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scarred geographies Arrow vol 6 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 6 number 2, 2007



Scarred Geographies: War, Space, Postcolony

Suvendrini Perera
Curtin University of Technology



The essay explores the regimes of spatialisation that locate the war in Lanka within multiple, intersecting as well as discontinuous, geographies. Taking as a point of departure Steve Pile's reminder that "political struggles are not fought on the surface of geography but through its very fabric/ation" (2000, 263) the essay attempts to tease apart some of the interweaving threads, the entangled and broken skeins, the ripped seams and uneven sutures that make the fabric of the war in Lanka. A scarred and knotted fabric/ation of bodies, topographies and geopolitical regimes, this postcolonial war zone is connected to other spaces, circuits, distributions and relations. At the same time, the essay attends to the particularities of geographies of violence in a small place.


there is an unexploded land mine heart in us
under every breast             chest
waiting for breath
tears             a moan
to crack the land open
and let the stories come walking
out of the scar

"Landmine Heart"
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha


1. In February 2006 I read a line in a BBC news report that I have not been able to get out of my head. I came across this sentence while performing a set of actions that over more than a decade have become routinised in my everyday. I think there must be tens of thousands of people who perform some variation of this routine in all parts of the globe, every day. Some of you may be in this room.

2. It goes something like this: I hear a line or two at the very tail end of a news report on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Immediately I text my sister and my sister-in-law (in previous years it used be a phone call): Jst hd abt bmb. R u ok? Who I text first depends on the location of the blast - if the newscast includes that detail. Often it doesn't, and then I guess. Most times I get a quick reply followed by a series of updates that tell me about other family and friends. If I don't hear for some hours, I contact someone in that wider circle. When I can during that day or night I go to the BBC website to see what more information is out there. Sometimes I check out other sites, like Tamilnet. My actions can be understood as actualising a certain kind of diasporic space, a relation that "connect[s] locations of violent conflict with people living in 'peace' elsewhere" (Giles 2003, 7). It was during such a late night trawl through BBC on-line, a site that enacts its own processes of spatialisation between here and there, that I came across Ramesh's story.

3. Ramesh is a Tamil man from the Jaffna peninsula in the north of Sri Lanka, where my parents were born. The story doesn't say how old he is, but I guess that he is quite young. In the report Ramesh first itemises the multiple displacements his family has endured in more than a quarter-century of war between the Sri Lankan state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sometime in 1990 the family moved from their village to a refugee camp because of shelling by government troops. Later they moved into territory controlled by the LTTE - "uncleared areas" in government parlance, "liberated homeland" according to the separatists. After the 2002 ceasefire agreement Ramesh's family returned to their village. However, increasing violence by the LTTE against any form of perceived dissent means that they will need to move again. Each option is fraught with deadly consequences. Ramesh says:

I am seriously considering moving to Vanni out of fear for my life. But if I suddenly disappear suspicion may be cast upon my family. If we all vacate our home, we will lose our income altogether. We cannot return to refugee camps because my mother is too ill. I feel like a prisoner. But I have to make up my mind... I don't know what to think or do...I hate myself for having been born in this part of the world (BBC 2006).

4. Ramesh's narrative shocked me when, from its mapping of a local and intimate geography of the war in the north - a village in Jaffna, the government base at Palaly, the refugee camps in the Vanni, the LTTE territory behind the lines - it makes a sudden leap in the final sentence. The microtopography of entrapment on the ground, a desperate shuttling between the sites of camp, village and military base, arcs without warning into geopolitical space as the narrative turns, and trains a telescoping gaze on to "this part of the world."

5. In attempting to situate the geopolitical gaze that is brought to bear at the end of this passage, I draw on John Agnew's theorisation of "the modern geopolitical imagination" as firstly "a system of visualising the world" (1998, 6, original emphasis). Agnew elaborates: "the modern geopolitical imagination - [that is] the predominant ways world politics has been represented, talked about and acted on geographically," begins with "the capacity to see the world as a whole." This capacity to visualise space globally that "emerged at the outset of the European Age of Discovery" has been naturalised and "reproduced in the governing principles of geographic thought and through practices of statecraft." It is defined by two main characteristics: "seeing the world-as-a-picture ... [that] separates the self who is viewing from the world itself" and, contingently but not causally linked to it, the production of an implicit and unacknowledged "hierarchy of places" within that picture (Agnew 1998, 3).

6. The encapsulating visualization of global space as if from outside it, Agnew and others have pointed out, can be historically located in the development of new technologies for viewing, conceptualising and organising spatial relationships through practices such as painting, landscaping and cartography in European modernity. Technologies of perspectivism, projection and calculation resulted in the privileging of the individual viewer. At the same time, paradoxically, they occulted the embodied and situated viewing subject by their emphasis on processes of scientific calculation, objectification and distantiation. These practices in turn depended on and reproduced a set of embedded hierarchies, categorisations, differentiations and distinctions through which global space and the relationships between its constituent parts were ordered - for example, differentiations between near and far, larger and smaller, similar and different, known and unknown. Such differentiations mapped temporal meanings onto spatial ones as distance was signified through relations of lag, lapse, loss and lack.

