BY THE TIME I got there, the bones were gone. But eight years out from the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, everything else was still there, carpeting the beach where the final battle was fought. Suitcases half-buried in sand, battered metal cookware, orphaned TV remotes, photo albums disfigured by water damage, and the yards and yards of fabric, shredded and lying in viscera-like loops on the ground.
More than 100,000 Tamil civilians were trapped at Mullivaikal beach in 2009 — crowded into makeshift shelters and desperately short on food, water, and medicine. Tens of thousands of them lost their lives to shelling from the heavy artillery the Sri Lankan government swore it wasn’t using. They’re gone, but their shadows remain.
The ghostly lime-covered bodies, skeletons with mummified skin and bits of cloth clinging to them, were laid side by side in tightly packed rows. In one room were bodies with visible machete scars, in another bodies missing feet or hands, apparently amputated, and in yet another, piles of flesh-less bones. One room held the small corpses of children and another held bodies with remnants of dresses that showed the victims were women.
Timothy Longman’s Memory and Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda recalls the scene at an official commemoration event in Murambi, Rwanda, just two short years after the 1994 genocide. The unease provoked by this use of the victims’ bodies is palpable.
Survivors, Longman says, find these macabre displays offensive. Leaving the corpses in the open violates their traditions. But the government has ignored demands to give the deceased a proper burial, using them instead as a perpetual public testament to the manner of their death. Murambi, where 848 preserved human corpses remain on view, is one of six genocide museums in Rwanda.
Longman methodically unpacks the political work that these grisly memorials do, deploying the bodies of the victims to bolster the current government’s legitimacy. The calculated shock value of the remains, the pageantry of the annual Week of Mourning, the didactic placards at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre — all serve to remind Rwandans and the world that the Tutsi are never safe and that whatever the Kagame regime does is necessary for their protection.
A few miles down the road from Mullivaikal, a bronze soldier, at least 30 feet tall, rears up out of the center of a shallow lake. His left hand waves a Sri Lankan flag. His right, an assault rifle. A dove perches on the barrel of the gun, its wings outstretched.
The symbolism is relentless. The soldier’s torso emerges from a granite block set on a pile of rocks, each inscribed with the name of a military unit that participated in the war’s bloody end. Four stone lions, the national animal of Sri Lanka, guard its base. The monument is dedicated to the memory of the “war heroes” who gave their lives to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
For the local Tamil community, the looming presence of the bronze giant with his gun and his lions is not just an eyesore, it’s an injury. “Every day I have to walk past that monstrosity I am reminded of the horrors we faced,” one survivor confided in 2016.
Victory monuments, abrupt and unsubtle, dot the landscape of the territory once claimed by the LTTE. A manacled fist trailing links of broken chain and clutching a Sri Lankan flag near Batticaloa in the east. A massive concrete block pierced by a bullet and sprouting a lotus blossom from the wound at Kilinochchi, the former administrative capital of the Tigers’ de facto state. Four bronze hands holding the map of Sri Lanka, towering 40 feet above Elephant Pass, site of three pivotal battles in the long war. And always the same refrain from those living in the shadow of the state’s triumphalism: “We lost and they want to remind us of it.”
In In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies, David Rieff notes that when wars end with the overwhelming defeat of one side, “victory confers the power unilaterally to shape the collective memory of the conflict.” Both Sri Lanka and Rwanda today are states controlled by the victors of a military conflict, forcefully exercising this power. But while Sri Lanka’s memory project smacks of exultant self-aggrandizement, Rwanda’s is grounded in victimhood. One commemorates with tank parades and bellicose speeches; the other with reenactments of massacres and communal weeping.
Reiff suggests that “the effects of instilling collective memory based on a sense of national or individual greatness differ significantly from those of memory anchored in a sense of personal and collective injury.” In the long run, this may be true. But in the short term, their effects look remarkably similar. Both models impose the same kinds of silences, denying the suffering inflicted by the victors, policing the memory of their victims.
The hegemonic narrative of the Rwandan Genocide allows no nuance or moral ambiguity and so must carefully conceal the violence of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Any mention of RPF atrocities meets with fury from the Kagame regime and determined disbelief from its admirers abroad. Yet incontrovertible evidence exists of massacres committed against Hutu populations in Rwanda and in refugee camps across the border in Zaire.
Judi Rever’s explosive new book, In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, argues that these relatively well-known incidents are just the tip of the iceberg:
Like the mobile units of the Third Reich that fanned out across the occupied Soviet Union, the RPF’s death squads ranged from Rwanda’s northern border with Uganda to the south, along the border with Tanzania. The trucks carrying Hutus to Akagera National Park and the open-air crematoriums in the forest there recalled the Second World War’s death wagons and extermination centers.
Citing evidence compiled by International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda investigators, as well as firsthand testimony from victims and perpetrators, Rever argues that Hutus were systematically slaughtered in RPF-controlled territory, just as Tutsis were elsewhere. Her account suggests that the Rwandan state’s narrative of the genocide is not just one-sided and simplistic, but fundamentally false, and that critical revisions that view RPF crimes solely through the lens of retaliation are enabling a cover-up.
