12 Years on from the Civil War: The Power of Poetry
Today, 18th May 2021, marks the 12th anniversary of the Sri Lankan civil war. In 2009, Sri Lanka’s then-president Mahinda Rajapakse declared an end to the conflict – marked by massacres, suicide bombings and assassinations – between Tamil militants and the Sinhalese central government. According to UN estimates, between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the 26-year conflict.
It is no secret that literature is powerful. Writing sooths many raging feelings and brings peace. For many of us, there are times in our lives – a loved one’s death, a heartbreak – where we frankly could not have made it through without a few extraordinary books, poems, or simply just a few words strung together.
UCLA psychiatrist and poetry therapist Robert Carroll says, “Our voices are embodiments of ourselves, whether written or spoken. It is in times of extremity that we long to find words or hear another human voice letting us know we’re not alone.”
People have used poetry to mourn and lament the dead for many centuries. The poets of Sri Lanka have sung the praises of the island nation’s stunning beauty – and spoken too of the conflicts which have torn it apart. Like so many, Sri Lankan mothers were moved into expressing their grief onto paper. The valiant mother who encourages her children to die for the country, the suffering mother, and the mother who resists power for the sake of her children, were all compelled to share their witness of living through a war.
Images by Mandy Glinsbockel Photography
In these fore-shortened days
they have long forgotten
to play hop-scotch
and to make temple carts from palm fruit shells.
Now they can only learn
to shut the gate in good time
to listen when dogs bark strangely
They pluck away
the wings of dragonflies
they shoulder sticks for guns
their friends become their foes
Oppressed by nights of war
have grown up. (Sivaramani 2009).
We read through the mother’s watchful eyes in Sivaramani’s ‘Oppressed by the Nights of War’ poem, revealing to us what happens to children in a time of total war: children, with their childhood destroyed.
Through the years of the civil war, the Sri Lankan Tamil literary landscape produced numerous poets and writers with distinct voices that told the world what the mainstream news would not. Their poetry spoke of the horrors of war, the trauma of violence, and the pain of exile. Poems written by Sri Lankan mothers are both chilling and sensitive as, in one way or another, they lose their loved one in a cruel space.
He returned to me
heart turned iron
brain become gun
friend turned foe:
and I was thrown off guard
all my love and affection
He had shot his friend:
he spoke of bravery
of killing people across the boundary
But now I know
I cannot any longer
be a mother.
Won’t he, one day,
believe me to be his enemy
and bury me too? (Avvai 2009).
The figure of the dissenting mother is lamenting the return of her son rather than his disappearance.
These poems reflect the demands on a mother’s strength during the civil war. We see a mother’s sorrow over her children’s loss of innocence and a mother’s repulse at what the war has turned her son into. The war may be over in name, but the violence and trauma live on. Thousands of families are still waiting to hear of their fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters that went missing during the conflict.
“The island nation walks around baring their wounds, inside out” – Kavitha Muralidharan.
Today, at AMMA we are remembering the devastation and pain our island nation endured during the war. Our hearts and prayers are with everyone who suffered and whose lives were forever changed.
To mark the anniversary of the Sri Lankan civil war we have created a list of resources which provide insight into the 26-year conflict.
- The inspiration for this blog came from Aparna Eswaran’s Mother as Witness: Poetry by Tamil Women in Sri Lanka article. Read Eswaran’s article for in depth analysis on the theme of motherhood during the civil war.
- A documentary brought to life in words, Meena Kandasamy’s book, ‘The orders were to rape you: Tamil Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle’ shares insights into the Sri Lankan conflict and the lives of the women who fought in the conflict and escaped it.
- ‘Lost Evenings, Lost Lives’ reflects the pain and trauma of the day-to-day experience of war as the Tamil people lived through them. Together, these poems can be read as an alternative history of the war.
- ‘Island of a Thousand Mirrors’ by Nayomi Munaweera is a stunning novel of two young women on opposing sides of the devastating Sri Lankan civil war.
Written by Izzy Bevir