A journalist uses her experiences growing up during Sri Lanka’s civil war to inform her latest novel. Ru Freeman describes how growing religious and ethnic tensions affected children from diverse backgrounds living on an ordinary lane in Colombo in the years preceding the war.


  • Ru Freeman Activist, journalist and author of "A Disobedient Girl."

Read An Excerpt

From “On Sal Mal Lane” by Ru Freeman. Copyright © 2013 by Ru Freeman. Excerpted with permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.


  • 11:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Ru Freeman grew up on a quiet street in Sri Lanka, much like the one she portrays in her latest novel. And like the children in her book, she grew up in a household full of siblings, music, literature, and cricket. Her father was a civil servant, her mother, a teacher. Their neighbors included families of various religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Her novel covers the five years before civil war began in 1983. The title is "On Sal Mal Lane." Rue Freeman joins me in the studio.

  • 11:07:41

    MS. DIANE REHMYou're welcome to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850, send us your email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you. It's good to have you here.

  • 11:08:00

    MS. RU FREEMANGood morning to you, too. It's nice to be here.

  • 11:08:03

    REHMYou begin this book before the period of the conflict, and I gather this began as a magazine article. Tell us about that.

  • 11:08:21

    FREEMANI was trying to write an article at the end of the war in 2009 about the end of the war, and as we went back and forth, the editor and I, over this piece, I realized that the story that he wanted me to write was not the one I wanted to tell, and did not actually cover the nuance and truth of what had happened. They wanted a piece that was very black and white, good people, bad people. No overlap there. And that was not the story of my country. So I decided that it needed the space of fiction and a novel to tell that story.

  • 11:09:04

    REHMThere is an opening passage I'd like you to read which really helps us to understand a little about the title.

  • 11:09:19

    FREEMANOkay. So this is called "The Listeners." God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and surely these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant. What befell them befell us all. The Herath children were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane.

  • 11:09:56

    FREEMANIt was not simply the neatness of their clothes, washed, sun-dried, and ironed for them by the live-in servant, or their clean fingernails, or the middle parting on their heads for the girls, on the side for the boys, or their broad foreheads and wise eyes, or even the fact that they didn’t smile very often, some inner disquiet keeping their features still. It wasn’t their music-making or their devout following of deities of all faiths who came and went through their house with the predictability of monsoon rains. It was the way they stood together even when they were apart.

  • 11:10:35

    FREEMANThere was never a single Herath child in a conversation, there were four; every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together. These things, discovered as the months wore on, came to bear upon a day of loss, a day crystallized into a moment that the whole neighborhood, yes, even those who had encouraged such a day, would have done anything to take back, a day that defined and sundered all of their lives. But let us return to the beginning, to the year when, in a pillared parliamentary building that had been constructed overlooking a wind-nudged blue ocean, a measure was passed under the title the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

  • 11:11:19

    FREEMANIt was an act that built upon a previous one, an act declaring a State of Emergency, the kind of declaration that made adults skittish, elevated small quarrels into full-blown hatreds, and scuttled the best of intentions, for how could goodwill exist under such preparedness for chaos, such expectations of anarchy? The only goodwill to be had was among children unaware of such declarations, children like the ones on Sal Mal Lane, children moving into a new home that brought with it the possibility of new friends. Let us return then to the first days of that year, the days that filled so many people with hope for what the new family would bring to them. Let us pay attention to their words, to the way they enter this house, alone and together, close or from a distance, intent and wish inseparable. Let us return to observe the very first day that foretold all the days that followed.

  • 11:12:21

    REHMAnd that is Ru Freeman reading from her brand new novel. It's titled "On Sal Mal Lane." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Why did you want to write about the period before the conflict began?

  • 11:12:49

    FREEMANIn many ways, I feel that this book is a gesture toward reconciliation and peace, and I think one of the biggest obstacles to that is not acknowledging what has happened before. But as we acknowledge what happened that was bad, we also want to acknowledge what pre-existed, that coming of that bad. And so the life that was unfolding on Sal Mal Lane before the events of July 1983 are significant, because that really is the actually tenor of the country, and we lost that for 25 years after 1983. And so in some ways it's also, you know, a way to help people remember what life was like when everybody -- when we weren't suspicious of each other.

