My phone buzzed on Easter Sunday as I carried a box-full of cannolis out to my car. A message from my Italian-Australian sister-in-law illuminated the screen, ‘I just saw the news. I am so so sorry for your family.’
My stomach and the cannoli plummeted to the brown grass of my driveway. Did something happen to my mum I haven’t heard about? I did a quick one-handed Google search and saw the ruins of St Anthony’s in Kochchikade. I just sighed out loud. I had grown accustomed and resigned to scenes of violence in my ancestral country.
That Sunday morning, a coordinated attack saw the detonation of explosives in three churches: St Anthony’s in Kochchikade, St Sebastian’s in Negombo and Zion Church in Batticaloa. Four hotels were also bombed. The death count, though being revised periodically, was set at 359. Approximately 500 people were injured. As Mario Arulthas notes, “Though these acts indeed appear to be fuelled by external and ‘new’ grievances, the communal divisions that risk ignition are old.”
The wounds it tore open are old. The violence itself is old. It’s the old pain I have lived with all my life.
The wounds it tore open are old. The violence itself is old. Therefore, it is not these new forces behind the mass murder on Sunday that I am exploring here. It’s the old pain I have lived with all my life.
I am a proud Sri Lankan Tamil Australian woman. Sri Lankan-Tamil-Australians are not homogenous. I speak for myself as a member of this community but I cannot speak for a community. Having said that most will agree there is an inherited loss amongst the global Tamil community. But these losses and wounds spread across the Tamil diaspora in unequal measure creating structures of privilege and disadvantage within the Tamil community.
I have lost. I have lost my mother-tongue, the ability to visit my homeland and the opportunity to set foot in my matriarchal ancestral homestead in Sri Lanka’s north. I have lost a rooted sense of belonging, of an identity that comes with being in the land of one’s people.
I have not, however, had to piece together a semblance of daily life through decades of war. I have not had to live any part of my life amidst the constant spectre of violence and enforced disappearances in villages that are still militarised in Sri Lanka’s north. I have not had to go through the often dehumanising and gas-lit ridden process of seeking asylum in a new country. This article is essentially me checking my own privilege in the wake of such devastation. Academics, myself included, have presided over Sri Lanka’s history of violence and have declared very predicable cycles.
My Ammamma used to light a candle in Kochchikade once a month, praying for good things for family and for her people.
From independence in 1948, the results of colonialism’s violent cleaving of its ethnically diverse predictably bore out in the ongoing cycle of violence against Sri Lanka’s minorities, Tamils and Muslims. Less than a decade from independence, riots against Tamils broke out in Gal Oya. The cycle made another rotation in 1977, in deadly riots. Again in 1983, as my family fled the black July, the official beginning of the civil war.
War ‘ended’ in 2009, with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the loss of up to 140,000 Tamil civilians during the final months. Civilians who were herded into shrinking pieces of land also known as, No Fire Zones, which were subsequently shelled in an intensive bombing campaign referred to as the final offensive.
Over the decades, Sri Lanka’s cycle of violence had a momentum of its own and it has continued to turn after the official conclusion of the war.
Five years ago, I was sitting in the National Library café, drinking coffee while I reviewed Sri Lanka’s crime statistics. I had just started working on a project documenting sexual violence and impunity in Sri Lanka with other Sri Lankan human rights lawyers, scholars and activists. As I ran my highlighter over the numbers I did a double take. Reports of sexual violence peaked after the war. From 2008-2013, the reported instances steadily climbed from 1582 to 2181.
As much as I know of the seemingly unyielding violent throes of my mother country, I know of the courage of my people.
I started to cry.It was the last time the violence in my ancestral country surprised me. Working in human rights, I saw in the stories of Tamils and other minorities that the cycles of violence weren’t only manifesting in these grand acts that made the foreign news. It was rolling its way through communities post-war, pulled by the momentum of enforced disappearances, a rule of law decline and ongoing militarisation.
Two years ago, I began to understand how and why violence seemed to continue and increase post-war. I was attending a criminology seminar at work, on theory developed by academics on patterns of violence following war. That day I learned that historical ‘cascades’ of violence from crime to war to crime is a reported phenomenon.
I could only see my home country in these discussions. The violence of colonisation created more crime. Ethnic riots of the last 60 years cascaded into war which again, ignites more crime in Sri Lanka’s post-war era. When I saw the ruins of Kochchikade, I saw not only newest outbreak of violence, but also fearfully expected new cascades to flow on from it.
I watched old patterns follow the blasts, of the state imposing Emergency Regulations, the kind which, in Sri Lanka, has historically been used as smokescreens for the restriction of civil liberties, arbitrary detention, torture and sexual violence as concluded in our 2016 Sexual Violence and Impunity project.
I’ve seen girls play cricket in war zones and doing so, I’ve witnessed them snatching their childhoods from the mouth of Hindu demon Ravana.
I’m realising all the ways my life has been shaped by Sri Lanka’s violent history. It shows itself in some obvious ways like a proclivity to war zones and high risk situations in my late teens and early 20s. My career in human rights. My attraction to intangible principles like the rule of law. It also manifests in strange ways.
A while ago my Anglo husband and I broached the topic of shared finances and as I reviewed his bank accounts I broke out into a cold sweat.
‘Where is your savings account?’
‘Here,’ he says.
‘No, not your savings for your holiday!’ I yelled at him.‘Your, Everything-goes-to-shit-and-we have-to-take-our-family-and-bail savings.’
I saw his blue eyes crinkle in pity. This feeling of being perpetually caught up in Sri Lanka’s history reached a pathological pinnacle last year in July. I was crossing the road to attend a conference at Sydney Uni, and a white lady in a white four wheel drove through a pedestrian crossing and ran me down. Later that day, as I lay in bed with my sprained ankle elevated – the significance of the date struck me.
Thinking of my Ammamma lighting that candle in St Anthony’s, I see more than her agency. I feel her hope.
It was 25 years to the day since Black July. I reclined back into a weird Midnight’s Children alternative reality where even the driving habits of a lady from Mosman was somehow caught up in the pulls of Sri Lanka’s violent history.
I feel myself dissolving in the violent history of my motherland. My reaction to the Easter Sunday, which is one of resignation to violence was born from a dissolution of my sense of agency. But no more. As much as I know of the seemingly unyielding violent throes of my mother country, I know of the courage of my people. Over the last decade, I’ve worked with the fiercest human rights defenders who, despite few wins and numerous setbacks, crush fatalistic attitudes like a cockroach underneath their Bata shoes.
I’ve seen girls play cricket in war zones and doing so, I’ve witnessed them snatching their childhoods from the mouth of Hindu demon Ravana. I’ve read in awe as sexual assault survivors spoke truth to power in Vishwamadu and shattered historical silences accrued over centuries. I’ve seen my Amma rebuild her life in Canberra's suburbia, resit exams for unrecognised qualifications and support three generations under one roof, all with unique wounds incised by the violence of Sri Lanka.
Two histories co-exist in Sri Lanka. One of perpetual violence, the other of the fiercest courage, and unyielding resistance. My Ammamma used to light a candle in Kochchikade once a month, praying for good things for family and for her people. And thinking of my Ammamma lighting that candle in St Anthony’s, I see more than her agency. I feel her hope.
The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
Kirsty Anantharajah is a proud Tamil Sri Lankan-Australian woman. She is a writer, poet, lawyer academic and member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her human rights work explores gender based violence during the Sri Lankan civil war. She also works in climate change and development, and has just started a PhD.