BURNING BIRDS – Sri Lanka’s long war

BURNING BIRDS, the last film of the director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, awarded ‘Best Film’ at the International Festival on Human Rights in Geneva in 2017, is a raw, no holds barred report on the terrible conditions of women living in war zones.

To be a woman in war is fully witnessed in the tight countenance of Kusul (the outstanding actress, Anoma Janadari), in her eloquent silences (dialogues are reduced to the bare minimum throughout the film), in her stoic bearing, a painful dignity. She set out on a trial of strength, Kusul, but she lost.

A life of poverty, with eight children in a village of north-eastern Sri Lanka.

A poverty that turns to misery, as often occurs with the loss of dignity. Kusul tries to maintain her dignity as a woman and a mother, even when, in one of the most poignant scenes of the film, she tries to squeeze a few drops of milk from her emaciated breasts to give some nourishment to her starving children, after the paramilitary forces had taken away her husband Salun, a fisherman.

It is no surprise – Kusul expected they would come and get him.

As it is no surprise for us, when already in the first scene of the film, the radio announces “…The military have begun recapturing the leftist rebels, the voluntary ceasefire granted to the rebels has ended, arrests have begun again.”

It is 1989. In Sri Lanka, “the splendid island”, ravages a brutal civil war – officially declared in 1983, but actually underway for more than a decade – between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, alias the Tamil Tigers, the separatist movement claimed to its final defeat the creation of a Tamil independent State.

70, 80, maybe 100 thousand victims is death toll. A war that international public opinion culpably ignored for a long time, relegating it to the sidelines of exotic skirmishes, far from the media spotlight and, above all, from the strategic chessboard of the civil world. The  same civil world that has always forgotten at any longitude and latitude the impact of war on women.

The white of the clothes, the litany of the Hindu priests, the rocking to and fro of the women. The final farewell to Salun (to his photo because his body lies in a mass grave) and Kusul begins her ordeal in search of a job to feed her eight children and not so amiable mother-in-law.

A voyage that leads her straight to hell, relentlessly, step by step towards annihilation. First, in a quarry breaking rocks (and hands) all day long, then in an abattoir sweeping up animal entrails and carcasses.

“No woman has ever worked here”, the headman tells her.

It’s certainly not a job for a woman, but Kusul does it anyway, in silence, under the scrutinizing stares of her co-workers. Soon (and quite predictably) she ends up a victim to their violent attentions. The pack closes in, the gang rape is the prelude to Kusul’s fall into the degrading world of prostitution.

Among her clients there is also the man who had taken her husband away, the “head” of the paramilitary forces hunting for presumed subversives in a war arising from the ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority and the Tamil and Hindu minority from South India. In the first decades of the 19th century, the British decided to transfer a good number of Tamils to the island of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called at the time of the British Empire) as workers on the tea plantations. Another legacy from the complacency and stupidity of the white man.

The Tamils are a people with their own history, traditions, culture and language. And with their own country, the Tamil Eelam, in the north-east of the island, where they have always been concentrated. After independence in 1948, the situation of the Tamil population worsened. The leaders of the new state, mainly Sinhalese, did not recognize the right to citizenship of the Tamil plantation workers. They remained illegal foreigners.

In 1972, with the birth of the Republic of Sri Lanka, Sinhalese was declared the official language and Buddhism the official religion. In 1977, the first pogrom against the Tamils began, followed by that of 1983 (apparently planned by the central government as a retaliation for the killing of some soldiers) which marked the shift from a perfidious and underground conflict to an open war between the government and the Tigers.

The Tigers were skilled guerrilla fighters, who had taken over with an iron grip the control of the extremely splintered secessionist movement, eliminating anyone who dared oppose their ultimate objective – the creation of a Tamil state. As always, those who paid the highest price in this struggle for an ideological purism were the civil population.

The Tamils were victims twofold – of the government that discriminated against and persecuted them because they were Tamil, and the rebels who had, for years, forcibly recruited young men and children. Especially the latter, thousands of them.

In 2008, President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched a final and decisive military offensive (costing about 20,000 deaths) against the Tigers.

It is difficult to estimate the human toll of a 30-year conflict, where the epilogue of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the assassination of its leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, was the iceberg of barbarism.

Both sides were guilty of a host of atrocities. The army did not spare itself in the use of heavy artillery in the offensives against the rebels (and civilians); the Tigers, on their part, carried the indelible shame of using thousands of Tamils as shields, forcing them to move to the “safe zones” set up by the army along the north-eastern coast.

According to UNO official estimates, during the final assault, 40 to 70 thousand people were killed. Both parties were accused of war crimes. The Rajapaksa government (in power from 2005 to 2015) always flatly denied any accusations, refusing, under the pretext of national sovereignty, the entry of observers nominated by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, charged with investigating the responsibility for the worst atrocities committed during the conflict.

BURNING BIRDS finishes with a genre finale, with a refined dramatization.

Showing the landscapes, colors, the house in flames before Kusul’s fixed gaze. She has been released from prison, where she had ended up with other prostitutes, and is surrounded by shame. The scornful look of her oldest daughter, who had left school to be able to feed her siblings, her mother-in-law’s revenge (a little overly dramatized) who hangs herself from a tree, the notice on her door “No tolerance for prostitutes”, the blind fury with which Kusul brutally attacks the sleeping body of the man who had betrayed her husband.

A war that probably only ended in 2015 when Rajapaksa stepped down from politics. The man who triumphed over the Tigers, but was defeated in the elections by Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Freedom Party, a Sinhalese who was also supported by the majority of Tamils.

The hopes for a true national reconciliation, even if long and difficult, that the new political direction had taken, were soon smashed before the unexpected about-face of Sisirena, who now refuses to cooperate with the UNO Council for Human Rights (contrary to the commitment he had made at the beginning of his mandate) to set up an international tribunal on crimes committed during the final phases of the war.

Perhaps, the only way to extinguish the flames of hate on the “splendid island”.

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