Vanishing Hope in Sri Lanka: Amrita Chandradas on Remembering

"He is alive." --Sudarshini / All photos property of Amrita Chandradas

Editor’s Note: Amrita Chandradas is a documentary photographer currently based in Singapore and working across Southeast Asia. In 2014 she won the prestigious “Top 30 Under 30” award by Magnum Photographs. In this exclusive article for Fox & Hedgehog she recounts the story of a trip to Sri Lanka to document the aftereffects of the civil war. You can view more of Amrita’s work on her website.

Sri Lanka—known for her pristine beaches, lush wild jungles, and exotic food—has successfully concealed a dark past of civil unrest and political instability for the last three decades. She is an island divided by twenty-six years of civil war between the Sri Lankan Military and the Tamil Tigers, one of the largest rebel guerrilla forces in the world. The Tigers, otherwise known as LTTE, are infamous for inventing suicide belts; they used women in suicide attacks and successfully assassinated two international political leaders. Sri Lankan society plunged into segregation during the year 1948 when she achieved her independence from the British.

Since independence, the Sinhalese majority has slowly monopolized political power to marginalize the minority Tamils. Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, for instance, replaced English with Sinhalese as the sole official language of Sri Lanka. The country’s Tamil population, as a result, faced widespread unemployment and discrimination in both employment prospects and university placements. Furthermore, the Parliament also passed the “Ceylon Citizenship Act” in 1948, further disenfranchising the Indian Tamil Ethnic minority by making approximately 700,000 of them stateless.

From 1983 to 2009 the Sri Lankan Military and LTTE engaged in a brutal armed conflict leaving between 60,000 and 100,000 dead. In fact, the United Nations estimated over 40,000 Tamil civilian casualties in the final weeks of the civil war in 2009. Sri Lankan military forces bombarded and shelled no fire zones such as hospitals and schools, where at least 400,000 Tamil civilians were trapped; mostly children paid the price of war with their lives. A public outcry viewed this as a genocide rather than a conventional war. The careless killing of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan military comes along with the government’s excuse that it was a necessary measure to tackle guerrilla fighters in civilian clothing. Besides the bombarding of civilians and terming them as collateral damage in the fight, there are numerous disturbing cases of rape, sexual abuse, and torture inflicted by the Sri Lankan military on LTTE fighters or civilians caught as prisoners. The general disregard of the war crime atrocities has been continually perpetuated, as international organizations are still not given official permission to investigate these cases. (However, a domestic enquiry was permissible by local authorities.)

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, more than 20,000 Tamil civilians have disappeared before, during and after the civil war. Many were taken away by the Sri Lankan military or pro-government paramilitary troops on the pretext of the “Prevention of Terrorism Act” which enables an individual to be taken away for questioning or indefinite detainment without any form of warrant if he/she is suspected to be involved with the LTTE. The unsuccessful attempts to find “disappeared” relatives comes along with wide spread rumours of possible executions of innocent civilians caught for questioning and Tigers who surrendered to the military during the last stages of the civil war. A recent finding of mass graves in Killnochchi have corroborated the belief that those who disappeared were executed.

As a photojournalist and ethnic Tamil I was very drawn to the plight of the innocent Tamil civilians. I started photographing protests by the Tamil diaspora in London. Many Tamils have sought asylum in the UK and other parts of Europe during the Sri Lankan civil war. They demand justice for war crime atrocities and the disappearances of their loved ones back home in Jaffna and other provinces of Sri Lanka. Speaking to them further, I understood how little these issues have been covered visually. It is not surprising; Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka 165 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index. It is worth noting, however, that a change in political power this year—from Mahinda Rajapaksa to Maithipala Sirisena—has given humanitarians a rare opportunity to enquire into the war crimes of the Sri Lankan government. Several provinces in the North and north-eastern provinces, traditionally run by paramilitary forces, may now be open to public access.

 

I was determined to cover these unsolved issues of the civil war. I entered the country under a tourist visa because photojournalists covering covering the aftermath of the war would be treated with suspicion. A constant fear loomed upon me that my work and intention would be revealed and my undercover work would be confiscated.

It was a calculated risk I took despite the stringent control in the provinces. I photographed two major issues during my stay in Sri Lanka this year, which coincided with the 100-day reform program proposed by Sirisena. As I travelled through the country, I did not sense the change. Despite six years since the end of the war, I sensed paranoia coming from both ends of society, the military actively looking out for groups coming together that could potentially form a fighting unit against them, and the Tamils afraid for their lives in general.

I photographed twelve families up in the Jaffna province and in Delft Island otherwise known as Nedutheevu. I interacted and documented the plight of these families. Most have claimed missing husbands and children usually aged from seventeen years onwards. Desperate parents have told me they have combed the entire state for their loved ones through detention camps and prisons, but to no avail. International organizations like the ICRC have acknowledged their cases but have been unable to provide any promising information due to restricted access during the civil war. Most have witnessed the first hand kidnapping of their children right before their eyes by the Sri Lankan military on the basis of their suspected involvement with the LTTE. Some claim their children were taken away in unlicensed white vans, a common trademark found in most kidnappings. Most of the abductees’ parents, however, claim that their children were not involved in any way with the LTTE. Despite promised facilitation of a domestic enquiry, the photographed families have claimed nothing has been thoroughly investigated up until today. Death certificates have been produced to placate their demands on the victims’ whereabouts of their loved ones. Some others were given small monetary settlements.

My current long-term project, entitled Vanishing Hope, will document these families’ search for their loved ones. While initially skeptical about the whereabouts of these missing persons, I have begun to hold on to hope after being exposed to the love, pain, and torment of the family members. I document many of the old photographs of their loved ones placed in the unique spaces of their home to illustrate their lost and haunting presence within the environment. I place both photographs together in a singular image to tell the story of their harrowing experience, trying to put the viewer in their shoes. Both photographs are placed in a singular image to demonstrate how a missing loved one can straddle the dual realities of life and death. Empty spaces and belongings of missing individuals are largely represented in this series to help construct how most of these families are stuck in the past waiting and hoping for a positive outcome.

Vanishing Hope tells the story that sometimes hope is all that is left after years of gruesome war.The project’s future, however, is unstable; mass graves are being discovered and death certificates continue to be issued without any evidence of bodies.