The last mile was the hardest. Sarojinidevi Tangarasa, a 58-year-old grandmother, traveled on Wednesday for seven hours over 80 miles of rough roads from her home in Mallavi, a village in northern Sri Lanka, to Madhu. “I have been on the road since five in the morning,” Tangarasa said.
Seven hours later, she reached a blue and white church in a clearing in the jungle to hear Pope Francis hold a prayer service on a former battleground of Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war.
There was a security checkpoint less than a mile away from the church, so Tangarasa got out of the bus she came in and walked on crutches. It wasn’t easy; she lost her left leg in 2001 and was injured in a 2008 shell attack, so she stopped every hundred feet or so to catch her breath. Tangarasa spent months on the run after violence forced her out of her home, about 40 miles west of Kilinochchi, the de facto capital of the territory once held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil separatist armed group. She was just one of nearly 300,000 other survivors of the war who had gathered at Madhu, a 500-year-old shrine to Mary, to hear the Pope’s message. “He should speak for us, about us, how we have lived like animals for so long,” Tangarasa said.
Pope Francis spoke at an open-air altar in front of the church, a place that holds great symbolic weight. During the 1990s, the church was a sanctuary for those fleeing the fighting, but that sense of refuge ended in 2008 when a shell hit one of the side chapels, killing 60 civilians who were seeking shelter, according to priests at the shrine. The war ended in 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE, but not before over 100,000 had been killed and millions left homeless.
Francis acknowledged their suffering — “There are families here today which suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka” — and challenged them to forgive. “It is not easy to do this. Yet only when we come to understand, in the light of the cross, the evil we are capable of, and have even been a part of, can we experience true remorse and true repentance.”
So far, Sri Lanka has made little progress toward forgiveness, reconciliation or accountability for the brutality committed on all sides, particularly during the last few months of the war, when an estimated 40,000 people were killed, 250,000 displaced and thousands of civilians pushed into ever shrinking no-fire zones. “There are so many open wounds left festering during the last five years,” said Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has adopted three consecutive resolutions since 2012 on the need for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes and other abuses, but former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose victory over the LTTE gave him, for a time, massive popular support, repeatedly blocked such efforts. The election of a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, just a week before the Pope’s visit, has raised hopes of a new push for accountability.
“Sri Lanka has for years resisted all international efforts to investigate the conflict years, and instead relied on domestic investigation bodies that toed the government line,” David Griffiths, deputy Asia Pacific director at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera. “This has to end. The new government should cooperate fully with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' investigation.”
But Sirisena has to walk a fine line. If he pushes too hard for international action, he risks playing into Rajapaksa’s enduring strategy of portraying himself as an embattled defender of Sinhalese ethnic pride and victim of foreign persecution. Sirisena could also alienate two key players in his fragile coalition — former General Sarath Fonseka, who commanded Sri Lankan forces during the end of the war, and the hardline Buddhist nationalist party Jathika Hela Urumaya. Instead, Sirisena has promised to use local institutions, such as the presidential commission investigating the missing, to investigate war crimes and disappearances.
In the meantime, Sirisena has moved quickly to address some key demands of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main political party representing the Tamil minority. He replaced the longstanding former military officer who served as governor of the North Provincial Council with a civilian officer, agreed to look into allegations of state appropriation of private land in the Tamil-majority north and to investigate cases of Tamils who have been detained without trial since the end of the conflict. Divya Sivanesum, 20, a from a village about 70 miles north of Madhu, says her family is still looking for a missing cousin. “The reality is that we can’t forget the missing, we keep looking for them, we keep looking for closure,” she says.
For Tamil families like hers, Sirisena’s actions at home are much more meaningful than what he can accomplish in Geneva, the Hague or New York. “What happens here on the ground, how the situation improves, will be far more important to people here than what happens in international fora,” Fernando says.
When he took the oath of office as president on Jan. 9, Sirisena announced an ambitious plan for his first 100 days, including constitutional reforms to re-impose term limits on the presidency and restore some powers to parliament. Parliamentary elections are expected after that, and Rajapaksa may yet be a force to reckon with. He maintains a strong base of support in the rural southern heartland, and they will quickly latch on to any kind of split in Sirisena’s ranks.
Rajapaksa has already thrown down the gauntlet. Soon after his election defeat, he returned to his ancestral home in Hambantota in the deep south and was welcomed by a rowdy, vocal group of loyalists. He blamed his unexpected setback on minority votes, appealing directly to his hardline Sinhala base. One of them asked Rajapaksa why he didn’t simply keep the presidency by killing his rivals. “No, you can’t do that,” he said. But he is not going quietly. “I will go from one village to another,” Rajapaksa promised, “meeting my supporters and galvanizing them.” On the long road to reconciliation, the last mile is the hardest.