The island-nation of Sri Lanka, about twenty miles off the south-eastern coast of India, boasts endless beaches, timeless ruins and rolling surf. But it has also been crippled by a three-decade-long civil war mounted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel force responsible for bloody massacres, ethnic cleansing and piracy. In 2004, a devastating tsunami claimed the lives of 35,322 Sri Lankans and displaced over half a million more, further rocking the small country. Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan, Director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative, contemplates the real impact of international humanitarian aid through her interactions with victims of rape, disaster and militarization.
Jeya’s daughter is nine days old, unnamed, when I meet her in Sri Lanka. Miniscule compared to my chunky little boy, born only a few months earlier, she squirms beneath pink netting as I gingerly reach in to hold her hand. “I don’t need to see her,” Jeya says, turning away. That day, I was a human rights researcher, and I wondered what fresh trauma I would cause in the pursuit of documenting her story.
Jeya’s daughter was born of rape. Half Singhalese, half Tamil. Half soldier, half civilian. She entered her world when a vicious cycle of violence had come full circle. They say the war is over now, the country is at peace. Discreetly positioned inside a church, sitting across from Jeya, I’m restless, intimately familiar with the pangs of guilt that interrupt my work and jar my sense of self.
The last time I was here, I was a humanitarian worker. Then, at least, I could have carefully placed a tiny band-aid over the details of her damaged life. Now, I am intervening into local lives with only the promise of social justice in hand. I am an ill-equipped spy, sent to retrieve the most repressed memories from a repressed people. The stories will, at worst, incite a directionless moral outrage on behalf of the people, and at best, brand their government an international pariah.
I am relieved Jeya will talk to me, as I have come looking for victims of rape (survivors, in aid parlance), but so far had only encountered witnesses and rumors. From inside the electrified fence of her internment, Jeya didn’t know which day the war had ended. “They never told us. Or maybe they did. None of us understood Singhalese.”
It is a war the West knows little about, though its fighters became infamous around the globe. The slow exclusion of Tamils from government jobs and universities bled into the manipulation of ethnic extremism by political elites — a familiar post-colonial tale. As the Singhalese articulated a vision for a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state, the Tamils demanded a separate nation, and Muslims were caught in between. Years of peaceful protest turned violent — and though nobody quite agrees on when it began — what followed was three decades of intractable civil war.
Jeya speaks to me in Tamil. She is a Tamil. In this post-war moment, I am opening the curtain on extreme violations in order to reveal everyday (and historic) injustices. I am here for the same reason I have always come here. As a Tamil-Sri-Lankan-American-woman I want to, I have to, help.
I had always known Sri Lanka through the inroads of culture — missing out on American sleepovers and proms in exchange for traditional Carnatic(singing) and Bharatanatyam (dance) recitals. Tamil voices filled my weekends, pushed aside by weekday English interactions. But it was a culture divorced from context. Only from the safe distance of my ivory tower did I marry the two, reading pages that described the bloodshed dripping from my own family tree.
When a friend asked me to help develop a leadership program for war-affected orphans in the north and east of Sri Lanka, I said yes, because I wanted to help. Fresh out of college, I wholeheartedly embraced the promise of voluntourism — one part rewarding, two parts adventure, with the added potential for self-discovery. Rumbling across the island with a busload of volunteers, I had come to save lives and, perhaps, change my own.
We drove through the middle of the country, in the middle of the war. Right before we disembarked, one of the volunteers asked me, “Don’t you think it would have been more useful to send the money we spent to get here directly, to improve the lives of these children?” I couldn’t believe that might possibly be true.
Nirmala was one of the participants in our enthusiastic endeavor to build leadership and teach English. She had my mother’s name. She was 11 when I first met her, in 2002. She was one of 200 girls who lived on a generous plot of land nestled on the lagoon. At the church-run orphanage, she, and many others, didn’t quite fit the funding definition of an Orphan. She explained, “I am here because this is where my amma [mother] felt I would be safe.”
Safe from whom, I didn’t yet know. I had hoped to jump easily into the task at hand, but in those first days I was preoccupied. My mind desperately tried to grasp floating Tamil words resurfacing from childhood memories, while my militantly carnivorous body protested that a ripe banana was the only thing to sink my teeth into at every meal. At least a dozen times a day, mind, body and soul would band together to pose an urgent question — why are we here?
