I’m often asked why my work continues to centre on a war that ended nearly a decade ago. There’s nothing different about this war, they tell me; what happened in Sri Lanka happens with every war.
But this is my war, I tell them; one I began to witness at 3 years old on a dark July night in 1983.
It was late and my parents thought I was asleep. But I wasn’t. Curious at the sounds coming from outside my house, I ventured into the garden where my parents stood transfixed, like pillars of salt. Through the bars of my gate, I watched a group of men drag a woman out of her car, throw her into a pile of tires and proceed to burn her alive.
The sound of her agonizing screams is still in my head. I doubt the memory will ever leave me.
Moments like this have defined us as a country. So much so, that 8 years into peace and reconciliation, we’re not quite sure who we are or where we are heading, anymore. If recent events and a mounting anti-Muslim movement are showing us anything – it is that the aftermath of one tragedy is yet another one.
What I saw as a child was probably child’s-play in comparison to what others my age would have experienced living in the North & East of Sri Lanka. Having a Sinhalese surname and living in Colombo meant my encounters with the 30-year war were minimal. Yes, the city has been terrorized with suicide bombs and air strikes many times in those decades, but it wasn’t an everyday thing. I wasn’t recruited or abducted, nor did I live in terror every single day of my life. For the most part, Sinhalese have had white privilege in Sri Lanka; for some, this privilege is accompanied with an unwavering restlessness and a need to stake claim on an island where we are all merely migrants, since the arrival of the exiled Prince Vijaya of Bengal.
For my Northern sisters and their loved ones, it is a very different story – one that continues, with little to no solutions on offer to date. I’d wager real the problem begins with ignorance. We are largely unaware of the endless post-war problems of the North, and as a result, we do very little as a nation to help solve them.
To the naked eye, the North is flourishing. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes. Rebuilding, regenerating and reconciling at a rapid pace. Look beyond the obvious however, and you’ll find you’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg.
In early 2017, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies commissioned me to produce a body of photographs and accompanying documentary film that would help explore the continuing issues faced by women in post-war Sri Lanka.
The GRoW research, which explored these issues had shed new light with its findings; discoveries that were too important to be kept away from the wider public of Sri Lanka. While the research itself, resultant policy papers and statistical reports would address the issue with governments bodies, NGOs and the private sector, it wasn’t the way to address the wider public. We needed to tell stories and put a face to these uniquely northern problems. This meant my task was to make these findings all the more real to the rest of the country.
To do so, my process had to begin with honesty. It was not the photographer or producer in me that I needed to tap into, it was the single mother. Taking it personally meant I had common ground with the women I interviewed; I was a mother sharing the stories of other single mothers in the North of my country.
In the last few decades, many Lankan mothers have become heads of their households, having lost their husbands, been left by them or left single, pregnant and alone. Our last census (which didn’t the North into account) indicated that nearly a quarter of the households in Sri Lanka were headed by single mothers. I suspect the next census will increase that number prolifically.
I spent many weeks with single mothers, inside their homes across Mannar, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya. To help them share their stories with me, I had to share my own. Mother to mother, we talked of tragedy, death, poverty and social stigma. We found many common problems as women raising children alone with no community or state support and we connected as mothers with mouths to feed and bills to pay.
Eventually however, the similarities ended as the stories took unexpected turns, becoming darker and reminding me that there is much more to the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s war than we would like to admit or address as a nation.
In Kilinochchi, one woman tells me of the last days of the war. Trapped on a narrow strip of land in Puthumaththalan, she watched as her family died around her in the cross-fire that happened inside what was supposed to be a no-fire zone. She picked up the pieces and moved on without her husband, brothers and other relatives who died to shield her and her daughters.
In Keerimalai, I met a woman living with clinical depression. Her mute, 6-year old daughter was raped by her husband 10 years ago. With no proper justice system in operation within a war zone, the crime went unpunished. With no evidence a decade later, he remains a free man. For the mother and daughter however, the trauma continues as they continue to move forward, reminding me of the peripheral issues of war that might never be resolved.
Another woman shows me her x-rays as she tells me about the shell attack she fell victim to as a teenager. Today, shell fragments remain inside her body, lodged inoperably, killing her dreams of becoming a seamstress one day. With two young children to care for, she tries hard to wipe away the tears as she keeps going on.
The stories are dark, but there is light to be find in the cracks. In each home and in each story, I found common threads binding all the women; resilience.
And while they are few and far between, I did find happy endings. In Puthukudiyiruppu (PTK), I met a successful, ethical and award-winning businesswoman. She told me how she ran for cover with her family during a shell attack, only to turn around see her husband shot dead. A widow with a young child, she lived in an IDP camp for many years, where she began to barter rations and discover a knack for running a food business. Today, she employs several war widows like herself, making novel, patented products that can’t be found anywhere else on the island. She tells me pain is good – it forces you become stronger.
No matter the hand they had been dealt, no matter the tragedies life continues to throw in their direction, these women will rise. While there is plenty of opportunity for the state, non-governmental and private sectors to contribute, I doubt the problems will cease anytime soon.
What I don’t doubt is that the sun will rise again tomorrow. And like the sun, the mothers of Northern Sri Lanka will rise and keep moving on.