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Gaping holes amidst stories: Reflections on community organizing, memory, abolition, and care-work

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

The month of May marks a difficult anniversary for Tamils worldwide. May 18th 2009, otherwise known as the day of the Tamil Genocide, saw the brutal end of a decades-long war that took place in Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and many more were forcibly disappeared during the last stages of the Tamil Genocide committed by the Sri Lankan state and army. During that year, tens of thousands of Tamils across the world took to the streets to demand that their countries intervene to stop the ongoing genocide. In Canada alone, where I am based, over 100 000 protestors showed up to form human chains and organize sit-ins in downtown Toronto, to plead to the government to do anything to stop Sri Lanka’s aggressive military offensive against Tamils. Tamil students, community organizers, parents, elders, children and allies alike protested in front of government and UN buildings, schools, and stopped traffic on prominent highways to raise awareness on the genocide

The shores of Mullivaikkal Beach where 12 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Tamils lost their lives in the Tamil Genocide. (picture credits: Selvarajah Murugesu, 2018).

“The people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for.” - A. Sivanandan

Media coverage of these protests was largely negative and followed a disturbing pattern of characterising protest-goers and the larger Tamil-Canadian diaspora as terrorist sympathizers. This was largely in part due to worldwide political ideologies and state narratives that positioned all forms of Tamil resistance as contributing to terrorist movements. In her PhD thesis “Behind the 2009 Tamil Diaspora Protests in Canada: A critical Analysis of the Production of Race, Resistance, and Citizenship across Borders,”, Dr. Jeyapal writes on the logic behind this phenomenon and what it meant for Tamil protestors:

“The age of terror presents significant challenges to resistance movements in the West when bodies representing the racialized figure of the “terrorist” are further targeted for surveillance, discipline, and deportation. The very nature of activism is reconstructed when evidence of oppositional consciousness in “threatening” communities is discursively complicated through transnationalism, ongoing colonial logics, and structures shaping the global order. The 2009 Tamil diaspora protests in Canada provide one such case.” (Jeyapal, 2012, 64).

Looking back and looking forward.

In 2021, we are now marking the 12th anniversary of the Mullivaikkal Genocide. How has the trauma of 2009 and subsequent state and media narratives of terrorism followed our community, from its youngest to oldest members? Even after all these years, the same Sri Lankan administration that oversaw the 2009 Tamil Genocide is now back in power and are actively promoting war criminals to government. There is a constant climate of impunity for war crimes on the island, and Tamil people’s right to remember is being criminalized and suppressed by authorities. Despite these constant threats posed to Tamil people’s existence, they are continuing to mourn, reflect and protest against oppression in Sri Lanka. In this era, how do we support those moving through so much heaviness in the homeland and in the diaspora?

Last week, I worked with a group to host a small poetry event for young Tamil-Canadian high-school students commemorating the Mullivaikkal Genocide. We used the one hour to share poetry and reflect on the heaviness of commemorations around trauma and loss. The Mullivaikkal Genocide had taken place 12 years ago, but the memories of violence and destruction were so vivid in the minds of students. During those last few months of conflict, the Sri Lankan government and army killed and forcibly disappeared more than 169, 796 people. The collective grief experienced by Tamil communities is exasperated by every anniversary of Mullivaikkal through reminders of the brutal end to the armed resistance mounted against Sinhala-Buddghist nationalist oppression on the island. Myself and another organiser stayed on the call for a little bit afterwards and luckily a student joined at the very end, eager to share their piece but disappointed that they had missed presenting it to the other folks. It was a poetic end to a heavy session, as her poem wove histories of the Tamil Struggle together, along with her memories of present-day remembrance events. Her piece was a stark reminder of the various ways we care for our community, despite generations of state-sanctioned violence, oppression, and genocide.

