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Topography of terror and exile

 Where do we carry our dead when our soil is stolen and our oceans were turned into impenetrable walls and borders? Where do we take our grief when our kovil bells are forced into silence and our mourners made illegal? Where do we sing our songs of sorrow and resilience when our lips have been sealed?

We carry them afar. We carry them in our suitcases across the sea.

Five years after the end of war, a new monument for the thousands of dead Tamil civilians and combatants will be inaugurated. The sculpture will consist of a black granite pedestal, a yellow and red-coloured karththigai-poo, as well as a black obelisk that rises out of the centre of the flower. The project took two years in planning and was entirely community-initiated and funded. A local sculptor, a community outsider, was later tasked with its completion. Though he had never worked on a monument of this kind, he was still able to finish it within a year – just in time for the twenty-sixth annual Tamil Remembrance Day.

The completed statue will weigh twelve tons and will find its new home in the midst of thousands of other graves. It will help create a space for commemorations, remembrance and mourning for the many Tamil dead of the conflict, war and genocide, and will be the first of its kind in the country. Its official inauguration will be two days after this year’s Maaveerar Naal, and will most certainly attract hundreds of mourners. The monument will, however, not stand in Eelam or Sri Lanka. Far from the geography that gave birth to these tragedies, it will stand thousands of kilometres away, apart from the cursed soil that used to be home, in the cold of a north-western German industrial town.

Eight thousand kilometres away, in a land occupied by a foreign army, a landscape so different to that of north-western Germany, no Tamil monument today remains standing. Instead, Sinhalese monuments of victory and subjugation have replaced them. Some stand on top of them, some were replaced by other symbols of oppression, some were left to stand as ruins as part of a new topography of terror, or they were left as void spaces cleared off their meaning and memory; indicating to the vulnerability and erasure of history of a people. This is part of the government’s strategy of reordering newly conquered land and people: to crush and dismantle any physical manifestations of a long history of dissent and resistance. By erasing the physical remains of our past, our present becomes destabilized and vulnerable to distortion, obfuscation and negation. These acts amount to the hijacking of the past of a people and render their present and presence eventually negotiability.

Today, the remains of post-colonial Tamil history lay scattered around occupied territories, forcing us to face how easy it is to reconfigure land, people and memory. This, however, isn’t a new development or strategy by the government. Ever since independence, the centralist state was quick to understand the role of architecture as physical caches and producers of memories, whether cultural or political. It was clear that architecture can become and be used as physical representations of the history of a people. It can also form a group’s consciousness and longevity and be turned into a physical projection of both material and immaterial conditions of a social group. In other words, buildings are not just mere buildings that occupy space but reflections and producers of material culture mirroring the social, cultural, economic and political environment its architects are located and implicated in. Thus, it is no surprise that they became easy targets in an environment created by victors who are busy with the monumental task of rewriting their own history and those of groups they subjugate.

But it is not just physical memories that have come under attack and come to reflect our new topography of terror. The playing field for the state is much larger. Post war, it is also immaterial, metaphysical, individual, collective, private and public memorials that annually come under a strict clamp down. Tamils are today, for instance, no more allowed to hoist black flags, put up posters, light deepams, ring kovil bells or assemble in public or private to commemorate their dead. Every year, the occupying army, police and paramilitary forces increase their already overwhelming presence in the Tamil and Muslim regions to implement their oppressive policies to stifle resistance at its very roots. But each year, we also witness how, despite the violence of the neo-colonial apparatus, Tamils, specifically their youth, rise up against the diktat of silence imposed by the state.

In an environment of protracted conflict and neocolonialism, the criminalisation of Tamil memories and the memorialisation of Tamil dead by the Sri Lankan state has, in the last five years at least, proven to be a futile endeavour. As the war has come to an end, we have adapted our position according to shifting power-relations. Tamils have today returned from temporarily institutionalised forms of remembrance during LTTE-rule to guerrilla forms of resisting and remembering. These alternate forms of remembrance will today be marked all over the island, whether in Eelam or Sri Lanka, whether in private or public, and despite the state’s ongoing threats to life and security of those who dare to rise up. They will give voice to undesired and suppressed narrations of a past and with it also present; a present that is haunted by the ghosts of our yesterday.

