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Atrocities in the frame

The film “No Fire Zone” gives voice to the victims of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Here, amateur video footage powerfully documents those caught in the killing fields.

Mahinda Rajapaksa at a victory day parade, 2010. Demotix/Chamila Karunarathne. All rights reserved. Mahinda Rajapaksa at a victory day parade, 2010. Demotix/Chamila Karunarathne. All rights reserved.The recently-ended civil war in Sri Lanka could be construed – generously – as a struggle to redefine the nation in ethnic terms. And so Qadri Ismail could maintain, in his 2006 book, Abiding by Sri Lanka: on Peace, Place and Postcoloniality, that as an epistemological object, an object of study, ‘Sri Lanka’ was not a given but a geopolitical category under construction.  It had to be constituted in the very act of understanding it. One might call this notion a radical constructionism, and as a theoretical issue it is important. Ismail’s point is worth considering today even if one is not a philosopher or academic.

The ethnic redefinition of a country has a sinister aspect too: for inevitably, in the process, something – some individual or group – is inevitably ethnically ‘cleansed’ out.  And history offers many examples, including what happened in Sri Lanka when the majority government quelled a 26-year conflict with Tamil separatists and reconfigured the nation-state.  The tragic civil war in Sri Lanka must also be seen from the perspective of those who were vanquished. History should not be allowed to be written only by the victors. This is what the investigative documentary No Fire Zone, directed by Callum Macrae, attempts to do. Macrae’s film is important not only for its political intervention, but also for its presentation of the view from below, particularly through its use of informal, mediated citizen documentation: amateur video footage taken by the victims and others who experienced the ‘killing fields’ where the separatists were decimated and where the Tamil community were subjected to many human rights violations.

In the wake of the 9/11 bombings, the international consensus was increasingly weighted against insurgent forces, guerrilla groups, or any other organizations that could be constructed as ‘terrorist’ organizations.   And this had implications for India’s evolving policy with regard to Tamil insurgents against the Sri Lankan state. The tendency to disapprove of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s strategies and tactics was also in the ascendant in the US, at the UN and among the member states of the EU.  The EU, for instance, issued an official ban on the LTTE in May 2006.  For its part, the central government in India had been anxious to appear on the ‘right’ side of history – that of the victors – in this and other regional conflicts, as the Sri Lankan Civil War entered its final phase.

The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa held most of the cards in national and international political negotiations, and commanded the superior army. To prepare for the final phase of the offensive against the LTTE and the Tamil groups in the northeast corner of the island nation, the government strategically and successfully argued that international humanitarian organisations must withdraw from key battle zones; the argument hinged on the government’s sovereignty in such matters regarding internal affairs in Sri Lanka. They also ousted the UN and all media from sensitive zones.  As Macrae’s documentary makes clear, even the UN official in charge acknowledged this to be a betrayal of those for whom they were ostensibly the most important (practically the only) protectors. This strategy allowed the government’s forces to defeat the Tigers without independent witnesses present but, as the documentary shows, it also permitted war crimes and atrocities of all kinds, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, to go largely unremarked by the outside world – and even today to remain unpunished.  

Set in this context, Macrae’s No Fire Zone is an important intervention precisely because it represents the ‘other’ perspective – the view from below, or more precisely the view of the victims.  It significantly recasts history from the minority perspective – from the perspective of the now-vanquished LTTE and the civilians among whom the Tigers lived.  

Small media

One of the most distinct features of No Fire Zone is its reliance on ‘small media’ to record the atrocities committed by Sri Lanka’s government forces – cell phone recordings made in the field by a variety of non-professional media users. Some of the footage, grainy but graphic, was shot in Sri Lanka’s northeastern ‘killing fields’ where the LTTE had for 26 years fought a largely guerrilla war for a Tamil homeland.  As the Army forces pushed the rebels further and further out towards the coast and the sea, driving innocent civilians along with the militants, cell phone video footage was captured by those embedded with the government forces.  The large majority of the women shot and killed were first raped and roughly treated even before they had become corpses. Evidently some of these small-media producers had shifted their allegiances after witnessing, and becoming mediated witnesses to, these war crimes – violations that a camera is better at making a record of than most humans.

Small media, especially amateur video footage, constitutes a new frontier of citizen journalism. The Arab Spring, although it bore some strange fruit, was a visible instance of how small media – most exemplarily, the cell phone – could advance progressive aspirations. But Macrae’s documentary dramatically shows that it was crucial in providing a critical victims’ perspective on the Sri Lankan conflict.  

The ethics of representation

A documentary like No Fire Zone must of course confront the ethics of representation. The law applies to both sides in a conflict, so the film advisedly resorts to a kind of legalism to resolve the question of the ethics of representation by “presenting both sides of the conflict”: at least as a matter of fairness, it is right to point out also the crimes committed by the LTTE even if the film’s true subject is the horrific violence meted out by the government. Steve Crawshaw, international advocacy director at Amnesty International, notes pointedly that violence perpetrated by the government does not give ‘carte blanche’ to the other side to commit atrocities.