7. Ramesh's attempt to adopt an encapsulating global perspective demonstrates that the ability to view the world as a whole does not presuppose an unmarked or disembodied viewer. The "view from nowhere" is revealed as a ruse for a position constituted by spatial differentiations, scales of value and zones of importance. Placed in a geopolitical frame, Ramesh's lived geography of displacement contracts into the anonymous, disposable space of this part of the world. On the global map, this part of the world situates itself within the confines of what we know as the third world, a term inscribed by distinctions of value, priority and distance in both space and time, and one whose hopeless and protracted wars are played out within clearly demarcated coordinates.

8. This geopolitical organisation of the globe is not remote or irrelevant for Ramesh. Rather, it is experienced at the most immediate level of subjectivity. The geopolitical imaginary produces in Ramesh a disjunction between the ocular I and the I that is seen, between the I that views the "world-as-a-picture" and the I that is caught in the toils of a constricting and overwhelming local geography. This disjunction produces an intolerable split. The geopolitical is internalised as it is also understood as a type of pathogenesis: Ramesh tells the BBC reporter, the representative of that other, prior and farther world: I hate myself for having been born in this part of the world.

9. Ramesh's story is a starting point for my attempt to think through the regimes of spatialisation that locate the war in Lanka within multiple, intersecting as well as discontinuous, geographies. Taking as a point of departure Steve Pile's reminder that "political struggles are not fought on the surface of geography but through its very fabric/ation" (2000, 263) the essay attempts to tease apart some of the interweaving threads, the entangled and broken skeins, the ripped seams and uneven sutures that make the fabric of the war in Lanka. A scarred and knotted fabric/ation of bodies, topographies and geopolitical regimes, this postcolonial war zone is connected to other spaces, circuits, distributions and relations. At the same time, the essay attends to the particularities of geographies of violence in a small place.

10. Ramesh's story and the other fragments I consider in this essay emerge from the ground of protracted uncivil war. To adopt the powerful image of the Sri Lankan-Canadian poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha cited in my epigraph, they are stories that walk out of landscapes mutilated by mines and bombs, from the wreckage of shattered buildings and eviscerated bodies. Drawn from folklore, urban myth, literary texts, autobiographical scraps and the fractured narratives of survivors, these stories map disparate battlegrounds in all their violent materiality, as they simultaneously reveal the contours of a space of destructive fantasy, the delusion of a nation-space emptied of others. Inflected by the particular relations that constitute the postcolony, this deadly fantasy of nation connects to other spaces and stories: it is also about the spaces and cracks between, then and now, here and there.

11. As a keynote address by a Lankan-Australian academic for a conference on Postcolonial Politics at the University of Otago, the essay itself is an artifact of colonialism's scarred and scattered geographies. The occasion for this writing and this listening bears out Edward Said's reminder that "Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography" (Said 1993, 6). The fraught geographies that locate us at this conference are beautifully illustrated for me in an artwork titled "Cross-Purposes" (2003) by the Indigenous Australian artist, Fiona Hall. In "Cross Purposes" Hall layers currency from the Bank of England and the Crown Colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) over feathers and fauna to evoke the crossed relations between systems of spatial representation, classification and colonisation. Hall reveals the gaps, overlaps and intersections of colonial epistemologies, cartographies and systems of representation. Referencing maps, botanical illustrations and scientific and ethnographic taxonomies, her artworks retrace and untrace the global circulations of objects and images through imperial geographies of knowledge, trade, war and religion.

12. At an intersection of postcolonial studies, critical geography and urban cultural studies, this essay too is a work of crossed-purposes. Its holes and tears, its breaks, rough sutures and makeshift transitions, are so many evidences of a "struggle over geography," as it attempts to draw lines of connection between disparate bodies and stories across scarred terrains of postcoloniality.

Landscapes of exception

13. Robert Williams points out, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, that "things happen via spatial mechanisms":

Space is more than a 'where' - it is not merely an inert container or background in which objects are posit(ion)ed ... [S]pace is a 'how': space and society are dialectically connected in that each is mutually constituted from human praxis ... In turn, space offers constraints and opportunities for human actions, actions which might change those spaces of society. Thus, space is not only a product or mirror of social processes ... Indeed, things happen via spatial mechanisms. As a theoretical consequence, such a nuanced conception of space permits the critical interrogation of power and oppression (2003, 276).