Guerrilla forms of remembrance prove, amongst many other things, the impossibility of violently suppressing and erasing a people’s struggle for justice, equality and self-determination from their hearts and minds. But the destruction of their material memories remains nonetheless. It has forever altered our physical landscape and led to something of a psychological crisis amongst the concerned population. Without the right to commemorate, and in the absence of public spaces to do so, sites that can be used to revisit our past and understand our present, a new re-spacing of the geography of memories was required.

Where do we carry our dead when our soil is stolen and our oceans were turned into impenetrable walls and borders? We take them afar. We migrate with them to place them in environments where their memories, our collective memories, can be secured. We wrap them up, pack them in suitcases and board trains, boats and planes. We move, flee, migrate and transcend to plant ourselves and them, our memories, elsewhere, afar from our former homes.

Today, our memories have been displaced and exiled as have we, the carriers of these memories. These memories, alternate narrations to the hegemonic state chorus, can only exist in spaces that lay outside of the immediate control of the neo-colonial state. One of these spaces is the internet. Thuyilam Ilams, destroyed in their actuality in Eelam, have, amongst others, found new homes in the World Wide Web where they today continue to exist in virtual forms, accessible to everyone. As a decriminalised space, the internet provides the opportunity to place the remains of a contested political past outside the borders and immediate control of Sri Lanka, a repressive state keen on erasing its dissenting leftovers. The internet is also a platform that responds and reflects our growing diasporic and transnational needs, where we can be anonymous architects, interpreters and mourners all at the same time, and across different time zones and borders. These are fluid and shifting spaces that can easily be closed down by individuals and states, but also be quickly reopened elsewhere. As such, they join other forms of guerrilla remembrance that take place today all over Eelam, Sri Lanka and beyond.

But the internet also has its many limits, including its limited reach as well short-lived nature. This is where material memorials become imperative again, particularly for older generation who are less internet and social media-savvy and have grown accustomed to physically memorial practices.

Eight thousand kilometres away again, and in the midst of approximately 33,000 graves, amongst them 2,827 war graves from both World Wars, this new monument for another war and another people will be inaugurated in the midst of Germany’s November cold. It will not just mark Maaveerar Naal in Essen, Germany, but also the physical reconstruction of memories negated in our homeland in new, diasporic geographies and territories.

While the Sri Lankan state has destroyed all twenty-seven Thuyilam Ilams in Eelam, some of their remains, no more than debris today, were picked up by local and diasporic Tamils to preserve and remember their dead as well as their memorials. Few diasporic Tamils were later able to smuggle these small leftovers that became tragic souvenirs outside of the country to preserve them abroad, afar from state’s iron clutches. They are today, in a highly symbolic act, incorporated into the monument to be inaugurated this weekend in Essen.

The monument’s granite pedestal will in addition to the debris pieces and karthigaipoo also carry the names of all destroyed Thuyilam Ilams and regions of Eelam. It serves to remind us of what was but is no more. However, plans to engrave a map of Eelam onto the monument were quickly prohibited by the German police, who closely observed, or rather surveilled, the construction of the site. Our everyday negotiations happen across multiple spaces and are subject to interrelated and interconnected security regimes. Though we might have more rights in exile than in Sri Lanka or occupied Eelam, we aren’t entirely free here either.

Five years after the war, this German-Tamil or Tamil-German monument, eight thousand kilometres away from Eelam, encapsulates many aspects of our current condition. It is a memory built with the remains of material and immaterial memories that continue to be denied their right to exist on the island. As such, they entail the story of a people, their past, present and their many historic and contemporary displacements. This monument is the product of negations, destructions and an exodus away from our homes into a precarious future in distant and foreign lands. It is also a sign of the resilience we inhabit as persecuted and displaced people, whose longing for self-determination trumps the absolute violence we experience since Ceylon’s independence.

Our memories travel, as do we – and they’ll continue to exist as long as we do as people. Ours is the right to resist. Resisting starts with remembering our forbearers.


Sinthujan Varatharajah is a doctoral student in Political Geography at University College London, University of London. He has previously completed a Masters in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science and writes about race, caste, asylum, migration and memory. He tweets under @varathas