Nirmala, however, saw me as one of her own — a familiar alien. She often gently laughed, “You have just forgotten your Tamil in America!” It was the first time that shards of my own self glared back at me, constantly shifting shapes in a kaleidoscope of competing identities. The view through this tube would define my place as an inside-outsider — two positions that tugged at me most fiercely on this first expedition into a contested homeland.
My favorite part of the day was teaching Bharatanatyam in the still of the afternoon heat. It was the only time I was on sure footing. The girls gathered excitedly and focused intently to copy the basic steps. Nirmala told me after one class, “This is something I had always wanted to do.” A traditional hand-me-down I always took for granted was one she’d never been able to touch.
In the midst of service-providing there was storytelling. Bits and pieces of life histories snuck out over learning and leisure time. Nirmala revealed, “My appa [father] left us when we were young, and amma has always been very ill. My uncle, you know, he used to hit at [sexually assault] us.”
In all of the children, pain brimmed in their eyes, even as they smiled, relaying what you needed (and yet didn’t want) to know. Nirmala’s uncle had left with her father to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrilla fighters — then known as “the boys” — in pursuit of a separate Tamil nation. He had been caught by the Sri Lankan Army and tortured. He was a broken man when he returned to a home ravaged by war, sinking deeper into poverty.
The violence of his politics turned violently personal, for her. When he came back, he was different. “I had to leave that place,” she says, uncomfortably, quietly. For a complex problem, could there be an immediate, simple solution? Inside the safe space of a children’s home that is filled with child-like joy seemed a sufficient, humane intervention.
And Nirmala seemed happy, joining impromptu hip-hop performances to make us laugh, and looking on in proud silence as her team put the final touches on huge murals lighting up the walls in a colorful plea for peace. My own appa called the church home one evening. “How is it?” he asked, anxious. I thought for a moment. “I feel…peaceful.”
In our final days we took a bus ride to the beach, a first for many of the children. As we bumped along they broke out in song, and I was a child again — surrounded by Tamil in the most beautiful way. And then the bus stopped. We disembarked before an ornate metal gate framing rows of marble headstones. Beneath them lay the bodies of Tamil fighters from the LTTE, some as young as the children. By then, the LTTE governed large swaths of land, had its own foreign ministry and marked its territory with symbolic memorials such as this. The space was a decorated celebration of lives lost in the struggle, for the right to demand rights.
We crossed through the gate with trepidation — as it should be when the naïvely humanitarian wanders into the overtly political. There was a considered silence as we walked gingerly around lives that once were, in a war that still could be. The veil was lifted as soon as we returned to our seats on the bus. One student blurted out, “I would never join the Tigers. I don’t think you should kill.” Next to her, another retorted, “They have to use guns against the army. When I am older, I will definitely join.”
Nirmala is quiet. Back inside the walls of the orphanage, she sits next to me, sketching a couple getting married. “My sister is in the LTTE, she says she feels safer there. In my village the army comes to look for people connected to the movement. They won’t come here.” In a place where cultural conservatism determined the appropriate size of earrings and lengths of skirts, Nirmala’s sister was stomping through the jungle in military boots. She was among the roughly one-third of LTTE combatants who were female, filling ranks from foot soldiers to high-standing lieutenants.
All too soon there were tearful goodbyes, names and addresses scribbled in lined notebooks — desperate hopes to retain a connection between two worlds. As we drove away my friend turned to me and conceded, “Ok, by coming here we had more of an impact than we would have by only sending money.” The concession, though, was more disconcerting than assuring. Even where the intent was honorable, the impact was ambiguous.
Our haphazard intervention was, from the outset, handicapped in its ability to settle the political terrain rumbling beneath these children’s feet. But between us, and within us, the compilation of moments had been transformative. In a way that, perhaps, transcended measurement.
As we tore through bumpy territory, I was intensely aware of every military checkpoint, every tilted interaction between an aggressive soldier and a submissive mother, every little girl standing aside watching it all unfold. We ourselves were commanded into the sea of camouflage, and my identity was hyphenated in reverse. I was safe because I was an American-woman first, and a Tamil-Sri Lankan second.
The things left unsaid and unexplored on that original trip propelled me into graduate school. I wanted to know all of the forces that exerted pressure on Nirmala’s life. Most months of the year I was lost in texts on ethnic identity, federalism, and, on occasion, resistance. In my summers, I went back to the island. A life lived on the margins had shaped Nirmala and the girls, and our conversations grew more thoughtful year by year.