14. Lefebvre's theorisations of space as a dynamic element rather than an inert and static receptacle, and as one that is actively constituted by "representations of space, spaces of representation and spatial practices" (Lefebvre 1991, 115-6) - that is, by how each of these categories in turn determines how space is conceptualised, lived and perceived - has had a galvanising effect for critical geography and related disciplines (Merrifield 2000). Lefebvre's writings, however, have little to say directly about the geopolitical processes and colonial representations that are also constitutive of space at the localised levels of the city, the street and the body. As Stefan Kipfer and Kanishka Goonewardena acknowledge, even as they attempt to elaborate on the relevance of Lefebvre's corpus of writing from a postcolonial perspective, "Lefebvre's understanding of 'colonization' (as one aspect of urbanization and the production of space) still remains under-mediated historically, geographically and socially" (2007, 45).

15. In what follows I draw on Lefebvre's analyses of spatial practices in the European city and state, while prioritising theories of sovereignty and territoriality as specific spatialising practices in the context of European colonialism and its understanding of colonised places as lacking sovereignty or possessing a weak or tainted form of it that would be superseded, overwritten, by the sovereignty of the European state. In understanding contemporary theories of sovereignty as spatialising or territorialising practices, I am alluding to the explanatory force that they exert in worlding postcolonial wars. James Sidaway has discussed how protracted postcolonial wars in Zaire, Congo and Lebanon are often explained in terms of their weak or negative sovereignty in comparison to the complete and achieved sovereignty of the West (Sidaway 2003). As in Ramesh's narrative, measured against normative Western sovereignty, wars in these parts of the world are linked to global space by relations of deficit, lack and devaluation.

16. As such, obscure and obstinate wars in these parts of the world are understood as exceptional. In the bluntest terms, they are geopolitical basket cases, intractable but largely irrelevant to, and disconnected from, the workings of sovereign power and territoriality in the rest of the world. By invoking the term exception here, I want to reference simultaneously a range of not always compatible meanings that this term has acquired in recent theorisations of sovereignty: Giorgio Agamben's naming of the spaces of exception that delineate the boundaries of bare life; Mbembe's writing of the postcolony as a necropolitical space of fragmented sovereignties in the context of Africa and Israel; Aihwa Ong's deployment of the exception to map neoliberalism's production of zones of variegated or "graduated sovereignty" in East and Southeast Asia (Agamben 1997; Mbembe 2003; Ong 2005). All these inform my examination of spatial processes in Lankan war zones at the micro level of bodies on city streets, at the level of competing national claims enacted through multiple violences and at transnational and global scales. The first part of the essay focuses on urban space and tracks the spectre of the suicide bomber and other suspect figures through the differentiated spaces of the capital city. In the following section I turn to the inextricably mixed space of the Eastern Province and the push to remake it in the fantastic image of the homeland.

Urban Topographies

17. In cultural theory the urban landscape has been well mapped as the space of recuperative mobilities. This is the terrain of Walter Benjamin's flaneur, of Michel de Certeau's walking rhetorics and ghosts in the city and of Lefebvre's rhythmanalyst (Benjamin 2003; de Certeau 1988 and 1998; Lefebvre 1996). These influential models have opened the way for a rich collection of writings on urban space that privileges itineraries of wandering and emphasizes "the spatial and temporal openness of the city as a place of manifold rhythms forged through daily encounters and multiple experiences of time and space" (Mbembe 2000, 45). Yet, as Mbembe points out in introducing Public Culture's special issue on Johannesburg, these writings on European cities, "neglect ... the fact that striating openness and flow depend on a whole series of rules, conventions, and institutions of regulation and control; and that much of city life is about the engineering of certainty" (Mbembe 2000, 45).

18. How are bodies managed so as to engineer certainty for the multiple and contradictory interests at play in the postcolony's urban landscapes of war and terror? This is a space of overlapping and competing sovereignties where in addition to war, the needs of peace, security, global governance and neoliberal economics produce uneven topographies that engineer mobilities, blockages or dead ends for specifically positioned bodies. One context in which to pursue this question is the urban landscape traversed by the phantom tracks of the suicide bomber, an all too familiar spectre of dread and speculation in Colombo over the last decades. The story I tell here surfaced, to my knowledge, during the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Independence from Britain in 1998.

19. Some patrons of a grand exhibition to mark the day of freedom, courageous or foolhardy souls who had braved the rigours of a search that included having the strands of their hair carefully parted by guards on the lookout for concealed wires, return to their locked cars to find a suicide bomber casually ensconced in the back seat. She opens her jacket to display a second, sculpted body of wire and dynamite. Above it dangles the famous necklace with its twin cyanide capsules (two for a woman Tiger, one for a man, to signal women's double jeopardies of rape and torture).

