Sri Lanka, 2009: Reflections on Eastern Muslim Survival at the Close of the War
May 2009 marked the end of nearly thirty years of civil war in Sri Lanka. The conflict, waged between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, centered primarily on the Tigers’ claim to an independent Tamil state, Eelam, in the north and east of the island.
The discontents that grounded the Tigers’ militant separatism were rooted in language laws. In 1956, eight years after independence, Sri Lanka passed the Sinhala Only Act. The law replaced English as the national language with Sinhala. It refused—despite opposition—to extend similar recognition to Tamil. With Sinhalese people comprising approximately 70 percent of the national population at the time, the Act reflected majoritarian rule. Notwithstanding Sinhalese discontent with British colonialism, the “one man, one vote” principle central to the new country’s practice of democracy flowed from colonial organization of the island along communal lines.
The Act’s linguistic marginalization of the country’s minority Tamil-speakers thus paved the way for their economic, political, and cultural oppression. Cut off from education, employment, and meaningful political representation, militant Tamil separatist groups began forming in the island’s north and east. Eventually, the Tigers emerged, in part through their austere suppression of dissent, as the lone separatist force.
Meanwhile, anti-Tamil violence was steadily increasing across the island. Pre-war violence culminated with Colombo’s anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, prompting the resultant 26 years of intermittent insurgency by the Tigers against the Sri Lankan state.
Threading through this narrative of a battle between two languages were the impinging complexities of region and religion, blurring the bloody new borders being etched into the island. With ethnonationalism both the war’s cause and its consequence, a homogenizing loyalty became the desperate currency of the day. Across diverse frontlines, internal difference was attacked as liability and as weakness.
Thus, in the central highlands, when Tamil tea estate workers were disenfranchised in 1948 by the Sri Lankan government and over 300,000 of them deported over the following three decades “back” to India (they were partly descended from Tamil workers sent from South India to Sri Lanka as early as the 1800s), they received little organized support from Tamils elsewhere in the country. Perforce this community turned to their own forms of trade union politics; their claim to a Tamilness rooted in the island remains contested.
In the north, in the effort to secure Eelam’s authenticity as a Tamil homeland, the Tigers forcibly evicted all Tamil-speaking Muslims from Jaffna in 1990, sparking rifts between the region’s Tamil (primarily Hindu and Christian) and Muslim communities. The move alienated Muslim members of the Tigers, prompting defections and subsequent assassinations. The once intertwined vectors of language, culture, and religion were beginning to unravel across the country’s coastline.
In the east, the turn of the millennium was marked by mass killings of Muslims, who collectively played a bit part in the conflict, by both government and Tiger forces. Chief among these was the 1990 Kattankudy Mosque Massacre, when Tiger cadres opened fire on four mosques at prayer, killing nearly 150 congregants in a single evening. Meanwhile the Sri Lankan government, in collaboration with the Indian Peace Keeping Force, was involved in its own civilian murders. Muslims here learned to trust no news reports, relying instead on tightly knit networks of interpersonal communication to piece together which attack had occurred where and by whom, knowing all the while that the puny answers they gathered would perhaps provide no truth, let alone closure.
So in the midst of the war’s larger border-marking goals, these interstitial spaces were their own obscure quagmires of a confused, embittered mourning.
The war’s end in 2009 was catastrophic, producing a death count that still staggers the imagination.
The peace that has since broken out has been prickly at best. Disappearances and killings of Tamil dissidents remain a fixture of the country’s political landscape. In the new era of Sinhalese chauvinism, and in lockstep with the latest War-on-Terror fashions, post-war anti-Muslim violence has been on the rise, including anti-Muslim riots in the south in July 2014.
Sri Lanka faces parliamentary elections on August 17, with ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the bloodbath of the war’s end, seeking re-election as Prime Minister. In looking for a future politic that is bigger and deeper than elections, I turn to my notes, below, from my time spent in a small Muslim town on the east coast that dark summer of 2009. The hope is that the uncomfortable and messy sting of the very near past can help light the way to a less fearful, more flexible present.
It is April when I arrive. By then the government is six months into a military offensive on the Tigers. There are already thousands dead, their bodies scattered over the island’s north and east. Allegations of human rights abuses run rampant, while the government stridently prohibits all independent scrutiny, domestic or international, of the war's bloodiest zones.
In Toronto, protests against the war had become a daily occurrence. In Sri Lanka, responses to the fighting were as varied as the people, differing along lines of language, class, and region.
I spend the latter half of my stay on the island in a seaside town in Ampara. After a four year absence from the country, this town is as far east as I am now allowed to go. As a result of decades of war and government curfews, this is farther east than many of the people I meet on that trip, including relatives elsewhere in the country, had ever been. This is the village where my father was born, a largely Muslim town that subsists on farming and fishing. I spend these weeks listening to family and family-friends talk about living through the war, the violence suffered, witnessed, and accumulated.
I leave with a heightened sense of time's sedimentation. It presses down on me—slows my breath—this realization that histories of family and war layer themselves onto one another. The weight of each story compresses the next, becoming the bedrock that founds, invisibly, the present's obscure workings.