One afternoon, as she carefully braided my hair she said, “If the war really starts again, maybe I will join the movement.” In the academy, such casual comments have no value. Those days, I sat between community engagement and the standards of intellectual rigor, and wondered how to draw the two closer together. Until the waves tore everything apart. The ones that brought back the war.
Flashed on the front page of the Los Angeles Times was a Sri Lankan brown girl, overlooking the devastation that was the tsunami. Conspicuously not pictured was the young Muslim girl in Indonesia, whose headscarf may have warded off donations.
Overnight, from a political science graduate student, I transformed into a humanitarian aid worker. I spent those post-tsunami weeks in 2004 collecting $20 bills at bars in Los Angeles, harvesting suffering for fundraiser spiels, opening boxes of donated red heels, fielding calls from well-wishers and racists alike (“Please make sure this money doesn’t go to the Muslims,” one letter read). It was a moment in history where nature’s shock and awe elicited a global outpouring of pure emotion — in everyone but me. Even as I was constantly shifting in response, a part of me was stuck in a freeze-frame, watching the first death tolls flashing across the television screen.
It wasn’t until I had made the familiar trek across the island with eight wide-eyed therapists in tow and confronted the deceptively calm waves of mass destruction that I began to melt. On the sand next to a toppled temple, a woman approached me and said, “My arms still ache. I cannot hold anything since I dropped my baby in the water.” I don’t remember her name, there were too many people crowded on the beach that day, but I remember the way she looked at me. She didn’t ask for nutrition, medical attention or a new home. She only needed it to matter, to someone else, that her baby was dead.
That was my first experience as an emissary of the massive humanitarian apparatus that descends in the aftermath of crisis: post-disaster/famine/conflict/dictator. I was tasked with straddling two distinct territories to stem a tide of indiscriminate suffering. I came complete with the clipboard and authoritative walk necessary to inspire confidence in a team of disheveled newbies to the Third World. In truth, I had only a marginal cultural advantage over the Americans who granted me expert status on the basis of my own brown skin.
As I entered the orphanage grounds, Nirmala came running out. “Akka(older sister), see what I have kept!” She had grown into the woman the photo I had with me predicted she would become. Printed with overly ornate framing — a third world version of glamour shots — it was one of the few possessions she saved from the almighty water.
In those first post-disaster days, I floated through a sea of beneficiary faces, stepped over debris and found fragments of past trauma lodged in the present. A small child carrying an even smaller child in search of adults; a piece of sari awkwardly wrapped around the straight trunk of a tree, stolen from the curves of a previous owner; the children’s faces missing from the orphanage line-up I once remembered. I couldn’t summon the names, but I felt their absence.
The kaleidoscope re-assembled to place me on the inside of colored communities, relied on by individuals and villages (the tsunami-affected) as their uncomfortable guide through the lighter-skinned humanitarian labyrinth. There had been no trepidation here, no pause, before boots on the ground overran the blood-soaked earth. Nobody stopped to question whether the disaster was man-made, natural, or both. The black waves were replaced by an equally invasive flood of humanitarian intervention. It was chaos heaped on top of emotional turmoil, covering political volatility. Amid the bright array of saris and sarongs were mini-armies of aid workers, color-coded.
In yellow were the scientologists. I walked into a church preschool to find very few people in their striped uniforms seated, semicircle, staring up at big people, trying to follow the happiness-inspiring, stress-relieving chant that their benefactors were offering. In red were the Korean rescue teams, followed by a chain of translation. One for Korean to English. The second for English to Tamil. Those in white were there in service of God (though neither name nor mission statement revealed that). They proudly showed off expensive new homes, made of an imported metal guaranteed to overheat their residents and likely breed disease. The Italians were shirtless, but wore bright green Speedos as they soaked up the island sun, only half-heartedly frustrated at the political curfew that kept them from their work.
And then there were the play therapists, who came armed with brightly colored crayons. Before I could unleash them on unsuspecting children, I tried to temper their lofty expectations with the weight of political and cultural realities. Working against the ticking clock of emergency relief, I had only three hours to discuss the violence running through the past and the present of these young girls’ lives. I focused on pragmatism, explaining, “The ones with short hair will likely have been in the movement, do not mention it. For their safety, and in an attempt to do no psychological harm.” There were a few respectful nods.
On our first afternoon, I had scarcely left the dormitory when three therapists cornered one ex-combatant on her bed, inquiring after her past activities. Their reasoning: “We were trying to get her full story so we could arrange an adoption for her. For a better life.” The children were asked to use crayons to visualize their trauma. A technique whose only value seemed to be in producing materials that could be used to raise money. For more crayons.
