bearing witness.

This month marks the first anniversary of the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

On 2009 May 17-18, depending on how you look at it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்), also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, were routed by the armed forces of the primarily Sinhalese government. The war, which was the product of years of ethnic tension between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, lasted 25 years and was marked by the ruthlessness of both government military and paramilitary campaigns and guerilla warfare and suicide bombing employed by the LTTE, both with little regard to the cost of civilian life. We saw this magnified in the end stages of the war in May 2009, when the LTTE brought over 80,000 civilians with them into a tiny spittoon of land in the northeast, using them as human shields and impressing them into service (“Sri Lankan Government and LTTE Must Heed Demands from UN Security Council”), and the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the shrinking warzone, as it had hammered designated no-fire zones such as hospitals, bunkers, and other areas in the Vanni with a known civilian presence in flagrant disregard of the laws of war (“Sri Lanka: Repeated Shelling of Hospitals Evidence of War Crimes”).

In May 2009 my sanity was eroding and I cried almost every night, barely slept, was made numb by President Rajapaksa’s victory speech. People celebrated in the streets of Colombo and throughout the country. Like many others, most of whom were Tamil, this victory felt hollow and strange. Thousands upon thousands of civilians died in the months leading up to May 17. And while I personally condemn the actions of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, I didn’t know what to think when confronted with the news of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s corpse. On the news segment his forehead was covered. There were flies. I wanted to see the bullet hole for myself. Wanted proof. Felt like a part of my life had ended. At that point I hadn’t lived my life outside of the shadow of Sri Lanka’s war.

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The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

Authors Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva were members of the so-called Bang-Bang Club, a group of South African photographers working during apartheid and named for their propensity to photograph violence, “bang-bang” in local slang.  Though the name applied to a larger group it most commonly applied to four photographers: Marinovich, Silva, Ken Oosterbroek, and Kevin Carter.  Of these four, Oosterbroek was killed in a firefight in April 1994 and Kevin Carter committed suicide in July of the same year.

I haven’t read a large body of journalist perspectives on conflict zones—usually I’m drawn to survivor memoirs or fiction inspired by these conflicts—but The Bang-Bang Club is refreshingly honest, direct, and generous towards both sides of the conflict.  Marinovich doesn’t shrink from observing that, after Ken’s death, he and Joao attempted to turn him into a heroic icon; similarly, at the beginning of the memoir he notes without malice that Ken, at least initially, has trouble breaking free of the racism inculcated in him by national attitudes.  Marinovich and Silva also recognizes their own flawed behaviors, whether briefly wanting to deny Kevin his moment of fame regarding his famous Sudan photograph, or cutting himself off from fellow photographer Gary Bernard, who eventually committed suicide.  The straightforward, conversational telling heightens rather than diminishes the impact of witnessing people being dragged out of their homes and hacked and burned to death in the streets while policemen and bystanders turn a blind eye; of women ululating a victory cry as they beat another woman to death; of “necklacing,” the practice of placing a petrol-filled rubber tire around the victim’s neck and setting it alight; of slicing the tendons in a man’s leg so he can’t escape as his own friends take him to be killed; of a Walkman wired as a bomb so that the explosion rips through the head of an ANC lawyer the moment he presses play; of girls being “jackrolled,” abducted and gang-raped for days on end before being returned to her parents with the thanks of the abductors, for the enjoyment their daughter brought them.  Narrated from Marinovich’s point-of-view—albeit with startling leaps into the other photojournalists’ perspectives—The Bang-Bang Club is an honest, brutal examination of their experience chronicling apartheid conflict between 1990-1994, and additionally interrogates the ethics of photojournalism.

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authenticity and approaching literature

I’ve been thinking about the question that I brought up in class on Monday, about the impact of fiction versus nonfiction, and how genre shapes our reaction to a given piece of literature.  I have to say I was surprised at the prevailing sentiment that nonfiction delivers more of an emotional “punch,” if you will, than fiction—but then, this is the most common approach to the issue of genre.  So why was I surprised?

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Thinking Exercises to Bookend the Semester

I’m a big fan of thinking exercises: short activities that model (in familiar forms) the kinds of thinking students need to be doing when it comes to critical reading and writing.  I had astonishing success this semester with two such exercises, one recently which I used on the last day of classes, and one mid-semester which I plan to use in the future as an introductory exercise at the beginning of the course.  For all we talk about pedagogy in The Academy, I feel we don’t share enough of our classroom successes and failures—why reinvent the wheel, for instance, when you can borrow or modify someone else’s vehicle?  Thus, procedures for these thinking exercises after the jump.

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