  • 11:13:36

    REHMWhat does Sal Mal Lane itself actually represent?

  • 11:13:43

    FREEMANIt's very much -- it's similar to any lane in Sri Lanka, other than the paths in the north that were under the control of the LTTE, which is the organization that, you know, is -- the terrorist organization that terrorized the entire country for 30 years. So everywhere in Sri Lanka, people -- both Tamils and Senegalese, Muslims, people of all faiths lived together. So Sal Mal Lane is not very different from most lanes in Sri Lanka, most little byways and, you know, there are some enclaves where's there's a majority of Tamils or Muslims, but for the most part, people live together in this way.

  • 11:14:25

    REHMBut isn't there a significance about the Sal Mal tree itself?

  • 11:14:32

    FREEMANYes, there is. The Sal Mal tree is sacred to Buddhists because the tree -- the flower is supposed to depict the (word?) which is -- and the tree itself was one that the lord Buddha was supposed to have been born under. It is also treated as a tree that's significant to Hindus. So it sat very beautifully between these two religions, which also depict the two ethnicities, the Senegalese and the Tamil, because the Tamils are predominantly Hindu, and the Senegalese are predominately Buddhist. So it seemed right to have a lane that had these trees standing there.

  • 11:15:17

    REHMAnd actually, in the prologue it's almost as though the street itself is speaking.

  • 11:15:27

    FREEMANYes. So that was the intention, to gain some perspective and to -- and distance also as a narrator, or as a writer, to give the story to an observer like that that's, you know, the road was there before these things happened. The road's there after. It signifies, you know, the bend that -- you know, the bend in the road signifies the turns of history, the things you can't see coming, and also the road forward. So all those things lead to my thinking that this would be a good voice to have for the story.

  • 11:16:03

    REHMAnd tell us about the family that moves into this lovely homes and welcomes people of all beliefs, of all ethnicities into their home.

  • 11:16:21

    FREEMANSo the Herath family is two parents, two boys, and two girls. The youngest is the Davey who's the treasured one. And in the family the mother is a teacher, and so she's, you know, she's predisposed to taking in all kinds of people. She meets, you know, that's how she -- that's her job. She likes to fix them up and make them better like she does with some of the children in the -- who live down the lane. And the father is deeply involved in government and politics. He's a communist and has, you know, very clear ideas about in some ways a very bookish understanding of people, and...

  • 11:17:07

    REHMNot so much a personal understanding.

  • 11:17:10

    FREEMANNo. No. No. He doesn't. And he's, you know, at some point he does realize that, and comes to confront that fact that some of the things he thought would happen, because they ought to happen, don't happen that way because people are unpredictable, and they'll go things that you can't -- you don't expect them to.

  • 11:17:30

    REHMThese children are so admired. They have so many friends. They enjoy people and people love watching them.

  • 11:17:43

    FREEMANThey do. So because they're a new family, and when a new family -- I mean, people don't move around too much in Sri Lanka, and when a new family moves in, I mean, that's a big deal. And for this lane in particular to sort of establish the hierarchy of the lane, is this an important family, how are they going to help us or how are they going to hinder us, because not everybody is excited about the way they conduct their lives. You know, there's a couple of families that have their suspicions about them. They don't have it right, and, you know, so -- but for the most part, they're just -- they're nice children.

  • 11:18:17

    FREEMANThey come there with the intention to continue to live as they've always lived, which is that way of accepting people. But they too change in some ways as time goes on.

  • 11:18:28

    REHMRu Freeman. Her novel is titled, "On Sal Mal Lane." Do join us. 800-433-8850. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd if you just joined us, Ru Freeman is my guest. She has a brand-new novel titled "On Sal Mal Lane." She is from Sri Lanka. She's written about the years just before the outbreak of Civil War in that country. As a matter of fact, Ru Freeman, how much of the Herath family is really based on at least characteristics of your own?

