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Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War by Frances Harrison – review

[guardian.co.uk, Friday, 26 October 2012 11:19 No Comment]

In the bloodbath that ended the 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives in a few terrible months. The world’s politicians looked the other way. Some governments even praised Sri Lanka for its "victory over the terrorists", in reference to the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers. The UN Human Rights Council passed a remarkable resolution that praised the Sri Lankan government’s "commitment to promotion and protection of human rights".

Many find it difficult to imagine that those few months in Sri Lanka may have cost more civilian lives than all those killed in Syria in the past 18 months. The satirist Kurt Tucholsky wrote: "One man’s death: that is a catastrophe. A hundred thousand dead: that is a statistic." In Still Counting the Dead, Frances Harrison reclaims the human catastrophe from the statistics.

As BBC correspondent, Harrison lived in Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2004. Her book tells the stories of individuals – doctor, nun, teacher, shopkeeper, volunteer and more. From these stories emerges a tapestry of suffering.

Harrison does not shy away from the "callous brinksmanship" of the Tamil Tigers, but it was ordinary Tamils who suffered most from the government’s final onslaught. They suffered when the Tigers treated them as human shields; they suffered when Sri Lankan commanders cynically declared a "zero civilian casualty policy", even as they targeted civilians inside the misleadingly named no-fire zone. The third and last of the official no-fire zones meant tens of thousands were crammed onto a sliver of sand in north -east Sri Lanka – "a tropical beach transformed into a place of random slaughter".

Hospitals whose GPS details were shared with the authorities were regularly shelled by government forces. "Eventually [doctors] learned their lesson," Harrison writes: unmarked and unannounced hospitals were not targeted. One doctor is still amazed at the conclusion he was forced to draw: "They wanted to kill as many as possible."

The interviews are mostly with those now in exile, in cafes, homes or hotel rooms in unnamed towns and countries – fear of the Sri Lankan authorities remains strong. Some have never told even those closest to them the full nightmare of what they experienced, including rape or being forced to witness it.

Occasional acts of generosity pepper the narrative. Above all, though, the story is one of horror. One woman describes watching a grandmother with a child in her arms, blasted into pieces. With bitter humour, the woman telling the story comments that if there is indeed a God he had better watch out: "Then He’s like the United Nations and Red Cross people who abandoned us, I will punch Him in the eye."

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