kandy—The drive to Aniwatte, a suburb of Sri Lanka’s hill capital, takes me by way of a tunnel blasted through a rock. I leave behind the noise and chaos of downtown and emerge among peaceful, elegant villas and whitewashed walls over which araliya trees and bougainvillea spill their blooms. It is hard to reconcile this tranquility with the tragic story I am going to hear.
Visaka Dharmadasa, founder of the Association of War Affected Women, seems to bear no marks of her misfortune. She is cheerful and full of energy as she comes to greet me at her gate. Plump and short, she exudes great warmth. It is easy to sense the passion and spontaneity that have made her a kind of dark horse amid the human rights community in Sri Lanka, pulling off feats that none of her colleagues would have thought possible. Above all, she was able to convince war-affected mothers on both sides of the country’s twenty-five-year-old civil war to come together for an anti-war demonstration. As someone with a Tamil father, a Sinhalese mother, and a foot in both warring communities, I am all too familiar with the hatred on both sides.
Seated in her opulent living room, she tells me, in a deep contralto that dips and rises with sorrow and passion, the story of how an upper-middle-class woman from an affluent suburb found herself on the vanguard of human rights.
On September 27, 1998, her twenty-one-year-old son, along with 619 other Sinhalese soldiers, went missing in action in a confrontation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ltte), who have been engaged, this past quarter century, in trying to establish a separate state for the minority Tamil community in Sri Lanka. “He had just been in the field for three months,” she says with bitter resignation. “He had not even got his first paycheque.” What truly appalled Dharmadasa was that no one had issued her son a dog tag. “The army didn’t think it was important! If he had been wearing it, I would have known what really happened to him. If you know your son is dead, you can at least mourn him. But now, for me, the issue is eternally pending.” Even now, ten years later, she often finds herself thrown into a depression. “I was a person who used to love reading. Now I cannot read, because I become isolated into myself, and then I understand that my son may not be alive anymore, that he will not walk in through my gate one day.” Because of my Tamil surname, I have often been harassed at checkpoints by Sinhalese soldiers, and once narrowly avoided being dragged off to jail. They still terrify me, but I will look at them differently now, having witnessed the pain of one of their mothers.
Through Dharmadasa’s work and advocacy, about 75 percent of soldiers wear identification discs. She had one made for her son that she always carries with her. But what is remarkable is that she also approached the ltte, her son’s killers, to ask them to ensure their cadres wear the discs, too. She made her initial visit to them on the third anniversary of her son’s disappearance, taking with her six other bereaved mothers. Once they crossed the boundary into ltte territory, their car was surrounded by young boys on bicycles, machine guns strapped to their shoulders. They circled the car, while other cadres rummaged through its contents. Later, at a Catholic shrine in Madhu, she met with the leader of the local ltte. Dharmadasa was undiplomatic and blunt. “I told him, ‘As much as you are proud about your striped uniform, we are proud of our uniform, too.’” She was determined that they would talk to each other on an equal footing. “They told me of the atrocities of the army, and I gave them one for one with their atrocities. I wanted to show that both sides have done wrong. I said, ‘But now we have to stop this war.’”
This direct approach seemed to win the ltte’s trust, and she made numerous subsequent trips to their headquarters in Kilinochchi. At one point, they even offered to show her the bunker where her son disappeared. She spoke to them about the missing, and how vital it was, if they found anything — a piece of uniform, a scrap of a journal, a photograph — to put it in the hands of the International Red Cross. Families are grateful for anything at all. “I will only know what truly happened to my son when the guns are silenced for good,” says Dharmadasa.
Later, in her front garden, she tells me about a delegation of war-affected Sinhalese parents she led to Jaffna, the Tamil capital, to meet their Tamil counterparts. But the conversation she can’t forget took place with an ordinary village woman sitting on a bench by the roadside. “You all came here to speak with us because your big sons, who carried guns, are missing now,” the woman said to Dharmadasa quietly. “But when the army shelled our town, my four-year-old son was struck. I had to abandon him to die alone on the roadside so I could save my two-year-old.”
Standing amid this calm and sheltered landscape, the story of that village woman, and even Visaka Dharmadasa’s, seem oddly ephemeral. The affluent class in Sri Lanka has walled itself off from the wounds of war; it is impossible to imagine that the hostilities continue, a mere four hours’ drive from here. And perhaps it is this disconnection — with rare exceptions like Dharmadasa’s mothers, united by grief — that will keep the war going for another twenty-five years.
Shyam Selvadurai is a novelist and the 2013–14 Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor at the University of Toronto.