Climbing Up that Hill: The Tamil Genocide and the Long Path to Recognition and Justice

A response to TAMIL RESISTANCE & RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF GENOCIDE, a global photo campaign first shown at Caelum Gallery in New York on May 11th , with an additional show in Toronto on May 26th , which commemorates the Mullivaikkal Massacre and serves as a further call to action.

By Mary Krienke

On Easter Sunday, three Christian churches were bombed in Sri Lanka, followed by an outpouring of grief for the victims, many of them children. The violence of this act was not lost on anyone; the story was internationally broadcast and widely heard.

These stories capture an essential truth behind such acts of terror: people were killed doing the least we should be allowed to do — to express faith and joy, to congregate and commune with others. In the desire to express what makes us most human is where our vulnerability lies. This was self-evident. This was the pulse of recognition. Empathy as simple as breathing.

In response to the Easter Day bombings, some homed in on the religious element and proclaimed that sectarian violence had been unusual in the country for the last decade, neglecting the reality of the intense ethnic conflict Sri Lanka has endured for decades in addition to other incidents of post-war anti-Muslim violence. TAMIL RESISTANCE & RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF GENOCIDE: A global photo campaign to commemorate the Mullivaikkal Massacre — already planned to commemorate the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in 2009 — shows that the Easter bombings lie on top of a foundation of state-sanctioned violence and ethnic cleansing.

Photo by Samitha Rajadeva

PEARL’s exhibit, shown in New York on May 11th — with an additional show in Toronto on May 26th — takes visitors through the pre-cursors to the war, as tensions were mounting; through the height of the bloodshed; and into the aftermath, where deep wounds still exist. There are photos of in-the-moment brutality as well as the mangled evidence of violence that will not soon be forgotten. Some photos show bodies, some show the ruins of gutted buildings; in another, a bike leans against a wall — on first glance, an image that could be a street anywhere, until you see the bullet holes that crack through the concrete. The exhibit collects these images side by side, fully planting you into another place and reality. It is not the feeling of traveling back in time but the awareness that what you are witnessing is running parallel to your experience at this very moment. The world is full of these moments, if you let them in, and this exhibit offers its audience access to such a moment of connection. All it asks in return is to look and not turn away.

Several realities exist for why more was not done about Sri Lanka’s genocide, including government messaging, claiming all military action was directed at the LTTE only — a guerilla organization ultimately designated a terrorist group — again neglecting the reality in which the LTTE was formed, as an armed resistance in response to anti-Tamil laws and pogroms. And most importantly neglecting that Tamils, after being targeted for years, were relentlessly shelled by the government in designated safe zones until no further armed struggle could be mounted.

But we cannot withhold empathy or deny government-directed genocide because the LTTE committed atrocities; how easily are we fooled into believing this sanctions violence toward Tamil civilians? This is how ethnic cleansing marches on.

PEARL’s exhibit feels especially haunting because of how clear it is that the violence is not over, that this is still a country very much in flux, where wounds are not only open but raw. Two photos toward the end of the exhibit show monuments that the Sri Lankan government has erected in the North-East, where many Tamil civilians were bombed while in supposed safe zones and at hospitals they turned to for treatment (the exhibit’s accompanying audio/text reveals that the only hospitals not bombed were those that chose not to give out their coordinates). These monuments speak loudly and clearly to Sri Lanka’s Tamil population: they are a further act of aggression, a reminder of state-sanctioned violence and trauma, and a warning to remain silent.

State-sanctioned silence is not new or even rare. Guatemala, Peru, Spain, Rwanda. There are countless parallels between PEARL’s exhibit and feature film documentaries such as the 1983 WHEN MOUNTAINS TREMBLE, about the Guatemalan armed conflict that targeted the country’s Mayan population, and THE SILENCE OF OTHERS, which had its US theatrical release this month, about the amnesty law and “pact of forgetting” in post-Franco’s Spain. For those who can’t forget, who lost loved ones, or who were tortured themselves, laws demanding forgetting are one more form of torture: to suffer in silence, to mask their grief, to expect nothing as human as knowing what happened to their loved ones or burying their dead.

Sri Lanka’s victory monuments in the heart of the Tamil North-East, where mass graves are still being unearthed, echo Spain’s controversial Valley of the Fallen, which contains both mass graves from Franco’s regime and, up until June 2019, will contain a tomb for Franco himself; its large cross cuts into the skyline as a reminder of deep division and the towering figure Franco remains. But THE SILENCE OF OTHERS, like PEARL’s exhibit, shows a movement of victims seeking justice despite demands to forget, and serves as a testament to the importance of truth and justice. TAMIL RESISTANCE & RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF GENOCIDE takes us through the grief of families unable to get answers about their disappeared loved ones — an estimated 100,000 individuals — and the movement to memorialize LTTE lives, whose gravestones were razed by the government, then recovered by Tamils resisting the aggressive silencing.

What this exhibit and PEARL’s larger mission communicates so clearly is that genocide is a process, as is grief — and justice. Genocide always seems like an impossibility, but it is a slope into madness that begins by looking away. The only counterbalance to genocide is to return to the site of the wound, to climb back up that hill, and to say: this happened and those responsible must be held accountable. This exhibit asks us to make that climb, to let the long process of recognition and restitution begin.

In support of Tamil Genocide Recognition, please sign this petition and lend your voice to this necessary movement for justice.

Mary Krienke grew up in the Midwest and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA from Columbia University’s Fiction Program and has been previously published in Joyland, Palooka, Underground Voices, and Midwestern Gothic, among others. She is currently an associate agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, a New York City-based literary agency.

Tamil Resistance & Resilience in the Face of Genocide will be in Toronto on May 26 from 12:30 pm to 7 pm at Abbozzo Gallery (401 Richmond Street W. #128). Please RSVP here.