  • 11:20:41

    FREEMANYou know, quite a bit. I -- my mother was a teacher and she passed away in 2009.

  • 11:20:49

    REHMOh, I'm sorry.

  • 11:20:52

    FREEMANMy father did -- he was a civil servant. He's retired now. My oldest brother is very musical and my other brother is very much like Nihil. I think of all the characters, the one that is closest to somebody who's actually alive would probably be Nihil who's like my second older brother who's now a journalist also in Sri Lanka. There's something about him, his anxiety about the future and wanting to keep me safe and, you know, sort of protect -- there's sort of a protective nature about him that still remains to this day that I felt fit that character very well and was good for fiction.

  • 11:21:38

    REHMHow have you built in the anxiety about what is to come in this novel.

  • 11:21:49

    FREEMANSo Devi, the youngest of the siblings, is about seven years old when the book starts, and she's born on a day that is considered unfortunate in some quarters in Sri Lanka.

  • 11:22:01


  • 11:22:02

    FREEMANIt's a superstition.

  • 11:22:03

    REHMA superstition, and the superstition being that a child born on this day will...

  • 11:22:12

    FREEMANWill come to some harm. So she's born on July 7 and we have a saying about, you know, July 7 being somehow an unfortunate date for someone -- date for anybody to be born. And he takes this very much to heart and he feels somehow if he can take care of her and -- because adults around them say various things that allude to bad things awaiting her. And he takes it upon himself to be the one who's mindful of her all the time.

  • 11:22:45

    FREEMANWhether it's based on anything true or not, we don't know. That's just the -- that's the sort of the texture atmosphere around him and her.

  • 11:23:00

    REHMThere is also important things to come.

  • 11:23:05

    FREEMANYes, because right around them, around this family, the country is changing. So you could say that, you know, I wanted to write about what had happened but I didn't want to write about it directly. So there were lots of things that stand in for larger events of what happened in the country.

  • 11:23:24

    REHMThe neighborhood itself.

  • 11:23:26

    FREEMANThe neighborhood itself. Devi who is a symbol of innocence, the people around her who worry about her, particularly her siblings, particularly Nihil, her older brother, and the fact that what happens was out of their control. It was a confluence of events and suspicions and an environment that build into something that destroyed a lot of things in the nation, but also on the street, which is sort of the metaphor for what went on around the country.

  • 11:24:02

    REHMAnd when the novel opens, it would seem to be a street where people get along, people don't always agree but it's sort of a live and let live environment, and then things begin to change.

  • 11:24:22

    FREEMANYeah. And I think that -- so as I was growing up, that was the nature of the street that I lived on. People helped each other. We didn't always get involved with each other but we helped each other. You know, if there was a party in one person's house, they would say, can I have your chairs and go get the chairs even if sometimes the people weren't at home and I need these chairs, I might take them.

  • 11:24:47

    FREEMANSo people just celebrated each other's festivals, each other's religious celebrations for a part of our own rituals. It's what we did. But when things started to change, people started to talk about things like, well, don't go to that house because that is a Singhalese house or that is a Tamil house or those kinds of people, even if we didn't know what they actually felt, there is this belief that at the bottom line was that they would side with an ethnic group rather than with the neighborhood.

  • 11:25:24

    REHMAnd in what ways did British policy and the politics of language lay the groundwork for the conflict that came?

  • 11:25:37

    FREEMANWell, the British did what they did in other places, which is to elevate a minority over a majority. So in Sri Lanka it was the Tamil population that had the better jobs, the more educated and when the national university was proposed, it was proposed that it would be situated in Jaffna, which is in the far north, which meant that most of the Singhalese, which are the majority, would not be able to attend.

  • 11:26:06

    FREEMANSo, you know, they were certainly a large part of the reason for why the war went -- people who wanted war found reasons that could be traced back to the British and to the language policy which came after the British left, where we had Singhalese as the national official language, and Singhalese and Tamil as national languages. But, I mean, I think that from this point in time, it isn't really useful to think about who did what to whom.

