Invictus: My head is bloody but unbowed

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Lasantha Wickrematunge's widow and fellow editor Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge pays tribute to her husband on his second death anniversary
Saturday, January 8th, 2011

By Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge

lasantha

Lasantha

When I was 16 years old my father was to bring home a book from his travels to a beautiful little village called Caux inSwitzerland. The title startled us. It read gravely, How to be Your Own Selfish Pig…. And Other Ways You’ve Been Brainwashed by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.

 

Macaulay was the daughter of the great Christian Thinker, Francis Schaeffer. Within the pages of this excellent book were examples of people she had known through her work and the crises of faith they experienced when life got difficult. It was a reminder to us to think about what we believe in and why.
My Dad bought the book from a store, from whence came many such books that adorned our family library. The bookstore was run by the Moral Re-Armament Movement (MRA) – which would come to be one of the most influential movements in my life. The MRA now called the Initiatives of Change (IofC) had its conference centre in Caux.
Interspersed within the pages of Macauley’s book were quotes in bold writing by famous people. Two branded themselves forever in my memory and would later become my inspiration in life and work. One defiantly and cleverly read, ‘So I’m a Jesus Freak. Whose freak are you?’ and the other was a quote by German Theologian Martin Niemoller,

 

“First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

These words so haunted me in my teen years that I would use it constantly in school essays, in my final exam for my journalism diploma, in articles I wrote to magazines in those days and in personal statements to foreign universities.
Well over a decade later when I joined The Sunday Leader in 1998, and as Lasantha and I embarked on a partnership as colleagues and investigative journalists and many years later as partners in life, those words would serve as our mantra.
And now as I look back to December 2008 I remember the happiness, the laughter, the boldness, the abundance and the fullness with which Lasantha lived his life. It was not a life to be regretted or mourned, it was a life to be celebrated.
Indeed when one Indian diplomat who had heard of our wedding reception on December 27, 2008 texted Lasantha days before his death on 8 January 2009, congratulating him and stating ‘we must celebrate,’ Lasantha texted back jauntily, ‘Life is a celebration.’
As for me it has been an arduous personal journey of on going healing. But as with his life there will be lessons to be learned in his death.
Looking back two years, there is a newfound discernment, realisation and understanding that only comes with distance. For instance why some people acted the way they did after Lasantha’s death. Why many of his numerous ‘friends’ were suddenly scarce and why those he had hardly met or had been estranged from him in life had suddenly become all too visible.
As the world descended upon our newspaper office, many scrambled and even clawed to the cameras eager to get their 15 minutes of fame, anxious to be perceived whether true or not as a part of the life and work of Lasantha Wickrematunge. I recoiled like a salted snail.
In the glare of a spotlight I had week after week turned on others as an editor in chief and investigative journalist, I refused in my intense grief to perform for the cameras. Perhaps a conservative Anglican private school up bringing had ensured that I wouldn’t make a spectacle of my emotions in public. Wailing uncontrollably like a hired mourner — even though I suppose that may have been expected of me in the South Asian concept, was not possible. Numbed with shock and speechless with grief it came more naturally to me to seem poised and dignified for the few cameras I allowed in my home.
In The Sunday Leader, week after week I wrote stories and columns, sometimes 10,000 words per week. Investigated graft in government, travelled to war ravaged zones, met numerous sources in secret, researched and read, checked and rechecked facts and made sure I never made claims personal or otherwise I could not prove. Never before had I been more grateful for my decade of experience as a lawyer. I would wake up at 5 am if not earlier to be in office by 6 am and left work well past midnight on deadline days so that we could do what we set out to do — change the world.
That Thursday morning as Lasantha lay battling for his life, only his team of doctors were allowed at his side. My sister Ruveni and her husband, both doctors were with me. Her husband Asoka Gogerly Moragoda was with the rest of the medical team inside the operating theatre. I was just outside the door of the theatre with my sister who remained to comfort me together with three of my very close friends.