20. The woman directs the driver to a strategic location in the city: a bridge, a railway station or government building. When they get there, he turns his head around - only to find that she has silently disappeared. He (the driver is always a man, he is always alone) rushes to the nearest police station or army post to report the urgent information, but he receives only a matter-of-fact reception from the authorities. They tell him he is the fifth, or eighth, or tenth concerned citizen to have had the identical experience.

21. There are many ways to read this story. At one level it rewrites a folk tale that many of us learn as children. My ayah used to tell me this story about Mohini pei or Mohini pisaasu. A beautiful woman, her hair loose down her back, stands on a lonely road at night, weeping, holding an infant. The driver of an oncoming car (always a man, always alone) makes the mistake of stopping. He lets the demon Mohini into his car, with terrible consequences.

22. I have written elsewhere that grafted on to each other, these are cautionary stories about the deadliness of women and the fragility of men. Many suicide bombers in Sri Lanka are indeed women and in some famous instances their pregnant or maternal state was effectively deployed to deflect suspicions. But I understand this tale here as equally a parable about the power to move in and through the blockages of urban space and the ability to cut through its competing sovereignties.

23. The cityscape across which the suicide bomber moves with seemingly supernatural power is one constituted by multiple spatial regimes. First, the precarious power of the state is asserted in its starkest form through the technology of the checkpoint and its various guises, from the identity card to hefty barricades (Jeganathan 2002; Hyndeman and de Alwis 2004). These are supplemented by near-invisible forms of surveillance as well as by the deliberate targeting of bodies rendered suspect by numerous variables - gender, dress, speech, age, mode of transport - as by race and ethnicity. These will determine who is stopped, who is searched, who is harassed, who is molested, who is beaten, who is waved through, who is taken in, who may not be seen again. For several decades Lankans have lived with draconian prevention of terrorism legislation, an armoury of extra-judicial forces and an ubiquitous network of informal surveillance and suspicion.

24. Such assertions of the state's coercive powers not only signal its precarious and unsteady grasp on sovereignty, but are actively constrained and delimited by countervailing sovereignties. In the city at war, the spaces of war and civility are inextricably entwined. While the heavy fighting is concentrated hundreds of miles away in the north and east, the war is present on the streets of the capital in many guises. Walking to my uncle's house one evening in September 2006 along the main thoroughfare of Galle Road, I negotiate heavily camouflaged checkpoints juxtaposed with temporary barricades festooned with advertising and bearing the helpful information "VIP on the spot." Alongside, private security guards block the pavement as they search the undersides of vehicles queuing for entry into embassy and hotel compounds. Supplementing these is yet another level of scrutiny by a gauntlet of gropers, beggars and touts making their own more or less expert discriminations based on variables of gender, dress, age, speech and gesture.

25. I understand this scene in Sidaway's terms as speaking of an excess of sovereignties. Colombo, hundreds of miles from the front line, has also emerged in two decades of war as a city of previously unimaginable levels of wealth and consumption. It attracts major regional investment, as well as being a site for the offshore production of consumer goods, especially the manufacture of designer garments for export. The diaspora is another major source of new wealth as expatriates who fled the war transmit money and goods back home through formal and informal circuits. As the colonial and immediate post-independence economy based on the staple exports of tea, rubber and coconut has declined, these new industries, combined with an expanding tourist trade targeting mostly European visitors, underwrite the war. The new economy and its glittering circuits of display and consumption, its investment in the presence of foreign capital, bodies and goods on Colombo's streets, are not separate from, but interwoven with, the wages of war.

26. Here Ong's writings on neoliberalism's zones of variegated sovereignty in East and Southeast Asia provide a possible interpretive grid. Taking Agamben's writing on zones of exception as a point of departure, Ong proposes that sovereign power does not only take the form of the designation of certain spaces as outside the law by recourse to the declaration of war, siege or state of emergency (Agamben 1997). Rather, she argues that in the Tiger economies of East and Southeast Asia, the suspension of juridical rule, or the exception of certain sites from the space of the nation, can take myriad forms (Ong 2006). Ong cites the creation of Free Trade Zones or growth regions as instances of neoliberal spaces of exception, where the industrial and financial laws and regulatory frameworks of the nation may be placed in indefinite suspension. These zones of economic exception also extend to de facto spaces where practices disallowed elsewhere within the nation are tacitly or officially sanctioned (for example resorts and special tourist precincts). In an economy structured by tourism and open markets as by war - and where the former are significantly implicated in enabling war - mobility is continually managed in order to engineer the countervailing certainties of security and openness.

