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.

One year later, I’ve kept living my life. Maybe it’s easier because I never really lived the war experience; everything I heard was secondhand. I try to overcome my history. To make it into something positive. To bring it into my classrooms where I feel I am making the biggest difference, not just in terms of critical writing skill but in shaping students to be thoughtful, rational, compassionate people, at a time in their lives when they are most impressionable. I’ve encountered sexism, racism, and discrimination based on sexuality in several of my classes before. I’ve encountered unthinking prejudice to the point where some students have felt that it’s all right to kill Middle Easterners as they are “monsters,” or that the U.S. does not need to get involved in world politics because “it isn’t our business.” I know it’s not my job to address their thinking, and I’ve wrestled with this inclination on more than one occasion.

One of my former professors used to say, slowly and emphatically: “Question their logic.” The rest will follow.

I didn’t intend to use this site as a forum for non-academic news. Others mediate the news much better than I can hope to. I’m simply in my office waiting for my last few final portfolios, feeling as though my life is happening, but I’m somewhere else.

Insomuch as I can relate this to academia, Lasantha Wickrematunge, a journalist who was repeatedly threatened, attacked, and finally killed in January 2009 for writing honestly about the situation in Sri Lanka, left behind a letter in which he predicts his own death and reflects on writing, journalism, and “the call of conscience.” In my literature courses this semester, I incorporated this essay into a unit themed around the notion of bearing witness. We discussed the significance of the production of literature under oppressive regimes as well as from outside perspectives, long after the fact; we read survivor accounts, fictional interpretations, works with no clear genre, and this essay, which gave us the lens terms we needed to discuss the pieces in question. I was initially unsure of how to use Wickrematunge’s essay, as it has always pushed me to tears, but it seemed to open students’ eyes to the harsh realities of war, the frequency of war crimes in certain conflicts, and the risks people take in speaking out about them. It’s an excellent piece to highlight the viewpoint of a person undergoing those risks, and is easily accessible, especially to students who seem baffled by the idea of repression of media, free speech, and other human rights we take for granted.

The thing I strive to remember, behind my daily complaints on this blog, GChat, and Twitter, is that I am lucky. My family is lucky. I want to be thankful for what I have, for the professions I’m in, all of which I do find rewarding, for the fact that I can make a difference in my teaching, my writing, my words, with minimal persecution, with minimal fear of losing my life.

Leave a Reply