In a fruitful initiative the pseudonymous collective known as “Social Architects” (SA) interviewed a few former female Tiger fighters who are residing in the northern Vanni districts. Their life-world is apparently oppressive and mentally traumatic. In interweaving their distressing stories while maintaining their anonymity, the SA presented a video documentary in Groundviews on 27th May 2013 which brought to light a strand of existence in the Tamil population affected by the war that is little known within mainstream circles.
In listening to their distressing tales I was struck by the similarity in style of expression with the Sinhala tele-dramas that I have occasionally witnessed — where a grieving mother or wife laments over the actions of some kin (often male). That is, there seem to be cross-ethnic similarities in style of “sob-story”. But that is a mere aside that is of limited significance. What matters more is the depth of grief that SA have brought to light
That is why I asked some scholars with experience in working/researching in Tamil areas to comment on “Haunted by Her Yesterdays.” These comments are presented here under pseudonyms that protect their identity.
Readers are advised to absorb “Haunted by Her Yesterdays” [a wonderful title] at https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=nSSv9Kk3tkI before studying the comments. Let reflections and debate then continue.
The ABSTRACT of this video documentary runs thus: “This documentary tells a story of silent agony, trapped screams and repressed mourning. A story of women forced to deny their identity — who are trapped in between a government which sees them as “Tigers,” and a society whose norms they are no longer deemed worthy of.” Published on Mar 27, 2013
ONE: AKT, a retired government officer with experience in the north, Sinhala, Male
Prof. Michael: The focus here is on the female combatants, but it seems to have missed the households headed by women, who are in the same plight and this was brought to the attention of the LLRC. There is no doubt that women of both categories are vulnerable, and the presence of the army probably makes it worse. This is an area where some of the NGO’s would have been able to make a great impact, but the attitude of the Govt. to NGO’s is such that they would not dare to intervene.
The problems faced by these women are a direct result of the conflict, and were inevitable but the their present plight is clearly due to the pre-occupation on the part of the Govt. that the LTTE may re-group, as a result of which there is a considerable army presence, and the forced absence of social service organizations in the North and East.
One cannot claim that the situation would improve if the army is withdrawn, because then these women would still be at the mercy of the local males, though not to the same extent.
The Northern Provincial Council would be the proper authority to look into these problems and find humane solutions, with the assistance of religious and social service organizations, but this will not be possible unless it is given full powers to deal with them without army and government interference This is an area where the Govt. needs to do more.
TWO: BSB, a university teacher/researcher located abroad, Sinhala, Male
Dear Michael: Thanks for the reference to the U-tube video. I found it convincing. LTTE broke with Jaffna’s traditional society in the manner they treated/used women in combat. When the war ended the female ex-combatants have returned to the old society but with one major difference. It is a society where the victorious army holds sway. The lives that the women describe show that. It is well known that war widows in the north and east shun the police and army.
PS: after seeing comment from BKT
The note from your friend is right on target. VP [Prabhakaran] could not change Jaffna culture. With his disappearance Jaffna has got back to where it was in the mid-1970s. This reminds me of Russia. Lenin, Stalin et al were highly impressed with themselves that they changed Russian society. Come 1990 the world realized that the pre-revolutionary Russian culture was very much alive!
I am an economist. My profession regularly underestimates the power of tradition and culture.
THREE: CML, a Sri Lankan Australian researching in the north, Male
I have studied the video and in my opinion it is fairly genuine.
I gather that the women speaking are ex-combatants, some have undergone rehabilitation while some haven’t? Most of the stories concur with the accounts I hear from widows. In this video most of the criticism is levelled at traditional Tamil society. And I agree with them about its cruelty, of both sentiment and behaviour, metered out to some of the most vulnerable survivors of the war. These poor women, through no fault of their own, have lost their husbands and more sympathy and support are forthcoming through government programs than their own people. The percentage balance between criticism of their own people and hardship caused by military apparati is, in my opinion, about right.
There is one section (8:15-8:38 ) where the commentator starts with – “no accountability for credible war crimes in the final stages of fighting. Human rights violations remain widespread, particularly in the highly militarised north and east. Any signs of association with the LTTE are now systematically crushed and criminalised.” – I believe is ‘sloppy’ but at least it is very limited. It is one of those ‘catch-all’ phrases that is supposed to accurately summarise what is happening in Sri Lanka. Sadly, it weakens an otherwise well-constructed video.
The most damning part is delivered by the woman wearing a turquoise coloured dress with a red trim holding a pink handkerchief. She is either a brilliant actress/voice over or a genuine story. From experience there are rogue members of the CID or military who can hound and harass ex-combatants, both male or female. 14:15: “when they come to my house and subject me to sexual abuse, I feel treated like a dog.” – what does she mean by ‘sexual abuse’? Is it rape or fondling or “pulling my hand”? Translation from Tamil to English is important here. I remember first hearing many stories of ‘torture’ only to find out that what Tamils term as ‘torture’ could be as minor as nagging, causing emotion discomfort, denying someone something, and totally different to its meaning in a western context.
On the whole, I lean toward believing her story. Her fear may well be greater than anything she may face in the future, but it seems real enough to her. By her accounts she has not been to rehabilitation and is scared of doing so? These is some confusion about whether she has or hasn’t. She mentions going to the ‘civil office’ — what does she mean by this?
In my assessment, this is quite a well-balanced and accurate rendition of the plight of women with a double disability (ex-combatant + widow). The only section that mars an otherwise important contribution is the commentator’s too bold and generalised (propagandised) statement cited earlier (8:15-8:38).
Hope this helps
FOUR: DGL, a university teacher/researcher abroad, Tamil, Male
I watched the video, which was very depressing in many ways. Is there any thing particular you are after? My sense is that these stories are authentic and resonate strongly with the stories I have heard (including many first hand). The combination of forced recruitment and those that joined of their own will, the sense of equality they gained on the movement (but equally the pervasive patriarchal and rigid hierarchies), the horrors they personally witnessed, the constant monitoring, harassment & humiliation since returning, and the deep sense of despair are all quite authentic. This may not be the whole truth, but all of it has the ring of authenticity.
FIVE: FSR, a postgraduate researcher abroad, Sinhala, Female
Dear Michael, I watched this short documentary over a year back. At that point in time, I found the many of the narratives to be rather stock in a way that there were few nuances (although I don’t doubt their authenticity)…… also there was little transcendence (or at least personal agency), and not much space for reflection from the participants themselves. I was also left feeling a little uncomfortable given the relative “invisibility” of the filmmakers themselves – maintaining anonymity is understandable but there was little presence or reflexivity on that account which left a number of questions unanswered (old questions of what standpoints were privileged, were there slight differences in experience and why, tall order of course for a short film but some of these might have been somewhat circumvented by strengthening the presence of the filmmakers a little more). … On the whole, that was my first impression, bearing in mind of course that the documentary is perhaps one of the few (if not only) films that capture the double bind that ex-combatants/widows struggle with. I don´t know whether I would be the best person to give you a more nuanced analysis of the documentary given the fact that I have not had the opportunity of interacting with female ex-combatants during my research. The few I encountered were young men …
The photographs were probably taken in 2011 and are part of a classic cache of landscape and people sent to me by Walter Keller, a former German INGO worker [whose theya re is not clear except for one attributed to Walter] : see https://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/