Soft Power of Community Mobilization

As the smoke clears from the Mumbai attacks, a rising shadow of suspicion falls over otherwise forgotten communities in South Asia. In northeastern Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced women are without sanitary napkins, among the long list of items deemed possible material support to terrorists. A tribal village in Bihar adopts mainstream practices of a neighboring farming village in the hopes of its members being equally recognized as affected by the Koshi River floods. In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a crumbling infrastructure leaves local hospitals inaccessible to TB patients, pregnant mothers, and children with prosthetic limbs.

The superpowers have sent intelligence aid to New Delhi hoping to promote sweeping counter-terrorism initiatives. Embedded in these policies will be markers to identify the enemy. Broad understandings of region, age, gender, language, and religion will distill complex identities down to a simpler one: terrorist.

Having spent the past six weeks among marginalized communities in South Asia, it is clear that only with a nuanced grasp of the politicization of identities--perpetually defined by daily struggles--can there be any hope of successfully countering terrorism.

As one walks further up the mountains into the Maldera village, nestled deep in the picturesque mountains of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, preexisting stereotypes easily fall away as the hospitality and warmth of both the people and the place embrace you. On our trip, even as we walk below idyllic waterfalls, the conversation turns to terrorism.They use our terms, the language of counter-terrorism, to define their identities. They are not extremists, the acts of extremists are against the tenants of their religion.

Shortly after breakfast, the men settled in with their green tea to practice their English by speaking to the foreigners. They regarded Americans as clearly good people who want to help (demonstrated by our presence in the village), but a lot of mistakes have been made. One of the village elders recounts a rough estimate of the facts--"24 attacks in 10 months." His next statement, however, was a careful measure of the human impact of hard power used to fight terror. With a look of soft rebuke, as if speaking directly to those responsible for the artillery launch, he said "Women and children will be hurt." They will be and they have been. The partially theoretical debate has been grounded in the realities of their existence.

Sitting with daughter-in-laws and mothers around the fire, they explain the family ties that bind them, despite the absence of husbands and sons, migrant laborers in the Middle East. One local doctor estimates that one in five women in this village have unknowingly contracted a sexually transmitted disease, drastically increasing the rate of infection during childbirth. A collapsed concrete beam left one young woman with a prosthetic foot and a husband whose hasty departure was explained by his belief she would no longer have the ability to bear children. A 12-year-old boy from the border region shyly lifts his pant leg to reveal an artificial limb, a practice he has become accustomed to since becoming one of the many "unintended casualties" of a strategically placed landmine.

Equally evident, and important for them to convey, is that this community is well-equipped to face their daily struggles. Older men know the names of every passing child, concerned for their welfare before their own. This deep commitment to the extended family of this community is the support system upon which the newly formed community trust is built. Today they are gathered at the edge of the mountain playing a game of pittu, but the children of this village will soon begin to form their own distinct identities. The many hardships of poverty will shape them, but they will be defined by the strength and support of their community.

The spirit of a young girl who showed us the rules of the game while skillfully keeping her head covered reminded me of a young Tamil girl who patiently demonstrated the Sri Lankan version of hopscotch. As we watched the sunset over the homes in Maldera, in the jungles of Northern Sri Lanka the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was preparing to speak, a much-anticipated response in the wake of the Sri Lankan government's claims to have achieved a near complete military victory. Human rights groups, International Monitoring Commissions, Journalist Associations, various media sources have cited "extrajudicial killings, abductions, and torture" as among the government's excesses in its particularly brutal brand of counter-terrorism. General categories make the shock of individual stories, the heavy sadness that each family carries with them, the fear of victimization more palatable to elite policy circles, but cannot capture the daily struggle of a Tamil civilian in a rural fishing village.

A day laborer plastering over bullet marks on the side of a clinic in the newly "liberated" East paused to speak with us. He said it in the course of conversation, barely pausing between a description of the type of work he did and the death of his only son. There used to be a hesitation. Perhaps it wasn't much, but the meaning, the pain, the loss were registered in the seconds of silence before the death of a loved one was revealed. Slipped indistinguishably in between the lines of a broader narrative about his work and the hassle of checkpoints on the road from Trincomalee to Batticaloa- we had to stop to ask him to repeat it. Yes, he had died. Last year, he was 27, a tailor in Jaffna walking on a road by his shop. As the suspicion born of counter-terrorism casts a wider and wider net, only a tattered obituary remained as proof of a young Tamil life. He had been told an investigation would take place, followed by a long silence. Silence conveying the meaning and relevance of his own life and struggle to the police force, the army, the state.

Operating in a lawless vacuum, the work of counter-terrorism in Sri Lanka relies on an even narrower profile of the suspect, and is enforced by any means necessary. Among those who fit the profile: A young man with a good physical build (taken while talking to friends in a crowded market); A young man with a slight build (taken while doing manual labor); and a man assisting with lighting for the Tamil Pongal festival held for three months in a Trincomalee police station.

Funded and supported by the state apparatus, the actions of emerging paramilitary groups are immune from being labeled as terror-inducing and young men with guns roam the villages in search of women and "terrorist supporters". In one town a local civil society hotline reports an average of five abductions per day. Local papers call for the return of thousands of army deserters, who have made use of their weapons and uniforms to demand gold wedding necklaces and cash from Tamil civilians. A mother of three is being treated at the local hospital for gang-rape as militarization infiltrates every aspect of this society. All this occurring (and justified) under the safe cloak of suspicion.

The Tamil electrician held for three months had just lost his wife to a treatable disease. He supports his three daughters and two younger sisters, and worries about their marriage prospects. In his absence, his friends and family ask the initial questions--authorities request their home addresses...fear reminds them to silence their answers and keeps them from receiving any of their own.

It was he who emphasized a final category of suspicion this community wished desperately to avoid, "Madam, we are afraid to see." It has hard to understand the trauma of those who have already met the fate awaiting them once the doors of a white van open. They will never be seen again. But those who stood around and watched at 2am as an auto driver was beaten and taken, they bear witness to the heavy hand of suspicion. This trauma is further compounded by the follow-up that is now inevitable, the night they hear the knock at their own door. This community has been so terrorized by counter-terrorism they are afraid to open their eyes. They have been rendered immobile, afraid of the checkpoints each bus must cross, afraid to leave their homes after 6pm.

Amidst all of this, 200 young girls eagerly await our arrival back at the orphanage every evening. They draw lines in the sand, and play games based around the goings on at a fish market. The braver ones recite an English poem, or show off a new film dance. They rise at 5am to study, and finish dinner early to prepare for three hours before bed. Their strict schedules protect them from the harsh realities outside the walls of the orphanage, yet it is with a consciousness and maturity beyond their years that they express their desire to be social workers, teachers, and doctors in their own communities.

Often out of disaster and tragedy, moments of opportunity are born. At a moment when the air in South Asia is thick with the threat of communal violence, the quiet clarity of these rural villages offers a unique insight into the power of community mobilization. With the strength created through a lifetime of sacrifice and suffering comes a power that is anything but soft. Investing in its potential is not only our responsibility, it paves the way to stop the rising tide of violence destroying these South Asian communities.


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