While the world turns and changes; while we thrill at global events; for some, life is in stasis.
Today, the Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda will have been missing for 500 days. Ekneligoda was abducted on 24 January 2010 and has not been heard from since. There is still no news of his whereabouts or fate and his abductors are still at large. His wife Sandhya has been petitioning the Sri Lankan government to investigate the disappearance, but they have callously ignored her pleas. Ekneligoda had been a thorn in the side of the government, exposing crimes against humanity. From Sandhya’s incredibly moving letter to Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, about the case.
In late 2008, Prageeth produced conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons by Government forces against Tamil civilians in the North. Prageeth, who believed that such weapons were being used with the aim of annihilating the Tamil population living in LTTE controlled areas, dedicated his time and effort to gathering further evidence and to raising awareness regarding this issue at different forums both locally and internationally.
Ekneligoda is one of several independent journalists to have been disappeared or killed in recent years. Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was one such writer, who predicted his own murder and wrote an editorial to be published posthumously. The Sri Lankan government always denies involvement in these most sinister of crimes, but it does nothing to stop this violence againsts its own citizens, which is an implicit endorsement and encourages further disappearances. It has allowed a horrible culture of fear and oppression to develop, one that shrinks civil society and ruins the lives of ordinary people. This, in a Commonwealth country that recently hosted the cricket world cup.
Sri Lanka also hosted the Galle Literary Festival in January, one of the few places where ideas of free speech and human rights can be discussed. Author and poet Minoli Salgado imagined what the festival might have been like. I recorded a podcast of Minoli reading it.
A Feast of Words
The writers were at the table, eating each others words. Delicate morsels of sliced crime, tangy segments of romance, silver spoonerisms washed down with a glass of iced humour that turned the lips green.
‘How delightful’, one cooed, ‘I must try this at home.’
The wine critic was not sure. She would like to have sampled some rough shreds from a local saga of lost lives, but didn’t want to be first. She settled for some pickled irony instead. She might fold the saga in her napkin and eat it later in the leisure of her hotel room.
The book feast had been almost everything she’d hoped for. An orgy of words, with whale watching, devil dancing and fire walking between meals. The initial fuss that the feast was inappropriate, when the rest of the country was half-starved, had died down. Only a Nobel Laureate and a Booker Prize Winner had cancelled their meals. It was not much of a loss. She had tried their work and found it went poorly with Bordeaux.
But the local saga with its siren-red chunks was a different matter. And so were some of the short shots of poetic violence that she’d tried that morning. A caffeine kick, those poems made her wake to where she was.
She was about to reach for the saga when someone staggered forward with a dish too bizarre for words. A giant black and white cartoon of a man’s face slashed by a cross of two chillies upon the lips.
‘My husband,’ said a woman, proffering the placard and a sheaf of printed leaves. ‘This is about my husband who’s gone. Please take and read. Read and eat at the same time. It is possible no?’
‘It’s inedible.’ ‘It’s uncooked.’ ‘Where’s it from?’ They all asked.
‘My husband,’ she repeated with a hunger they did not understand. ‘He was a writer like you but disappeared last year. He wrote words the government did not want to hear.’
A plate of silence was served that made them feel hollow inside.
‘What words?’ offered the wine critic. ‘What words did your husband say?
The woman shook her head.
‘His words have gone with him. That is why I am here. I am looking for him in your feast of words.’