  • 11:26:43

    FREEMANI feel like the goal is to reconcile ourselves to what has happened and then see what we can do to return to the time before the war. And I think in order to do that we have to have compassion for all these different sides, all these different people who did what they felt was the right thing for them to do. And so in some ways, this book is an effort to get to that place.

  • 11:27:09

    REHMHow did you and your parents experienced the changes that were going on around you?

  • 11:27:20

    FREEMANWell, during the riots we had...

  • 11:27:23

    REHMWhere did the riots begin in relation to where you live?

  • 11:27:29

    FREEMANI lived in Colombo down the street like Sal Mal Lane and I was in school just like the girls in the book were in school when the riots began and my brothers were outside of the house and my father did come to pick me up. So there are some elements like that where I talk about where -- that I described in the book. There's a scene where he's taking his daughters home and I remember that from my father taking me home and what that whole event look like to me, where I didn't quite understand.

  • 11:28:02

    FREEMANI was frightened. But more than all of that, I knew that he was frightened and it's a very strange shift in the world for a child to understand their parents are frightened because you never think of them in that way. So there was all of that and then the thugs were roaming the streets, the street that I was on, also the houses looted and burned and we had neighbors who were staying in our house. So in very concrete terms we experienced it that way.

  • 11:28:35

    REHMSo thugs walked in to your own home?

  • 11:28:40

    FREEMANNot to our home because we were Singhalese. These were people who were attacking or burning or looting Tamil homes. We -- the neighbors who we're sheltering are not. But we have to be quiet because if you were perceived as helping, then you might also be attacked. So there were some neighbors who refused to help, just like some neighbors in this book refused to help because they don't want to be, you know, compromise their safety.

  • 11:29:04

    FREEMANSo, you know, that was my experience of the riots. But in a larger sense, there was a little checkpoint, because there were stuff going on before 1983 in the country. There was a little checkpoint across the bridge that was close to my home that then over the years became this enormous structure that seemed like it would last forever. And...

  • 11:29:31

    REHMA checkpoint for who?

  • 11:29:34

    FREEMANRandom checkpoints, you know, so they would stop cars, buses...

  • 11:29:39

    REHMFor what reason?

  • 11:29:40

    FREEMANTo see if there were bombs because there were suicide bombs going off in the cities and around the country. So, you know, they would just pull cars over and everywhere you went you had to take your ID. You became very conscious of other people's movements. You were always aware of who was sitting next to you or whether -- what they were doing with their bags.

  • 11:30:02

    REHMThe suspicion.

  • 11:30:04

    FREEMANYeah, the suspicion. So we became, Singhalese people, very suspicious of anybody who seems Tamil and the Tamil became dreadfully afraid of people like me because we were -- we could at any moment say, you know, you look suspicious.

  • 11:30:18

    REHMHow would people know who was what?

  • 11:30:24

    FREEMANMost people wouldn't. Sri Lankans would know just because we can tell from subtle coloring or the way you drape a sari or the way you braid your hair what ethnicity you might be. And it's not that people went about all the time, you know, in this state of suspicion but there's this weight upon the populace that when the war ended, it truly did lift. And I think that's another wonderful thing.

  • 11:30:56

    FREEMANI mean, it was bad that we had the war but it's good to know that war's end and I think we're trained to imagine that they never end.

  • 11:31:05

    REHMTwenty-five years.

  • 11:31:07

    FREEMANYeah, I know.

  • 11:31:10

    REHMHow long during those 25 years were you there?

  • 11:31:16

    FREEMANI came to the United States in 1990 to go to college. So I was there...

  • 11:31:23

    REHMSeven years, and your parents?

  • 11:31:26

    FREEMANWell, my whole family is...

  • 11:31:27

    REHMYour whole family left?

  • 11:31:29

    FREEMANNo, no, no, they're all there.

  • 11:31:31

    REHMThey're all there.

  • 11:31:32

    FREEMANYeah, I just came to go to college here.

  • 11:31:34

    REHMAnd stayed?

  • 11:31:35

    FREEMANI got married.

  • 11:31:39

    REHMAnd stayed.