27. A constellation of globalising and transnational forces that includes not only neoliberal economic expansion but also the space of NGO activity - most obviously in disaster and humanitarian aid, but equally the business of peace and human rights monitoring and development - produce other geographies demarcated by international treaties and global governance frameworks that bisect national sovereignty. While Ong names these "ethical geographies" of exception (2006, 21), I would signal here the sharp contradictions and ethical exclusions that also characterise NGO space. Its operations are inescapably racialised, structured by the engineering of certainty for some bodies rather than others. For example, the murder of seventeen employees of the French NGO Action Against Hunger in the eastern town of Muthur in 2006 barely registered with the international media: these NGO workers were not French but Tamil.

28. Disjunctions of race, ethnicity and citizenship mediate mobility, complicating the zones of variegated sovereignty and the interplay of exceptions that Ong identifies. At the end of my visit to Colombo in September 2006 I was in a hired car taking me to the airport around 2 am. The city had become increasingly tense in recent months and in the space of the first ten minutes we were stopped at three checkpoints before being waved through following passport and ID checks. At the fourth checkpoint, the driver - I'll call him Sarath - worried about my missing the flight, tried to speed things up by declaring that his passengers were "foreigners" as the soldiers approached. Again, the soldiers peered into the car, then asked for ID. But before they waved us through this time they castigated Sarath for using the term "foreigner" to describe me. "Don't lie like that again," one of them warned. This was a moment of fear when everyone present - soldier, driver, passenger - understood the fragility of an Australian passport as against the indelible corporeality of Sri Lankanness.

29. But more than this, what Sarath may not have known - I had been careful not to reveal it - was that my Australian passport carries clues to my Tamil ethnicity that is not immediately evident in my looks, speech or name. When he decided to speed things up by describing me as a "foreigner" Sarath was almost certainly assuming that I was an expatriate, middle class, Sinhala woman and therefore exempt from serious suspicion on all three counts. Yet Lankans are adept at assigning ethnic and religious identity through myriad forms of unspoken assessment as well as by the transmission of barely perceptible cues. Such silent intuitions can be, literally, a matter of life or death, not only during periods of heightened violence, such as the anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, but in the quotidian interactions of shopping malls, government offices or check points.

30. For me, an undecidable question at every checkpoint is whether I will be recognised as Tamil. If so, does my Australian passport neutralise my ethnicity? Exception operates not only at the level of race/ethnicity but also within citizenship. The Sri Lankan state officially singles out specific groups for exceptional treatment as "differential biopolitical investments in different subject positions privilege one ethnicity over another" (Ong 2006, 79). Ong describes these as "positive kinds of exception that create opportunities" for selected groups within the nation while penalising others (101). In ethnocracies such as Sri Lanka or Malaysia, language and religion form the basis of "positive exception" for dominant groups within the state. Operating as both technnologies of subjectification and as spatialising practices, they result in the relentless ethnicisation of everyday space at all levels.

31. Through such spaces of surveillance, demarcation and blockage the suicide bomber moves, seemingly with impunity. Her power to infiltrate and cut through the differentiated spaces of the nation and the city is such that it is recoded as demonic/supernatural. Urban spatiality is both the element and the chosen medium of the suicide bomber. The suicide bomber is a figure who acts in space, to transform our understandings of spatial scales, differentiations and structures (Williams 2003, 281-4). A phantom who can insinuate herself into a locked car in a heavily guarded parking lot, the bomber steals into the protected circle of civil space. She erupts into the banality of the everyday to break open lives and bodies, linking inside and outside, there and here, private and public, war and civility. This form of terror is, as Williams describes it, a boundary-transforming practice:

Terrorist actions highlight the permeability of spatial structures. The inside and outside that are so vital to spatial structures like the national state or public/private are ... penetrated by the effects, or the threat ... of physical or psychological harm. What is outside enters without invitation and with extreme malice ...Terrorism illustrates that ... the very borders of the spatial structures themselves, are not simply given in the order of things... With terrorism, the conceptual, ideological fiction of boundaries is destroyed or else vitiated. (Williams 2003, 283-4)

32. As a boundary threatening figure, the suicide bomber goes even further, as Mbembe suggests in the context of Israel:

The candidate for martyrdom transforms his or her body into a mask that hides the soon-to-be detonated weapon. Thus concealed, it forms part of the body. It is so intimately part of the body that at the time of detonation it annihilates the body of its bearer, who carries with it the bodies of others when it does not reduce them to pieces... In this instance, my death goes hand in hand with the death of the Other... To kill, one has to come as close as possible to the body of the enemy. To detonate the bomb necessitates resolving the question of distance, through the work of proximity and concealment. How are we to interpret this manner of spilling blood in which death is not simply that which is my own, but always goes hand in hand with the death of the other? ... How does it differ from death inflicted by a tank or a missile, in a context in which the cost of my survival is calculated in terms of my capacity and readiness to kill someone else? (Mbembe 2003, 36-37).

