My older brother’s tree: everyday violence and the question of the ordinary in Batticaloa, Eastern Sri Lanka
Batticaloa district on the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka has been one of the most disrupted and devastated areas of the island since civil war began in the early 1980s. Ethnically and culturally diverse, the Eastern province has been under the control of different military actors, the Sri Lankan army, the Indian Peace-Keeping Forces, and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), however, none maintained full control of the Eastern areas until May 2009 when the Sri Lankan Army successfully defeated the LTTE. Exploring the lives of Tamil communities in Batticaloa, this thesis examines the ways in which people make sense of an ‘everyday life’ shaped by conflict. Following the idiosyncratic journey of the researcher through the uncertain environment of escalating conflict and the aftermath of the tsunami, it builds up a larger picture of life, moving between accounts of everyday violence and suffering and more sustained dwelling on the particular people who are actively making it possible to endure by investing in a more humane future. In areas such as Batticaloa, where violence frames the past, present and foreseeable future, resistance in some shape or form has become a way of life. As Foucault (1976, 2003) maintains, violence which is embedded in social and material structures can create an environment where power and control saturate the routines of the ordinary, making its existence appear ‘normal’. However, from this way of life, what may emerge beyond the more obvious signs of violence, is the fact that people do keep pushing forward. Integral to this is the importance of risk, hope, and trust, which, woven through the interactions of daily activity, mark out what is possible and what is not. The chapters in this thesis, explore individuals who, in the spaces between accepted understandings of ordinary and extraordinary, work around the various controls and constraints to forge habitable spaces in which relations of trust and support can be strengthened and the future can be imagined. Starting with a focus on the relationship between personal narrative and history, I trace the experiences of a woman living through poverty, displacement, and loss. From this I suggest that it is the paradoxical existence of violence, risk, fear, friendship, and trust as worked through the endurance of daily interactions that is integral to understanding the texture of everyday life. Therefore, I argue that what can on the one hand look like a hopeless and negative picture of militancy and violence, can also, contain within it, fragments of hope and survival, captured for example, in the work of local people to reclaim space. I also deal with the complexities of the research experience in a violent environment and look at the strategies that people employ to negotiate and minimize risk in contested and militarized spaces. The second part of the thesis examines the meaning of the everyday and the ordinary through the experiences of a widow and group of fishermen, and thus challenges conventional academic writing which relates ‘normalcy’ in violence prone-areas to peace and productivity. Overall, these chapters argue that a capacity for hope, for building trust, safety, and peace, however fragile and tentative, is as much an integral part of a conflict situation as the more obvious capacity for fear and silence.