Photo via blackjuly.info
The dark clouds of history
When I look back, I do not see the black smoke rising, or the cries of hapless countrymen, women and innocent children – victims turning into victimisers, turning into victims – caught in a cycle of violence that has persisted beyond living memory. Whatever I have seen of that time and moment of our flawed history; I have seen through the eyes of others. The picture has at times blurred with their tears and at times its intensity has been sharpened by the raw emotions that still engulf those who bear them; who are still griped by what they experienced in the deepest and rarely visited corners of their souls. But I do feel the heat of those fires that were lit long ago when I was barely two years old. No longer a toddler but not yet a child, I had been born into the violence that erupted then and accompanied me well into my adulthood like a dark shadow that still tug me at my feet wherever I go. I do not know how the events of that July should be remembered, because the embers of those fires still linger in the world we inhabit.
Must we reassemble those columns of thick black smoke and smell of burning rubber and burning flesh from the collective memory of a forgetful nation? The rich and eventful lives of even the most unforgettable people are eventually summed up in a short epitaph on a gravestone – if that. And so it is that the collective suffering, shame, pain and tragedy of the events of July 1983 has been etched in the gravestone of history merely as ‘Black July’; filing away the abridged events of preceding years and months that led up to the riots in a colour-coded folder in our collective memory. The mention of “Black July” evokes images of the sooty columns of smoke that would have risen up from the burning buildings, but the term also robs our imagination of the broad spectrum of colours that were lost in those fires. It says nothing of the vibrant lives that were consumed in that violence and the subsequent war that escalated. After thirty years, can we now hope to resurrect those vivid memories? Do we seek out the victims who have since lost their conception of ‘home’; picking up the pieces of their shattered lives in different parts of the world, trapped in places that cannot contain their memories and yet unable to return to where their journey began? Perhaps we should go in search of those dark faces of men who perpetrated the most heinous crimes in our recent history. We owe it to ourselves and all those who have paid the price for their mindless acts – to ask them and their loved ones whether they are proud of what they did back in July of 1983. Will their voices betray any guilt or shame? Are they haunted by the ghosts of their victims or troubled by their inner conscience?
But with each attempt we make at reconstructing those memories, we move away from their reality towards a constructed narrative and a new conception of how those events should be remembered. Because even the most intimate memories are never pure or uncorrupted – they are born tainted by the prejudices and affections of those who bear them. All our memories are continually reshaped for as long as we hold them – carved by emotion, chipped away by our biases and infused with other memories that cohabits the neural spaces they occupy. The actual history of the past three decades can never be fully reconstructed with fractured accounts of what happened in that fateful month in 1983. We must realise that even in their totality; all those accounts may never paint an accurate picture of those long bygone events. The narrative will inevitably evolve with each subsequent retelling, and if we are lucky, it will be retold more meaningfully and in ways that are relevant to their time and place.
Three decades on, as we seek to reconstruct the narrative in a way that is relevant to our time, perhaps we need to cast our nets in deeper waters and look beyond the events of 1983. Even though the smoke towers have dissipated long since, the trail of violence perpetrated by Sri Lankans on Sri Lankans extends for at least a century; well beyond ruins of July 1983. It is imperative that we recognise that the embers of that violence continue to burn today, undermining the very foundation of our society, four years after the end of a brutal civil war. Memories of the different cycles of violence have transformed and grown feeble with time, and resurrecting their fragile recollections from a century ago is going to be a precariously difficult task. Especially on emotionally charged days and anniversaries like these, we must be cautious not to assume that the recollection of historic milestones and anniversaries is the same as learning from our history’s long and painful passage. Breaking this cursed cycle of violence that we have been born into, requires more patient analysis and introspection than the frenzy of penning a moving memorial to one of many watershed moments in history usually affords.
Having been born in the early 80s, my generation has endured a series of significantly violent events starting with the riots of July 83’ and the insurrection of 1989. The war that raged in the 80s would escalate through our teenage years in the mid 90s and a great number of us would eventually be enlisted in the military or recruited to the LTTE in subsequent years. The remaining years of much of those recruits would be left to decay in the corrosive concoction of violent memories they bear. Yet for a majority of us – including myself, and I suspect, a disproportionate number of those who read this – are likely to belong to a demographic that could afford to distance ourselves from that physical mayhem, though not from the images of war. Hence, even though our entire lives have been engulfed and defined to a large extent by the events of 1983 and their consequences, we do not have any real experience of the violence that we were born into and grew up with. We must strive harder to broaden our understanding of how war and violence has shaped our thinking and expectations. The physical violence that ended in 2009 has left mental scars that will persist in our generation and influence the decisions that will shape our country in years to come.
