Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The tale of a Sri Lankan journalist in exile

By Frances Harrison | International News Safety Institute

There was no safety training on earth that could have prepared twenty-eight year old Lokeesan for covering the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

I first met him - this tall, earnest, Tamil man - in rebel territory in northern Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. He’d grown up surrounded by war, studying by lantern for his A Levels without enough text books, before becoming a newspaper reporter and then graduating to a high profile job working for the pro-rebel news website, Tamilnet, based in Norway.

It was always going to be a risky assignment - Lokeesan’s predecessor was found dead in a ditch after being abducted. But as the Tamil Tiger rebels started to lose territory rapidly in 2009, Lokeesan found himself running for his life with his parents and precious satellite equipment. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were hemmed into a tiny patch of territory in northern Sri Lanka, being shelled and bombed on a daily basis.

At first Lokeesan shot graphic images and sent them abroad. Then he began to realise they were too shocking to be used. He switched to black and white, hoping that would be more palatable but he had to live with the reality in colour.

“If Reuters or BBC had been there it would have stopped, but not my organisation,” he says, aware that whatever he wrote was discredited by the Sri Lankan government which automatically dismissed him as a terrorist.

In those months of war Lokeesan would flee from village to village with his parents, dig a bunker, set up a tent and then leave them, retracing his steps to witness and document the aftermath of the latest attack. His mother and father were on tenterhooks the whole time, unable to eat until he returned. He would just recharge his camera equipment with the solar power pack - and his parents would understand he meant to go out again the next day to report. They never ever discussed the risks.

Was there ever a conflict between being a bystander filming and getting involved to pick up the injured, I asked. Lokeesan patiently explained there was no need to worry about missing that poignant scene of a mourning mother or crying injured child. There were so many he could always find another. He didn’t hesitate to stop and help. Sometimes he’d collect material and then when he’d left the scene of carnage, stop and sob.

When we first met, Lokeesan showed me his certificate from a BBC World Service Trust training course he’d attended. I asked if it had been any use for what he had to undergo later. He smiled sweetly and shook his head. The instructors had told him always to check casualty data with official sources like the police and army. In 2009 the Sri Lankan military claimed it was operating a “zero civilian casualty policy”, but Lokeesan was documenting body after body.

Today it’s the children’s corpses he can’t forget. When he reached safety abroad his European colleagues generously chipped in to buy him a new camera. He looked through the lens, thinking to take photos of his own baby son but all he could see was the images of the dead.

Lokeesan needed a new camera because on the day he surrendered to the Sri Lankan army he had to destroy all his equipment to save his life. He was a wanted man. He smashed his camera, his laptop, his Thuraya satellite phone and his Bgan portable Internet dish, burying them under the wet sand. The Bgan he said was particularly indestructible - a credit to its manufacturers who probably never dreamed a customer would want purposefully to destroy their expensive dishes. It was counter intuitive to smash all that gear he’d guarded so carefully. “It felt as if I was killing a part of myself,” he says.

There was one last phone call to his boss in Oslo, who told him to escape with his life.

Lokeesan’s story of escape is hair-raising. He managed to avoid being spotted, partly because of his beard and dishevelled state. Detained in a giant refugee camp, he swapped the order of his names around, hoping to avoid the security forces who were looking for him. It worked for a few days. Then there was an announcement on the camp loudspeaker system. “Lokeesan the reporter, we know you are here,” it said.

It took more than a year and a half to reach safety and there were many more near escapes. In the end, it was another journalist who saved him, a Sinhalese exiled reporter. For Lokeesan as a minority Tamil to trust a member of the major community was something new but he was desperate, having run out of options. Growing up in rebel territory he had never met or talked to a Sinhalese civilian.

Lokeesan’s story is one of those told in a new Norwegian film, “Silenced Voices”, by film maker Beate Arnestad. The first screening in Oslo sold out and had to be moved to a bigger venue. Lokeesan sat in the cinema with hundreds of spectators watching the footage he’d shot in the war, projected onto the large screen. This quiet restrained man broke down, crying, coughing and snuffling into his handkerchief, unable to cope with reliving those scenes. It was extremely distressing to see him collapse. He puts himself through this because he feels it’s his mission now to tell people what happened in Sri Lanka. He struggles to understand why he survived when so many other didn’t but assumes it was so he could tell the world what happened.

Frances Harrison is a former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, among other countries, and her book on the end of the civil war there, "Still Counting the Dead" will be published this summer by Portobello Books in London.


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