It is May 18th, 2019. The Parisian neighbourhood of La Chapelle looks a little different to its everyday hustle and bustle. The street is blocked with thousands of people from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora; as well as their allies, who have gathered to commemorate 10 years since the end of the country’s civil war. They demand a justice they feel has still not been delivered to them; nor to accounts of the genocide of their people, a historical trauma that remains unrecognised by the world.
A memorial fire is lit in the main square, paying tribute to the Tamils who died in Mullivaikkal. This was the scene of the final battle of the war, which dominates the content of speeches and presentations by various Tamil groups and activists. One woman cries as she places a rose in front of the flames: people follow, flocking to offer flowers, wearing black wristbands to pay tribute to the tragedy. A Tamil recording plays over the speakers. It is a soft voice, begging participants not to forget about the tragedy of Mullivaikkal, and to fight for justice so that the souls of those who have died can finally rest in peace.
May 18th, 2009 marked the end of a war that spanned almost 26 years, culminating in the Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the ‘Tamil Tigers’). Ethnic tensions had been mounting for years before war broke out in 1983, exacerbated by the policy of standardisation, which increased university requirements for Tamils while lowering the requirements for the ethnic Sinhalese majority. The year was marked by ‘Black July,’ the same year, a series of riots and massacres of Tamils, resulting in a death toll estimated to be between 400 and 3000.
The final events of the civil war left perhaps the greatest mark, with the mass execution of Tamil civilians in the north-eastern town of Mullivaikkal. The town was essentially a ‘no-fire zone’ but was overrun by the Sri Lankan government army. Estimates of the Mullivaikkal civilian death toll vary, yet are generally placed at around 40,000. According to the United Nations, however, the overall death toll is up to 100,000.
Mullivaikkal was unquestionably a scene of inhumane tragedy – children were executed, women were stripped, raped and shot and all of this footage was captured on government soldiers’ phones as war souvenirs, according to Gabriel Macrae, who produced the award-winning documentary No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka. This was not an attempt to defeat the Tigers – this was a systematic act of brutality.
38-year-old Yasodha, and her eleven year-old daughter, Devi, were caught up in the final scenes of disaster at Mullivaikkal. They escaped to France soon after the end of the conflict.
“I’ve endured a great deal of hardship,” Yasodha says, tears streaming down her face as she tries to talk about what life was like in Sri Lanka. “I was arrested in 1996, and they filled a shopping bag with petrol and put it on my head. They were going to burn me.” She told the story of her life to her daughter, who was two years old at the end of the conflict. Devi takes to the stage at this year’s march to read a poem her mother wrote.
“Is there nobody who will save us? All the love has gone,” Devi reads, her voice ringing out to an audience of thousands. Life after the conflict is still not what it was for the family, as Yasodha’s two brothers are among the thousands of people who have allegedly been forcibly disappeared by the Sri Lankan government. She has no idea where they are.
“Tamil people have nobody to take care of them,” says Chandrasekharan, a political lobbyist for a Tamil organisation in Paris. “Sri Lanka is a country which is killing its people.” He organises the march every year, having moved to France after fleeing Sri Lanka during the war. He insists the Tamil Tigers were not terrorists. “Tamil people took up arms because there was no other way.” However, the conduct of the Tamil Tigers in the final stages of the Mullivaikkal conflict has been questioned, with allegations that they prevented Tamil civilians from leaving the area to access the government-controlled safety zones.
When questioned about the Tigers’ pursuit of a Tamil homeland – or ‘Tamil Eelam’ – in the north of the country, he says the United Nations must recognise the Tamil Eelam as a nation, and award it observer status accordingly. His colleague Maheswaran, who works in London, agrees, stating that “…only in Tamil Eelam, we can live without genocide.” He insists that they have nothing against the Sinhalese majority, saying the Tigers only fought against the army and not against civilians. “Tamil and Sinhalese can live side by side, next to one another.”
It is not just Tamils who have taken to the streets to protest the lack of justice for their community. 54-year-old Antoine Aubry, who lives in Paris, has attended marches for the last ten years. He participated in lobbying actions in France during Mullivaikkal, including the occupation of République square, but says activists were forcibly ejected from the area by French police. “It’s unacceptable,” he says. “My country was illegally occupied by the Germans, and I think the Sinhalese are illegally occupying Tamil Eelam.”
Aubry has provided financial aid to a Tamil man rendered paraplegic during the war in Killinochchi, the former administrative centre of the Tigers. He says the French government must do something to intervene and alleviate the situation for Tamils. This may be easier said than done, however, as Chandrasekharan reports that Tamil flags around Paris have been removed by local authorities, and that local media outposts wrote an article about the community without their consultation. The article describes the flags as ‘sinister’, contributing to ‘unease in the neighbourhood.’ However, there is some hope for the Tamil community, as political figures – including French Member of Parliament, Jean-Christophe Lagarde – were present at the march to recognise the genocide and call for action.
The youth of the Sri Lankan diaspora continues to feel this impact too, despite their lack of lived experience. 18-year-old Maya, who was born and raised in France, says recognition of the genocide matters to her because if there had been no war, she would have been born in Sri Lanka. She participated in a narrative dance with a group of young Tamils at the march, relaying the history of the conflict and the causes preceding it.
“It’s as if we don’t exist,” she adds. “In 2009, I was nine, and I knew exactly what was happening. It was traumatic.”
According to the lobbyists, discrimination continues in Sri Lanka despite the end of the war. They say the army tortured Tamils, who are held and charged according to confessions extracted under torture.
“Where will you find that sort of justice system?” asks Maheswaran. Yasodha concurs, saying saying many things have been kept quiet because people are afraid to speak up, but that Tamil people need their rights and recognition of the genocide.
“We are not asking for remembrance,” Chandrasekaran says. “We have the right to remember. We’re asking for justice.”