The civil wars

Victories in civil wars are usually pyrrhic and there exists no ‘good’ side.

Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island on Sri Lanka’s recently concluded civil war portrays several people in the aftermath of the war and describes how their lives have been irreparably affected by this war. As Sarah Farooqui in her review of the book states, “In a country divided between majoritarianism, ruthless bigotry, savage revolutionaries, and fundamentalists of ideology, religion and causes, the violence and its consequences are brutal and condemned. However, who is right and who is wrong is never defined”. The most poignant stories are of those that have been caught between the two sides in the war – those that have been persecuted by the Sinhalese on account of being Tamils, and those persecuted by the LTTE on account of being the “Sinhalese sympathisers”.


Another book that needs to be mentioned in this context is Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga. This book is ostensibly about the historical rivalry between the two great Spanish football clubs – Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, but has more than its share of description of Spain’s history through the 20th century, and how that has shaped the rivalry between the two football clubs. Lowe, who is the Guardian’s Spanish football correspondent based in Madrid, begins his story with the Spanish Civil War (there was no rivalry between the clubs prior to that), and with Barcelona’s long-standing claim that Real Madrid was “Franco’s team”. Lowe uses the book to demolish the claim that Madrid sided with Franco during the civil war, showing that Madrid was the last Spanish city to fall to Franco’s nationalist forces (a few weeks after Barcelona, and the fall of Madrid ended the war), and that Real Madrid’s president at the time was actually a Republican (a supporter of the incumbent government, which was part of Spain’s “second republic”) who was sentenced to life imprisonment after the war.

While the Spanish Civil War was fought between the Republican government and the Nationalist troops led by Franco, it must be noted that the Republican government was a leftist coalition, which included Socialists and Communist parties, and the Republican side in the war received extensive assistance from Soviet Russia. On the other side, the Nationalists received extensive support from Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Interestingly, after the war, Franco even changed Spain’s time zone to match that of Germany and Italy, as a tacit acknowledgement of their support during the war.

One of the interesting early events mentioned in the book was the “auto-incautación” or “self-collectivisation” by Barcelona and Real Madrid. The CNT-FAI, the anarchist trade union approached FC Barcelona and demanded that the stadium be handed over “in the name of the revolution and the fight against fascism”. The ultras had already managed to take over other clubs such as Espanyol (also based in Barcelona) and collectivised them.What saved the club was quick thinking by the stadium caretaker Manel Torres and masseur Angel Mur. They bought time from the militia and as Lowe describes it, “Sixteen employees formed a workers’ committee affiliated to the Socialist union UGT, which included Torres, Calvet and Mur, the caretaker at the stadium and at the club’s offices, the accountant, office staff and the kit man. The committee then announced confiscation of the club by the UGT, i.e. themselves, thus effectively short-circuiting the CNT-FAI”. The story at Real Madrid was not dissimilar.

The Republican anarchists did not stop there. Being of a Communist persuasion and thus anti-religion, they proceeded to burn down several churches in Barcelona, which included the grand Basilica Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, which was then (and now) a work in progress, and an architectural marvel. The church itself survived the burning. However, lost in the arson were several important documents and drawings of the church, which set back further construction of the Basilica by decades.

These anecdotes are significant (outside of introducing the splendid concept of self-collectivisation) because most historical accounts of most civil wars are described as having a “good side” and a “bad side”. Thanks to the efforts of individuals such as Pablo Picasso and George Orwell among others, the Spanish Civil War is often portrayed as a conflict between the ‘good’ (the socialist Republic) and the ‘bad’ (the Nationalist forces) – with the malicious Nationalists bombing the poor Republican people. The truth, however, is not so simple. Looking at other, more objective accounts, including Lowe’s, it turns out that it was a war fought between two evil sides (though it’s not clear if the sides were equally evil) – the Nationalists on one side and the Communists on the other, with the people of Spain being the real victims.

This fact applies to other civil wars, as well. A lot of the recent commentary on the Sri Lankan Civil War for example, has described the Sri Lankan military as ‘bad’ and the Tamils as ‘good’. Subramanian’s This Divided Island, however, portrays that neither side was ‘good’ – both had their own share of atrocities, and it is hard to pick a side to hand over the “fair play award”. It is also hard to pick a ‘winner’ in the war. While the Tamils were eventually defeated and their leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran killed, there were significant casualties on the part of the Sri Lankan army as well. Most importantly, the social fabric of Sri Lanka got destroyed because of this war, and to such an extent that it is unlikely for a Sinhalese and a Sri Lankan Tamil to ever trust the other again.

Most popular descriptions of the Bosnian Civil War, depict the Muslim Bosniaks as the ‘good’ side, being crushed by the ‘evil’ Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. The “Sarajevo Roses”, have drawn attention to the shelling of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs. While it is not part of the popular narrative, it has been well documented that there were significant human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Muslim Bosniaks as well. The case the Civil War in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) also illustrates the point made above. Even the narratives of this war are not one-sided. It has been well documented that both the government forces and the opposition RUF committed significant atrocities on the people of Sierra Leone, and both sides used child soldiers in their militia.

More recently, much has been made of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government about the rebels in the ongoing Civil War. In the initial days of the war, most narratives portrayed the rebels as the “good side” in the war, even though it was known that al Qaeda backed them. It was only with the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) that reportage has become balanced. Needless to say, it has been well documented that the Syrian rebels too committed their share of brutal atrocities.

Every conflict is preceded by a sequence of events that result in building up of opposing positions, which are simply waiting for a spark to be lit.  Every conflict has a side that lights the spark. However, this does not imply that the side that instigates the war, or the one that eventually ‘wins’ the war is the ‘diabolic’ side and the opposing is the only victim. Victories in civil wars are usually pyrrhic. There exists no ‘good’ side in a civil war.

Photo: Ms.Glaze