Real People, Real Experiences
“I had walked away, and just 30 seconds later, I heard an explosion. I looked up from the lottery ticket in my hand and saw glass shattering, and little shards of it raining down – as I started running, I saw a man in front of me struggling with a larger shard of glass at the back of his neck. It was chaos, I tell you… Buses were on fire, with people packed in them, and the drivers were still driving onward – driving over people who were still alive, who were missing half their limbs, who were screaming as the tires ran over their bleeding bodies…”
Real experiences. Real voices. From real people. You can pick up a newspaper and read numbers. 6, 905 people dead. 100 people dead as a result of this bomb. 10, 000 people dead in the North. However, hearing it from just 1 who has actually experienced the panic, the brutality, and the actual futility of war is a completely different story.
I have two more days of research before I leave Sri Lanka. As I near the end of this research trip, I can’t but look back at the amazing stories I have heard and be thankful for this incredible opportunity. What started as a research trip has become an experience that has colored my future plans, my career goals. I have made some amazing connections – I have met individuals from the United Nations, various ambassadors, government and military personnel among others. I have enough research to write a book on my experience here.
This is not to say that it has been smooth sailing throughout the past four weeks. I remember a frantic email I sent my Honors advisor and LEEP Co-Mentor, Dr. Johanna Vollhardt, when I fell ill in the middle of my trip and had to undergo a surgery. Days were lost – days when I could have been interviewing people. I even cut my recovery period short, to make up for lost time – I would preface my interviews by informing participants that I had had surgery in my mouth which is why my face was abnormally swollen! I have three days more to go and there are STILL MANY logistics to coordinate. Tapes need to be transcribed. I have eight interviews lined up for tomorrow – three of them with Army personnel. Have you ever tried interviewing six people, one after another, on the same extremely sensitive topic, over and over again? There are many ‘landmines’ to step over. As the interviewer, you must build a rapport, and say as little possible to sway the interviewee. You must show the interviewee that there are no right or wrong answers. In a country where there are political disappearances and killings every day, one must choose one’s words carefully when in company. But my background as a student allows people to be more open with their responses to my questions to them. What begin as responses to a semi-structured interview with three predetermined scenarios become recollections of trauma, of life experiences that to me, have colored my research experience in a way I couldn’t have envisioned in the classroom. I find myself more passionately inclined towards working to inform reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I have made plans, started my work. This has, in a way, been that invaluable first step towards enriching my future career plans. And I can’t even begin to describe the amount of experience in terms of organization, coordination of logistics, and people skills, I have learned and earned during this trip. These are real experiences that I will carry back with me, and will inform future studies I will design and run, and future classroom discussions. I always make it a point to note any criticisms or suggestions participants have about my questionnaires or interview questions. These are valuable field notes that will further inform the results of my study.
There are many people whose voices go unheard every day. There many who have experienced the consequences of conflict, of separation and of various political decisions, whose stories are vivid and important. These real world, personally felt and expressed, experiences help color our understanding of how to foster reconciliation among those groups that were hurt during this conflict that has lasted over thirty years now. I have received details and personal accounts that go far beyond what I initially hoped and planned for. I have listened to individuals from all over the country, of all socio-economic strata and backgrounds give their opinions on the same scenarios, in the very same conflict, and yet each account is personalized in the understanding and rationalization of the conflict. As this research period comes to an end, I can’t help but nod in exhaustion, but also get excited about the wealth of information this trip has afforded me. Real people, real voices — that struggle to be heard in a sea of numbers and statistics. From the fisherman to the Army General to the businessman to the clergyman – you’d be surprised at how much they all have in common, regardless of the various racial, ethnic, political religious affiliations that have propelled this conflict for over thirty years… (and counting)?
The true anecdote at the beginning of this article is published with the consent of the respective participant.