In the case of September 11 2001, communal loss is – comparatively, at least – well understood. Everyone saw or could see those deaths; they were on the news even as they happened; the broadcast was part of their lasting tragedy. Few perceived denial of the deaths as rational. The people who had killed them made sure there was plenty of physical evidence. No one fought the act of mourning and was taken seriously. Not so with what I saw from a great distance eight years later: the deaths of Tamil civilians at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
These deaths require, among other tasks, ongoing announcement and explanation – and because certain authorities have failed to fully acknowledge that the casualties occurred, saying I grieve means stating, repeatedly, I believe that they did. It is a kind of complicated voting. This recitation of the facts means a commitment not only to how definitively these people are gone, but also to hearing it over and over again as I am forced to argue for it. I resent this more than I could ever have thought possible, because in this country of grief, the best kind of shelter is to be understood, to have someone stop next to me and without asking anything, put their umbrella over us both, between us and the rain.
Before we ever came to this place, we heard reports of steady, gray fog – pale, opening clouds – late and sudden violent storms. Rumour had it that some people, surprised to stop here, never left, while others, knowing another destination, were able to find slow but certain passage through. I myself am a wary traveler in this country. I can sense that groups of people move around me, but I am mostly alone: a stranger, feeling strange, on a rain-marked stone road, my umbrella blown inside out.
Grief is a country that looks different to each person entering it, to be sure. How does one find fellowship or shelter in loss? There is a hierarchy here; we measure the validity of grief in specific ways. And so before I talk about how death has touched me, I should say how it has not. I must acknowledge that some will see my grief as presumptuous, while others will find it inadequate: I did not know the people I am mourning, and I was not there. Still, I cannot imagine a road as smooth or a sky as blue as the ones I remember from the time before I came to this place and I cannot wish myself any happier. By any measure of reason, what happened to me was nothing – nothing more than watching and knowing and finally, imagining a terrible thing and how it might have happened. Although I was physically safe, the knowledge of that terrible thing became a shadow over everything I did and saw afterwards in a way I had not previously known was possible. Because the deaths involved were not only private, but also public and political, in their wake I found myself faced for the first time with both the desire for collective mourning and a complete inability to engage with it. All time and space was marked first and foremost by its relation to this disaster.
On the rare occasion that I stand under an umbrella, next to someone who already knows what happened, I feel a relief that I had never known before. This person understands how much I would give not to say this, or for anyone else not to ever have to say a sentence like this: You may never have heard of these deaths before, and you may never hear of them again, but in the spring of 2009, tens of thousands of civilians who were ethnically Tamil, as I am ethnically Tamil, were killed in Sri Lanka, the country where my parents were born and I was not.
What a terrible sentence. Of course, these particular deaths did not happen in a vacuum, but in the context of nearly thirty years of war that cost many lives. Each of these deaths matters; the words of this history must be carefully negotiated, and even then, the ones I choose will fail in one way or another, because they cannot be exhaustive. The cause of the grief is necessarily politicized, and because I am electing some words and not others, from the moment I speak I open myself to attack. By grieving, I also automatically place myself in opposition to those who have denied that these deaths occurred. Some people may revel in my anguish; others will accuse me of inventing it; others still will use it to furnish the houses of their own causes. This grief, then, requires risk.
It also requires truthfulness. To talk about it in the most transparent and honest manner, I must retell not only the version of the story I consider the truest and the worst, but also the versions in which no one died, or in which those who died are unworthy of mourning. My words must reenact and contain not only the deaths and my grief, but also their negation.
