The Human Cost of War and Peace: Sri Lanka

May 27, 2009

A generation raised in the shadow of war is the generation which is going to have to build the peace in Sri Lanka.


Cliched reportage on the Sri Lankan conflict begins by stating that the conflict has waged for over three decades and ends with a death-toll statistic. The statistic varies from 25000 to 35000 to 65000 and we are told that the last Sri Lankan military campaign resulted in the displacement of 100,000-200,000 and the death of over 70,000. The numbers don’t add up but that is not important. Protracted conflict waged over generations is a humanitarian tragedy regardless of numbers.

Take a look at this one. It begins with young people, raised in one of the best human development environments of the 1960s, but unable to communicate beyond their community, unable to access education, unable to find jobs and witness to a history of decreasing political accommodation.

At its end, the cost-benefit analysis of the conflict must look beyond the loss of life and property. It must take into account how the lives of survivors have been irreversibly altered. Displacement, separated families, war injuries and resulting disabilities and environmental degradation are some of the better-documented costs.

A new human resources challenge now awaits Sri Lanka. Where schooling has been frequently disrupted or child soldiers recruited, society is left with a generation of young people many of whose childhoods ended abruptly, who may not be skilled and who have possibly faced considerable trauma. Even away from the war-zone, there are now two generations of young Sri Lankans whose earliest memories are not of a united Sri Lanka at peace. They have grown up in separate worlds—separated first by medium of instruction and then by the social circles of their families. These are the people to whom reconciliation must be sold as an ideal and as a feasible plan of action. These are the people whose energies are required for the physical rebuilding that is today’s priority. What skills and what attitudes will they have to bring to this moment?

Members of the ruling generation grew up in a different Ceylon/ Sri Lanka. Many hung out in each others’ homes, intermarried and found ways of communicating and connecting even during the conflict. The raw material they are left with for the task of reconciliation is poor—distrust, fear, anxiety, triumphalism, nationalism, trauma, bloodshed and too much bereavement for an island that small. And a lost generation that has had none of their advantages.

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