Today marks 500 days of protest against the Sri Lankan state for failing to address the thousands of disappearances that occurred during the nation’s decades long civil conflict. The conflict began in 1983 as a Tamil separatist movement, spurred on by discrimination faced by the Tamil ethnic minority fought to establish Eelam, a new state in the North of East of Sri Lanka. The conflict ended in 2009 when the leader of the separatist movement was killed. In the years between 1983 and 2009, atrocities were committed on both sides. In the aftermath of the conflict, the state was found responsible for thousands of enforced disappearances. Almost ten years after the cessation of violence, information on the whereabouts and fates of the disappeared remains unknown. For 500 days Sri Lankans have been protesting lack of accountability, and a failure of the state to provide any information that might bring closure and a sense of justice to families. These protests are being led by women, many of whom are the mothers of those who went missing. On June 30, Tamils around the world protested in solidarity. As a Sri Lankan-American, a Tamil woman, and a person whose family roots run deep in northern Sri Lanka where much of the violence was concentrated, this act of resistance feels both personal to me, and yet worlds apart from anything that I have ever known or experienced.
Five of us climb up to the rooftop of an apartment in Colombo. It’s our first week settling in to a six month fellowship in Sri Lanka and we’re all anxious to break the ice. We crack open bottles of Lion Lager, laughing nervously at our daring, already abandoning regard for local expectations of female propriety.
We listen to the crash of the ocean against the shore, the jangling of the train trundling along the tracks, the distant honks of tuk tuks weaving their way through traffic and we feel a peacefulness that unsettles us. We listen to each other’s stories— what brought us here, what pushed our families away from this little teardrop island buried in an ocean of hurt.
The apartment rooftop where we sit that night, looking up at the sky and falling back into the past lie on the edge of Wellawatte where the hustle of humanity meets the sea. It is a neighborhood that not long ago turned for many from a home into a graveyard. We, our families and this country have collectively tried to forget those days. ‘The troubles,’ we call them. Trouble is word we can say, a word that rolls easily off the tongue and doesn’t open old wounds, a word that allows us to hold the past at a distance. Torture. War. Terror. These are the words that the West uses to tell our story for us.
That night on the roof, we are thinking of our parents and reaching out to take hold of memories that are not our own. It is hard to face the reality that these are memories we may never fully comprehend.
Over the next six months we will hear again and again about the ‘the Tamil Question,’ a politically charged term referring to the Tamil struggle for nationhood, for belonging, a question that asks what happens next in the wake of an unjust peace. We learn that for many, that question cannot be answered, nor a just peace reached until the fates of the disappeared are resolved. State sanctioned forgetfulness hides under the guise of reconciliation. That day on the roof, we feel deeply the guilt that comes with being the children of the escaped.
Three years after that day on the roof, I am still trying to understand how to break past that sense of unsettled peace. I think about the women right now protesting in the North and the East of Sri Lanka, sitting out on dusty roads taking up space, and despite the distance between their experience and my own, I know that we are connected by a common thread of resistance. I am reminded today that there is power in continuing to exist in a space that you have been told is no longer yours to occupy. I am proud of the ways in which the women of Sri Lanka have defiantly led the way towards justice. I know that whether I am by their side or here in the US my own resistance will be informed by this defiance. To the ladies of SIPA who have ever felt silenced by colleagues, sidelined or dismissed, I ask you to stand with the women of Sri Lanka this summer and resist. Take up space. Be loud. Be real f***ing fierce. The world is calling us to action and whether it takes 1 day, 500 days or a lifetime of days this is our time to turn the tables on history to prove that we cannot be erased, that no matter what, we will not disappear.