The security forces of the Sinhalese-dominated government fought the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for over a quarter of a century. The latter claimed sole representation of the country’s minority Tamils, and aimed to establish a separate state for them following decades of discrimination by successive Sri Lankan governments. The Tigers’ methods were brutal and included (but indeed, were not limited to) suicide bombings, child conscription, assassinations of elected Tamil officials and other Tamil dissenters, massacres of Sinhalese and Muslim civilians; extortion and coercion of Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad. As the war escalated, the Sri Lankan government followed the decades of discrimination against its Tamil citizens with harassment, abduction, torture and murder by government-aligned forces, in government-controlled areas. Attacks on journalists, extrajudicial killings and disappearances rose. Criticism of the government was portrayed as support for terrorism, as the Tigers were banned in a number of places, including the US and the EU. They had long been thought undefeatable, but at long last, in the spring of 2009, the walls closed around them.
I had studied and watched this war for as long as I could remember, and still, the scale of the final battle, those last casualties, seemed different from any others. Never before had I seen such a catastrophe coming from so far away. It was avoidable. I spent much of that spring waiting or searching for news. The deaths were not widely broadcast as they happened, or even in their immediate aftermath; they happened on a small strip of beach and went mostly unseen. Press access by that point was severely curtailed, and there was little of the imagery that gets attention in modern war. After more than a quarter-century of fighting, Sri Lankan security forces had cornered the Tigers. With the Tigers: Tamil civilians. Reports from various authorities ranged wildly – 300,000 civilians were trapped between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army; 40,000 civilians were trapped; certainly, tens of thousands of civilians were trapped. They counted; they didn’t count; no one had counted them; they were counted incorrectly. The Tigers said the civilians were with them by choice; numerous accounts show otherwise – cadres shot some who tried to escape as security forces bore down, while still others found themselves forced into the Tigers’ desperate ranks. The government, for its part, directed civilians to a no-fire zone, but subsequently shelled the same areas – and denied it. Calls for international intervention or a ceasefire yielded nothing.
And that spring, two Sri Lankan voices dominated the sphere of public conversation about that last battle: the pro-Tiger protestors of the Tamil diaspora, who waved their flags in cities around the world and failed to acknowledge that the rebels were complicit in civilian death, and the government and its supporters, who alleged that any grief for Tamil civilians was only a ploy to stop them from defeating the rebels. I had never felt so much and expressed so little, but what use were emotions? They would have made me prey. I recited facts instead, collecting them as a kind of armour. For weeks, I pored over the news, patching together information to learn as much as I could about what was happening. When the security forces finally defeated the Tigers, tens of thousands of civilians poured out of their prison. But in the days before that, tens of thousands of others surely died, their unseen bodies fallen on the fields of those battles.
Very little in the paragraphs above is uncontested or even complete – part of what makes this so wearying. As I watched what was happening, it seemed to me unbelievable that I could stand knowing about such a large atrocity in such depth. It seemed unbelievable that I had not died from this – that this level of grief was perhaps only a first circle. I, after all, lived in a place that pulsed with life; I had lost no one but myself.
That spring was my last in New York City, where I lived almost next door to Central Park. American analyses of the no-fire zone in Sri Lanka often compared the strip of land where the civilians were to the city’s famous public space; at one point, they were the same size. The park had been my refuge for so long. Now it also seemed unbelievable that for the rest of my life, as a function of where I lived and how the news and war had unfolded, I would talk mostly to people who had no idea what had happened in the no-fire zone. I could walk down Central Park West and into the park itself, and once inside, I would pass people whose faces would show that they did not know. It was a collective loss, but on some level, it was private. My grief, too, had a political dimension; was I mourning because the people lost were Tamil, because they were Sri Lankan, because they were human? Were those all moral reasons to mourn? And how many of those faces in the park contained histories of loss that I would never know?
As the war ended, the government had the opportunity to promote reconciliation among the country’s ethnic communities. There would be no minorities now, they said; everyone was Sri Lankan, and they wanted the Tamil diaspora, too, to help with the rebuilding. But in the two years after that battle, the Sri Lankan government consistently and strongly denied any civilian casualties as a result of their actions, referring to a zero-casualty policy and humanitarian rescue project, and insisting that Tamils who had died were members of the militancy. This victory, they declared, was part of their war on terror, and had been accomplished with admirable cleanliness and little cost.