Even where RPF crimes are well known, silence is rigorously enforced. At Kibeho church, which houses two memorials to the genocide victims slaughtered there, no mention is made of the thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) killed by the RPF at the same location one year later. In pointed contrast to the meticulously curated genocide sites, Longman says, “mass graves of RPF victims are allowed to disappear from public view, growing over with weeds and brush until they are indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape.”
Today, the LTTE cemeteries are hard to find. During the war, the Maaveerar Thuyilum Illam (Heroes’ Resting Abodes) were constructed to house and honor fallen combatants. Every November on Heroes’ Day (Maaveerar Naal), families of the dead would gather to lay flowers and light candles beside the graves of their loved ones. Over time, these observances grew increasingly formalized, incorporating religious rituals and processions. Maaveerar Naal became the occasion for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s annual public address, underscoring its centrality to the Tigers’ nation-building project.
There were 27 Thuyilum Illam scattered throughout northeast Sri Lanka, massive complexes with hundreds of graves each. They’ve all been destroyed — bulldozed when the state captured territory, the rubble from the gravestones used to build roads. And what the state reconquered, it has held, maintaining an oppressive military presence that constrains every aspect of civilian life.
Commemorating the LTTE is outlawed. Bereaved parents speak of burying or destroying their only photographs of sons and daughters who died fighting for an independent Tamil Eelam. Some of the cemeteries are now army camps, a gruesome irony for survivors watching soldiers walk on the graves they cannot visit. Some are simply gone, leveled and abandoned to the encroaching underbrush.
The handful of toppled headstones and shattered name plates that remain are a curious contrast with the carefully preserved collection of Tiger artifacts on display in and around Mullivaikal. Information boards in Sinhala, Tamil, and English explain the “Sea Tiger Submarine Yard” and “Terrorist Swimming Pool” to curious tourists from the south. Like the text at the war museum at Puthukkudiyiruppu, the language is strangely adulatory, highlighting the LTTE’s military prowess and ingenuity.
The attempted demolition of the Tigers’ own memory project is evident in the razed graveyards and destroyed LTTE monuments — the empty base of a Sea Tiger memorial, the crumbling statue of a female combatant face down and wreathed in leaves, the single wall left standing of Prabhakaran’s childhood home. In its place, the state dictates how the Tigers will be remembered: not as a national liberation movement but as ruthless terrorists, an exceptional fighting force over whom the Sri Lankan military achieved a glorious victory.
In the 24 years since the Rwandan genocide, Longman finds, commemoration has become “increasingly compulsory.” In addition to the national events, every local community must put on its own event at which “public officials talk about the genocide and how to keep such tragedies from happening again.” Longman’s interviewees report that local officials keep attendance lists and are quick to identify those who are not present. If you don’t participate, cautions one man, “the authorities could investigate you for the infraction of genocide ideology.”
Genocide remembrance is critical to the performance of citizenship in Rwanda today. Memorialization activities have become a site of repression and an opportunity for the regime to weed out disloyalty. The burden of performing remembrance falls most heavily on Hutus, but they do not bear it alone. Several of Longman’s Tutsi survivor interviewees mention the mistrust with which they are perceived by their co-ethnics who were outside of Rwanda during the genocide. Their survival reads as complicity, they say, in the eyes of the repatriated Tutsi refugees who now rule the country. They are given no room “to interpret their own experience” of the genocide, but must fit themselves into the single permissible narrative, which has grown more restrictive over time.
Music blares as the buses full of Sinhalese tourists pass on their way from the navy camp to Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee. Surrounded by pictures of their missing sons and daughters, the Tamil mothers protesting in the road bristle at the intrusion: “They’re enjoying themselves with their kids and look at us.”
By one estimate, more than 146,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for in Sri Lanka today. Many of these are LTTE cadres and civil servants who surrendered to the military at the end of the war. But others went missing earlier, or later — forced into a white van, detained at a military checkpoint, or called in for questioning at the police station and never seen again. Whole families vanished without a trace, including tiny children whose grandmothers now hold photographs of them labeled with their names, date of birth, and date of disappearance.
Throughout northeast Sri Lanka, family members of the disappeared, mostly mothers, gather in similar roadside encampments. For over a year, they have braved the heat and the rain to stand vigil. These are the women who are being asked to forget.
The injunction against memory is not the merciless repression that Rwanda wields in response to any mention of RPF victims. It’s a more insidious silencing. It’s the harassment and occasional violence inflicted on the protesters, warning them that their perseverance is dangerous. The indifference with which their desperate pleas for information are met and the inconsistent statements of officials, too careless to get their stories straight, that no one is missing or that the missing are “gone.” The endless backtracking on the transitional justice institutions the government claims to be setting up. The sight, every day, of the military — a hostile presence in their communities and a continual reminder that the men who took their children walk free.
The message is clear: give up. Let them go. Get over it.
