Photograph via Steppes Travel

Six years after the end of the war the population in the North of Sri Lanka remains passive, ensnared in wartime mentality because they haven’t been able to express and deal with their sorrow and trauma. Professors from Jaffna University talk of a young generation incapable of envisioning a better future. While they demonstrated courage and compassion beyond their years during war, they are now disillusioned, unable to cope with the ‘normal’ life of a university student because of a post-traumatic growth in their personalities and functioning.

The bombing, gunshots and shelling has stopped but little by little Mahinda Rajapaksa narrowed the space for expression throughout the post-war years. This has resulted in people who have been unable to heal themselves and continue to be emotionally amputated. Now, for the first time since the war ended, Tamil society sees some positive changes after the January election and change in presidency. Inter alia, President Sirisena has started giving land back and professors from Jaffna University conclude there is now a little space to breathe again. However, no one knows how big this space is and if the Tamil people are capable of using it beneficially.

Blocked grief

“Immediately after the war and until the change in presidency in January this year there has been no real recovery from a psychological point of view. People haven’t been able to deal with grief, they haven’t been able to come to terms with what happened or to get on with their life,” psychologist & professor Dr. Daya Somasundaram says when Groundviews met him in the Teaching Hospital in Jaffna.

When the Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE and put an end to the war Mahinda Rajapaksa banned any psychological help or trauma treatment in the North because he was afraid that it would be used to collect evidence of war crimes. According to Dr. Somasundaram the effects of war trauma has been an increase in males abuse in alcohol, teenage and unwanted pregnancy, gender based violence, child abuse, poor parenting, rape and suicide. After the war these problems have not decreased proportionally with the years passing – quite the opposite actually.

According to Dr. Somasundaram Sri Lanka has had one of the highest suicide rates in the world – mainly because of the war and the tsunami in 2004. After the tsunami a lot was done to deal with the trauma, led by the government and supported by international organizations. This has not been the case after the war. “We lost a good opportunity to recover and start a reconciliation process all these years,” he says.

The effects of this is what Dr. Somasundaram calls a “blocked grief” manifested as lack of motivation, lack of participation and lack of drive to get on with your life, “people are still caught up in what happened, unfinished business you might call it.”  He explained that during the war years the Tamil population became very dependent on people around them (including the LTTE, the Army or/and foreign aid organisations): “They became silent as a survival mood because speaking out or performing any resistance was dangerous, and they are still in this survival mood,” he continued, stating that the fear and insecurity has endured throughout the post-war years: “You would have thought that in a post-war situation people would have become more expressive, constructive and active in solving their problems and controlling their life, but that has really not been the case – the society is really passive and paralyzed. No effort has been made to address these issues under the Rajapaksa government, but after the change in government there is hope that we can be able to work with these important psychological issues.”

From the frying pan to the fire

In the Mullaitivu district a teacher who prefers anonymity complained about the parents’ lack of interest in their children’s education and future. She reported a high number of pupils who have difficulties concentrating and studying because of their mental condition. According to Dr. Somasundaram one explanation is that the children in the Northern Province grow up in a post-war vacuum where the war still cast a great shadow on the whole family: “In Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu there is a very bad environment in homes; the parents are still caught up in the war and some children have also gone through some horrible experiences.”

He also explained how the elder generation of young people faced difficulties concerning education and work opportunities. “Some had shown remarkable courage during the war, rescuing, caring and helping others. They had survived and coped through astonishing danger and destruction,” he writes in his report on the post-war situation in the North published in 2012, further explaining that many mature far too early. “They are frustrated, have a lack of motivation and little hope for their future.”

Drama director, Dr. K. Sithambaranathan paints a similar image of the students at the Jaffna University: “Many students don’t have any ambition for their future. They don’t know what idealism is.”

Senior lecturer & Teachers Union leader of Jaffna University Amirthalingam Rasakumaran states that the Tamil people has been internally suffering more in the post-war years than during the war: “When the war was over people expected a lot of things to happen, but it was really from the frying pan to the fire,” he says.

