka to begin with, that’ll have to be a story for another time. Remind me to talk to you about colonialism and slavery one day.

Sri Lanka is an island country, called Ceylon when I was a baby, and it is only recently coming out of a long, drawn-out war. Back when I was a teenager, some people living in the northern part of the island formed a group called the Tamil Tigers. They were a group that wanted to have an independent state that was separate from the rest of the country. The Tigers wanted to push the government into accepting this idea of a free state, and did some violent things like explode bombs, but the government did not want to listen. So a war broke out, and when a war happens in the same country (instead of between countries), it’s called a “civil war.” Remember one of my best songs on Guitar Hero, Welcome to the Jungle? The band, Gun ‘n Roses, came out with a song called Civil War, and in it they ask, “What’s so civil about war, anyway?”

It’s a question that seems to have an obvious answer. Before I left on this trip, I told you there had been a war here, but I did not give details. The reality is that around 100 000 people died in this war from its beginning in 1983 until it ended last year. It’s a number so big that it is hard to imagine. And it’s just as hard to imagine living through this war – any war – and not having your spirits, your will to live, your happiness, your love, all trampled upon and shattered by the pain caused from losing friends and family.

When I was your age, my mother, your Grandmaman, used to read a lot of books about the Second World War. The first time I asked her to tell me about the war I could see a profound sadness in her eyes. I never forgot what she said to me. She told me of the things that took place in “concentration camps,” where some bad people took innocent men, women and children and they ruined a lot of lives. It was after the Second World War when people from around the world said “This is enough. We can’t let something like this happen again.” And that’s when people came up with documents like the Convention on the Rights of the Child I wrote about in my last letter.

Unfortunately, a document that says everyone has rights does not mean that people will live their lives that way. Wars still continue all over the world today. There was a lot of violence a few years ago in Rwanda, where many people were killed. People who survived that ordeal have lived to tell others about it, not because they want others to feel bad, but to remind them that violence of any kind should not be tolerated, ever. Today we had a meeting with Sri Lankans who were part of our training program at John Abbott College (the one where both of you helped out). We asked them to describe their best memory of their time at the college. One man, Aruna said the person who left the biggest impression on him was a woman from Rwanda who spoke about living through the violence, even though some soldiers did bad things to her in her home while her children were in another room. Sometimes it takes the words, the actions, or the courage of a single person to affect our lives, or to give us the clarity we need to make us better persons. Another person we met today, Ermiza, told us the story of an army officer she bumped into after having trained him the year before on human rights. He told her that whenever he saw people on the street protesting against something, he used to break up the crowd by driving through it. That’s right: he’d jump into his vehicle and force them to break up by driving into them. After his training on human rights, he thought to himself, These people have the right to say what they want, so I’ll let them do that. And so he stopped driving into them. Sounds like a little change, but I’m sure the people who were not run over by him are happy he thought of their rights for once.

Sometimes it takes just one person to change lives. You’ll find those people in the unlikeliest places, at the most improbable times, in school or on the street or on TV or at the pool. Find them out, hear what they have to say, and by all means, be such a person to others as well.

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.

Daddy



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