Tamils Are Haunted By Hope For Relatives’ Return

In War’s Aftermath

by Laura Beltran Villamizar, National Public Radio, Washington, DC, June 2, 2019

“I am keeping this carefully for our only son, who may never get to know his father’s love anytime soon.” —Sudarshini, whose husband disappeared in 2006 – Amrita Chandradas

In the past 30 years, some 60,000 to 100,000 Sri Lankans have disappeared, Amnesty International reports. Ethnic and religious tensions have always been a part of Sri Lanka’s history, which includes a decades-long war between government security forces and Tamil Tiger separatists that ended in 2009.

Photographer Amrita Chandradas, an Indian Tamil who was born and raised in Singapore, traveled to Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and nearby Neduntheevu island (also called Delft Island) to document disappearances among Sri Lankan Tamils.

“We sleep with light on because we are afraid without male presence two of us will be taken advantage of at night — and it would not be the first time,” Malar, 41, whose husband went missing in 2006, says of herself and her daughter, Shalini. – Amrita Chandradas

She interviewed and photographed 12 families who hope for the return of their disappeared relatives, and her intimate, respectful and close approach illuminates what despair and hope (or the lack thereof) look and feel like. Her work pulls the viewer back from the imagery of war to understand what remains afterward — those still alive, trying to cope with the unknown fates of their loved ones.

Left: Old calendars rustle in the household of Sudarshini. Right: Sudarshini and her husband, Seliyyah, celebrate the fifth birthday of their son, Selva, shortly before Seliyyah disappeared. – Amrita Chandradas

Her pictures reflect simple shared memories: a sunset at the beach, a ride on a bicycle, a family calendar hanging on a wall, a photograph from better times. Chandradas shared her approach to telling a visual story about hope and the loss of it.

What triggered you to pursue a story on the Tamils in Sri Lanka?

I grew up not very aware about the conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army. I knew a little when younger, as my father worked as an infographic journalist for the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times. He used to draw maps detailing where the conflicts were taking place, and he used to explain to me.

It was not until I moved to London when I discovered the large diaspora of Tamils that had sought asylum in the U.K. My uncle was interpreting for them, and the stories he brought back etched a deep mark in my mind. I slowly started to photograph public demonstrations and protests by the Tamils seeking answers on the disappearances of their loved ones and their plea for justice in war crime atrocities that were committed by the Sri Lankan Army — particularly during the last weeks of the conflict in May 2009.

Kuneswary looked in every camp for her son. He was the sole breadwinner of the house, working as a fisherman. – Amrita Chandradas

Sudarshini works outside the kitchen where she and her husband would often cook together before he disappeared. “He is alive,” she says. – Amrita Chandradas

One thing led to another. I met the most dedicated activists, who are first-generation, U.K.-born Tamils from Sri Lanka. Most of their parents or relatives ran to the U.K. seeking refuge. Some of them at that time could not visit Sri Lanka or were barred due to their activism. Through their help and advice, I was able to visit northern Sri Lanka in mid-2015 to speak to the Tamils, particularly those whose family members had disappeared during the last 26 years of conflict.

How did you communicate hope through your photography?

Navaratharasa holds his grandchild at the seaside where he used to bring his child Sathees Kumar, who disappeared in 1996. – Amrita Chandradas

On reaching Jaffna, the impression I had in mind that the Tamils would be actively looking in public for their loved ones was not present, as most of the centers dealing with the queries or the detention camps that allegedly held many Tamils captive. …

I realized after speaking to the Tamil families that their search and waiting remained in their own homes. I observed that the things which belonged to their loved ones were sometimes left exactly where they were (for example, a father, Marya Seelan from Delft Island, showed me the remnants of a bicycle left exactly where his daughter had left it outside of their home before she disappeared), photographs of their past celebrations and gatherings that laid around and just the general loneliness and emptiness of the surroundings.

Left: Nagulesan Naguraja was 18 when he was dragged away by the Sri Lankan military in 1996. His family fought back but was severely beaten. Naguraja never returned. His family says he was never part of the Tamil Tigers. Right: Naguraja’s bed frame is in the same place it was in 1996. – Amrita Chandradas

How did you go about covering such difficult and personal moments?

It was heartbreaking. I did not shoot for many days initially, as I sat to listen to them. I think they just really wanted to be heard — as they said, they have repeated their anguish several times to others, but they felt nothing had progressed forward or others grew tired of listening. One of them told me I resembled his daughter, and it broke me completely that I could give him no answers or resolution. I can never ever know what they are feeling. I only know that I would be broken just like them if I do not know if my loved one is alive or dead.

“They dragged him away like this,” the father of Nagulesan Naguraja says while demonstrating how the military took his son away. – Amrita Chandradas

When did you decide to start photographing?

It was extremely difficult to shoot then and even now, as the north remains one of the most highly militarized places in the world. The days when I had to shoot, I did what I could swiftly and quietly — but I always came back to the houses often, just to converse with the families. I had to keep my head down and continue working.

On Delft Island, called Neduntheevu by Tamils, the vast majority of households have at least one family member missing. Most were former Tamil Tiger cadets and disappeared either during the long separatist war or after surrendering toward the end of the conflict. – Amrita Chandradas

I returned to my home in Singapore. I did not look at the images for a while, as I had to absorb everything I had experienced. I started by transcribing the interviews from Tamil to English and then started to look at the images.

People say when a conflict ends, peace returns. I disagree. It’s been almost a decade, and the Tamils have faced a lot of trauma, and the road to reconciliation remains vague. The constant presence of the military looming over them makes it difficult for them to move on.

When I finally did look at the images, I saw a pattern between the portraits — objects left behind coupled together with the surroundings photographed. I placed them in diptychs to help the viewer understand how the family members are caught between the past and the present of their predicament.

Sargunarasa went missing with his neighbor Seliyyah on July 5, 2006, while on a business trip. His wife, Malar, and Shalini, their only daughter, hold his passport image. – Amrita Chandradas

What do you hope to convey with your work?

The future remains to be a question mark. There are many other issues faced by the Tamils over there and even in the countries they have sought refuge at. I feel that I have only scratched the surface on these issues. I have learned a lot of resilience from the Tamils, and even though I come from a different part of the world, through this work I felt I had formed a deeper connection to my ancestral ethnicity. But also greatly ashamed on how I was so unaware to what they faced.

Amrita Chandradas is a documentary photographer from Singapore. Laura Beltrán Villamizar is NPR’s projects picture editor.

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