The winners and the losers

This internal suffering can be explained by what artist and art professor Dr. T. Sanathanan defines as the notion of the winners and the losers that was established after the war, and materialized in the losers loss of their right to commemoration and expression, “the losers lost their agency,” he says.

He avers that right after the war ended there was a space for commemoration but after three years this space closed: “When people really started remembering and negotiating with their memories they were not allowed because the government started to become very aggravated.” Despite this some people have tried to express their sorrow and trauma in different ways, for example using traditional rituals or creating art, “but in general we haven’t come to a time where we are able to deal with the traumas from the war. There are some art works that portrays aspects of the war and the trauma but it’s not available in the public domain and therefore not used collectively.”

According to him a self-censorship has emerged covering all aspects of the society in the North because of the constant surveillance from local and national authorities: “Even at the university there is a high level of self-censorship; the administration banned a student project after they were called to the Palaly Military Base where they were warned about showing these art works. It’s not only public art exhibitions but also small gatherings of ten people that are threatened. Sometimes the Intelligence Services attend these meetings – just sitting and listening. These kinds of practices have been here throughout the years.”

Sanathanan tells that his students are still caught up in the war-reality because they haven’t been given the space to deal with their memories and experiences: “Whenever I ask my students to do a creative project they end up doing something related to the war, not only symbolically but often in a very direct way,” he says and share an example where the university administration criticized the students after pressure from the government: “The administration asked the students: “The war is over, why are you still talking about this?” One of the students answered: “We don’t want to do it, but this is the way we try to negotiate with the memories of war and come out of it.” Sanathanan believes that if you allow a space for the students to express the problems they are facing because of the war, not only the specifically war-related issues but also the social issues related to the economical and social situation created by the war, they can start to portray other subjects in their art.

In order to deal with the trauma and reconcile, people have to become creative again, drama director K. Sithambaranathan notes: “Theatre can play an important role in society where people can perform, heal and reconstruct.” According to him traditional Tamil plays have been banned since the end of the war and only Western dramas have been allowed. He thinks it’s important that the Tamil people get the possibility to recreate, reshape and rebuild their culture.

Hope and responsibility

“Hope is a key ingredients of resilience and economic recovery,” Dr. Somasundaram says. If there isn’t any hope for the future there will not be progress. And if people don’t deal with their trauma they will continue to live in the past and not focus on their future. “People are afraid to speak out, to share their grief or even have a ceremony but we hope they will see it’s much more open now.”

A report Dr. Somasundaram published in 2012 about post-war conditions in Jaffna showcases the healing effect when people get resettled in their old homes or villages. The new government has released occupied land since they came to power in January but many are still waiting to get their land back.

“After the election we don’t have fear of being shot or arrested just for raising our voices for the rights of Tamil people. Now we can breathe a bit, we are a bit happier compared to the period before January, but there need to be a permanent solution to the ethnic problem, Tamils need to be treated equally in Sri Lanka,” English professor Amirthalingam Rasakumaran explains.

Regarding reconciliation and development of the Northern province T. Sanathanan doesn’t think its sufficient that the new government gives more freedom and creates a space for expression and commemoration, because as he says, with freedom there has to be responsibility, a sense the Tamil people according to him lost throughout the war and in the post-war years: “We slowly lost the sense of responsibility in the last 30 years. “Somebody” represented us, “somebody” talked for us, “somebody” decided for us, so now if we get the agency back we don’t know how to use it, that’s the problem.

It’s to early to say what will happen after the general elections. It feels like there is more space now after the change in government, but we haven’t really explored how far this space goes,” T. Sanathanan says and calls for a larger democratisation and transition process: “It’s not enough just to remove the Army physically. Every section in society has to be looked at. I think that’s the only way to create a space for freedom of expression and commemoration.”