In those months and years, hundreds of people whose lives were overturned by disasters contextualized their own misery in the struggle of others, a morbid game of compare-the-tragedy. One man tells me, “I have lost fifteen members of my family, but him, you see him? He has lost twenty-three.” It seemed to be a way to gain perspective on pain, though it provided very little solace at all.
He had told his story to someone with a survey, but she had pulled only the numbers from his narrative. As an aid worker, her job was to categorize — to separate the most affected from the least affected. As she measured the depth of impact, she missed the breadth of injury. He was a number in a never-ending numbers game. Dollars donated, beneficiaries reached, progress evaluated, dollars spent. There was no space to log the disappointment of saving nobody, no link to record one man’s choice to wallow in empathy over self-pity. These rare glimpses into our collective humanity are, in fact, the best indicators of a complete recovery.
In Sri Lanka, bad things happen in threes. Three riots, three wars. I returned to the island in October of 2010 in the midst of the third (final?) war. My presence was enabled by aid work on the surface, though my research drove me into the heart of the political backdrop. While days of LTTE-imposed curfews occasionally landed me at a hotel bar next to a red-faced aid worker, I avoided expat staff hangouts. I was happy to spend my evenings using old Tamil cassettes and an empty cafeteria to host Bollywood dance parties for Nirmala and the girls. In the years after the tsunami, joy played “hard to get” — enticed momentarily by cheesy lyrics and gyrating hips.
Within my portfolio was a livelihood program for ex-combatants who had left the movement due to injury. These were women who joined the LTTE when it boasted land, sea and air capabilities. When I met Premila, the movement was splintering and the land was slipping away.
The portrait of a terrorist is difficult to paint with soft strokes. We will see her through hardened eyes, and she will show a hardened soul. She was my third interview that afternoon. The heat was oppressive in the tiny room held tenuously together by metal scraps. Earlier that day, ex-combatants had used the space for classes in carpentry. I fidgeted with my scarf, constantly trying to affix it in its most conservative form. She was tall, with long black hair and eyes that turned up ever so slightly. She looked like me. An inescapable bridge formed over the space between shared identities. What would I have done…if I were her?
My inner monologue was quickly silenced as she interrogated me about the nature of my research. I am tired of questions for the sake of questions!More importantly, she was tired. Premila’s story had the basic foundation of earlier incantations — finding commonality in culture, context and cause.
At the intersection of these three is the tale of a terrorist we have heard before — rarely accurate to the subject, even less relevant to effective policy. Missing from the popular versions are the experiences that shaped an identity full of the same idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies we expect (even accept) in ourselves, but ignore in those we declare exceptional.
Premila was the middle child amid three brothers and sisters. “My ammawas disturbed, I think, after appa left to fight. My job was to care for my siblings.” Life as a child was divided into categories of challenges. “We lived in a small home, off the coast, there was no running water and people were sick often.” She points to her missing fingers, “I was cooking for my siblings when the stove exploded.” Interspersed within her civilian experience were armed intrusions. The military — and the accompanying arrests, torture, and harassment — were always a peripheral presence in her consciousness. “The soldiers were always around, we avoided them. I had heard of the LTTE, and was glad someone was fighting for us.”
Premila was 18 years old when the woman recruiter, a fighter, entered her classroom. She wore a stern expression that rested as forcibly on her features as the fatigues that fell loosely along the contours of her body. “I was asked to join the LTTE, for my people. I could not refuse.”
She spoke of state repression and marginalization — but never said those words. “I hadn’t thought of fighting, but once I joined, I knew this was right.” She watched propaganda videos that reflected the reality of her own life, capturing her anger in a nationalist agenda. “The training was hard, it was difficult for me. But, we fought for a better life for Tamil people. Everyone deserves better than this.” She is constantly harassed by the army as an ex-fighter. Not because she was one, but because missing fingers on her hand suggest she might have been. “I have my children to consider now, but yes, I would fight again.” Not yet a mother myself at that point, the statement surprised me. Even motherhood, a powerfully transformative force, faltered in the face of her dedication to the cause. And she wasn’t the only one. Around the world, women are pulled “to the table” in a desperate attempt to locate peace intrinsically within them, ignoring the individual politics that sustain war.
It was only a chance overlap of luck and privilege that carved an escape tunnel out of this place for me. There was not even a generation between us, and I wondered where a different twist of fate might have positioned the two of us.
