Groundviews

I Wasn’t Around in ‘83

Meemure village, Sri Lanka, June 2013. Aamina Nizar for The Picture Press.

“No one came to the house”, he said, “but I did get threatening phone calls in the middle of the night”. With so many Tamils staying in his house, I had asked him whether people came home to threaten him.

I spent my morning today (July 23rd) with my grand uncle, Sam Wijesinha, a former Secretary General of Parliament and a veritable encyclopedia of information. I wasn’t around in ’83 and as we marked thirty years today, I was keen to hear from someone who was. We sat in his reading room, talking about what those fateful days were like and the history leading up to it. As we talked, it occurred to me that thirty years ago this very room had served as a refuge from persecution. Like many Sinhalese in Colombo and beyond, Sam seeya had provided safe shelter to his Tamil friends. Around twenty of them had come and stayed with him, some for days and some for years.

He was recalling the days immediately after the violence began, especially one of the phone calls he’d got. “Death to all those who harbour Tamils!”, a voice had bellowed down the telephone and hung up.

The humble telephone has come a long way since 1983. Its use, along with other Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) like TVs, mobile phones and the internet, have become ubiquitous and pervading all aspects of Sri Lankan society.

This weekend I asked my parents, “How did you hear about what was going on? What was the spread of information like?”. Without mobile phones and internet, without SMS news alerts or Twitter, information about the unfolding carnage in July 1983 had spread mainly through word of mouth. My father recalled how rumours spread – “Tigers have come to Colombo!” – which led to Sinhalese mobs taking to the streets to “check” the inside of every vehicle entering the city. Maybe ‘word of mouth’ still wields immense power as a source of information, even in this digital age. But I would submit that thirty years on, the access to information is a lot more diverse. Mobile phones have penetrated nearly every corner of the country and many Sri Lankans are accessing the internet for the first time on their mobile phones. It can be a force for good. More people can access a more diverse range of information from a more varied set of sources, and possibly form a more nuanced and measured view of things. But it could also be that with the rapid spread of ICTs, spreading hatred is equally easier. What comes out on balance is something left to be seen.

Along with Aarthi Dharmadasa and Iromi Perera, I am part of the The Picture Press (TPP), a curated website of development-oriented photography that was commissioned by Groundviews as part of the ’30 Years Ago’ project. Through unique photographs and informative narratives, we are looking at how ICTs have changed the Sri Lankan context thirty years since Black July. In addition to taking our own photographs, we brought on board a few emerging young photographers to help us produce a set of ground-breaking photo-narratives that look at this from various angles.

When producing the feature for the Groundviews project, one thing that became clear to us is how ICTs – their presence and at times their absence – are influencing people, families, communities and an entire nation.

I wasn’t around in ’83. I am part of the generation that came after it, born into its aftermath.

Clearly, the war and post-war generations will have much greater access to information, to ICTs. Our lives and livelihoods would be influenced by it, while some may still be left behind, “disconnected”. Some may use it to benefit from it and multiply good. Some may use it to subjugate its benefits and propagate hate. To what extent this shapes our outlook on life and society, our actions in politics and economics, could play a decisive role in shaping the next thirty years.

(Text by Anushka Wijesinha, image by Aamina Nizar a photographer contributing to The Picture Press feature for the Groundviews ’30 Years Ago’ project)

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Editors note: The author is part of a project, curated by Groundviews, that brings together leading documentary filmmakers, photographers, activists, theorists and designers, in Sri Lanka and abroad, to focus on just how deeply the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983 has shaped our imagination, lives, society and polity.

The resulting content, featuring voices never captured before, marrying  rich photography, video, audio and visual design with constitutional theory, story-telling and memorialising, has no historical precedent.

The project is an attempt to use digital media and compelling design to remember the inconvenient, and in no small way, acts of daring, courage and resistance during and after Black July.

Read more here.