My past month has also been filled with workshops on the Tamil Struggle and Genocide with young students, ages ranging from 8 to 18 years. During the half-time check-in for one of the sessions with students, one young boy asked why the Sri Lankan state specifically targeted Tamil and Muslim people. I struggled to answer that question. How can you explain the motives behind generations of destruction to a group of young people? Nearing the end of the presentation, a young boy shared his mother’s story of fleeing Sri Lanka and his deeper understanding of how painful it must’ve been for her to navigate the process of migrating to Canada. And while he moved through his story, he grappled with those difficult questions brought up earlier in the presentation. His final reflections concluded that “it was racism plain and simple...they didn’t want us there.” The young boy looked like he might have been 13 or 14 years old. In that moment, we recognised how much we felt this in our bones but didn’t have the words to describe it.

Learning, Remembering and Sharing, together.

The history of conflict in Sri Lanka is vast and complex, filled with events and policies that date back to pre-colonial times. Learning all of this for the first time can be overwhelming, and I noticed in previous iterations of these workshops that many students looked and felt exhausted after being met with so much information. This year, rather than focus on content intake, we attempted to hold a mutual space of care and compassion for each other, while acknowledging that the most important part of these workshops are the connections attendees will make with each other. This is a difficult and often overlooked goal to achieve in virtual spaces. Prior to the pandemic, Tamil communities and allies across the world would physically congregate together on important anniversaries, including Tamil Genocide Remembrance day, to mourn the loss of their loved ones in public ceremonies. Community members would share written pieces, perform dance sets and plays that told the stories of Tamil resistance and shared collective grief over the trauma experienced in 2009. These events created communal spaces for grieving, and often brought everyone from newborn babies to elders to reflect and remember together. The pandemic brought a sudden and drastic switch of events to online platforms. Many community organisers started shifting their approach to reach younger generations of people who were interested in learning about the war and genocide. These spaces of political education subsequently became some of the only times when young Tamil people could express their thoughts on loss and trauma, often by sharing their families’ emotional stories with group members. How do we care for each other through these difficult moments of shared trauma?

Abolition, care-work, and Tamil-ness.

In her article “Abolitionist Care in Militarized Borderlands,” China Medel cites the prison abolition collective Critical Resistance’s definition of abolition as three converging aspects: “dismantle, change, and build” (Medel, 874). In her experience volunteering with the organisation “No More Deaths,” Medel described various practices of care that sought to build a world “in which hierarchies of human value are abolished, where migration is an expression of life making, and where food, shelter, medical, and emotional care are available to all, regardless of notions of deservedness.” (Medel, 874). This framework allows me to understand that organising within our community, and holding emotional space for young people to learn and process their trauma, becomes an abolitionist gesture of action to build alternative forms of recognition and inclusion. Forms that counter decades of state-sanctioned terrorism legislation and rhetoric that justify oppressive conditions for Tamils on the island, to this day. These alternative forms of recognition utilize an ethics of care approach to counter decades of strategic abandonment policies by neoliberal governing bodies that disavowed responsibility for the “health, well-being, safety ,or sheer existence of a minoritized body of people due to its criminalized racialization and subsequent valuelessness.” (Medel, 876).

As I write and reflect on the events of this past month, I am left with more questions than answers. And that is a good thing. No one person can write the answers to the cries of a community of people. Fanon writes on political education in his book The Wretched of the Earth stating that:

“to educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a hero that will save them with his magic hands, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the hero is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”

We as a community move through our world with these words of liberation and practices of care already so intertwined as part of our existence. And we must continue to do so, in hopes of achieving freedom.

Abarna Selvarajah (she/her) is an Eelam Tamil organizer and writer whose work examines gendered impacts of displacement, literary narratives of exile, and diasporic representation. She is pursuing her Masters degree in the Social Justice Education program specializing in Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, housed at the University of Toronto. She advocates for the recognition of human rights abuses committed against Tamil people in Sri Lanka through her advocacy and organizing work as the Education Outreach Coordinator for the non-profit organization People for Equality and Relief Lanka (PEARL).

Article co-edited by Huma Riaz Khan (she/her), Lead for the تحریر // Tehreer 2021.

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