A little later I directed the rest of the Sunday Leader staff who were sitting outside, back to their desks as at the back of my mind nagged Lasantha’s voice as it always did – ‘but what about the newspaper – whatever happens it must come out on Sunday.’ After all it was this passion towards The Newspaper that had now put him in hospital. While some told me it was impossible to do, I was determined not to let Lasantha down by caving in to this terror meted out to us.
I was the Chief Editor of The Morning Leader but had always been on duty as the Acting Chief Editor of The Sunday Leader whenever Lasantha was out or felt he needed a break.
I was therefore never more aware of my burden than I was then, as I sat in the hospital corridor praying for his life. Later as people streamed in their hundreds to pay their last respects and as Lasantha’s body lay in my home, I was compelled to be at my computer in my office room at home, editing articles and looking through copy to make sure the paper came out that Sunday. Many who came home to offer their condolences had to be told I was upstairs getting the paper ready for Sunday. It was one of the hardest but strangely most fulfilling things I have ever done in my life. I felt undefeated, as if whatever the odds we would go on and we would fight through.
The day after the funeral the next Monday – January 12, I was back at work, a huge emptiness gnawing inside me yet knowing the paper had to go on. I was determined to bring out the Midweek paper as usual, and prepared for an explosive Sunday Leader including a political column for the Sunday following his funeral. Yet while I did this for several weeks after Lasantha’s death, by February I knew I could go no further in journalism until I had healed my soul after being so personally, emotionally and viscerally pummelled and so numbed with shock.
But what inspired me to this frenzied journalistic life that had no room for anything but reportage? Apart from my own beliefs and moral compass it was also partly one man — Lasantha Wickrematunge. Whether you agreed with his brand of journalism or not he was a force to be reckoned with. A never say die soul who was a tsunami in his work.
This explains why for a journalist who had already survived many physical attacks, his death came unexpectedly and as a shock. He was never still. He shimmied with energy and he always beat the odds. Through the years, he survived attack after attack, and jauntily told me he was in control. I had come to accept blindly the words of assurance he always spoke with an easy confidence.
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control’, he told me just a little before trained assassins surrounded his car and bludgeoned him into unconsciousness. As usual, I believed him.
The questions that surround his violent death will have to be finally answered by those who survive him. The nuanced life that Lasantha led, his relationship with the present political administration, his fretful connection with President Rajapakse and the people that surrounded him, the issues of human rights, freedom of speech and the future of Sri Lanka post LTTE and why a society failed to prevent the massacre of thousands of civilians and dozens of journalists and turned instead into a bloodthirsty cheering mob will be examined and grappled with by analysts and think tanks in the years to come.
It is nearly 20 months since President Rajapakse declared the civil war ended. And yet for many the battle has just begun. Resettlement of refugees has been slow and painful. A Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission with a mandate drafted to carefully avoid inquiry into alleged war crimes or to investigate into rights violations, has commenced. Many have no faith in such homegrown commissions that have proved ineffective in the past and are notoriously partisan towards the government that appoints them.
Be that as it well may, one thing is clear. As peace descends upon Sri Lanka with the demise of the LTTE and our country can once more look to a prosperous future, it is not on our bloody past that we must dwell. Rather we must draw on that inner strength we know we have. Our compassion for each other, our tolerance for diverse opinion, our embrace of our multicultural and multi ethnic society and our respect for human rights.
Through great tragedy and hardship, through the blood of soldiers and civilians and journalists, through the tears of mothers, widows and orphans, a unique opportunity has presented itself for the people of our country. An opportunity to abandon distasteful triumphalism and exploitation of the weak: and look instead for sincere reconciliation and empathy in victory. An opportunity to become a country once more with a thriving democracy — a trusted elections commission, an independent and respected justice system, a sophisticated society, an educated populace — a place of magnificent emerald jungles and pristine coastlines — it is in this new year a time not to look to past hurts but a time for our nation to return to itself.
As we think of Lasantha and others who have passed before us in this new year I’d like to end with a short Victorian poem by William Henley that I learned on my mothers’ knee and that even now hangs on the wall above my work table. Despite the best efforts of many (and you know who you are) we shall in life or death remain undefeated.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.