In America, with remarkable frequency, the lectures I gave were met with a white feminist question — Was I arguing that violence was empowering for women? No, I don’t use that word. Female fighters should show you that the power you are generously transferring to them through humanitarianism is, at best, redundant. Power is both personal and political, and not a resource that can be manipulated through capitalist transactions.
Unsatisfied, the exasperated follow up is usually, Well, why do women rebel?It depends on which woman you mean. For love, for nationalism, for health care. The diversity of motives is kryptonite to consensus-building policy formulations. The better question was rarely asked: What made violence vital to protecting their internal and external existence?
Over there, the government of Sri Lanka claimed to be nearing the end of their bid to eradicate the Tigers. As they recaptured formerly Tiger-held districts in the north and east of the island, government forces banned journalists, the UN, anyone they may be forced to protect. On one side of the ring, China stood up front, handing Sri Lanka the big gloves, with the U.S. and India sheepishly hiding behind them. Trapped, on the other side, were the huddled masses of civilians, whose bodies were both their weapons and their weakness.
Departing United Nations SUVs were blocked by the bodies of Tamil women, a desperate sit-in, in saris. Behind the impenetrable shield created by the War on Terror, advancing forces bombed hospitals and abducted journalists, trampling on international humanitarian law and any semblance of free press. I lived fifteen minutes away from the institution created, and funded, to prevent just such mass atrocities. “Never Again,” it had told Rwanda and the rest of the world.
The few conversations that happened at the UN were relegated to the basement, far from the exalted thirty-something floor. Here, a French diplomat commented, “The way most of the West sees Sri Lanka is: ‘we’ll let them finish off the messy part of eliminating terrorism, and go in later with development.’” A powerful prophecy, fulfilled within six months. One version of the last days of war suggests that a negotiated surrender with the LTTE was flagrantly ignored when they were summarily executed, white flags in hand, in a bloodbath on the beach. A resistance was crushed in a manner that resurrected the reason to resist. Crimes against humans were committed under the blind eye of satellite machinery. And the aid world stood ready to supply handouts through military arms — the only ones who could reach trapped civilians.
I couldn’t bear to be an accomplice to their complicity. Among the thoughtful few were those who offered to lend institutional weight to the desire to seek justice through research and analysis. I was to locate the difficult narratives, verify the stories, and aggregate evidence of women’s pain. Which, of course, came with its own politics. A medical report was credible, a grandmother who cannot erase what she witnessed was not.
I went back to Sri Lanka in 2011 armed only with notebooks and pens, shedding various identities as and when necessary to slip through barbed wire. At first, I wrote my own thoughts:
Maybe there is something liberating about letting go of hope.
Here you’d have to unearth the mass graves for anyone to give a tiny shit,
But people living in shit…that won’t turn any heads.
It’s all so insipid. The normalizing of abnormal.
I keep thinking there’s this familiar angst and anger that will
find its way to the surface — testing my self-restraint,
pushing me in some direction or another.
I didn’t find it today. Or yesterday.
Anger is the gateway drug — to a hope
that no longer exists — not even in some bullshit new form or emergent
The information is out, the limits of political will have been tested,
the intellectuals have debated, the grassroots co-opted,
the politicians have compromised…
And amidst all that activity time stood still here. Moved backwards even.
Closer to a time of immediate, tangible pain.
Undead and unlucky. Maybe we all kept bending, for our safety, or our sanity — but we bent too far,
and now the only thing to do is lie down and wait.
Sometimes work is driven by hope, sometimes it’s something to do. When I sat down with Jeya and her baby that morning, the first thing she asked was, “Are you married?” Being married offered me automatic acceptance into the inner life of the Tamil community. Marriage is important as a Tamil, as the act that validates the presence, and life, of any woman. Among other traditions, the possibility to achieve this cultural standard was threatened, nearly destroyed, in the last phases of the war. Jeya’s marriage was one consequence of the brutal military campaign.
Jeya was there, as shells fell on camps and cluster bombs left no space untouched — when the Tamil people were in constant motion. Herded from “safe zones” to bunkers to military captivity…as tightly as they held each other, the violence ripped families apart. She was one of the lucky ones. Her mother and father were with her as they entered a long stay in internment camps, with nearly 300,000 others. Unlike the others I interviewed, Jeya spoke very little about being held inside the camps, the lack of privacy, the overcrowding, the long lines for food. Her story began to unravel on the outside.
