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Inside the bags of resistance: Contested memories and the wives of the disappeared in Sri Lanka

It was a windy Colombo afternoon in June 2022 as I observed a protest led by a group of women. These women had travelled across the country to the protest site, which was famously called “GotaGoGama”. Later that day, I met Vinitha, a Tamil mother of two young girls in her late 30s from the Northern Province, in the tent that marks the significance of resistance against enforced disappearances at GotaGoGama. Vinitha wore a black sari, a gold thaali across her neck, and held on to a red headband which she had worn earlier. There were a few people who had come to listen to her story. 

We all sat down with a cup of tea as she reached for a plastic bag to bring out what she called “bits and pieces of my existence”. She carried with her a picture of her missing husband, Devananda, who had run a small grocery store in their village. In February 2009, the police had come searching for Devananda at his shop. He had told Vinitha not to worry and that he would be back later that day. Vinitha remembers holding her daughter’s hand and waving goodbye to Devananda as the last memory of her husband. Devananda never returned after 13 years and there has been no word on his whereabouts.

Sri Lanka’s history of enforced disappearances 

Sri Lanka’s 26-year long bloody civil ended in May 2009, marked by brutal atrocities by both sides. Around 150,000 Sri Lankans had been killed in almost 30 years of violence. It is also estimated that since the ethnic conflict in the 1980s, 60-100,000 people, mostly Tamils, have “disappeared”. This constitutes the second-highest caseload of disappeared persons globally. Whether summoned for questioning at a police station, detained at military checkpoints, forced into white vans, or simply abducted from their homes in the middle of the night, stories of disappearances from all corners of Sri Lanka haunt their family members (mostly women) who hold on to their last hopes for justice.

Women from across Sri Lanka have been protesting since the 1990s to seek answers for their disappeared loved ones. While disappearances have occurred on a (somewhat) regular basis, two significant uprisings, the JVP insurgency in the late 1980s and the final years of war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE (mainly 2008-2009), are known to have resulted in the majority of enforced disappearances. People continued to disappear even after the war, famously referred to as being “white vanned” during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defence secretary at the time and was most closely associated with the white-van abductions in these post-war years. While the majority of the disappeared are ethnic Tamils, the disappearances of several Sinhalese men have been widely reported too, including the high-profile case of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda in 2010. 

In recent weeks, several protesters in the “Janatha Aragalaya” (People’s Struggle) were abducted and their next of kin and lawyers were not informed as to where they were detained.

Wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of the disappeared not only head the households and become sole breadwinners for the “remaining” but are also active agents of resistance. These women often wear black, some even with jewellery that signifies their being married, and they all carry a bag full of contested memories that represents their collective resistance. Tamil families of the disappeared began roadside protests in Kilinochchi in February 2017, followed by Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, and Maruthankerny. Family members have been protesting for over 2,000 days as of August 2022 and still have no answers. 

Unfortunately, enforced disappearances are now a common occurrence in Sri Lanka. Since the state crackdown on GotaGoGama began on July 22, a day after Ranil Wikremesinghe was sworn in as President, there has been a significant increase in abductions. In recent weeks, several protesters in the “Janatha Aragalaya” (People’s Struggle) were abducted and their next of kin and lawyers were not informed as to where they were detained. Due process was rarely followed by the police in carrying out these arrests. 

The things she carries 

Vinitha reaches for her plastic bag to show us the things she carried. Along with pictures of her husband, there is information on his date of birth and date of disappearance scribbled at the back. She carries copies of her husband’s government ID, many forms submitted to government commissions, statements she has given to the police, and pieces of newspaper clippings related to her husband’s disappearance. She says that she carries this bag at every checkpoint, every appointment with the police, meetings with NGO officials, journalists, or other such women, as she has to open her life, struggle, and grievances to provide any tangible proof of her husband’s disappearance, only to “wrap up everything back in the plastic bag as I am turned away from every door I knock”.

For Vinitha and many others, photos, newspapers, and copies of forms represent their victimhood. Each of these holds a distinct significance. Photographs of their loved ones represent what Ariella Azoulay refers to as “photographic citizenship”. Photographic citizenship serves as “a tool of a struggle” for political mobilisation, where the citizenship of a photograph is bound to solidarity and responsibilities that might be fostered through struggle and resistance. Photographs of the disappeared became a currency for the protestors, and a limited civic refuge available to those who are robbed of citizenship. Clippings of newspaper reports on disappearances, police statements, and bureaucratic documents serve as sites which help establish the materiality and expression of the state, its power, and more importantly, its violence. 

“I will knock on every door, protest on every street, I will look for my husband in every corner of the country. I have proof of his disappearance in this bag. For me, my life is resistance, and my resistance is life.”

As Akhil Gupta argues elsewhere, papers of such nature reveal the relationship between citizens and the state; they elaborate the avenues through which one can examine claim-making, transactions, as well as processes of domination. Javier Auyero, who writes on Argentina, further elaborates that such documents carried by claimants produce expectations, hopes, and disappointments in them, while also representing the political subordination placed on claimants as they await justice. 

In Sri Lanka, the wives (as well as mothers and other female relatives) of the disappeared face several issues apart from the struggle for justice. Not only do they face intimidation from the military deployed in North and East, they also remain deeply deprived of the economic opportunities available to them after the war. Women who head households face significant challenges, including a loss of employment, the negative stereotypes associated with women who are employed outside the home, and difficulty in finding childcare. These women also experienced and/or were vulnerable to incapacitating trauma, sexual abuse and harassment, and discriminatory treatment by recruiters based on caste, gender, or previous affiliation with separatist ideologies. Vinitha says, “Whatever you say, for most employers, we are still the rebels. Our identity has been tainted forever”. Vinitha, fortunately, was able to secure her husband’s business with additional help from a microfinance loan programme and still runs the grocery shop, which pays for her everyday expenses. She says that while she is fortunate to have something to fall back on, many do not.

Resistance beyond the bag 

For Vinitha, these documents represent how she and her hopes for justice have been delayed, denied, and dusted away. However, her resistance goes beyond these documents. In response to being asked in what ways she protests, she replies—anyway and every way she can. She goes to the protests held in various parts of Northern Province. She stands with her “fellow sisters” in front of offices, buildings, on the streets, beaches, and military-occupied lands. She files every form available, following up with the police, NGO officials, and whoever she can. 

She adds “Everyone has their own way. I wear black, but I do not dress like a widow, although many do. Everyone has their own way. I am still a married woman, married to my husband, and I represent that everywhere I go. For me, he is alive, until I hear otherwise. I do not know about others”. She adds that many women join associations or groups, although she has not. She says that many do so due to family pressure, displacement, lack of money, and some “who have accepted their fate”. She chooses to resist in ways that suit her best. According to her, she does what she can do as she needs to look after her children, being the sole breadwinner of the family and having to ensure that they get a good education and have a better future.

She concludes by saying that, while she may appear to be a poor, helpless, weeping war widow, she is no less than a soldier. She asks that her tears are not understood as a cry of victimhood, but rather as one of anger and frustration. She is resilient, strong, and determined. Vinitha says, “I will knock on every door, protest on every street, I will look for my husband in every corner of the country. I have proof of his disappearance in this bag. For me, my life is resistance, and my resistance is life”.

Copyright (c) 2022 Prateek Srivastava

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Debas.

Cover Photo: Amalini De Sayrah

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