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Commonwealth Summit and Stumbling Stones

November 14, 2013

There’s a moment in Berlin when the great sludge of autumn leaves have blown away from the pavements and the snow has not yet smothered the grey slabs where you can see the Stolperstein again. These tiny, brass bricks, ‘stumbling stones’ hammered into the street outside an apartment block, tell you the names of Nazi victims who once lived there. There are usually three dates: the dates they were born, deported and murdered.  

They are decorated now with flickering candles and roses. It was the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi-led murder and destruction that led to the Holocaust. Two minutes from my home, I watched as people carefully stepped round the stones that gleamed now in front of a building that houses a boutique specializing in Issy Miyake clothes, and an upmarket Turkish grocery selling tubs of fresh diced mango. I buy these sometimes: they are extravagant, but as effective a soul-soother in winter as a slice of sachertorte.

This is progress, of sorts. A small, halting, but deeply moving memorial to genocide, right in the heart of the city that once sanctioned it, surrounded by global commerce and bustle.

 I’m writing about this today because I feel an inchoate fury about the Commonwealth summit taking place in Sri Lanka this weekend. It is an utter slap in the face of all those who died. Allowing Sri Lanka to host this summit is legitimizes the government and its past actions. It’s utterly ridiculous for politicians to say they will attend, but will press the government on its human rights records. You just can’t accept someone’s hospitality at a jolly (because let’s face it, that is just what this summit is) and then hector them and expect to be taken seriously. And what good will those stern words do anyway, to those who have been murdered, to those who are still frozen in grief.

 All this proves, really, is that yet again, Sri Lankans must face down their government alone. The international community will not help.

 A Crisis Group report out this month suggests that the Tamil National Alliance, the party that one elections on the north in September, frames its requests for demilitarization, security and democratic rights in ways “that resonate with growing unhappiness elsewhere at how Sri Lanka is being governed.” 

All Sri Lankans, not just Tamils, now have now to deal with corruption, land grabs and politically organized violence, as well as the classic bad government problems of economic mismanagement and rising living costs. Muslim businesses have been attacked, as have Christian churches. Sinhalese journalists who criticize the government receive death threats.

It all goes to show what Germany learnt the hard way. A government that kills it own people is damned. A country cannot recover until it has new leaders who acknowledge what happened and create a space for people to howl, scream, write and shout about their loss. It won’t be a pleasant space, and it won’t be easy to listen to thousands of broken people and their stories. It won’t always seem that this talking about the past is progress either but it is.

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