Spare the children

I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: ‘The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that’s fair.’ In these words he epitomised the history of the human race.
- Bertrand Russell

All week the country has been reeling from the tragedy of the six students and their coach killed in the bomb blast at Fort Railway Station on the eve of Sri Lanka’s 60th anniversary of independence. The public has followed the tragedy since last Sunday, and one week on, the shock and pain has not yet abated.

In the pain of their passing, we have been recalling also the gruesome deaths of 11 school children in Mannar two weeks ago, killed in a claymore explosion targeting a bus in LTTE controlled territory near the Madhu Church. While the Tigers have blamed that attack on the military’s Deep Penetration Unit, there were counter claims to the effect that it was the work of the LTTE themselves, being blamed on the military so that they could launch attacks on civilian establishments in Colombo and later justify their acts as being tit-for-tat.

Ultimate price
While the blame game is of little importance, the fact that children on both sides of the ethnic divide have paid the ultimate price in a battle waged in their names by both parties, speaks volumes about the tragedy that is Sri Lanka today.

Ironically, it is this slaying of innocents that has prolonged national interest in the tragedy at the Fort Railway Station last week. Since we are inundated with hundreds of explosions taking place around the island, few hold our interest for more than a couple of hours after the incident. But this one has lingered: And it has lingered because somehow, even for a nation as de-sensitized and resilient as Sri Lanka, the killing of children tends to resonate very deep within our core. Children are unaware of the dangers that surround them, the wolves that cry at their door and in that innocent naiveté, they carry the hopes of a people that pray for a day when they shall be just as fearless about their tomorrows.

Again and again in the last few months, the media has written about how children are the worst affected in disaster situations, both in the north and the south. As newspapermen, we have seen time and again the bodies of children stacked atop each other - the same size, the same expressions – the only difference being the place of the latest ‘incident’. Kebethigollewa, Welioya, Mannar, Dambulla and Fort Railway Station in Colombo – these are all places now tainted by the spilling of innocent blood, so much more brutal because the slain have been school children or toddlers. Having seen parents and siblings walk around numb and grieving, neighbours and friends doing their best to comfort grieving families, time and again the newspapers have said, no one is affected more than the children in these situations and if all else is turmoil, at least, at the very least, the children must be spared.

Brutal terror

But it is foolish to expect a brutal terror outfit like the LTTE to differentiate between the young and the old. In recent weeks it has become clearer than ever that the Tigers have subscribed to stereotypical terror tactics, blatantly targeting innocent civilians where once they were far too concerned about their image internationally to resort to such atrocities. Today however, pressured by the military push towards its last remaining stronghold in the Wanni, the Tigers are willing to take any and every civilian target that presents itself, knowing that the Sri Lankan state would find itself hard pressed to find ways in which to protect every single bus and train station in the country. The government also cannot be expected to give in to this pressure tactic of the LTTE, which aims to destablise the south with incessant attacks and hope that it would divert the attention of the security forces from their Wanni stronghold. And so it is a vicious circle and one which guarantees only more blood and more death.

And so Sri Lanka has come full circle and reawakened to the true hideousness of war. War does not know the difference between child and man and the tragedy lies in the fact that until it is finally sated by political settlement or armistice it demands more blood and more lives. As in any other conflict situation, Sri Lanka’s children have paid a very heavy price. They have been conscripted to fight on the frontlines of battle by the Tigers, killed in air raids aimed at LTTE gun positions or bases, watched parents and siblings die in explosions and shootings and they have been murdered in their cots.

Tears shed for the number of children lost to Sri Lanka’s two decade long war may be sufficient to fill an ocean. How long before parties to this conflict realise that when we kill our children, we bury all hope for the future? Peace and freedom are empty words without a future generation to work for and believe in.

And so, the nation makes this appeal, one more time and despite all indications to the contrary, hopes it will not fall on deaf ears. Fight, kill, maim if you will and call it a battle for liberation. Just leave the children be.