"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 9: 
The Apollo Vision:  
Reflections on Globalization, 
Ethnicity, Conflict and Hope 


It’s about 5:00 am, and the flash and boom of shelling about five miles north-east of the city brightens the pre-dawn sky.  (When Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”, I guess they were using a different explosives -- the glare of these shells and rocket  propelled grenades is white, not red.)

Since I can’t sleep, I decided to write down a few impressions:

1. Sri Lanka is one of the more interesting “ethnic” conflicts, in that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the different “ethnicities”.  I have a Sri Lankan friend who was adopted and raised in Europe.  As an adult, she has returned to Sri Lanka to discover her roots.  Because no records were kept, it is absolutely impossible to determine whether or not she is of Sinhalese or Tamil ancestry.

2. Batticaloa is one of the main cities on the predominately Tamil east coast.   But calling this area of 400,000 a “city” would give Western readers a very misleading impression.  On the A-11, the main highway to and through town, there are many more goats and cows on the road than motorized vehicles.

3. I can tell the ethnicity of a village without looking at the people: just look at their livestock.  On the east coast, goats indicate a Muslim area, cows indicate Hindus.  (In my last visit to Sri Lanka, I was traveling on the west coast with a Sarvodaya driver.  He suddenly blurted out, “Christian pigs!”  I stared at him in shock at what I misinterpreted to be a racist slur.  He smiled and pointed to the side of the road, where a mother pig and her five or six future ham sandwiches were crossing the road.  On an island dominated by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, only Christians keep and eat pork.)

4. BOOM!    Another shell lights up the pre-dawn sky.  Every shell, every bullet, every hard look, reinforces the notion that there is SOMETHING DIFFERENT about “those people”.  But, other than the fact that they are killing each other, what is the difference?    Years ago, during the Tiger attack on the World Trade Center, one of the LTTE commandos stopped running to take careful aim and kill an unarmed Buddhist monk.  Why?

 One answer may be that humans are a sadistic, bloodthirsty bunch, and that there will be no end to the violence (as there seems to be no end to the shelling north of town).  I hear variations of this as I travel around the island:  “The Buddhists are cruel and are trying to drive us off the island!”  “The Tigers are indiscriminate killers and are trying to destroy Buddhism!”

 I don’t accept this simplistic answer.  It ignores the millions of instances of ethnic harmony and togetherness  -- on this island, in this region, and on this planet.  Look at what happens in a disaster: people INSTANTLY forget their differences and band together in mutual help and support.  (I actually proposed this as a solution to an ethnic conflict in a small town in America: purchase a railroad car full of liquid petroleum and detonate it in the center of town.  Watch how quickly the racial hatred evaporates among the survivors!  For some reason, no one followed my “suggestion”.)

 In this war, each side justifies its own violence and hatred as “self defense” and an appropriate response to the other side’s “aggression”.  One side’s “freedom fighter” is the other side’s “terrorist”.  It’s a dirty war, and, believe me, there is plenty of dirt on both sides to go around.

 In her nationwide address appealing for an end to the recent ethnic violence in the hill country, the Sri Lanka President made one statement of crystal-clarity:  “Sinhalese racism supports Tamil racism”.  In other words, those who see the world in terms of EXCLUSIVITY (“I am separate from ‘them’”) support and nurture each other.  And it only takes one bullet (or one more shell!) to create and reinforce the separation.

5. Yesterday, I was in a meeting with a group of  Hindu widows who had formed a Sarvodaya Society (mutual savings and micro-credit programs).  During our dialog, held at a local Christian church, I asked if they had any contact with Muslim women in the next community.  All 70 of them said “no”.  The Muslim community was 100 feet away!  I could see Muslim women walking down the road; if I had raised my voice, they would have heard me.  These two communities, in full sight of each other, were so distant they could have been on two separate islands.

6. Perhaps one of the problems is their very proximity.  They see differences close up that fade and disappear over distance.  When I’m in the States, I feel like an AFRICAN-American; I am very aware of the differences between whites, blacks and Latinos.  When I’m in other countries, I am much more aware of my “American-ness”.

 When the Apollo astronauts went to the Moon, it was the first time humans turned around and looked at the home nest.  The image of our brilliant blue earth floating in the black sky evokes strong emotion for many of us.  A planet which shows no divisions, no distiinctions, no signs of differences.  From another planet, it is easy to see the Apollo Vision:  not that we have no differences, but the differences are not important enough to kill over.

7. It’s dawn; the shelling stopped.


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