  • 11:31:39

    FREEMANAnd stayed, yeah.

  • 11:31:41

    REHMAnd your family remains there.

  • 11:31:43


  • 11:31:44

    REHMBut they remain throughout the war.

  • 11:31:48

    FREEMANYes. And, I mean, Sri Lanka has undergone a lot of different conflict because there was this conflict with the LTTE, which terrorized in the entire country, both Tamils and Muslims. I mean, the suicide bombs didn't just kill Singhalese people, they killed everybody. But it also had a tsunami that devastated most of the coast.

  • 11:32:12


  • 11:32:13

    FREEMANYeah. And it have the Indian Peacekeeping Force that invaded. It had an uprising from the youth and the left that was brutally put down by the right wing government at the time. There were disappearances. My brother -- one of my brothers who's a journalist now was one of those who disappeared and was found. So conflict has been a constant for a long time in Sri Lanka. And when you think about all that, it is quite remarkable that the government has been able to reconstruct and rebuild the country.

  • 11:32:54

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now. There are great many people who would like to speak with you. First let's go to San Antonio, TX. Good morning, Sam, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:15

    SAMGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:33:16


  • 11:33:19

    SAMHow are you?

  • 11:33:19

    REHMFine, thank you, sir, go right ahead please.

  • 11:33:23

    SAMI just want to let you know my background. I am a Sri Lankan-American and I came here 1986 for my higher education and I went back to Sri Lanka two years ago. I have seen a remarkable change in the country. And when you travel to most of the northern and eastern side of the country, you see mostly the Tamil children who come by busload to visit these ancient tourist sites. And I felt so sorry (unintelligible) because they were being suppressed for so long by their (word?).

  • 11:34:08

    SAMAnd today, they are being embraced, they have so much freedom anywhere in the country. That was very nice to see.

  • 11:34:20

    FREEMANIt's true what he says. When I went back -- I mean, I was there during the last period of the war and I went back after and there is a remarkable change. After the demining had taken place, there were 1.3 million mines, land mines, that had to be detonated or taken out, and so I went back to the north, which I hadn't visited since I was very small. I was a little girl the last time I went there and I couldn't go there after that.

  • 11:34:58

    FREEMANSo just as the caller says, the Tamil children are visiting some of the historical sites that are important for both Singhalese and the Tamils. There are a lot of Singhalese people and Tamil people who were not able to go to the north when I was visiting those areas. It is quite a nice thing to see. In fact, when I was there the last time, I met a man who said to me -- a Tamil man who said, isn't it nice that we can talk to each other?

  • 11:35:33

    FREEMANBecause earlier you would have been afraid of me and I would have been afraid of you. And we didn't speak each other's languages perfectly but we could communicate. But we would not have even tried before.

  • 11:35:46

    REHMYou would not have tried because they were the other or you feared what might come in return?

  • 11:36:00

    FREEMANWell, we would not have met because I would not have been in the north and he would not have come to the south. And I think one of the things that we often forget is that the people who are affected by war like this are the poorest. So the poorest Tamils who couldn't get out of the north, they were the ones who were really worst affected because it was their children who were recruited as child soldiers and their wives and daughters who went off to become suicide bombers.

  • 11:36:30

    FREEMANFor whatever reason, whether it was a cause they believed in or did not believe in, they didn't have the choice because they couldn't get out of the north.

  • 11:36:38

    REHMHow do you think the Western world did or did not pay attention?

  • 11:36:49

    FREEMANWell, it depends on where you're standing on that issue. We -- Sri Lankans had the opportunity to do what they did in 2009, which is fight the way until it ended. Many times in decades earlier in 1987 and before there were efforts to do the same thing, but then Western governments would say, no, no, no, you have to have peace talks and we would go into peace talks and then they would regroup and re-arm.

  • 11:37:18

    FREEMANAnd it was only after 9/11 actually that the United States, for instance, described the LTTE as one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world, and that cut the funding which then led to some possibilities for ending the war.

  • 11:37:34

    REHMRu Freeman, her novel "On Sal Mal Lane," Sal Mal, two words, S-A-L M-A-L. Short break.