But our generation is not unique by any stretch of the imagination. Preceding generations – for nearly a century – have all grown up in a vortex of violence that we have so far been unable to escape since the anti-Muslim riots in 1915. Every generation since, have inflicted and endured violence and conflict to the extent that we no longer have any living memory of peace. Having endured World War in the 1930s, a newly independent Sri Lanka was unable to resist the temptation of asserting the dominance of its majority on language policy in the mid 1950s, leading to the anti-Tamil violence in 1958. The generation that followed in the 1970s fractured both the North and South of the country. The northern conflict would endure for three decades while the south that ignited in the early seventies would flare up again in the late 80s. In the mid 1990s, war would resume with greater intensity, conditioning us to accept the loss of thousands of lives within the span of hours in single battles; not as some of the greatest tragedies in the history of our country, but as facts of daily life.
Indeed, at no point in the history of our tiny island have we known what a peaceful and equitable state looks like. Therefore we still do not know what to expect of one. It should have been clear to us even as we celebrated the end of war in 2009; that our collective imagination was unable to capture the true essence of peace. Because, for over two millennia, we have only experienced the subjugation of monarchs, the exploitation of empires, the coercive power of an insecure majority and the domination of a powerful presidential state that still unleashes violence to maintain its power over unarmed citizens as well as on the rule of law.
It is ironic that we take so much pride in being heirs to an ancient and rich history. Perhaps it is that rose-tinted perception of history that inspired us to celebrate in May 2009 – filled with optimism about the prospects of peace at the end of a thirty year war. But, not everyone who set off firecrackers in the streets on that bright and unforgettable day would have really understood the prematurity of their celebrations. As we look around today, it is quite apparent that the violence has not ended with the events of May 2009 – just as much as they did not begin in July 1983.
Given the pattern of events that have persisted for over a century, it is not altogether surprising that four years since war’s end, we have allowed ourselves to loop back in time to an eerily familiar place. Where we are now is not too dissimilar from the events and collective mindset that led to the Sinhala-Muslim communal violence almost exactly a century ago. The details of those events need to be explored separately, but every generation since then have been offered unique opportunities on separate occasions, to recognise our shared identity. Each generation was invited to the high table of history, to conceive of a state (and a state of mind) that is broad enough to contain our rich diversity. But today, we stand among the ruins of our past, where each of those subsequent generations failed. May 2009 was our moment. It still is. Are we destined to falter like those before us who never understood their place in history, or will we be the generation that will be remembered for constructing a new history, and a successful alternative path to a more equitable future? But even as we reflect on that moment, the bountiful reasons we had to celebrate at the conclusion of war in 2009 are dissolving one by one, eroding away what little remains of any faith we may have had in our ability to escape this multi generational cycle of violence.
The responsibilities and burdens of history rest on our shoulders now; notwithstanding that ours is a generation that is at a greater disadvantage than any before us. If we are to succeed, we must first have the courage to reject the violence and intolerance that has conditioned us over a lifetime. We cannot afford to take the unprecedented bloodshed and rule of violence which engulfed the North and South, for granted as facts of life. The thirty years that has passed since July of 1983, is significant not only for the victims of those despicable acts of violence, but for our generation that was born into it, grew up with it and is not called to on to be the ones to prevent our country from relapsing back into the ever more familiar cycle of violence. The history of violence in Sri Lanka runs much deeper in our collective memory than we are able to recall as individuals. That is why we must now reconstruct our history not merely as Sinhalese, Buddhists, or both, but together – collectively in a space that is large and hospitable enough to accommodate all communities that make up Sri Lanka.
So far, we have been learning the wrong lessons from history. Rather than learning how to avoid making the same mistakes we have made in the past, we seem to have instead learned how to use history to inflame and repeat those mistakes more competently. Perhaps if we can understand our place in history better than previous generations were able to, we may yet hope to break the cycle that made events like those of July 1983 possible. That is not going to be easy – and the odds of history are stacked heavily against us. However, if we can understand this moment in our history, and succeed in disentangling the truth about our past and present from the myths and falsehoods that have taken root in our belief system; we will have reason to be optimistic.