Still, by about 30 minutes into the film, it is perfectly clear where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie, and even the ritual of presenting the atrocities committed by both sides equally falls away. As perhaps it should: this is the morally – not just journalistically and legally – right thing to do.  Nearly 40,000 civilians had been killed, by the time the conflict ended. The amateur video footage spliced into the documentary shows men stripped naked, their hands tied behind their backs, being forced to kneel, and then shot in the back of the head.  In one gruesome scene a soldier is heard egging on another who is hesitating – he crows that the naked Tamils are “government property”. There is also disturbing cell phone footage of women’s naked bodies being cleared away, some of them evidently still alive. A soldier, who has dragged a naked, moaning woman onto a truck, comments that she has “the best figure”.

The difficulty of remaining evenhanded is not just an ethical but a practical challenge.  The filmmaker bends over backwards to seem balanced in his presentation of the conflict, early on in the film, but this becomes a stance increasingly difficult to sustain as the documentary proceeds. It documents so many innocents killed, including in the unconscionable targeting of hospitals, and so many war crimes committed against the Tamils, that the occasional admissions that the Tamil Tigers were no lambs seem somewhat perfunctory. One woman who escaped the killing fields turned herself in to the government forces along with her daughter, only to be raped and see her daughter also molested.  She is so traumatized that on camera she cannot bring herself to utter these words as she is being interviewed for the documentary: she uses the incongruous expression “hugging” to describe her indescribable violation, as if to illustrate the classic definition of trauma, which is that it fundamentally resists symbolic expression.  The documentary is interesting for trying to present itself as following the rules of journalistic ethics and being ‘even-handed’.  But this specific failure is actually a small victory for the minoritarian standpoint, which it disavows in its ritual performance of ‘objective reportage’.

Politically contentious

Even after a UN Security Council report confirmed the documentary’s allegations, Rajapaksa’s government refused to engage with its substance: “As the conduct of Channel 4 with regard to this matter has consistently fallen short of the ‘standards and fairness’ expected of a responsible TV channel, the Government of Sri Lanka does not wish to be associated with the channel at any time unless and until a suitable retraction is made to the satisfaction of the Government.”  The new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, whose defeat of the Rajapaksa regime was made possible in part because the Tamils and Muslims among the voters had supported him against Rajapaksa, has promised to end corruption, repression and nepotism, and to ease restrictions on the internet and on media outlets.

There is thus some hope that the revised and updated version of the documentary will find greater favour. This revision contains new information and is also being made in a Sinhala version.  Still, Sirisena has adamantly refused to allow any Sri Lankans to be taken before a court of international law – which is seen as largely a protection of rich and influential supporters.

India, too, refused the director a visa; like Sri Lanka, it has banned the film, as indeed have Malaysia and Nepal.  Although he described the film as “one of the most chilling documentaries I have watched,” British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Sri Lanka after the defeat of the rebels and shook hands with the victorious government leaders, clearly signalling Britain’s official position. 

And what of the UN?  According to one eyewitness featured prominently in the documentary, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who ironically had commissioned the aforementioned UN Security Council report critical of the Rajapaksa government’s armed campaign before distancing himself from it, visited the killing fields shortly after the LTTE had been defeated. But he flew over the scenes of devastation in a helicopter, and visited destitute civilian survivors at a refugee camp for a scant 10 to 15 minutes. This eyewitness suggested that Ban’s visit reinforced the impression among those survivors that he and the western world had little humanitarian sympathy for them. Crawshaw remarks appositely in the film that the Security Council recently unanimously voted for the atrocities in Libya to be referred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The scale of the catastrophe in Sri Lanka dwarfs Libya. For Crawshaw, the contrast is “striking and morally quite indefensible.”

Society of the spectacle?

The cell phone is not just a ‘platform’ on which to consume what others broadcast.  It is an apparatus that gives voice and power to ordinary people and changes the dynamic of representation. Guy Debord is famous for suggesting, almost half a century ago now, that we live in a “society of the spectacle.” He did not mean just an undifferentiated “collection of images,” but rather “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” to the point of inversion – the real relation being supplemented by the spectacle, leading to the attenuation of our very perception of the real world, the degeneration of authentic experience, the impoverishment of collective knowledge, the enfeeblement of critical thinking and therefore the shackling of the possibilities for democratic and progressive agendas. 

What Debord intended was to warn us that in a mass-mediated society so steeped in the “spectacular”, the reality is itself in danger of being displaced by representation. Thus, in a situation such as in the killing fields of the Sri Lankan civil war, where the reality is not otherwise accessible to the outside world, indeed where the dominant government forces made it a cornerstone of their military strategy to conceal it from the world – driving out the UN forces and all journalists or news media – ‘small’ acts of representation “from below”, particularly those involving the informal use of ‘small’ media technologies such as the cell phone, may prove invaluable.  This is especially the case where small media is produced in horrific immediacy.  Documentaries such as No Fire Zone perform a politically crucial service in safeguarding the subjectivity and the very humanity Debord and subsequent theorists fear is at risk in a society of the spectacle.

About the author

Samir Dayal teaches in the department of English and Media Studies at Bentley University in Boston. He is completing a book on Indian cinema.


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