In My Mother's House
Civil War in Sri Lanka
Sharika Thiranagama. Foreword by Gananath Obeyesekere
2011 | 320 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $26.50
Anthropology | Biography
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Table of Contents
Note on Transliteration
Foreword by Gananath Obeyesekere
1. Growing Up at War: Self Formation, Individuality, and the LTTE
2. The House of Secrets: Mothers, Daughters, and Inheritance
3. From Muslims to Northern Muslims: Ethnicity, Eviction, and Displacement
4. Becoming of This Place? Northern Muslim Futures After Eviction
5. The Generation of Militancy: Generation, Gender, and Self-Transformation
6. Conclusions from Tamil Colombo
List of Abbreviations
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Introduction: In My Mother's House
On 21 September 1989, my sister and I waited for our mother to come home from work to the temporary house we were renting at the time. We were living in the northern Jaffna peninsula, by then, already a war zone. We were half minority Tamil (my mother), half majority Sinhalese (my father), but brought up speaking Tamil. The years when our Sinhalese father lived in Jaffna with us, as opposed to our once or twice yearly trip to Colombo to see him, or when my Sinhalese grandmother and uncles would travel up to Jaffna to visit or to go on pilgrimage were becoming dim memories in our almost exclusively Tamil and Muslim world. For us, our world was Tamil-speaking Jaffna.
Without being quite conscious of it, we were becoming witness to immense changes. We had already become accustomed to running into bunkers when the Sri Lankan army bombed us in 1986, were used to the idea that there were places and people we should be careful of, were cognizant that there was one really big militant group called the "Tigers," and had some dim idea of other militant groups. We had seen the Indian army arrive, heard rumors of the rapes that accompanied their arrival, seen the disordering of our world as the Indians and the Tigers fought it out. I recall in art class at school, being asked to draw pictures of beaches with coconut trees, and farmers tending their fields with cows, images that no longer described our world. At home, I drew instead pictures of being in bunkers surrounded by my family with speech bubbles of the funny things that people said while helicopters hovered. My mother mounted that picture in her office at the university. I recall having an intensely happy childhood in the midst of this war.
My mother never came back home that 21 September; her journey was ended by LTTE assassins in front of the house. Her body returned like us to "our home," my ur, my grandparents' house and village where she and we had been born and had lived for most of our lives. This house is still standing in 2011, though scarred like all of us by war. My childhood ended. My sister and I left Sri Lanka for London with our father who came to get us, flying on 25 December 1989. On 26 December our new lives as refugees in London began.
This is how my journey back to Sri Lanka to conduct my research began, but it did not end there. This book is not about myself and my personal journey, but instead the stories of others, and the society to which I returned a stranger over a decade later. A society which presented in its strangeness to me, new questions about what had happened and was happening. I experienced the very real sensation that I, like many others abroad, lived in memories inadequate to the task of comprehending what had happened in Sri Lanka in the 1990s. The title of this book is of course a reference to Kwame Anthony Appiah's (1992) essay "In My Father's House," which recounts his return to Ghana for his father's funeral and the fraught family and community disputes that unfolded around the requests of the dead man. Lurking behind is the Bible, which he and I too were brought up with, and one of its most quoted statements: "in my father's house there are many rooms." This book is about returning to my mother's house, but through a glass darkly, for I have put away childish things indeed. The book, while about Sri Lanka's civil war, is more largely about war itself as "a social condition" (Lubkemann 2008).
The decades long Sri Lankan civil war was waged between the Sri Lankan state and most latterly the Tamil guerrilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also called the "Tamil Tigers"), who emerged supreme through the elimination of all other Tamil militant groups. While there has been punctuated ethnic conflict since Independence in 1948, most would agree that large-scale violence between "armies" in the northern and eastern minority areas became a more everyday reality in the mid-1980s. It is a war that has involved the destruction of physical and human infrastructures, the permanent displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the pitting of majority against minority ethnic groups, and the rise of insurrectionary groups who have turned from "heroes" to oppressors.