33. I am wary of eliding the specificity of the different struggles in which the tactic of suicide bombing is deployed (see for example Pugliese 2006). Yet, in the context of the war in Palestine, as in Lanka, the suicide bomber appears as a figure who breaks out of a geography of entrapment. Whether burrowing under the earth, weaving across minefields and edging through cracks in the border or meticulously altering the function of everyday objects, metamorphosing identities and transmogrifying bodies, she annihilates distances between exception and everyday, here and there, self and other.

Writing Terror in Everyday Space

34. Some of the questions that attend the boundary-breaking figure of the bomber are implicitly canvassed in the Sri Lanka activist-artist Sumathy's Thin Veils, a text that navigates the fractured geographies of the war and everyday life in Sri Lanka. The text consists of two performance pieces, In the Shadow of the Gun and Wicked Witch, linked by an introduction that locates them as interrelated in complex ways. I focus here on the second, Wicked Witch, whose protagonist is described as a character at once "mythic and historic." The Introduction discusses the play as generated in two settings that are spatially and temporally distant, yet intimately connected by bodies set in motion through war. The first is a ferment of women's activism in Jaffna in 1989. The battered northern city of Jaffna, the capital of the areas claimed by the LTTE as the Tamil homeland, was subject to exceptional violence in 1989 when the fabric of everyday life was ripped apart in the struggle for control between the LTTE and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), while the Sri Lankan state and other separatist militia also participated as additional actors. This complicated scenario corresponds with Mbembe's description, via Deleuze and Guattari, of a war machine characterised by a seriality of "plural allegiances, asymmetrical suzerainties, and enclaves":

Polymorphous and diffuse organizations, war machines are characterized by their capacity for metamorphosis. Their relation to space is mobile. Sometimes, they enjoy complex links with state forms (from autonomy to incorporation). The state may, of its own doing, transform itself into a war machine. It may moreover appropriate to itself an existing war machine or help to create one. War machines function by borrowing from regular armies while incorporating new elements well adapted to the principle of segmentation and deterritorialization. Regular armies, in turn, may readily appropriate some of the characteristics of war machines (2003, 32).

35. In Jaffna in 1989 the civilian population was subject to violence from multiple sources: Women were gang raped in numbers by the Indian army who had entered the war in the guise of peacekeepers and protectors of the Tamils in the north; children were forcibly recruited into LTTE militia while those suspected of dissent were violently silenced. Civilians were entrapped, at random and by design, in the crossfire between various armed groups as the Sri Lankan and Indian armies, the LTTE and other militia adopted dramatically shifting and variable alliances. The de facto administration, whether the LTTE or the IPKF, effectively held the civilian population hostage through terror (Hoole et al 1990).

36. Sumathy writes of the emergence of the first incarnation of the play, a Tamil production called "Ketta Sooniyakari" (Wicked Witch), in this context:

it will not be recorded in the history of the peace process; nor in the history of the women's movement. But it is of and by women who dared and will dare again and again to recast the contours of the nation, redraw the borders and fight hard for the space of the everyday ... Today Rajani, Selvi and Sivaramani, all three who had been involved in the production ... are dead. Rajani was shot in the head on her way home from work, Selvi detained in an LTTE camp ... disappeared. Sivaramani committed suicide in the harsh conditions between regime changes. All the others have gone far away from Jaffna (2003, 5)

37. More than a decade later in Colombo, Wicked Witch, in its second incarnation in English, was, according to the author:

born out of the long hours of the power cut which was in operation all year round in 2001, during when I was forced to idle and sit on the verandah overlooking the ugly concrete structures across the flat I inhabit in Nugegoda. As I sat in stark immobility, bats would flap about in the distance. I feared their mythical force... In the distance search lights from the sea or from the air force base at Ratmalana would scour the skies for suicide bombers swooping down from above' ( 2003, 27).

38. Wicked Witch is an enigmatic and allusive text that plays at many levels. In rhythmanalytical terms it is a text that enacts the embattled city as it oscillates between the cyclical, natural rhythm of moonlight and encircling bats, and the linear rhythm of the urban/modern as electric searchlights systematically sweep the dark sky (Lefebvre 1996). I read it here as an allegory that connects bodies, times and places, here and there, war and everyday life, Jaffna and Colombo, the border village and the city, as it enacts the journey of the simultaneously "mythic and historic" figure of the witch, from her jungle home, the haven of both refugee and terrorist, to the city.

39. In the city the witch negotiates various public spaces: the checkpoint, the marketplace, the courthouse and the prison. She is suspected of being a suicide bomber and convicted of sabotaging the economy by selling her golden fruit at the market. Her movements intersect at key points with another figure of ambiguous mobility, the three-wheeler or tuk-tuk driver. In Colombo the tuk-tuk driver is a ubiquitous presence who represents the continual need to manoeuvre precariously through the blockages of city streets. Simultaneously he is a figure emblematic of everyday vulnerability because passengers and drivers of three-wheelers are subject to more frequent security checks, searches and harassment by the military than those travelling in a car or van. Impoverished, unable or unwilling to work for the state, the tuk-tuk driver is often Tamil or Muslim, an identity concealed or camouflaged in most of his interactions with passengers.