  • 11:40:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. Writer Ru Freeman is with me. She's written a novel about life in a small town in Sri Lanka before the outbreak of civil war. And her novel is titled "On Sal Mal Lane." Here's an email from Shree (sp?) who says, "I'd like to ask Ms. Freeman how she managed to ignore discrimination in Sri Lanka before 1983." She says, "I know our family was definitely aware of the growing thunderclouds. There was a strong awareness and fear at the possibility of pogroms and other anti-Tamil violence. Similarly I think many white people were much less aware of discrimination in the U.S. in the pre-civil rights era."

  • 11:41:16

    FREEMANI don't think it's the question of ignoring the difficulties faced by Tamil people. The caller's absolutely right that the person who is in the majority, as I was, has a very different perspective of what is going on. So for instance, I remember very clearly being with a boyfriend at the time who was Tamil. And we were sitting in his car and he -- suddenly some lights went on behind us. You know, we were near the ocean.

  • 11:41:47

    FREEMANAnd I was kind of laughing saying, ha-ha, you know, what's the big deal -- he was very frightened and I said, what's the big deal, you know? It's -- we're not doing anything. And he took my hand and put it on his heart and it was pounding. And I realized then that those lights flashing on behind our car had a very different significance for him then it did for me, because he was Tamlin and because he was scared, whether he had done anything or not.

  • 11:42:14

    FREEMANAnd I didn't really experience that myself until I came to the U.S. and was one time stopped. A girl hit my car in Maine and the police came. And the policeman told me to get back in my car and not say anything. Meanwhile, he's talking very nicely to this girl. It was the first time since being in the United States that I had this clear sense that I wasn't the privileged, you know. I was -- he could do anything. He could -- this was during the Patriot Act and all of this stuff. I was not a citizen.

  • 11:42:49

    FREEMANSo I had this flashback thinking...

  • 11:42:53


  • 11:42:53

    FREEMANIsn't that interesting? That's how he must have felt.

  • 11:42:57

    REHMAnd she hit you.

  • 11:42:59

    FREEMANAnd she hit me and she...

  • 11:43:00

    REHMIn the rear.

  • 11:43:01

    FREEMANNo, on the side. I was crossing, she hits me.

  • 11:43:02

    REHMOn the side.

  • 11:43:03

    FREEMANAnd she was on her way to her driver's test. She's a young girl...

  • 11:43:08


  • 11:43:08

    FREEMAN...young blond girl and then here I am. And she's outside talking to him and he tells me to get back in my car and basically shut up. So, you know, it's true that the person who is having things done to them or perceive that things are being done to them have a very different perspective.

  • 11:43:29

    REHMOf course. Let's go to Woodbine, Md. Good morning, Kimber, you're on the air. Kimber, are you there? Oh, dear. Kimber. Kimber, are you there? All right, let's go to Ludwig in Lafayette, La. Good morning to you, sir.

  • 11:43:58

    LUDWIGGood morning, Diane. How are you?

  • 11:44:02

    REHMI'm fine, thank you, sir. Go right ahead.

  • 11:44:05

    LUDWIGWell, I'm calling. I understand that the author left Sri Lanka a long time ago but I'm calling as an American businessman who visited Sri Lanka from the early '90s until after 2000 and change. And I sort of take issue with the notion that the fighting terrorized the whole country. I mean, I used to visit Sri Lanka three, four times a year for several days each time. And yes, there were some checkpoints but basically the area -- I didn't go to the north, that's clear, but I stayed in the general Colombo area, went up to Kasmali (sp?) , went up to Nuwara Eliya. And the country was essentially at peace.

  • 11:45:13

    LUDWIGAnd so -- and of course there is the question of the perspective of whether the way in which the war was ended in terms of the army, you know, basically tanking and destroying the LTTE was the best solution. I mean, I was there during a time when there was a third party sort of negotiated cease fire. And there was clearly a great feeling of relief and happiness.

  • 11:45:58

    REHMAll right. All right. Let's let Ru offer her thoughts.

