The COVID-19 pandemic may have deterred physical gatherings, but families of scores of Tamils who died in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war on Monday paid tributes to their loved ones — lighting candles, reciting prayers in their homes and via video calls.
On this day in 2009, the state armed forces triumphantly declared crushing the rebel LTTE to defeat, after killing its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. It was also the day that several thousand civilians — the UN estimates 40,000 deaths in the final phase — died in incessant shelling, despite being assured they were in a no-fire zone. For over a decade now, Sri Lankans continue to mark the end of the civil war with strikingly different narratives. For the Tamils, the day symbolises its brutal end that brought much grief and trauma to the community, while the Sri Lankan state — successive governments in power since 2009 — has celebrated it as “victory day”, hailing soldiers or “war heroes” for bringing a nearly three decade-long separatist war to an end. Questions over human rights excesses during the time remain unanswered.
On Monday, relatives of many who were killed that day convened at Mullivaikkal in the northern Mullaitivu district, near the Nandikadal lagoon, wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, as they lit lamps and offered flowers at the site that witnessed the gory final days of the battle.
“The crowd was smaller this time. Some people may have preferred to stay indoors due to the risk of COVID-19. But everyone paid respects in their own way, after all it’s a way of dealing with their loss,” said Shanthi Sriskantharajah, a former MP of the Tamil National Alliance, from Mullaitivu.
However, the former legislator herself didn’t go to Mullivaikkal. “I have my personal reasons. Families go their to collectively acknowledge their grief, and to remember their loved ones. But it troubles me that year after year, some politicians use this site of grief for their own propaganda. I don’t have to go there and do politics,” said Ms. Sriskantharajah, whose leg was severely injured in the last stages of shelling in 2009. “Like many other people, I too bear the scars of the war on my body every day,” she told The Hindu.
‘Day of grief’
In neighbouring Kilinochchi district too, families lit lamps and candles at their homes, and offered prayers, according to Father S.K. Daniel, who has been involved post-war reconciliation efforts. “It’s a day of immense grief for the people, no one can forget it.”
Whether 11 years is enough time for healing will only be determined by what the decade offered, by way of justice, accountability and peace, according to human rights activist Ruki Fernando. “Bringing perpetrators to justice is one aspect of it. But it’s also about those who suffered the most having an environment where they can remember without fear or threat, about renewing their livelihoods as before, and their relationships with other communities,” he said.
On Monday, the Tamil National People’s Front, a political alliance headquartered in Jaffna, tweeted that its members were prevented by the police from holding commemorative events, despite observing health safety measures. Others who held special prayers and meetings were also questioned by the police in some areas, sources told The Hindu.
“It’s easy for some to say let’s forget the past and move on. But maybe moving on is about remembering and being able to freely remember,” Mr. Fernando said.