In 2009, in the midst of writing, others and I put our lives—in my case this book—on hold. In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced that the civil war, which had spanned almost 30 years, had ended with the final defeat of the LTTE, arguably one of the most successful, multifaceted, and wealthy guerrilla organizations in the world. The end of the war was not a quiet one. From January to May 2009, in an ever-shrinking coastal strip in the northern Vanni region the Sri Lankan government bombarded the LTTE and more than 330,000 civilians with heavy weaponry, while denying their use. The LTTE in its turn, as the Sri Lankan army advanced through the north central areas under LTTE control, took civilians with them, leading them to their death by using them as human shields. Sri Lankan Tamils ran from the advancing army, which has never offered them an alternative to the LTTE. Moving from place to place, bunker to bunker, 280,000 to 330,000 of them ended up trapped with the LTTE. The LTTE stepped up its forced recruitment of civilians, and those who escaped tell of hiding in their bunkers, trying to protect their children from roaming LTTE cadres picking up new recruits (UTHR 2009a,b). When surrounded by the Sri Lankan army, the LTTE hid and fired among civilians, refusing to let them leave.
The Sri Lankan state continued its relentless shelling of areas it had declared safe zones for civilians as well as hospitals in the war zone.1 Escapees told the human rights group University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna
(UTHRJ) and news agencies such as Al Jazeera and the BBC in Tamil about the heavy shelling by the state, their desperate attempts to protect themselves in the face of constant bombardment and lack of food, water, and medicine, and their disgust with their so-called protectors, the LTTE, who were willing to sacrifice them (UTHR 2009b).2
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government banned journalists and independentobservers from these areas. Diasporic Tamils in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom mounted campaigns calling for the end of bombing by the Sri Lankan government. Increasingly, the LTTE abroad took over the management of those campaigns, and turned them into massed displays of LTTE flags and demands for the LTTE to be recognized and rescued by foreign governments. The gulf between internally displaced Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka and those in the diaspora who rallied around the LTTE was all too apparent to those of us who had done fieldwork in Sri Lanka. The support of expatriate Tamils for an increasingly delegitimized and violent LTTE meant that the protests became ineffective and the international community did not hold the Sri Lankan state to account and make it halt its use of heavy weaponry.
And so it went on. Every day in May brought more Tamil escapees from the LTTE areas carrying their elderly and children and wading through the lagoon to government-controlled territory. The events of the last days of battle and final defeat of the LTTE, especially the killing of its leader Prabhakaran, remain vague. It is unclear how the last leaders and their families died in the final days. It is rumored that they and their families were all executed by the state despite their surrender (see UTHR 2009a). The UN estimated that around 7,000 civilians may have died in these months, but this figure is in all probability conservative. After the end of the LTTE, the agony for those who survived did not end. The Sri Lankan government incarcerated 285,000 in sorely under-resourced and squalid mass camps for security clearance, not allowing them even to leave to meet family until December 2009, just before presidential elections. By mid-2010 around half had been released, but thousands still remain in camps. What happened to those taken out of camps for further questioning under suspicion of being LTTE remains a mystery. Areas where civilians once lived are now mined and scorched earth as the two armies advanced, retreated, and destroyed in their wake. The battle for hearts and minds of Tamil civilians was lost by the LTTE, and, sadly, remains the only battle the current Sri Lankan state is reluctant to initiate.
There is more to be said about these months, but I cannot say it in this book. I have no way of understanding fully what those thousands in the last war zone went through; I neither anticipated nor have privileged knowledge of the end. A book that began in the heart of the civil war somehow now tells its story from the other side of that protracted war. I have had to make the book again around a world made strange, with a new set of questions that now need to be asked.
The military war may have ended, but not the political one: the place of minorities in Sri Lanka still remains unsure. But the end of that war provides the fragile hope of new possibilities and parameters. It brings the possibility to reflect concretely on the specific social, cultural, and economic forms created in the decades of war. The accounts that will surely not survive the end of the war are those that, unlike this book, equated LTTE interests with those of the people it governed, and envisioned minority life through the pronouncements of the LTTE. The lives of Tamils and Muslims, and the complex ways people sought to live under and through the LTTE that I document here, may indeed point to why, despite many academic and Tamil nationalist claims to the contrary, when the LTTE collapsed militarily and its leader was killed it collapsed as a popular force in Sri Lanka.