In a usual rush to grab coffee I normally never drink outside exam and paper season, I pushed through the doors of the central campus library. The breath of warmth which accompanied the opening of the doors was welcomed by my body. February in Montreal is generous in providing frostbite to all who dare to venture outside their homes.
I unraveled the several thousand scarves from my face, and sniffed a look around. My eyes fell onto an unfamiliar sight. In front of me stood two young South Asian looking women, behind a table upon which a simple banner draped reading “STOP THE GENOCIDE OF THE TAMILS.” Unaware that a new genocide had been taking place, I cautiously and curiously walked over and inquired about their efforts.
I had heard about the peril of the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the astounding number of the recently killed as a result of the bloody battles between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. Regardless, my knowledge was limited, as was the knowledge of several others that I knew.
For the Tamils, the Sri Lankan state heavily and negatively employs majoritarian rule (Sinhalese Buddhist), partaking in state terrorism against its big minority population, the Tamils. The most viable and popular solution, for the Tamils, seems to be the ever-famous two-state solution: one for the Sinhalese and another for the Tamils. For the Sri Lankan government, the Tamils and their self-proclaimed singular leadership the Tamil Tigers, represent a constant threat to the power dynamics which have been sustained for over 60 years, as well as general state security.
After a quick six minute chat with the young women, I headed downstairs to meet for coffee with two friends of mine, one of whom was of Arab descent, Noor, and the other who was a Sri Lankan Muslim (who have a completely different role to play in the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese Buddhists), Amina.
Noor and I had discussed our complete lack of knowledge regarding the history and current situation in Sri Lanka. She was an International Development Studies Major, and I a Political Science. We had both fallen into the glamour of Middle East politics, with a dash of Africa, forgetting academically that a world of conflict existed outside our geographical haven. I grabbed a cup of coffee and joined Noor and Amina. Without hesitation, I immediately jumped to tell them about my experience with the young Tamil women. I was particularly interested in what Amina, also an International Development Studies major, would have to say on the issue. This conversation was, after all, taking place in the context of post-Gaza invasion aftermath. All three of us are active within the political community, and all of us had been working tirelessly in different ways, since January, to do what we could to spread the message of the recent invasion and slaughter to the masses in Montreal and on our campus.
I told them about the table upstairs and how I found it odd that the Tamil students were not receiving any support from the Sri Lankan Students Association. Amina snorted, smirked and rolled her eyes.
Noor and I quickly exchanged confused glances.
Amina continued, ‘Yeah, okay, genocide. Please, it’s not a genocide. They’re just abusing the use of that word. It’s so in vogue.”
Our jaws dropped.
‘Amina, what do you mean? You can’t say that. If these people are claiming a genocide, we have the obligation to listen to their–’
‘Wait, Amina, tell us what’s going on..from your perspective. Are you Tamil?’
‘No, I’m Muslim and speak both Tamil and Sinhalese – I don’t really identify with either group.’
The conversation continued calmly for about the five to six minutes, as Amina explained the treatment of the Tamils by the Sinhalese Buddhist government. She admitted that the government did not treat its minority population in the most preferable of ways, but argued that the Tamils were unable to appreciate all the government had done to bring the population on a more equal footing and to keep the country unified. She said the government had to do what it had to do to keep the country together and to keep the people of Sri Lanka safe from a terrorist organization. With this justification as a foundation, she insinuated that the recent killing of thousands of Tamils in Sri Lanka was not surmountable to genocide; they were just, albeit most unfortunately, collateral damage.
Throughout the brief explanation, Noor and I would interupt to ask questions and would also exchange looks of concern. Amina’s words sounded all too familiar.
So I pushed her further.
‘What about the recent report of around three thousand Tamils killed by the Sri Lankan government? Isn’t that indicative of deliberate targetting by the Sri Lank–’
‘No! Of course not. The Sri Lankan government calls the homes of the Tamils before they bomb–”
‘Wait, Amina what? Are you serious? Do you hear yourself? Where can these Tamils who are caught in between the fighting run to? Their area is extremely densely populated–’
‘The LTTE uses the Tamils as human shields; they don’t want them to get out.’
Our voices, at this point, had escalated slightly beyond the casual bellowing. My Sri Lankan Muslim Sinhalese Tamil friend sounded like every Zionist Jew and/or Israeli I had encountered in the days and weeks following the invasion of Gaza. She spoke about terrorism, the right of the government to self-defense, thousands of civilians as unfortunate (but required?) collateral damage, the use of human shields, and a benevolent government which called the homes of the people it would bomb within the ensuing minutes.
But ten minutes into the conversation, we both had lost our cool. People in the library cafe looked on, as I yelled at her, asking her to then support the Israeli government’s assault unless she dared to be labeled a hypocrite; she yelled at me for comparing two incomparable situations. Noor attempted to play the mediator role, but was repeatedly pushed back by our angry confrontation. I kept pushing Amina, and pushing. I normally bow out of an argument when I know my opponent will not budge or I know that my opponent’s belief is deeply rooted in something far more cosmic that history or facts. But I knew Amina was a smart girl, capable of discerning between fact and fiction. She was well aware and well-read about the situation of occupied Palestine, as well as the recent invasion. Her strong support for the Sri Lankan government baffled me and I could not let her fall into what I saw as hypocrisy and unjust.
Little did I know, however, that the epiphany would not strike Amina the hardest but rather Noor and I.
As I challenged Amina’s stance more, bringing into the light the comparisons between what she was saying and what our campus Zionists were spewing, she began to struggle with her words. She stuttered. She became more frustrated. She became more defensive. I begged
her how she saw the slaughter of the Palestinians as genocide but not the slaughter of the Tamils (even if based on giving their claims the benefit of the doubt)?
“I just..I just can’t imagine my society doing something like that,” Amina burst out after several minutes of my incessant hounding.
Noor and I, once again, found our eyes leaping from their sockets and our mouths parting once again to take breaths which couldn’t be taken from our shocked nasal passages.
Amina had, unknowingly, taught Noor and I a lesson we had never quite learned in our four years of undergrad in international politics. Amina was unable to fathom how her society, which consisted of people just like her and her family, from her culture which was very much so alive in her and her country, which formed a basis of her identity, could hold a basis on the slaughter of another people. All of a sudden the several Armenian genocide denying Turks, Darfuri genocide denying Arabs and Zionists I had argued with several times over had become humanized in an almost vulnerable sense. For a fleeting moment, I understood, without any anger, why my arguments with such individuals never really went anywhere other than towards exasperated gasps and frustrated fleeing.
Their denial of such atrocities cannot be forgiven; an injustice is an injustice regardless of circumstance. The support for any injustice is support against all of justice. But, again, for that fleeting moment I finally understood how deniers of atrocities could deny what they did. Denial of atrocities, especially when they are linked strongly to a national, religious or ethnic identity, is a dissociation of the self’s complicity in any sinful doing. To accept the wrong committed is to accept that there is something somewhat deficient, in an indeed peculiar way, with oneself in terms of self-identification and history.
And that admittance is terrifying.