“I had been friendly with a soldier in the camp, he helped me with little things. When we were re-settled near our home, he would visit often.” Her family was grateful for the inappropriate attention, as it provided them some safety. Once back in a re-settlement village, he approached the family with the intent of marrying Jeya. Despite her oft-noted good looks, she was 28 and the family was from a lower caste, making marriage difficult in the even the most stable of circumstances.
“I was surprised my parents agreed, but he did speak Tamil. The soldier said we must go meet his parents in the south.” For Jeya, and thousands of women like her, the only path from broken to normal is marriage. Beyond the power of belonging, in Sri Lanka it offered a strange freedom — from both military detention and militia recruitment.
They traveled by bus, stopping for the night. He told her they would continue on in the morning. The lodge where they stayed would join the ranks of others along this route, obliged to offer cheap dingy rooms to the soldiers who needed to feel their victory through the bodies of Tamil women. “I was afraid to be in this place. He offered me some food and then I think I fainted. He was gone in the morning.” The only thing she was certain of was that he had taken her virginity with him. He wielded just enough personal power for the act to occur, and not enough political power for it to matter.
Jeya has been quiet for some time now. I doodle on the edges of my notebook, grateful for the silence. “When amma discovered my pregnancy we went to find him. We traveled to his village, but his parents were very angry when we met them. They said he is married with two children, and not to bother him.” From the look on her face, I wonder if heartbreak cuts deeper than the wounds of rape.
“I don’t want to see her,” Jeya says again of her daughter. I am only staying here until I lose some weight, so nobody knows. I sucked in my own stubbornly sagging postpartum abdomen and ached to hold my baby, again struck by the power of violence to break biological bonds.
Jeya is also an ex-combatant. When the meager meals allow the weight to fall off, she doesn’t know where to go. The truth about his crime rests only with her mother, placing her outside the comfort of her family. As an ex-combatant, military monitoring will keep her away from her village. Having been raped, she is bad luck at weddings. She is on the outside of her community, and her community is already on the outside of the state.
And the most immediate intervention to entice her back into the folds of social life will be to offer her three chickens, presumably to raise and make money from. As I ventured through the resettled villages, I met just such creatures, selected in the noble mission to end rape. Here, one widow and rape victim tells me, “Someone from an international organization gave three chickens to all of us who spoke about rape. They said they would come back with cages and feed, but they have not come.” One of the chickens has already died, the other two run confusedly between her legs. “I don’t know what to do with these in the jungle, but also I am afraid the army will know that I have told. They can see the chickens.”
As odd as the intervention of livestock may sound, it remains a common approach to rehabilitation. Around the world, micro-finance flows into soap-making, bread-baking, and sewing initiatives—intended to empower and protect women against the macro-challenge of sexual violence in war. Jeya says, “I don’t know how women will feel safe unless the political situation changes.”
Jeya’s story should matter, on the merits of its own tragedy — but it wouldn’t. I knew that any indentation on the collective conscience of the powers-that-be would require that her own testimony be buttressed by others. A pattern provides the credibility that an individual case cannot. I worked with the precision of a surgeon (or social scientist) and the hardened soul of a local cremator who watches the truth burn in the bright embers of bones. Surely, their stories, woven together, would create a red flag. Someone would see it, and want to, have to, help.
Jeya has wandered off. The baby rests next to me, as of yet unlabeled. Like the half-naked African girl child who unknowingly graces the cover of annual reports and funding appeals, we will try to keep this baby’s story short, sweet and simple.
Boiled down to its most emotionally-gripping essence, her tiny narrative could deliver her a lifeline from the outside. Eventually, she will benefit from an intervention that defines her by her worst condition (HIV, orphan), affectation (disaster, displaced), moment (rape, widow), or political transformation (ex-combatant).
She will be ensconced in a humanitarian apparatus that will alleviate the pain in her life, but does not address the politics that may leave her bleeding to death. Until she resists, her state will never be held accountable, for the rights they violated, the ones they owe her.
I hold the baby to me. She looks up with a clear, focused gaze. The only simple truth about her is that she, like the world around her, is complex and political. Inside and out. Her mother was fully armed in the fight against oppression. Now, the chokehold of militarization around her neck has made it impossible to breathe, let alone speak. She will rely on silence to survive. Her fingers clench into a powerful fist before her eyelids begin to fall. Her tiny body relaxes into my arms and she is, for the moment, at peace.
“Narrating Crisis in Sri Lanka” originally appeared in Guernica Magazine.