It is a way of humiliating people, to say that their dead are not dead, to say that people are not even allowed to mourn. There was little room for the legitimate expression of grief during the war, and after it was over, what little was there dwindled. As the government said they were for reconciliation, they moved to shut down the spaces where Tamil civilians and loss could be remembered. Tiger cemeteries were razed, even when families survived who might have wanted to visit the markers. In one instance, Army headquarters were built in the same space. When some Tamil civilians attempted to gather to remember their dead on the anniversary of the war’s end, they had to face down officers of the Sri Lankan Army, as the north and east of the country remains heavily militarized. Indeed, in certain places civilian gatherings now require military approval. Innumerable people looking for a missing loved one filed cases and gave testimony, but many never found who they were looking for.
Pro-Tiger parties, too, used the deaths, making them into a way to move propaganda and implying that the slain civilians had willingly martyred themselves. Many called for investigations of war crimes, but only named the government as alleged perpetrators. Others, noting that much of the Tiger leadership had been killed, wondered how any accounting could be even-handed. The argument could carry on and on – but at what cost for the survivors? We must think of the living, some cautioned: the risks of our mourning were too high. At the same time, I wondered if any civilian had died on that beach with no survivors. Should that death go unlamented, I thought? Who would mourn and remember that person? Between all these arguments, there was little space left for grief – just as there had been little space for the people themselves.
As the years have passed, mounting evidence – various international reports, leaked video, eyewitness accounts – has made more and more public what those of us who followed it closely have known since the spring of 2009: large numbers of Tamil civilians did die while trapped between the government forces and the Tigers. Recently, in the face of increasing international pressure, the Sri Lankan government did finally acknowledge – as a note in a much longer report praising their military and its action – that the war’s end may have come at the expense of some civilian lives. They expressed no sorrow over these losses. Even as military losses are honoured in public ways, the civilians, who were also Sri Lankan citizens, remain unmourned. When the government issued this report, which was designed to counter a panel of experts who recommended to the UN Secretary General that he more thoroughly investigate the end of the war, I searched it for the word ‘regret’ and found nothing. We’re so sorry for your loss, which is our loss too; we wish it hadn’t happened that way; they were our people too. No, they did not say that. They said that it was unavoidable. Later, one official was quoted as saying any civilian casualties were collateral damage.
When I went to sleep the other night, I knew that about halfway around the world from me, the police were digging for the body of a man who had been missing for some time – a Sri Lankan human rights defender. I did not know this man, but I had been following his case. I knew that when I woke up, they would likely have found his body. I was right: by dawn in my time zone, they had discovered what seemed to be his remains. The case stood out because it was so rare for such a disappearance to be solved. Somehow, it was different this time perhaps because key people decided to push to find him – and there he was, his body under a half-built house. Someone had tried to erase him, to build something over his memory without acknowledging that he was there, and it had failed.
I do not want to be defined by disaster. I do not think this would help anyone, and it seems another way of letting disaster win. Still, it is important to me to keep the solidarity I feel not only for the living, but also for the dead, whose deaths were not necessary. So many people around the world must have this: a certain number of graves forming an angry abacus inside them. I may never again enter a large room without knowing how many it holds, and how many times again that number would have to be multiplied before it would equal the number of casualties most often repeated: forty thousand.
My heart still seizes, becomes that calculator, in any sizable space designed to contain a certain number of people. I remember this, and I remember how beautiful the city was that spring. I remember going to a concert and sitting there, noting how many seats were in front of me and how many behind. I had moved to New York many years after its great loss, and even in the stillness of that concert hall, with its soaring ceilings, it stunned me – the life of it. These things would always be true: on any night in New York City, even as an uncounted number of people had died, an uncounted number of people who lived would come to a concert hall to sit together, with strangers, and listen to music. My grief will not destroy me. In some times and places, we are given the space to build our memorials. Perhaps in others, we must learn to become them, even as we go on.
Photo by Photosightfaces