A distant grief: Mourning the dead in exile

By Frances Harrison

They stood mourning their dead in a cold church hall, hands respectfully clasped in front of them, memories wandering back to Sri Lanka, feet in London sneakers. More than thirty Tamil men and women, refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, very privately remembering friends and family who didn’t survive, civilians and fighters. There were no oil lamps at dusk or wild flowers – just tiny candles and imported roses still in their cellophane supermarket wrappers. In the eyes of everyone standing around the room in silent remembrance was written intense personal loss.

These are Sri Lankan Tamil torture survivors – some of them very recently detained. More than the services on offer, it’s the coming together as a group that’s restorative and empowering. They struggle with the physical pain and  mental trauma caused by torture, as well as poverty and fear, but there’s also the grief that still needs addressing a decade on. As one person said, ‘in our culture we mourn collectively.’

One man talked of how they’d buried pieces of bodies in the graves in Sri Lanka if they couldn’t retrieve the whole. Another recounted how all the LTTE cemeteries in Sri Lanka were bulldozed by the Sri Lankan army when they captured them in 2008-9 but how in the last two years families back home had tried to resurrect what they could of the broken tombstones in order to mourn their dead. It was for the benefit of the non-Tamils in the room, but had an element of writing their own history for the next generation in exile. Another man told the group that the armed struggle had taken a new direction now – Tamils must fight for their rights though legal means, through international courts and human rights mechanisms.

To be able to mourn as a community is not something they can take for granted now – with the political contest for power, warnings are being issued again in Sri Lanka not to hold public events. The counsellor invokes the last time they remembered fallen heroes in Sri Lanka, in 2008 before they were defeated, detained, tortured and driven out of the island. Being allowed to honour their dead is important for everyone in a war but perhaps even more so for those who are defeated militarily.

There are of course Sinhalese who will say the fallen heroes were terrorists and honouring them will resurrect the armed struggle which isn’t good for “reconciliation”. Those who died are human beings with mothers and fathers who need to mourn to be able to move on.The most dangerous thing is to deny them that right.☐


The former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison is the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War, published by Portobello Books (UK), House of Anansi (Canada) and Penguin ( India).


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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