A few months ago I was passing by the Peace Palace, the UN complex here in Geneva. It is the site of many demonstrations, and on this particular day a group of Tamils was displaying posters with shocking pictures of cruelty, accompanied by slogans of what was happening in them. According to the descriptions, the picture was in each case that of a Tamil, sometimes a child or a civilian woman, tortured/raped/killed (or all three) at the hands of the Sinhalese.
The allegations in the posters were shocking, outrageous.
I marched to the info stand and told the gentlemen manning it that I knew what the Tamils had been through during the last months of the civil war in Sri Lanka, and that what had occurred probably amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. I told them that I supported their cause and that they were right to protest in front of the UN, as it was about time the international community did something about the atrocities.
The reason I did this was that I had seen all the images on their posters before. I had seen them, and the slogans, put into context. I knew who the kid was (Balachandran, the son of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder of the Tamil Tigers), I knew who the woman was (Isaipriya, a Tamil news anchor). I knew all this because not long earlier I had seen a documentary called “No Fire Zone”, which had made me hate humanity and have nightmares. If anyone is interested in seeing what people are capable of during civil war, watch this documentary, it is really good. Even if it will make you feel anything but good.
I don’t know if the Tamils holding the protest outside the UN cared about my expression of solidarity. But I’m guessing that not all that many passersby gave such unqualified endorsements of their cause. This is because not many people had seen the documentary. This fact gave me pause, because if it had not been for the documentary, I would have been quite suspect of the protesters’ claims, outrageous as they were.
Would I not have believed the protesters so easily if I had not seen the documentary, because I, along with many others, have become jaded by fake and manipulated images of atrocities in Syria and elsewhere? If this is the answer, then it is a healthy one. In the days where everyone can easily falsify pictures, one should be slightly wary of photographic evidence, especially when emanating from interested parties. (Even if countries such as Iran or North Korea haven’t quite completed the advanced course on photoshop yet ...)
Or was it because “No Fire Zone” had been made by – let’s be blunt about it – a bunch of Whities? Do I trust Whities to tell the truth more than I trust the Tamils actually on the ground, suffering through it all? A worrying thought, but one that I have not been able to entirely shake. It is a frustrating example of internalised racism. Frustrating because (if it is true) I can’t rid myself of it and frustrating because it is so profound. Somebody please pass the brain bleach, I don’t want to be like this!
On the more important, and less self-important, issue of what happened to the Tamil people and will there be consequences for this, there are some good news. The UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on 27 March 2014 to open an enquiry into war crimes in the final stages of the civil war in 2009. I don’t know if this was because of the Tamil protests or the documentary. “Who cares?” one could say, the main thing is that something is happening. Or then again, if the world in general is suffering from collective internalised racism, then that would indeed be a problem. So let us assume that the UN is not (only) finally reacting because a bunch of white people said so.