  • 11:46:04

    FREEMANSo I think that the perspective of someone who's visited Sri Lanka every now and again for three days is very different from the perspective of someone who lives there and feels the pulse of the country in a very visceral way, whether you are Tamil or Singhalese, and particularly if you raise children there, have people -- have to be in places where you may not go if you are aware that it might be a place that might have a bomb, for instance, we wouldn't go. The fort was often blocked off in the center of Colombo. Anyplace that's very crowded, you have this sense that oh, you know, that could be a suicide bomb.

  • 11:46:45

    FREEMANSo that is something you learn to live with and learn to -- you sort of struggle with when you live there constantly. So...

  • 11:46:55

    REHMAnd he said he did not venture into the north.

  • 11:47:00

    FREEMANYeah, but the fighting -- I mean, it's true that the LTTEs concentrated in the north. But the affect of what the LTTE was doing -- and I really use the air quotes around, you know, calling them a terrorist organization because I fully understand that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. But the terror that they were inflicting on the rest of the country and police stations, the attacks that were constant throughout -- I mean, it wasn't on a daily basis but it is frequent and unpredictable enough that it makes people very frightened.

  • 11:47:33

    REHMAll right. Can you talk about what caused the riots that came to be known as Black July.

  • 11:47:44

    FREEMANThe reason that people will mention is that there were soldiers killed in an attack on a convoy in the north. And their bodies were brought back to Colombo for a joint burial. And the way that that happened made people very angry. There are -- you know, so -- but there were lots of other little things that went on before those soldiers were killed, you know. It wasn't just those soldiers, who are named in this book, were the only catalyst. Things build up.

  • 11:48:21

    FREEMANI mean, when you think about, say for instance, hear all this anxiety and, you know, outcry about the ground zero mosque within (unintelligible) came from a lot of other things that had gone on before. So people might say, well it was this, but you really can't point to one little thing.

  • 11:48:39

    REHMQuite right.

  • 11:48:39

    FREEMANSo I think in any country you have to be aware of the incremental ways in which things build up until you get to a point where something like the riots happen. But oftentimes we aren't predisposed to looking at those smaller things.

  • 11:48:55

    REHMWhat happened on that day?

  • 11:48:58

    FREEMANSo on that day the soldiers' bodies were brought back to Colombo and they were at Raymond's, which is a funeral parlor in Colombo -- this center of Colombo. And people came to be aware that these bodies had been brought. And it was sort of a, you know, that many bodies in one place -- as I say in the book, you know, the narrator talks about well maybe if they were sent to their individual villages, maybe that would not have been the catalyst for those riots. But we can't tell. I mean, you're looking back from now and saying, we could've done things differently.

  • 11:49:39

    REHMSo as those riots occurred, what happened to the bodies of those soldiers?

  • 11:49:48

    FREEMANThey remained in the -- I mean, they remained in Colombo until -- and there were curfews so things didn't -- we couldn't really do anything about the burial ceremonies for them -- the cremation actually until the riots and curfew were lifted.

  • 11:50:05

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Sundar (sp?) in Ellicott City, Md. Good morning to you. You're on the air. Sundar, are you there?

  • 11:50:17

    SUNDARYes, I'm right here, Diane. Thank you, thank you. Yeah, I would like to find out a few inaccuracies in the statement by Ru. One is, she made a statement that India invaded Sri Lanka. That is a ghastly inaccurate statement. India sent peace-keeping forces under an agreement between Sri Lankan government and Indian government. And she made another statement that Western countries including America didn't do anything about the terrorism until 9/11 happened.

  • 11:51:04

    SUNDAROn the contrary, America (word?) LTTE in late 1990s when Bill Clinton was in power. And a third statement, you know, to which I have an issue is the British government favored Tamils and they set up the National University in Jasmine. What is the historical background to this is in 1816 an American missionary from Massachusetts, you know, went to the Tamil northern Jasmine city. And then, you know, he set up a missionary there and he taught English to the people over there.

  • 11:51:58

    REHMAll right, sir. Thank you for calling.

