Waiting on Biafra and Lanka

As May turns into June the quiet loneliness of war-torn Jaffna lies before me. For how much longer, years or decades into the future, will I look back into the past? And who will help me reflect on that past?

Some, fifty years ago, the tragedy of Biafra unfolded. I grew up hearing about the legacy of Biafra. During the early years of Tamil militancy, my father and a few other Tamil intellectuals of his generation warned that we may end up like Biafra. That many intellectuals perished in the struggle for Biafra I knew, but what they did I did not know back then.

It is over the last year, that I returned to Biafra, through the powerful novel of Chimamanda Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. A novel sometimes helps us think about questions we find difficult to ask. Adichie made me think about how long it takes for us to grasp the suffering that comes with a devastating war. Indeed, Adichie writes about Biafra some forty years after. From Adichie, I moved to Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. What struck me most about Achebe’s memoir, is that almost fifty years later, he is still struggling to come to terms with what Biafra meant to him, shackled by lingering nationalist sentiment. It takes a life time or even more to deal with the past in places like Biafra and Lanka.

Mid-May marked the fifth year since the end of the war in Sri Lanka. The same happens year after year: the militarised celebrations in the South; the visible and intimidating presence of the military on the Northern streets, all the more so during that week; the hyper-rhetorical statements by Tamil nationalists both in the Diaspora and in the country; and, of course, the spew of writings, by Sri Lankan intellectuals and international observers, on the war and what has happened since. All this makes me wonder whether and how the discourse will shift as May turns into June, and the years turn into decades, into the future.

I too am drawn in, off and on, to write on the war and post-war, but I want to question such writing. There are a host of books, special issues and articles, rushing to capture the war and post-war, as if the crisis of Sri Lanka will soon disappear. Many of these writings construct the situation in Sri Lanka according to international conceptions of reconciliation and reconstruction. They are produced for market-centred media and academia on the terms and priorities set by global actors and policy makers. Their solutions are often the cause of more problems for those on the margins.

Some writers have rightly made a distinction between post-conflict and post-war, that the war is over but the conflict lingers on. But I want to fundamentally question the notion of post-war. What do we mean by post-war? Can we really understand the suffering during the war any better now, because it is the post-war period? What temporalities do we engage the post-war period with? And how do we understand the work of history in relation to memory and survival from war?

All this does not mean we do not challenge militarisation. Nor does it mean that we abandon the struggle to defeat neoliberal, authoritarian and fascist regimes. That is the urgent work of activism. But the question of suffering during the war is of another temporal order. I feel we really need to be careful and reflect before we rush to link the deeper question of war-time suffering with the immediate concerns of militarisation and attacks on democracy. Space to reflect is what is lacking when researchers and writers rush to capture the war and question the survivors for answers. Pushed for answers, they often repeat what they are scripted to say by the media and hegemonic actors for the consumption of others, even as mourning turns into melancholy.

It is in this context, that it was refreshing for a moment to listen to Sumathy speak at a recent showing of her film, Ingirinthu in Colombo. I see this feature film set in the Up-Country as a political history of the much neglected subaltern plantation workers. Sumathy did not have any answers other than to say that her film is about the present, about violence, and the violence of the state. In that film about the tragedy of a community, often left out from discussions about Sri Lanka, violence is ever present. But as Sumathy reminded me, it is also a story about the resilience of women. People take years, decades, and sometimes generations, to tell their stories on their own terms and in their own way. The stories of war, suffering, death and survival will also come out. Some artists and writers better abled than I will have to work with the people and give the stories some form. But they must wait, wait and listen with patience.

One thought on “Waiting on Biafra and Lanka”

  1. Good comparison with Biafra. The legacy of such a long protracted conflict – post-traumatic stress on a variety of nightmarish ways. Here in the UK, we see but a handful – every story is deeply sad. The survivors bear the brunt of it all.

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