Fragments of terror: memories and narratives of former insurgents in Southern Sri Lanka
Wadugodapitiya, Menaka Dhananjali
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How do people who have participated in extensive violence against the state and members of their community, understand and reflect on their experiences? What meanings do they attach to violence, and how do they go on to reformulate their lives and deal with the consequences of their actions in its aftermath? These are among the key questions that this thesis considers. Anchored in a little-known violent period that took place in southern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, known locally simply as ‘the Terror’ (Bheeshanaya), this ethnography of political violence analyses the memories and narratives of those who have engaged in violence. It explores how violence is negotiated and lived with in the aftermath and its implications for the self and sociality. As such, this study is concerned with how people mediate and articulate discomforting memories of violence, in a post-terror context of silence and fear, where justice and reconciliation are lacking. Through the accounts of people who have participated in violence, this thesis provides rich insight into the consequences of violence, and further highlights the flawed nature of one-dimensional ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ binaries generally assumed in studies of violence, emphasising instead the ambiguity that marks the experience of violence. This thesis is based on 14 months of fieldwork carried out primarily with former insurgents in southern Sri Lanka. For balance and to maximise representation in what remains deeply contested terrain, their accounts are set against the stories of people who did not directly engage in violence, but whose lives were nevertheless touched by the Terror. This thesis argues that for those who have participated in violence, the mediation of its memory is an on-going ethical exercise. It finds that former insurgents remember, give meaning to, and live with, their violent pasts in ethical terms. Remembering violence is morally tendentious and carries significant implications for the self and sociality in the present. Recreating life after terror involves finding an ethical framework to deal with violence, and entails ongoing efforts to allocate moral responsibility for it. This thesis contends that as much as the violent past is kept alive in the present as an ethical issue, moral accountability for it remains un-reconciled and in a constant state of flux. It shows overall the narratives of former insurgents to be contradictory and convoluted, highlighting the ambivalent nature of memory and lived experience of violence. Moreover, it argues that for those who have participated in violence, life in the aftermath is about finding ways of living with one’s violent past, rather that ‘healing’ or ‘moving on’ from it.