40. The witch and the tuk-tuk driver move through the scarred terrain of the city in an uneasy alliance that reveals both its transformative potentialities and its dead ends, traversing distances between places, temporalities and bodies. In her final speech, after being rescued from prison by the driver, the witch declares "You know what I shall do now? I will build my palace of golden fruit here ... outside the prison camp. We will be a forest of refugees here, bugging the hell out of you" (63). The image of a forest of refugees inserts the space of the camp and exclusion, of bare life, as well as the jungle hide-out the guerrilla fighter, into the comparative immunity of the city. I read The Wicked Witch then as a text that enacts, through techniques of defamiliarisation and an episodic and allusive structure, a fable of mobility and transformation in the city of war.

Defantasizing the Ground

41. So far I have suggested that the power of suspect figures in the urban terrain is their ability to reveal the interconnectedness of spaces and bodies and the impossibility of securing the space of civility from the space of war. Yet this is a war impelled above all by the will to purify space, to cohere topography with identity, to the unrealizable aim of materialising, in Derridean terms, an ontotopology. To this end it unleashes its various modalities of murderous violence and enlists history, cartography and archaeology alike in the drive to carve a sovereign territoriality clear of the presence of the other. In the last section of the essay I want to draw attention to the paradoxical relation between the suicide bomber's boundary breaking activity and the project of clearing an exclusionary space, the homeland.

42. This project is most evident in attempts by all parties to manipulate the multiethnic spatiality of eastern Sri Lanka, home to Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities. I referred earlier to the fighting in Muthur, where (although officially the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE remain parties to a truce at the time of writing) fighting erupted in August 2006 over access to sluice gates located in LTTE territory. These sluice gates regulate the flow of water from Marvil Aru (Marvil river) to farmers in the Sinhala agricultural settlements. The settlements are the result of a deliberate internal colonization scheme in the decades immediately after independence, when the state attempted to reengineer the population of the Eastern province by promoting the settlement of Sinhala farmers in a region of mostly Muslims and Tamils. The murder of the aid workers in Muthur was the result of their venturing into so-called "uncleared areas" to deliver food to those displaced by the fighting over the sluice gates. In doing so they disrupted the army's strategy of starving the population, Tamils and Muslims, out of their homes, so as to isolate the LTTE and claim the village as a "cleared" area.

43. Similarly, the LTTE has carried out its own projects of clearing territory through expulsions and massacres of Sinhala and Muslim populations in the north and east. To quote two powerful extracts from narratives of the populations forcibly expelled from Muthur, a mainly Muslim village:

War is not outside us, the war and the violence is inside us. It's in our children's drawings. Our children draw the story of displacement in their sketches of that August month, and subsequent days of bombing and shelling, finding our friends gone; each one of them is a record of our history; each carries pictures of the hill of Kiranthimunai where young Muslim men were separated from the women by the LTTE so that they could be massacred. (Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Coexistence in the East 2006, 1)

We cannot forget Kiranthimunai which is now part of our local history. What happened at Kiranthimunai is forever in our minds. We walked all the way to Thoppur. There was no water anywhere. We dipped the ends of our sarees in puddles on the way and squeezed the water out. The cloth was a filter for the mud. This is the tale we will tell our children. (Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Coexistence in the East 2006, 2)

44. These narratives eloquently reveal the levels of traumatic violence enacted in the splintering apart of mixed populations. In its report on forced exodus from Muthur and other recent attempts to forcibly divide regions in recent years, the Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Coexistence in the East states:

While the destruction of lives is one of the tragedies of the war, the greater tragedy is that of how communities, who have not merely co-existed, but had communed together and been interdependent, both in times of well-being and adversity, have been cleft apart. The other tragic irony is that the conditions of war have actually not left any of the communities in the east untouched, and all three communities have been affected by both the LTTE and the armed forces. This very vicious war that has and continues to divide people according to ethnic lines, has deliberately tried to pit people against each other. At the same time, the conditions of war and the modus operandi of the LTTE and the state, bind the people in one common thread of suffering that all marginalized feel...Even in the face of increasing communal suspicions against the other community, there is a realization that one's own security is tied to that of the other. (Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Coexistence in the East 2006, 4)

