Songs and stories of Sri Lanka’s war

| by Martin Mulligan

(November 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Anticipation rises as you approach Elephant Pass on your way north to Jaffna. Yet it is an undistinguished place; a narrow strip of flat road passing between shallow sea lagoons and salt-pans.
It is hard to imagine the strategic importance of this place during nearly 30 years of warfare between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan armed forces. However, as you continue north of the pass the sad story of the war is more deeply etched into the landscape.
For a long stretch, almost all buildings have been largely destroyed and, eerily, around a quarter of the numerous coconut palms and the treasured palmyra palms have been decapitated by the impact of shelling. It becomes clear that every inch of this road into Jaffna had been fought over at different stages during the war.
There is not much to stop for as you take the long journey up the flat and straight road from Vavuniya to Jaffna, and you don’t feel much like stopping anyway. The signs of devastation are pretty complete. Heavily armed soldiers and police stare out from their sentry posts dotted all along the road. There are military bases every ten kilometres or so. Roadside eating houses are run by the military.
War refugees — those who were relocated into refugee camps near Vavuniya for up to two years after the war reached its climax in May 2009 — are setting up house in makeshift huts within the vicinity of the main road. There are very few signs of orderly resettlement.
There is a steady stream of visitors from the south travelling to Jaffna and many of them stop near Elephant Pass to look at a war memorial in the shape of a Tigers ‘tank’ whichevokes an act of heroism from a young Sinhalese soldier when he threw himself in front of the advancing vehicle to try to save his comrades.
An even more sobering monument of war is the enormous, prone water tower of Kilinochchi. Reports vary as to whether this was brought down by the Tigers as they retreated under fierce bombardment from the army or whether it was destroyed by that bombardment. Either way, it serves as a reminder that there is a terrible ‘logic’ to warfare. Observing the final stages of the war from afar was like watching a slow-moving train wreck.
Things are less tense as you drive further into the Jaffna peninsula. People are out and about and the city appears to be recovering its vitality. Little progress has been made on repairing the war-ravaged buildings, but the shopping centre is busy and the markets overflow with local produce. Splashes of colour are provided by new outlets of the commercial banks that have been quick to take advantage of the peace.
People from the south who have visited Jaffna say it is great that they can now travel freely to this part of their country. They tend to express great optimism for the future of Jaffna.
This echoes the mantra being repeated by government ministers and media commentators, that people living in the north should be grateful that the army was able to defeat ‘terrorism’ and that the time has now come to ‘move on’. An official Reconciliation Commission has been set up and the government has promised yet another review of how to implement amendments to the Constitution that call for devolution of political power.
However, many residents of Jaffna wonder how they can ‘move on’ when they have not had the opportunity to tell the stories of prolonged misery and loss that they endured during the long years of war.
My travelling companions and I were lucky to have a prominent cultural historian of Jaffna as our unofficial tour guide. He told us he has not been able to return to his ancestral home outside Jaffna since his whole family had to evacuate the area during an army crackdown in 1987. Tears came to his eyes as he recalled his loss, particularly when he recalled that his father died — essentially of grief — about one month after the evacuation.
There are many sad stories of ‘innocent’ civilians who died, or those who lost their homes and livelihoods. However, as our guide emphasised, it is also important to remember that many young men and women paid with their lives for their fateful decision to join the Tamil Tigers, for whatever reason.
He told us of a time when a mass grave was dug for the bodies of Tiger combatants killed during an intense phase of the war. Even though the area was heavily patrolled by soldiers, local women took flowers to lay at the grave, to make the point that each of the young men lying there was somebody’s son.
One evening we went to the family home of the former vice-chancellor of Jaffna University, Professor N. Shanmugalingam. After a delightful meal, cooked in the distinctive Jaffna way, the multi-talented professor treated us to a repertoire of his own soulful songs written in tribute to his mother, victims of the 2004 tsunami, and those who had suffered during the war.
As we listened, it occurred to us that songs and stories of lived experience, translated into all the languages of Sri Lanka, might do more than the government’s Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of war.
Martin Mulligan is director of the Globalism Research Centre at RMIT University, Melbourne. Images by Martin Mulligan, from top: Tourists visiting a ‘war memorial’ at Elephant Pass, on the road to Jaffna; War damaged buildings in central Jaffna; The road through Elephant Pass, Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka; Coconut palms have lost their heads due to shelling during the war, Jaffna peninsula; Nallur Temple in central Jaffna. This article originally published by the Eureka Street, Melbourne based journal.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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