Ideas to win the war: Give phones to Sri Lanka IDPs

June 1, 2009 (LBO) – I was away from the country during the historic events of May 2009. One good thing was that I was able to hear a moving presentation by Patrice Buzzanell, a scholar who had made it her life’s work to study human resilience in multiple contexts, mostly individual and organizational.

As I listened to her, all that went through my mind was the unfolding human tragedy in the Vanni.
Resilience is defined as “1 : the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress; or 2 : an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”

Without question, the IDPs in the camps in the Vanni have suffered great misfortune. The civil war and the accompanying violence have deformed our body politic. The questions now are how the affected people, our fellow citizens recover; how the strained and deformed body politic recovers its size and shape. The latter is the most important, but we must begin with people.

In tragedy after tragedy, from the massacres of Anuradhapura and Kattankudy to the bombings of the Pettah Central Bus Stand and the Central Bank, we heard the word resilience. The blood was washed away and life resumed.

The importance of talk

One of the elements of resilience that Buzzanell had identified was the ability to draw strength from family and friends through talk; to restore normalcy through the telling and retelling of stories. If we look back at our own life crises and how we recovered from them, this should come as no surprise.

I knew from those who had been to the Vanni in the past months that families had been separated; that many of the survivors were in desperate need to find out what had happened to their loved ones. But they are constricted to the camps. This is one of the elements that distinguish their condition from those of the survivors of the LTTE atrocities.

Following the carnage at the Central Bank, people could figure out who was alive and who was dead; after the Central Bus Stand bombing, the survivors were assisted in their recovery by the presence of friends and family they could talk to.

These are our fellow citizens who have been through horrendous suffering; they were held as hostages, as human shields by the LTTE; the entire military operation was described as a humanitarian mission. It is not customary to keep rescued hostages in detention.

Yet, being a pragmatist, I understand the need to maintain entry and exit controls at the camps. The LTTE was a vicious terrorist organization that had no qualms about killing civilians indiscriminately and specialized in suicide bombings. The whole point of decapitating it would be lost if trained cadres were to be allowed to move freely in and out of the camps. Therefore, I accept the need to maintain these controls in the short term, until the LTTE cadres can be identified. I am grateful that the government has committed to a timetable for the resettlement of the erstwhile hostages.

But everything is about balance and compromise. We must treat the rescued hostages kindly but accept the need to restrict their freedom of movement. The military needs to maintain controls on movement of IDPs, but it can compromise on allowing them to talk to their loved ones.

Talk without walk

The technology that allows freedom to talk even without the freedom to walk is the phone. We have plenty of phones. Why not use them, to help the IDPs recover?

In an ideal world, I would simply invite well wishers, friends and family to donate mobiles and talktime to the IDPs and ask the operators to quickly add capacity to their base stations near the camps.

But I do not live in an ideal world. Many lives have been lost; many bad things have happened; and more may happen. Let us start modestly. Slow progress is better than none.

The technology exists for restricting the numbers that can be called. The authorities could start with phones that will allow communication among the camps only; the next step would be to allow logged and rationed calls. Rationing would be necessary in the early stages because the IDPs do not have cash on hand.

The process can start with outgoing calls, with incoming being permitted gradually. Once connections have been established with friends and family and the authorities start allowing visits, the use of donated/purchased mobile phones and the sale of prepaid value within and nearby the camps can commence.

One way or another, let us address the requirements of resilience: the need to talk to friends and family, to tell the stories that bring us back to normalcy and help us push back the horrors that haunt our waking and sleeping hours. Food and medicine are important, but we all know that they are not enough. Psychosocial healing is needed too. And the ability to talk to loved ones is an integral part of that healing.

Let us help these our fellow citizens recover. That would be the beginning of healing the body politic and of restoring it. This is the path to really ending the war: the elimination of the conditions for the re-emergence of terrorism.