Exodus and eviction in Sri Lanka's civil war

At a time the debate on Sri Lanka is focussed on the first five months of 2009 during which a yet undetermined number of Tamil civilians lost their lives in the final phases of the Army's military push against the LTTE, an anthropological discussion of how the island's two main minorities – Tamils and Muslims – view family, home, and homeland from the prism of their 30 year-experience of conflict might seem esoteric.

Yet, the ethnographic In My Mother's House is important to the present debate, as it places Sri Lanka's conflict in its right time-frame, bringing back into the discussion the history before 2009, and how the violence that people experienced over three decades changed lives and society forever.

The book focuses on two big events and one major phenomenon of the conflict: the exodus of over 500,000 people from Jaffna, forced upon the people by the LTTE who wanted to render the Sri Lankan Army's conquest that year of the capital of the putative Tamil Eelam meaningless; the forced eviction of 90,000 Muslims from Jaffna in 1990, again by the LTTE; and Tamil militancy, including, but not only, the LTTE.

Link to ur

Author Sharika Thiranagama, an anthropologist who teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York, writes that one of the “major aims of this book is to reframe conventional academic and journalistic accounts of the Sri Lankan civil war, and in particular, accounts of Tamil militancy”.

To this, she brings her own personal experience of the conflict. Her mother Rajini Thiranagama, who taught at Jaffna University, was murdered by the LTTE right in front of their house in 1989; immediately after, her father took her and her sister, who were small children then, to London where they grew up. The title of the book is as much about the yearning of every displaced Tamil to “go back home”, as about the author's own journey back to Sri Lanka, Jaffna and her mother's village.

The book is based on a series of interviews by the author of people displaced during the “Exodus” and the “Eviction”. Interspersed between the wordy, and at times dense theoretical contextualisation, are the stories of ordinary people who had to leave their homes overnight, with little more than the clothes on their back. In doing so, people suffered the severance of a fundamental relationship — their link to the ur — a disruption that would define their lives and their relationships, within the family and outside, whether they went to a refugee camp, found new homes in Colombo or migrated — as hundreds of thousands did — to Europe and North America.

These stories are not just poignant anecdotes. Key to understanding the Sri Lankan conflict, and the reasons that it remains unresolved even to this day, three years after the war ended, is an understanding of the impact of displacement, and the consequent impoverishment of each life thus disrupted — economically, socially and politically. In northern Sri Lanka particularly, there are people and families that have been displaced six to seven times within short spans of time.

The preoccupation of the displaced with retaining the norms that governed relations in families, between families and between castes, anxiety about a house or land left behind, the inability of parents to provide a “dowry house” to the daughter to establish her roots in the ur, and the changes these have wrought in society are all explored in the interviews.

One of the most striking stories is about a mother and daughter, the only two remaining members of a family of five. The father and a son were burnt alive in their home in Colombo during the 1983 riots. The mother was away abroad at the time. The bodies were recovered by the daughter and the second son, both barely teenagers at the time.

The three survivors relocated to Jaffna, where the second son joined the militant group EPRLF and was killed. The narrative deals with the tensions between mother and daughter, how the mother eventually rebuilds the destroyed house in Colombo to bequeath to her granddaughters, and the shock of the Sinhalese neighbours — complicit in the 1983 killings of the father and son, and in the looting of the house — at the return of the family.

Thiranagama also underlines that the yearning for home is accompanied by a constant, voluntary flight from the “homeland” of Tamil nationalism — finally, despite the longing for the ur, all its familiarities and social connectedness are more in memory than in present realities. If home is a place where people think they can build a secure future, “the homeland” where the ur is located, was not able to generate that kind of security.

Both the Exodus and the Eviction are under-reported events, from a journalist's point of view. The Exodus was perhaps one of the biggest internal displacements in the world. It was tightly controlled by the LTTE, but even this brutal group could not prevent the call of the ur, that prompted thousands of people to defy the diktat of the Tigers and return to the peninsula eight months after the Exodus. But the continuing battles between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE made it an unsafe place where futures could not be built.

Dreams of return

If Tamils were afraid then to name the LTTE as the main agent of the Exodus, what the LTTE had done five years earlier to the Muslims of Jaffna — giving them a few hours to vacate the peninsula, a non-violent ethnic cleansing as it were — even now hangs between the two communities as a heavy barrier against reconciliation. Some of the evicted Muslims still dream of returning and resuming life in Jaffna, but after the lapse of 20 years, the logistics of this are daunting; many talk about returning more in a political sense — it is really a demand for the acknowledgement by the Tamil community of the summary eviction.

Thiranagama points out that ironically, it was only after the eviction that the Muslims began to be recognised as having an ur (from where they had been displaced), against their earlier description by others as a non-geographical religious community that was settled in various cities, towns and villages of Sri Lanka.

The author's approach to Tamil militancy aims to establish that despite the LTTE's best efforts to pretend that the history of “the movement” began with it, there were militant groups before the LTTE, and that more youngsters joined other groups than they did the Tigers. Secondly, it is also an expression of disappointment that militancy, which sought justice for Tamils while also seeking to change the conservative internal hierarchies of caste and gender governing the Tamil community, failed in both respects.

Working through an anthropological framework, heavy on the reader in parts, Thiranagama has in fact provided a stark, no-nonsense history of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

IN MY MOTHER'S HOUSE: Sharika Thiranagama, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-4112.

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Printable version | Nov 21, 2020 12:54:22 PM |

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