45. The realization, in the face of exclusionary violence, "that one's own security is tied to that of the other" is a powerful rejection of the destructive fantasy that fuels the war: that of clearing a space free of the other. In the face of this destructive delusion, the theorist Jayadeva Uyangoda writes, there is an urgent need for a counter-project of de-fantasizing the ground over which the war is waged. The task of imagining Sri Lanka's future calls for:

immediately confront[ing] and politically negotiat[ing] two powerful nation-ist fantasies, produced by two energetic appropriative desires of the state: the Sinhala-centric unitary state and the Tamil-centric separate state. Being ethnic fantasies, these two projects cannot reconcile with each other in the real world of democratic politics. De-fantasizing these nation projects is therefore fundamentally important for Sri Lanka's democratic political future. But, who will de-fantasize Sri Lanka's future? (Uyangoda 2005, 970)

The struggle over geography

46. The project of de-fantasizing both the nation-ist project and the future that Uyangoda calls for is inseparable from acts of spatial de-fantasization. It entails a return to the fabric/ation of geography, and the understanding that the conceptualisation of space directs options and choices for envisioning the future (Pile 2000, 263). In conclusion, let me point to three dimensions this task might entail. First, as Uyangoda suggests, it calls for an-other geography, a writing of space that can do justice to ethnic pluralities on the ground, and the everyday maps of those who share neither the unitary fantasy of the Sinhala-centric state nor the separatist fantasy of the Tamil homeland. Here we might remember Agamben's call for a geography of "perforated sovereignties" in Israel and the acknowledgment of layered and overlapping forms of stake in a place (Agamben 2000). I also recall Derrida's critique of the "ontotheological" sovereignties of the classical nation-state and his call for these to be supplanted by a form of "vulnerable non-sovereignty, one that suffers and is divisible, one that is mortal even, capable of contradicting itself or of repenting" - for example through discourses of human rights that might render sovereignty open or vulnerable to itself (Derrida 2005, 157).

47. At the same time, the de-fantasizing of the nation-ist project calls for new cartographies that will connect forgotten wars to other wars, spaces and relations. Wars in these parts of the world need to be recontextualised not as out of place or exceptional in the circuits of "modernity, sovereignty, capital and other rationalities," as Sidaway describes them, but as " a particular instance or moment of their operation and logics" in the global geopolitical (Sidaway 2003, 171).

48. Finally, as the task that is perhaps most urgent in the context of this conference on Postcolonial Politics, I want to invoke Grant Farred's call for both postcolonial studies and postcoloniality to abandon what Gayatri Spivak describes as their subreptions (that is, the suppression of truth to obtain indulgence) about the failures of both post-independence states and of postcolonial theory. These include the subreptions of labeling its failures as "ethnic strife," "civil war" or "ethnic cleansing" (Farred 2001, 241). Rather, in Farred's words, we have to turn, "more than fifty years after India and Sri Lanka became independent," to the urgent and demanding questions: "What kind of historical movement has taken place? What kind of progress has been registered?" and to "think critically about postcoloniality and the postcolonial paradigm, in order to begin to reconstitute it even without knowing exactly what that reconstitution entails":

Here is a "paradigm" that knows, with a keen political viscerality ... that it must be elsewhere, that is must reorganize the "terrain" (with the intention of reconstituting it) yet it cannot define that other space, that different sociopolitical arrangement precisely. It is a contradictory but vital charge: to combine instinctive knowledge of and desire for a different postcoloniality with the recognition of conceptual, epistemological "ignorance" ... believing (in) that which is imagined but not known. (Farred 2001, 242)

49. As indicated by the story with which I began, this essay has emerged from my own ongoing "struggle over geography," my daily out of placeness, at multiple scales. In invoking this phrase I locate the essay also within the wider project of Said's "exilic epistemology." The call for an exilic epistemology, as glossed by the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, is not only about the situated knowing of the diasporic or out-of-place subject; it is also about the "epistemological imperative" to place oneself "out of place," that is, outside the place of epistemic privilege (Jahanbegloo 2005, 34). This call for an exilic epistemology, or a recognition of epistemological ignorance, extends to all of us at this conference on postcolonial politics: it is a call to look anew at the known terrain of postcoloniality/postcolonial studies and excavate again the "epistemological ground beneath our feet" (Farred 2001, 243).

50. For me this call has meant (re)turning to the ground of the war in Lanka, as it is constituted by embodied geographies of violence, near and far. Attending to the fractured stories from so distant and dispensable a part of the world seems to me not an indulgence or irrelevance, but an imperative for a politics that wants to take seriously Farred's critique of the current predicament of both postcoloniality and postcolonial studies.

In affectionate memory of Bella te aku Graham. Her courageous and knowing navigations of postcoloniality's scarred geographies inspired me over many years.


Suvendrini Perera (Curtin University of Technology) is a board member of the Borderlands e-journal. She co-edited its inaugural issue "Borderphobias" and the issue "Cultural Ambivalence, Cultural Politics" (Vol. 3. No. 3). Her most recent book is the edited volume Our Patch: Enacting Australian Sovereignty Post 2001 (Network Books, 2007). Email:


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