The question of survival is implicitly woven into the deaths recounted around kitchen fires, under starlit nights, by ocean graveyards, alongside the gutted remains of torched commuter buses. Its answer is most explicitly manifested in the refusal of these townspeople to leave, even as the war's detritus litters their everyday
They made him promise to go straight home to his mother, to stay with her. Don't leave her, she needs you, she can't lose you too. He was seventeen, her youngest child. He promised. Then he went to the police station, where he lodged a report that his two brothers were missing.
He never comes home.
Bodies. Tendons wrapping tight around muscle. The lock of bones clicking into place. This proof we carry, blood and flesh contained in skin and sweat, of our existence: what we offer in life as our justification for being, what we offer in death as mementos to our loved ones. We take up space and for a while feel the touch of things on us. Dying should make that irrelevant: we take up space and then that space rots away.
But it's the lives that continue behind after us that are stubborn in their stupid grief, demanding touch, demanding proof, demanding something to hold onto one more time. For what? This is what a person looks like in life, and what a person looks like in death. This is how we shift from the present tense to the past. This is how cold a body can become, how unresponsive. This is some before-and-after that the bereaved conduct, a point-for-point matching up of loss. And a corpse is something to hold onto. The bodies of the dead are kind, allowing us the opportunity to imprint memories one last time on our own skins, to carry the touch of him in our fingertips.
And so: a delicate groove at the back of his neck, softness behind his ears, the toughened soles of his feet, and the grids of wrinkles over his knuckles. The thrust of fragile bone at his wrist, the swells at the backs of his knees, the length of his fingers. Toes and tongue, eyes separated by a nose. Lips over teeth. Mundane things, everyday things, transformed suddenly into a luxury denied the people who didn't disappear, the women who stayed at home and survived.
"She was beautiful. There was no woman more beautiful." It is night, and like every night for two weeks, I am seated on a garden chair in someone's front yard, the plastic legs digging into the sand of the courtyard. The day has been long, I've had dinner, and now is the time for me to listen to their stories. Every night like this for two weeks straight. My cousin tips back in her chair and taps on the wall of her cream-colored garage. "She was fairer than this."
She was nineteen. In the note they read after she overdosed, she'd written that she couldn't go on like that, without her three brothers.
They were a family of four. Pleasingly symmetrical: one father, one mother, one son, one baby daughter. Some twenty five years ago the father was accosted by a starving LTTE cadre in the paddy fields on the outskirts of the town. Moved, so the story goes, by some combination of fear and pity, the father gave this man his lunch, and the next day was executed by the Indian Peace Keeping Force while at work in those paddy fields on the outskirts of the town.
Two years ago, the son's body was returned to his mother in pieces, extracted from a truck containing the pieces of four others. It was Ramadan. They had left the night before to do construction work on the roads on the outskirts of town.
There is no end to this mourning.
Then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa declares Sri Lanka's civil war officially over three weeks after my return to Toronto. There had been beaches of dead, whole waterfronts obscured with corpses, a wailing that weaves into the ocean squall.
A year later, at Toronto's annual Tamil Studies Conference I attend a lecture on Sri Lankan constitutionalism. One presenter speaks of a "Muslim mass" he alleges had unanimously supported the Sinhala Only Act. And I think of my relatives who speak nothing but Tamil, that kind of Tamil that Tamil people in Colombo envy.
When A.R.M. Imtiyaz continues, "Muslims in the East hate Tamils," I feel something push its way up my throat, something that feels like anger but tastes like grief.
With the dead crowding in on us, it was in that eastern province village I had found hope, a reaffirmation of a people’s capacity, in the midst of tremendous pain, for both love and nuance—those things that are the first casualties in the arguments that swarm thick around conflicts like these. I had been suspended there in a people's politic greater than the promises of any nation-state, a lesson extracted in blood that flags provide small protection.
In that place, family trees weave in killings by government soldiers on the one hand and rebel cadres on the other. At this lecture, as had happened elsewhere on the island, what was being dismissed as an impracticable, disloyal, frivolous nuance, was in that eastern Muslim town a very prosaic grace.
At home, on my family’s urging, I flip open my laptop and go through the hundreds of pictures I took on the island. I pause over some faces and my father's eyes grow dark as I go through the stories. I watch his face, how it grows distant and how his shoulders seem to shrink into themselves as I talk. It is my maternal aunt's husband, who has never been to the island’s east coast, who says, his eyes wide, “You need to write this down."
My father is silent that day.
Sometimes my father forgets, and he speaks to me in Tamil. I used to think Diaspora was some disease, a self-conscious preciousness—a fetishization of migration—that happened to other people. In my family, we never talked about my parents' childhood homes in those terms. The strangeness of our motions were our everyday, too real and too matter-of-fact to brook poetry. But as people start dying, the past surfaces in the present with unexpected force. The globe can crumple up in the strangest ways.
Fathima Cader is a public interest lawyer. Her poetry and articles have appeared in Apogee Journal and the Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, among others. She has previously taught at the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor. She tweets at @ficader.