  • 11:52:01

    FREEMANSo he's right about the proscription. That was a mistake on my part in using the word proscription. But after 9/11 it was only after 9/11 that the assets of the LTTE or any organization supporting the LTTE were frozen in the United States along with all the others, you know, organizations -- terrorist organizations around the world.

  • 11:52:23

    FREEMANAs far as the Indian peacekeeping force is concerned, that is the term I used, the Indian peacekeeping force, but it was an agreement forced upon the Sri Lankan government because we were about to -- the government was about to do what they did in 2009 -- in May of 2009 to fight the LTTE to the bitter end. And the Indians intervened and said, you can't do that. And so that was an agreement that was -- you know, you can call it an agreement but Sri Lanka's a very small island compared to India.

  • 11:52:55

    FREEMANAnd the University in Jaffna, actually it's another -- you know, the person who was advocating for the situation of the University of Jaffna was (word?) which then the University was relocated to a more central location in the island. And one of the halls was actually named after him. So...

  • 11:53:19

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How did the war actually affect your family?

  • 11:53:31

    FREEMANSo there were -- like I said, before, there were many conflicts that were going on. In my parents' case, my father received many death threats during the other uprising that was going on. My brother also ended up coming to the United States because my parents, my mother in particular was fearful that he would become one of the disappeared forever.

  • 11:53:57

    REHMDidn't one of your brothers go to jail for a time?

  • 11:54:01

    FREEMANThat is the -- yeah, that is the one.

  • 11:54:03

    REHMSame brother.

  • 11:54:04

    FREEMANYes. And...

  • 11:54:05

    REHMWhy did they arrest him?

  • 11:54:07

    FREEMANHe was meeting with some others trying to form a new political party and so they were taken into custody. And my mother -- I think it is one of those things, a maternal instinct. She just went looking for him. She had this sense that something was wrong and she went driving around looking for him and heard from somebody that a bunch of people had been taken away. And she found them. And because of the -- you know, my parents weren't wealthy but they had a lot of social capital I guess, you know, people -- they were educators and people looked up to them.

  • 11:54:40

    FREEMANAnd so there were -- a lot of the human rights lawyers in Sri Lanka offered to appear for my brother and the other 15. So that's how he ended up being released. But that happened on a visit back to Sri Lanka between college here and graduate school here.

  • 11:54:56

    REHMBetween college and graduate school.

  • 11:54:57

    FREEMANYes, yes.

  • 11:55:00

    REHMAnd now he's back here in this country.

  • 11:55:02

    FREEMANNo, he's back in Sri Lanka. He's leader of the nation there in Sri Lanka.

  • 11:55:09

    REHMSo you really have seen it go full circle because you went back after the war.

  • 11:55:20

    FREEMANYes. I mean, I went back all the time so I left the country to go to college but I have gone back and lived in Sri Lanka for several years as well. I did my masters there. You know, my whole family's there so I keep going back. I live here because that is a choice that I made through marriage, but I also live there.

  • 11:55:43

    REHMAnd your book came out in Canada on the day the war ended four years ago. How do you see the attitudes in the expat community differ from those that you see at home?

  • 11:56:04

    FREEMANThe thing that is distinctive about the expat communities, that they can choose not to engage with the other side. In Toronto, which I visited against lots of people's advice -- and I did that because I believed that personal engagement and conversation is important -- they are very separated. You know, they live very separated lives. The Tamil community is their own community. The Singhalese community is theirs and there's a lot of suspicion there.

  • 11:56:35

    FREEMANIn Sri Lanka, people who live in Sri Lanka can't do that because we all live together. We go to school together. We shop at each other's -- you know, we marry each other. It's very interconnected. You can't say I don't -- you know, you may suspect people, you may have all kinds of fears but you still have to engage with each other. So that's the big difference. And I empathize with the expat community because when you committed 25 years of your life to living as someone who fled a war, it is very difficult for you to say peace is here.

  • 11:57:12

    REHMQuite a final statement, Ru Freeman. Your book "On Sal Mal Lane." Thank you for being here.

  • 11:57:23

    FREEMANIt's been great.

  • 11:57:24

    REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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