All That Remains: Postwar Materialities in Northern Sri Lanka
04 January 2021
Everyday life in northern Sri Lanka remains steeped in the visual-material debris of war. Where justice and redress remain an unmet necessity, these fragments offer a glimpse into the faultlines that unsettle the island’s brittle and burdened peace.
Those living in the midst of the rubble insist that the war endures by other means. Only it is perhaps quieter and more sinister in the systematic re-inscription of the topography and the sustained persecution of those who dared to survive. Over a decade has passed since the brutal conclusion of the conflict between the Sri Lankan state forces and the Tamil militancy. Vestiges of the three-decade-long armed struggle for an independent Tamil homeland have been all but razed. The cosmetic bombast of loan-bolstered, militarised ‘development’ exalted as the ‘Northern Spring’ and ‘Eastern Awakening’ sits over the wreckage of the extant and aspirant states’ violences. The island’s ‘peace’ belongs to its perpetrators.
‘Even the trees are new,’ Jude, a long-time interlocutor, observed. His entire life, all forty something years spent in the northern peninsula of Jaffna, had been charted by the war. He pointed to the lush green crests of young palmyra trees budding from grassy thickets populated with the blackened stubs of old shell-shorn trees, the husks of abandoned houses, and periwinkle crown flower shrubs.
‘If there is such a thing as peace, we are yet to see it. We are yet to feel it.’
Northern Sri Lanka’s landscape is seared with markers of triumph and occupation built over hasty erasures as it is re-cast in the language and aesthetic of the victorious state. New roads and new histories are declared in the sovereign’s tongue. However, big and small acts of resistance have begun to take shape too – in remembering, in reclaiming, in resilience, and in moving forward.
The effects of war existed in an unexpected iconography embedded into its aftermath. The visual-material miscellanies of humanitarian aid and development assistance signalled both solidarities and failures in tangible proclamations of first world generosities vis-à-vis the incapacities and neglect of the state.
The emblems of international organisations were visibly laced into the banal in an unlikely evocation of a dated imagining of globalisation; painted in big white letters onto the tin and tile roof of small concrete block homes as erstwhile deterrent to aerial attacks and graphic indicators of money well spent, printed onto road signs, water tanks, school bags, water bottles, umbrellas, and woven into rattan mats, strewn through the belongings of those rebuilding their lives after war.
The postwar years have been defined by civilian resistance centred on demands for truth and justice, and citizenship grievances bound to militarization and landgrabs. Notable among these were the protests of the Tamil families of the disappeared. Enforced disappearances have served as a heavy-handed instrument of state terror since the early 1970s. The war years saw a surge in arbitrary arrests and abductions of ‘suspects’ and ‘subversives’ resulting in the disappearance of thousands of Tamils including those who surrendered to the military at the end of the war in 2009. Beginning in February 2017, their families have engaged in over 1400 days of continuous protest to-date, asking to know the whereabouts of their loved ones. Where their demand for answers have been dismissed by the state or performatively recorded by way of hollow bureaucratic processes of census and testimony, sustained marches appealed to and called out the failures of international mechanisms for accountability. Hand-drawn cardboard signs in both Tamil and English and printed flex banners wielded by demonstrators are interspersed most powerfully with portraits of the disappeared. Copies of identity documents held up in protest asserted the state’s own proofs of life to evidence its crimes. The protesters persevered as a determined, embodied, mobile memorial to the abruptly shortened lives of their loved ones.
For several years after the war ended, communal mourning of the Tamil war dead was prohibited by the state. The politicisation of death and sacrifice in the service of nation and the interlinked visual cultures of remembrance consolidated by decades of ethno-nationalist conflict threaded through households, shops and public spaces in northern Sri Lanka. Commemoration continued in secret or publicly under heavy surveillance and intimidation, as communities grappled with the afflictions of the postwar. The 18th of May marks the anniversary of one of the most devastating massacres of Tamil civilians that took place in the final days of war at Mullivaikkal. The site, a bare sandy turf, is still riddled with the belongings of those who succumbed to the atrocities of the state; clothing, cooking utensils, family albums, radios, school bags half-buried in the soil now permanently composed of sand and violence. In spite of the overwhelming volume of credible evidence – visual, testimonial, forensic and cartographic – the Sri Lankan government continues to deny the lives lost claiming a ‘humanitarian operation’ that resulted in ‘zero civilian casualties’. The hundreds of defiant mourners who have gathered at the site each year suggested otherwise.
Iranaitheevu, an island located in the gulf of Mannar, is home to five little churches. In 1992, following intense fighting between the Sri Lankan Navy and the Sea Tigers, the resident Tamil fishing community were forced to flee to Iranaimathanagar, remaining displaced for over two decades. In April 2018, in an extraordinary act of bravery, a women-led group of Iranaitheevu residents reclaimed their homes. Although the island itself was not touched by the fighting, the Sri Lankan Navy had continued their occupation of the island by building and settling in a camp on civilian land. Community members led by the Women’s Development Society organized in secret, piled into motor boats affixed with white flags and sailed to the island following a series of protests that were ignored by the government.
The church of Iranaimatha became a refuge to those resettling into their long-abandoned homes despite various scarcities and hardships. Mariyaseeli, one of the women who led the return, affirmed, ‘We have waited 26 years for this, and even though rebuilding is difficult and we have nothing, we will not be discouraged. We are here to stay, and Iranaimatha (Mother of Iranai, the island’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary) has kept our home safe for us.’ The remnants of the postwar are not without occasional, but irrepressible hope.
Vindhya Buthpitiya is a post-doctoral research fellow in Anthropology at University College London working at the intersection of conflict and visual culture in northern Sri Lanka. Her current research focused on war, popular photography, and civilian resistance among the Tamil community is part of Photodemos | Citizens of Photography – The Camera and the Political Imagination supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Vindhya tweets @vindib_ .