I was travelling through Sri Lanka last year and ended up in Jaffna, which is really different to other parts of the country. I wanted to see how people were coping after the civil war, which had lasted from 1983 until 2009. There was not a lot of media, even at the time, about the war in Sri Lanka, and much less since hostilities ceased.
In the north, the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were attempting to create a separate Hindu/Tamil state. Although much has been rebuilt since the war’s end, there is still a lot of evidence of the civil war, including in Gurunagar fishing village, which for over a decade became a frontline to a deadly conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Due to the area being a strategic seaport for the Tamil Tigers to smuggle arms from India, Gurunagar became a hotly contested battleground. Primarily a Christian area, the people of Gurunagar were forced to negotiate a series of checkpoints simply to reach their boats and ply their trade.
The area was captured and evacuated by the Sri Lankan Army in 1996, and became a tightly restricted area. In 2010 that Sri Lankan government opened the area is back up so residents can return. Yet when I visited, their homes were largely in ruins, even six years later.
Evidence of the war still persists, such as ruined homes, bullet holes in the concrete walls; and of course, the real victims, the Sri Lankan people, who carry the scars of war internally. Gurunagar is like a microcosm of all this, a place which is slowly being rebuilt after being on the frontline for so many years. As in any conflict, it’s not just the rubble and the cracked concrete, but the hearts and lives of people caught up in war, that take the longest to heal.
New homes are being established and fishermen clean their nets after a long day’s catch, women line up to access water at communal taps, and washing is hung amongst the remnants of ruined homes. Today, children are able to attend school and safely play marbles in the street.
Yet if you look at Google Maps, you can see there used to be a marker for a Tamil Tiger “Martyrs Monolith” at the entrance to Gurunagar, from when the Tamil Tigers had captured the village prior to 1996. However, that memorial is not there any more – instead, a Sri Lankan army post has been built.
Most Tamil Tiger memorials – even graveyards – were bulldozed or destroyed at the end of the war. This type of action says something about the role of memory in a post-war society. The “winners” may dictate whose story is told, but you can never eradicate the memories of the people that have lived through it.
There are still tensions from the war, which are rarely spoken about nor seen. From what I was told, there is still an undercurrent of danger for many Tamil people, and I heard reports that the Sri Lankan Army still arrest and detain people suspected of being former LTTE operatives.
This fear explains why some people try and escape even though the war has finished. Political tensions still exist, and it is can be unsafe for some people in the community.
Tamil people I met in the north of Sri Lanka were very reluctant to speak about their experiences in the war. Some were even suspicious of my motives when I approached them about the subject, which is completely understandable if there is still a risk of being detained and tortured.
Some escaped as “boat people” to Canada, where they have re-settled, while some to Australia, where they are frequently locked up in detention centres. All around Sri Lanka there are signs by the Australian government, warning Sri Lankans not to attempt the journey by boat.
Yet for some people, the choice just isn’t that easy. I did meet some Tamil people who had family members that fled to Australia. It’s a hard question – do you risk staying in your home and the run the risk of being tortured, or do you flee to Australia, and risk being indefinitely detained?
There have also been investigations into the deliberate targeting of Tamil civilians in the north by the Sri Lankan Army during the war, and generally, the towns and villages in the north seemed far less economically developed than those in the south.
It seems it will be some time before there is equality between north and south in Sri Lanka, especially while there are still tensions between the different ethnic, religious and political groups. Meanwhile, every day in small villages like Gurunagar, Sri Lankan people from all sides continue to rebuild their lives and hope for a peaceful future.