Rieff makes a provocative case for historical amnesia: learning about the past does not inoculate against repeating it, he argues. Rather, the strategic deployment of collective memory “has led to war rather than peace, to rancor and ressentiment […] rather than reconciliation, and to the determination to exact revenge rather than commit to the hard work of forgiveness.” Forgetting may be the key to avoiding continued violence.
He is careful to clarify that it is not the memory of events within living recall that he’s speaking of, but the chewing of centuries-old bones driving cycles of “unending grievance and vendetta.” But the link he draws between memory politics and the “peace versus justice” debate undermines this distinction between the near and distant past. Despite his conclusion that forgetting is inappropriate “in the immediate aftermath of a great crime or while its perpetrators are still at large,” Rieff takes the human rights movement to task for its categorical rejection of amnesties, citing Spain and Chile as examples where collective forgetting of recent atrocities enabled peace.
These cases in which still-living survivors have been required to swallow their grief and anger in the interests of harmony should be distinguished from those that motivate Reiff’s argument. The role he sees long-cherished grudges and incompatible historical narratives playing in the Balkans, Israel/Palestine, and Northern Ireland are about relationships between communities, and between communities and their own history. But in the immediate aftermath of atrocities, questions about memory are questions about relationships between the state and its subjects.
It is the state that decides what may be remembered and what must be forgotten. It is the state that allows some to commemorate publicly and forces others to light candles alone at home. And it’s the state that designates some bodies as vessels for memory and leaves others in unmarked graves. In this context, forgetting is not “letting go of the past”; it’s a process of erasure.
The Sri Lankan Civil War formally ended on May 18, 2009. Each year on the anniversary, survivors gather at Mullivaikal and elsewhere throughout the northeast to commemorate the thousands of civilian lives lost there. And each year, they are accompanied. Intelligence officers watch them closely, recording on smartphones as community leaders light memorial lamps. Courts preemptively ban commemorative events and police threaten the participants with criminal prosecution. Even in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s supposed democratic transition in 2015, the weeks before Mullivaikal Remembrance Day see a buildup in the already overwhelming military presence in the region.
Remembering these victims, the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians who died in the war’s final cataclysm, is antithetical to the state’s postwar politics. For years after the war ended, the government insisted that the final phase had been a humanitarian operation implementing a “zero civilian casualty” policy. It clung to this story even as a UN panel of experts concluded that the security forces’ conduct constituted “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law.” Eventually, international pressure extracted admissions: first that perhaps some unintentional civilian deaths had occurred, and later that “a few bad apples” might have committed war crimes. But accepting the fact of tens of thousands of deaths would mean acknowledging systemic violations and the complicity of individuals at the highest level of the military and civilian leadership. And so the deaths themselves remain as contentious as the identity of those responsible.
The recently opened monument to more than 4,000 black Americans lynched by their white neighbors feels something like a victory, the jars of soil from the site of each recorded attack a powerful acknowledgment of each individual victim. But groundbreaking as it is, Montgomery’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice palliates only the secondary injury of decades of collective amnesia about racial terror. The original harm remains unaddressed.
In the aftermath of atrocities, the refusal to provide justice motivates the suppression of memory. Over time, the enforced forgetting becomes synonymous with injustice, until eventually, remembrance itself passes for justice.
And sometimes, justice passes for memory. In transitional contexts, trials and truth commissions are frequently seen as a means of forging collective memory, a shared narrative of the past on which to base a new political order. But as Rieff argues, an exhaustive reckoning with the past is beyond the scope of justice mechanisms. And rather than building consensus, the assignment of blame can sow the seeds for further discord.
The vexed relationship between memory and justice is never clearer than in the presence of the disinterred victims of violence. As the editors of Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exhumations in the Age of Human Rights point out, “the dead can be enrolled into stories that do violence to their memory and to the experiences of relatives and survivors.” The book teases out the tension implicit in mass graves’ dual status as lieux de memoire and as criminal evidence. Its contributions, covering contexts from South Korea to Spain to Srebrenica, underscore the “ambivalences and ambiguities” presented by exhumation, a process that “returns the dead to the community of the living.” The mass grave is a site of a particularly complex absence, the instantiation of that which may not be remembered and yet cannot be forgotten.
There are spots on Mullivaikal beach where the vegetation changes suddenly, where the ground slopes on a sharper grade, and where the sand feels more tightly packed beneath your feet. The surroundings match the background of photographs showing the tortured final moments of surrendered LTTE fighters. You wonder what you might be standing on.
The photos, like the trophy videos taken by Sri Lankan soldiers eager to record their enemies’ ignominious end, are evidence of mass atrocities. Tamil men, women, and even children, shown before and after their extrajudicial execution, some stripped and displaying the unmistakable signs of sexual violence. Their bodies, like those of so many others disappeared during and after the conflict, are lost. But somewhere, they continue to bear witness to what was done to them.
The survivors wait less patiently. They demand the truth about their missing loved ones. They defy the prohibitions on mourning their dead and construct makeshift memorials out of the wreckage of their cemeteries. Their persistence is a rebuke and an ongoing challenge to the state’s effort to bury their memories.
Kate Cronin-Furman is a lawyer and political scientist who writes about mass atrocities and human rights. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.