Today Sri Lanka is still engulfed in darkness; the guns are silent but don’t we still live ‘in the shadow of the gun’*? Months after the military defeat of the LTTE, the government continues to hold the displaced and disowned Tamils on the brink of no hope while those who articulate against such atrocities are subject to witch hunts. The August 31, 2009 conviction of J. S. Tissainayagam to 20 years of hard labour marks another dark episode of disintegrating democracy in Sri Lanka. This judgment has successfully broken down the essence of the judiciary as a non-partisan and non-political entity through the application of the PTA known for its draconian provisions, and which has been tirelessly lobbied for repeal. Nevertheless, there are other questions that revolve beyond the identity of Tissainayagam as a journalist punished for executing his right of expression and while his imprisonment and conviction has rightfully sparked on protests from the civil society as well as internationally, the questions that arise as a result of the silence on Tissainayagam’s involvement with pro-LTTE propaganda in an objective manner by civil society and international actors is worrying.
It is in this context that the memory of Rajani Thiranagama, her remarkable transformation from being a member of the LTTE into an activist and campaigner for the rights of the people and her dedication towards recording the human rights violations of all sides with objectivity and clarity along with the ultimate sacrifice, her untimely death, must be reflected on.
The following are excerpts from the many letters that Dr. Rajani Thiranagama wrote from 1987 to 1989 to her husband, sisters, friends and other activists (Courtesy: POV, No more tears sister: Anatomy of hope and betrayal,
March 17, 1987
I would feel so depressed if in my young age — I had not stood with my people especially in this hour of immense suffering — that I had lied to my spirit, to the spirit of my people, to the millions of oppressed people. Maybe it looks grandiose — the betrayed — but that's how I would feel — that I have chosen comfort and love, the fulfillment of my own desires — to that of their suffering.
March 23, 1987
We have been discussing the merits of a 120-pound over a 500-pound bomb. We have been told they are 120-pound ones — don’t you think that we are lucky — being bombed by only 120-pound ones! Trenches have been dug, we've got a trench to accommodate six to eight people.
March 28, 1987
The bombing is coming closer and closer. We can feel and hear the bombers right next to us as we sit in the trenches. Narmi and Shari are as terrified as any children [would be]. But they are very grown-up because of the events around them … Stand on your feet. Do not depend on another for anything tangible.
March 30, 1987
In the early hours of the morning yesterday I was reading when I heard a thunder rushing close by — I grabbed my sleeping little ones and ran and tumbled into the trench. The whole family sat it out — bombs [falling] over and over again right round us, trees in our garden were shaking with terror and vibrating … Darling, darling at the end, all of us like termites crawled out of the trench, talk to neighbor, count the corpses and carry on.
This weekend they have been bombing indiscriminately all over the Tamil area. […] Narmi said in the trench perceptively; "In older days the kings fought for their people — Now the government fights its people." I couldn’t believe it, she reads so much. It was her own statement on the history of our people. I think that we will survive. I hope we will survive.
The university is closed. Those who can afford it — or feel like it — are fleeing Jaffna. I want to stay with the people when they are in greatest trouble — when they are going to be rendered downtrodden slaves — worthwhile only to be killed. [...] I do not know whether I am doing the right thing by Narmi and Shari — only that I know there are thousands like them in Jaffna.
The future of the teaching hospital is dangling dangerously on a single thread. It will not close, but it will certainly will be bombed, shelled, strafed. People here are getting used to bombing as well as living in trenches. We are living for the day.
There was a bloody massacre in the hospital. Two doctors known to me died ... Tigers only brought the hell on us — they went into the hospital and started to fight the Indian army. There are dead bodies lying on our road side — men, women — left to the elements and the scavengers of nature. Some women's bodies, bloated, beaten, shot, rape[d] ... I am shattered in a grand fashion ... The raging war outside. Shells whizzing past you — over your head, your house — as you sit under the table — sometimes day and night. When you barricade your windows against crossfire, shots, sit immobile crowded with your children under the table. Listening to tramp of the book beat to the cannons. So close, not moving, not making a sound for — a shadow or a sound can kill the whole household.
December 21, 1987
Our university is badly damaged and we are trying our level best to slowly marginalize the army out of our premises and continue with rehabilitation of university. It is difficult. The senior academics most of them are spineless yes men (whether LTTE, Indian Peace Keeping Force [IPKF]), so we have to push them, run around argue with IPKF — it is exhausting. But we can only do within our limitations ... Marjit Singh said "Be happy that you are alive, young lady." Yes, in this brutal war, to be dead was your right, to live a privilege. In those October days, in the terror-stricken nights listening to the continuous whiz of the shells, the great cannon pound away, the roar of the chain vehicle and the sharp piercing crack of authorities — to be alive seemed a privilege. Days would dawn and nights would drag filled with fear not knowing what 'morrows will bring.' The nation was on the roads, their worldly belongings in plastic bags, their children on the hip, in the blistering noon day heat, from refugee camp to refugee camp, from village to village, fleeing from withdrawing Tigers and the advancing Indian army.
I cycled fearfully, and furiously, everywhere along the road I could see only smashed-up houses and bodies on the road. The smell was unbearable in those early days of war, when successful landmine attacks, [killed a number of soldiers in] the Indian army.
Many spoke with a swagger, "[our] boys are doing great, the fourth biggest military power in the world is humbled." But as days advanced, when the heroics brought down the Indian stampede with brutality untold and the sacrifice pyre consumed people in hordes, shells, cannons, tank fire, helicopter firing and even bombs from the bombers; when Tiger sentry point after sentry point withdraw without a whimper, only firing rounds of automatic fire and luring the Indian army.
September 4, 1989
I am too ordinary — for an extraordinary historical path to be chartered out ... People have stopped eating fish again — the rivers are again seeing bodies floating (like in '71), burning bodies at street corners... What has happened to this country — will the rivers of blood stop? With not the long shadow of the guns* — leave us.
September 13, 1989
They came to interrogate me in the Dean's Office. They said that they had come to have a conversation with an intellectual — that I had been extremely hostile... I think that they will try to irritate me. I can handle it pretty well. Some were complaining of my sharp tongue — maybe it's my sharp tongue that will save me.
September 15, 1989
Some times tears flow uncontrollably and I cannot work anymore. I know I want to be strong, I want to call my historical strength as a woman. I want to remember and hold on to memories of women who conquered the inability and pain. [...] I cannot leave this small country, its belly constricted by hunger and mind blurred by pain. My head tells my emotions — hold on, hold on for one month maybe two — the routine will engulf you — the need of others — disturbs the silence of the tomb. One day some gun will silence me. And it will not be held by an outsider — but by a son — born in the womb of this very society — from a woman with whom my history is shared.
They are taking all the sons of this land, making them hold guns, very soon it will be the daughters. How can this country stand? Aren't there enough dead bodies? Aren't there enough guns? Why do we squeeze the very source life by the barrel of the gun? I have no answer to all these questions, it is tearing me — the suppressed sobs and anger. If I have an answer, if we even achieve a bit of a space, a small political victory, then this pain, loneliness, depression could be handled. Nothing, love, nothing — I am going crazy sometimes, sane sometimes, but always with a mask on my face of bright smile on painted lips! Only my eyes tell the muddled mind, sometimes deadened with inability.
You know how powerful it is to prove negative that women like me have not the courage to stay and fight — I want to prove that ordinary women like me have enormous courage and power. That there are in the world steel women.