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Wanni Narratives - Part One

Collective trauma in the Vanni- a qualitative inquiry into the mental health of the internally displaced due to the civil war in Sri Lanka

by Dr. Daya Somasundaram
Department of Psychiatry,

University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka


(August 18, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian)
From January to May, 2009, a population of 300,000 in the Vanni, northern Sri Lanka underwent multiple displacements, deaths, injuries, deprivation of water, food, medical care and other basic needs caught between the shelling and bombings of the state forces and the LTTE which forcefully recruited men, women and children to fight on the frontlines and held the rest hostage. This study explores the long term psychosocial and mental health consequences of exposure to massive, existential trauma.


This paper is a qualitative inquiry into the psychosocial situation of the Vanni displaced and their ethnography using narratives and observations obtained through participant observation; in depth interviews; key informant, family and extended family interviews; and focus groups using a prescribed, semi structured open ended questionnaire.


The narratives, drawings, letters and poems as well as data from observations, key informant interviews, extended family and focus group discussions show considerable impact at the family and community. The family and community relationships, networks, processes and structures are destroyed. There develops collective symptoms of despair, passivity, silence, loss of values and ethical mores, amotivation, dependency on external assistance, but also resilience and post-traumatic growth.

Considering the severity of family and community level adverse effects and implication for resettlement, rehabilitation, and development programmes; interventions for healing of memories, psychosocial regeneration of the family and community structures and processes are essential.


Tham Thimithimithom Thaiyathom
Tham Thimithimithom
Living we were- on Vanni soil
Living we were
Educating ourselves we were - Joyfully
Educating ourselves we were
Running around we were - with friends
Running around we were

Came the airplanes- on us
Throwing bombs
Died relations- our
Relations fell
Race destroyed- Tamil
Race disappeared

Life destroyed- our
Life scattered
Suffering saw- we
Sadness imposed
Caged by war- we were
Trapped in suffering
Enough the sorrow- we
Escape to survive

Song/Poem by Vanni IDP school student

What happened in the Vanni and to its people from August 2006 onwards, particularly from January 2009 to May 2009, has been described in apocalyptic (in the local Tamil as pralayam) terms[1-4]. The total destruction of civilian infrastructure that ensued in the bitter fight to the end between the Sri Lankan military forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with an estimated civilian population of around 300, 000 trapped in between is an ineffable human calamity. A common refrain from people who were there has been 'varthayal varnicca mudiyathavai (it is beyond description by words)'[5]. When one meets or sees survivors even in January, 2010 in the various internment camps, public places like bus stands or in private homes, they are obviously in a thihaiththupona (daze) state, not having comprehended or come to terms with what happened. They stand out from the rest of humanity. Much of what happened is still shrouded in mystery and secrecy. There are several contested versions, discourses battling to establish their perspective. The Sri Lankan state and military have actively striven to suppress the truth of the ensuing carnage for fear of investigations for war crimes [4,6-8]. There also appears to be a more long term effort to frame and reconstruct the collective memories and historical record in line with the political agendas of different actors. The Lankan state and Sinhala nationalist would like to paint it as a war against terrorism, deny an ethnic or minority problem and portray the Tamils as of relatively recent origin, migrants or invaders from South India in the last millennium [9-11]. Indeed, internationally the LTTE had become branded as a terrorist organization by several countries including India, U.S., U.K., Canada, European Union, Australia, Malaysia and others. In contrast, Tamil nationalists depict the conflict as a liberation struggle of a suppressed minority, claiming the Tamils have inhabited the North and East from the beginning of history [12-14]. However, the psychosocial and mental health impact on the civilian population and the interventions for their recovery remains a major concern addressed by this qualitative study.

Since the work of Sigmund Freud, it has become a basic principal aim of psychotherapy to bring out the repressed memories and associated emotions as a process of healing. This cathartic effect is believed to help people come to terms with what has happened and carry on with their lives. Following massive ethnic conflicts in South Africa, Rwanda and Bosnia there were attempts at reconciliation through 'healing of memories' using techniques like truth commissions. If people can be given an opportunity to express their stories through words, poems, songs, drama, drawings or other creative arts, it is believed that would help in their recovery. It would provide some meaning for the enormous suffering they have undergone, hope for the future and trust in the world. It would also help others understand what has happened as well as create an enabling atmosphere for resolving contrasting views.

Memories can change over time depending on internal and external conditions. This is always a challenge in psychoanalysis and narrative ethnography. Child abuse, trauma, depression, grief, fear, wishes, desires and other strong emotions can repress or distort memories. Similarly, the external political environment or socio-cultural milieu can determine what can and what cannot be said. Silence in a situation of 'repressive ecology'[15] is a survival strategy that can become ingrained and permanent. Thus peoples' memories can become a field of intense contest, memories can be erased, and others created or changed. This paper will attempt to give a voice, narrate the stories, access the memories and describe the lived experience of those caught up in the fateful Vanni episodes from different perspectives as a psychosocial method of catharsis, a healing of memories.

Complex situations that follow war and natural disasters have a psychosocial impact on not only the individual but also on the family, community and society. Just as the mental health effects on the individual psyche can result in non pathological distress as well as a variety of psychiatric disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); massive and widespread trauma and loss can impact on family and social processes causing changes at the family, community and societal levels. A better understanding of the supra-individual reality can be sought through the ecological model of Bronfenbrenner [16] with the micro, meso, exo and macro systems or the individual nested in the family nested in the community [17,18]. Previous workers had already drawn attention to the community level problems caused by disasters. Kai Erikson [19] gives a graphic account of Collective Trauma as 'loss of communality' following the Buffalo Creek disaster in the US. He and colleagues described the 'broken cultures' in North American Indians and 'destruction of the entire fabric of their culture' due to the forced displacements and dispossession from traditional lands into reservations, separations, massacres, loss of their way of life, relationships and spiritual beliefs [20]. Similar tearing of the 'social fabric' has been described in Australian aboriginal populations [21]. There was a description of 'cultural bereavement' due to the loss of cultural traditions and rituals in Indochinese refugees in the US [22] and collective trauma due to the chronic effects of war[23]. More recently, a number of discerning workers in the field have been drawing attention to the importance of looking at the family[24-27] and cultural dimension[28-31] following disasters. Finally, Abramowitz [32] has given a moving picture of 'collective trauma' in six Guinean communities exposed to war.


The area called the Vanni compromises mainly the Districts of Killinochi and Mullaithivu and adjoining parts of Vavuniya and Mannar Districts in Northern Sri Lanka (see map- fig. 1). With the more recent migrations, an estimate of the total population would have been between 300,000 to 400,000 consisting exclusively of Tamils. Due to conflicting political compulsions the exact number remains controversial [2].

Map of Vanni IDP's [72]. Movement of the Vanni IDP's|Somasundaram International Journal of Mental Health Systems

To be Continued...

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