Guernica – Narrating Crisis in Sri Lanka

By Nimmi Gowrinathan
February 16, 2015

sri lana

For Justice

“Jeya’s daughter is nine days old, unnamed, when I meet her in Sri Lanka. Miniscule compared to my chunky little boy, born only a few months earlier, she squirms beneath pink netting as I gingerly reach in to hold her hand. I don’t need to see her, Jeya says, turning away. That day, I was a human rights researcher, and I wondered what fresh trauma I would cause in the pursuit of documenting her story.

Jeya’s daughter was born of rape. Half Singhalese, half Tamil. Half soldier, half civilian. She entered her world when a vicious cycle of violence had come full circle. They say the war is over now, the country is at peace. Discreetly positioned inside a church, sitting across from Jeya, I’m restless, intimately familiar with the pangs of guilt that interrupt my work and jar my sense of self.

The last time I was here, I was a humanitarian worker. Then, at least, I could have carefully placed a tiny Band-Aid over the details of her damaged life. Now, I am intervening into local lives with only the promise of social justice in hand. I am an ill-equipped spy, sent to retrieve the most repressed memories from a repressed people. The stories will, at worst, incite a directionless moral outrage on behalf of the people, and at best, brand their government an international pariah.

I am relieved Jeya will talk to me, as I have come looking for Victims of rape (Survivors, in aid parlance), but so far had only encountered Witnesses and Rumors. From inside the electrified fence of her internment, Jeya didn’t know which day the war ended. They never told us. Or maybe they did. None of us understood Singhalese.

It is a war the West knows little about, though its fighters became infamous around the globe. The slow exclusion of Tamils from government jobs and universities bled into the manipulation of ethnic extremism by political elites—a familiar post-colonial tale. As the Singhalese articulated a vision for a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state, the Tamils demanded a separate nation, and Muslims were caught in between. Years of peaceful protest turned violent, and though nobody quite agrees on when it began—what followed was three decades of intractable civil war.

Jeya speaks to me in Tamil. She is a Tamil. In this post-war moment, I am opening the curtain on extreme violations in order to reveal everyday, and historic, injustices. I am here for the same reason I have always come here. As a Tamil-Sri-Lankan-American-Woman I want to, I have to, help.

To Challenge

Jeya has wandered off. The baby rests next to me, as of yet unlabeled. Like the half-naked African girl child who unknowingly graces the cover of annual reports and funding appeals, we will try to keep this baby’s story short, sweet, and simple.

Boiled down to its most emotionally gripping essence, her tiny narrative could deliver her a lifeline from the outside. Eventually she will Benefit from an intervention that defines her by her worst condition (HIV, Orphan), affectation (Disaster, Displaced), moment (Rape, Widow), or political transformation (Ex-Combatant).

She will be ensconced in a humanitarian apparatus that will alleviate the pain in her life, but does not address the politics that may leave her bleeding to death. Until she resists, her state will never be held accountable, for the rights they violated, the ones they owe her.

I hold the baby to me. She looks up with a clear, focused gaze. The only simple truth about her is that she, like the world around her, is complex and political. Inside and out. Her mother was fully armed in the fight against oppression. Now, the chokehold of militarization around her neck has made it impossible to breathe, let alone speak. She will rely on silence to survive. Her fingers clench into a powerful fist before her eyelids begin to fall. Her tiny body relaxes into my arms and she is, for the moment, at peace.”

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March 6th, 2015, York University, Toronto, Canada