A call to empathise: Voices of Peace

Sarah Kabir’s ‘Voices of Peace’ is a collection of stories telling the tales of not only 10 LTTE cadres but also 10 former Sri Lankan military personnel. The book launch took place on 26 September at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, amidst an overwhelming response from a number of esteemed members of parliament, politicians, activists, and well-wishers.

The launch was followed by an insightful discussion moderated by The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka Executive Director Dr. Jehan Perera. The guest speakers included Centre for Policy Alternatives Executive Director Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Chairman of the Office of Missing Persons Saliya Pieris (PC), and women’s rights and peace activist Aaranya Rajasingam.

In his introduction to the book, Dr. Jehan Perera lauded Sarah on her initiative to put together this book, which he felt was a tool that was timely in the face of Sri Lanka’s slowly but surely progressing reconciliation programme.

He quoted Aristotle in saying: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all,” and commended Sarah on her successful effort to speak to the “heart.” Speaking about the storytellers themselves, Dr. Perera emphasised on the importance of listening to the individuals and expressed his firm belief that the book was a tool for empowering their lives.

Despite her young age, Sarah Kabir is a researcher and humanitarian worker with a Masters in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies, who has actively participated in various peace building and development work. The book ‘Voices of Peace’ is her debut work and is a result of over two years of extensive research using methods and skills she picked up while in Cambodia at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Sarah says that in her journey to find the right stories, she spoke to over sixty people who were active agents in the 30-year civil war, of which only 20 accounts have been published, making sure that she visited every storyteller at least three times. Sarah did not refer to them as interviews but chose to call them ‘informal interactions’ that took place over a cup of tea or even a meal. When selecting these stories she included that the storytellers had to be active agents in the war, and the stories themselves had to be diverse and ones that helped balance both perspectives.

Aims and Objectives

Speaking about her aims in releasing the book she stated that the overall aim is to influence policy regarding peace and reconciliation within the country. Apart from influencing policy she hopes that the book will empower the storytellers, the ones who were there at the front lines and suffer the consequences of it till today.

Taking a line from Maya Angelou who said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Sarah hopes that through these stories, she will be able to relieve the burden of the traumatic experiences that most of these fighters have faced. Most of all, she hopes that the book motivates us all to empathise with the storytellers, internalise their stories to gain a better understanding of each narrative, and eventually act – whether it be through speeding up the reconciliation process or ensuring that the country will not be led to the brink of such a war again.

She believes that the book will give readers a chance to reflect and realise the differences, and more importantly the similarities, of either side of the story and thereby break the binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and with it our preconceived biases.
Sarah wishes that the book will be a tool that helps increase public discourse (which is vital to influence policy). In an attempt to widen the audience to this effect, she is also looking to get the book translated into Sinhala and Tamil.

Furthermore, she is confident that these stories will be a significant contribution to research regarding this subject. She also views the book as a tool for preservation of these bits of history, very much in agreement with the storytellers themselves, who hope that these stories are remembered by the generations to come. This sentiment was later echoed by Saliya Pieris who spoke on the importance of memorialisation.

The power of listening

The inspiration for the book comes from Tunisian activist Aya Chebbi who once said: “Speak to us, not about us.” This made Sarah realise that it is only through listening to those who suffered, and making a personal connection, that one is able to gain a full understanding of what remains to be done.

What she gathered from talking to the storytellers was that first and foremost, they want to stop being labelled or generalised as LTTE or military or disabled. They hope that people will refrain from making blanket statements that paint an entire side as bad based on a few preconceived notions.

From an economic perspective, they expressed that the public and private sectors and entities such as the diaspora, listen to them and use the money constructively so that progress can be made towards reconciliation.

There were also personal grievances like Kalavathy’s who felt that she was being kept from obtaining a driving license solely based on the fact that she was a former cadre, to which Sarah felt if there was injustice that it be rectified, and if there was misunderstanding that it be clarified. One thing that all of them felt strongly about was that, to them, reconciliation can only come from being given the opportunity to interact with the other communities. Most of them felt that seeing each other face-to-face helped increase the understanding that they were human just like them, and hoped that they would be given more opportunities for such interaction.

‘Their voice not mine’

Sarah makes it clear that the voices in the book are of the storytellers themselves and not hers. Thus she hopes we, the readers, respect the trust they have placed in us in revealing these details about their lives. She encourages every one of us to empathise with these storytellers and acknowledge the narratives that might be alternate to our own.

A firm believer in the power of storytelling and listening, Sarah is confident that this book will be “one attempt at giving us an opportunity to listen, to interact, and relate to them.” She explicitly states that the book is not a novel and therefore has no conclusion.

She hopes it leaves us with more questions than answers, questions that urge us to examine what can be done to bring peace and reconciliation in the country. Therefore she recommends every reader to always read between the lines and uncover the deeper meanings that will undoubtedly speak to everyone on a very personal level.

Photos Indika Handuwela

By Vashini Benjamin