Photo courtesy of Roar Media

“How are we supposed to heal when we can’t even remember our loved ones in peace?” asked Vinitha (name changed), a Tamil social worker who grew up during the most violent times in Sri Lanka. Vinitha, like many other Tamils across the North and East, continues to face oppression for merely remembering the dead and disappeared of the brutal three decade long civil war. The week of May 18 is acknowledged as Tamil Remembrance Week across the Tamil community at home and abroad. May 18 marks the final day of the civil war and the last of the final phase of the war where every zone became a “fire zone.”

This year marks the 14th anniversary of the end of the war and much like previous years, the “winning party” continues to celebrate Ranaviru Day on May 19 to commemorate the soldiers.

While Ranaviru Day is celebrated with great pride, the government has time and again blocked and restricted commemoration events and ceremonies for Tamils. In 2021, the Rajapaksa government arrested a Tamil member of parliament for commemorating the loss of lives merely hours after the president called for reconciliation between ethnic groups at the UN. In the same year, a Tamil war memorial was allegedly vandalized by the Army, which continues to militarize the lands and lives of the Tamil people years after the war. Over the years there have been countless incidents reported by citizens and journalists under the garb of national security.

When I asked her about her experiences over the years, Vinitha asked, “How is lighting a simple lamp and offering some flowers to the lagoon in Mullaitivu a threat? What are you scared of?”

While there is much debate about the war, the crimes and atrocities, the winning battle and other factors, one aspect that remains static is the idea of reconciliation. But can there be reconciliation without remembrance?

Two sides of the same coin

Reconciliation has various facets from truth and justice to repatriations but the one we often forget is remembrance.

To various individuals, reconciling could represent different things. Its importance differs from culture to culture and evolves over time. The word reconciliation denotes coming together at its most fundamental level. Perhaps at its very definition reconciliation is both a process and an outcome, not either or. Reconciliation is a social process that entails both parties acknowledging previous suffering and transforming negative attitudes and actions into positive interactions that lead to long lasting harmony.

Reconciliation is inextricably linked to the matter of how one engages with memories of the violent past, as recollections of the war as well as the way those incidents remain in memory have the ability to influence the essence and features of post war relations. A crucial step in the endeavor of national and individual reconciliation involves remembering the terrible past.

Societies that have opted to recognize only the dominant narrative often adopt a good versus evil paradigm. There is no doubt that the winners or the groups in power are the good ones and the opponents are depicted as evil. The manner in which the past is remembered may either help in the endeavor of reconciliation or serve as a catalyst for additional aggression.

Hence, it is important to provide space and acceptance. The UN while talking about reconciliation in Sri Lanka, said, “To prevent new atrocities, the experiences of victims must be placed front and center, and memories must be preserved.”

When I asked Vinitha what reconciliation means to her. She replied, “I do not care for those big words; they have lost all their meaning… At the very core of it, what I want is to be able to remember in peace. Cry my heart out in peace. All I ask is a very basic thing: tolerance and acceptance. That is the least the government can do for us Tamils. The very least.”

Remembrance: the core of coming together

Memories are narratives that people use to narrate their hardships, successes and acts of valor. Past memories are preserved in various ways. Given the amount of repression against the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, people have transcended into various ways of remembrance.

One of the ongoing ways of remembrance has been the distribution of Mullivaikkal kanji throughout the North and the East. Mullivaikkal kanji has both a rich and sad history throughout the North and the East. Vinitha mentioned that the kanji represents the misery and pride of the Tamil people.

“A porridge of rice and water is all we had. Women got together to make this watery porridge to merely survive the final days of the war when shelling happened every blink of an eye. The misery is represented in ways that show that this is what we were reduced to; our survival was just the porridge. The pride is that we survived. Between the shellings and the killings, we survived. But at the heart of it, Mullivaikkal kanji represents us as a community coming together for each other.”

Mullivaikkal kanji is just one of the ways that Tamils across the world remember the final days of the war; it signifies what remembrance stands for. Vinitha added that it was in these small ways that we commemorated and remembered our dead and disappeared loved ones. “We do not have the means nor the money to do parades and big events. I would say most of us do not even want to. Remembering our loved ones sits in the very heart of every Tamil. For most of us, remembrance means coming together as a community. We ask the South and the government to understand and embrace that.”

Let us remember together

On numerous occasions, the UN has reminded us that reconciliation should not be about forgiving and forgetting, but instead it should be about learning how to remember and change.

Vinitha said, “What are we left with? Nothing, simply nothing but our memories. Why do they want to take that away? We both fought one another. We both killed each other. Now is the time to understand one another.”

Vinitha’s comments will be refreshing to many who read this in the South, as the history and legacy of the war and the LTTE have been contested within the Tamil community. But these thoughts, which are shared by many Tamils, never reach the South due to the contestation of good and evil and who gets to remember.

What Vinitha and many other Tamils ask is to come together as a community, as Sri Lankans. When I asked what she thought about the Aragalaya’s efforts to commemorate and remember the bloody past of the North, she replied, “I do have my reservations about the Aragalaya because it is a movement of the South and they got a mere taste of what our whole lives have been. But I was happy that people, especially young people, are creating awareness. It is time that we do that and stand with one another.”

She concluded, “That is significant because it shows that people are, although very slowly, coming to the realization that every person’s journey toward reconciliation begins with them; it begins with you and me, and that the only thing we have in our hearts is the memory of our loved ones. Only when we put aside our differences and unite as a country will we be able to recover.”