Amaithi as Stillness: Holding Palestine in the Batticaloa Justice Walk

The Batticaloa Justice Walk

Five of us regular ‘walkers’ in the Batticaloa Justice Walk sat down to talk about what it has meant to carry with us the news from Palestine and stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine since the beginning of the onslaught on October 7th. The conversation was set up to draft our response to the provocation from Richa and others from the Chup team and this prompted us to reflect on silence as expression. We wished to sit with how we might be expressing all that we feel about the war in Palestine within the silence of the walk. What follows is a description of that conversation. 

The Batticaloa Justice Walk that began in May 2022 was a response to national level protests by the working poor, supported by all other sections of society, primarily from the largely Sinhala speaking south of the island. This was one of the largest mobilisations in independent Sri Lanka and they managed to oust the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who left the country as a result of the protests. These protests took the form of protest ‘gamas,’ or villages in Sinhala, in Colombo as the GotaGoGama or GGG and similar gamas elsewhere. A group of us in Batticaloa had met to set up such a protest village in Batticaloa. Just as we were finalizing the plans, GGG was attacked by state forces and destroyed. A day after that, on the 12th of May, in the midst of curfew, we walked on the streets of Batticaloa, in silence, single file with a meter of distance between us. We walked from the Mary Statue on the side of the road, at an intersection, to the Gandhi Statue and a tree in Gandhi Park in the middle of the town. A distance of two kilometers. We have been walking along the same route every morning since. 

14 February 2023

ஐந்து நாட்கள்தான்’ என்றவர்கள்
250 நாட்கள் தாண்டியும்…,

விரலை விடாது தாயின் கரம் பிடித்து
தொடரும் குழந்தைகள் போல்
பதா “கை” பிடித்து
இவர்கள்
நடை பயில ….,

துணி இழுத்து
தலை குழப்பி
விளையாடும் காற்று இவர்களை தள்ள இவர்கள் காற்றை தள்ள ,

பாதை முழுவதும்
கோலமாய்

காலடி கிடக்க….

வாய் பிளந்து
பார்கும் நாளோ
நாட்கள் சேர்க்கிறது
நாளை இவர்களுக்காய்

நடை
அழுது, நொந்து

வலி சுமந்து
எனைப் பிரியாது
ஒட்டியே வரும்
என் நிழலை
அள்ளி அணைத்து
என் மடி இருத்தி
தலை தடவ – முடியா
வலிமையற்று நடக்கிறேன்
தினம் தினம்.

Like a child who doesn’t let go of the mother’s finger,
We hold on to our placards and…
We continue to learn to walk

As the wind plays with us…
pulls at our cloth banner
and messes with our hair…
we walk, moving through the wind and playing with it…

As footsteps adorn our path like a kolam
They, who watch us with mouths wide open…
we will walk tomorrow, for them as well…

The walk…
The walk is crying
exhausted…
anguished…
carrying our pain.
I walk everyday..
exhausted…
I walk even as I am not even able to
embrace my own shadow,
my shadow that doesn’t leave my side..
I walk even as I have no energy place her on my lap
and run my hands soothingly through her hair.
I walk.

Vijayalakshmi Segaruban, Batticaloa

Padayathra 1995

We  knew to walk this way because the Mothers of the Disappeared walked this way during the war, holding placards and pictures of their disappeared loved ones even as the ‘Emergency Regulations’ criminalized protest. Walking in silence, a meter apart and in single file was a way to circumvent the emergency regulations and to protest, without legally doing so. We walk in the path they laid out for us. Some among the Batticaloa walkers are from Families of the Disappeared: they had walked then as they do now. 

Protest March in August 2005 against the murder of a woman in Batticaloa

Now the walk is nearing 600 days. It has taken on a life of its own and has become a container for various community spaces of marginalised folks, movements for social change, and all else that remains indescribable. The walk holds all that the walkers bring with them everyday. It is now an everyday public collective practice of reflection, protest, grieving, hope, and healing. For more details of the walk and its socio-political analyses with a social scientific bent see here, and to get a more felt-sense of the walk and its context see a newspaper article from one of the regular walkers, Sarala Emmmanuel.

In this writing, we come together to reflect on what it has meant for us to carry the pain of the Palestinian people at this present moment in our walk. 

Placards on the 538th day of the walk. The Tamil placard reads ‘People have the right to live on their land’ which was in commemoration of the day of the eviction of thousands of Muslim families from the North of Sri Lanka by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

As we sat down to reflect, it became clear that we needed to mourn. We were mourning the loss in Sri Lanka as much as in Palestine. We were mourning the past, the present, and perhaps even the future. Not a single one of us could speak of Palestine without referring to the horrors of the decades of civil war in Sri Lanka, and all the loss endured as a result. This response, then, is a specific response of the people of eastern Sri Lanka who have borne, and who continue to bear, the burden of unrelenting war, even as we stand in solidarity with others living through a war.

The irrationality of the ongoing massacre also took us to Mylaththumadu. This is a  long standing battle of dairy farmers for lands where they  graze their more than 400,000 cows. These lands have been forcibly settled by poor Sinhala farmers upon orders of the state. Since September 2023, the dairy farmers have been sitting in a satyagraha and we at the walk have visited them many times and expressed our solidarity. Most recently, the Court ordered that all settlements be removed. At the most recent visit by the walkers to the protest site, the farmers spoke of how cows have been massacred after the judgment. 

Title : Preying on… Year:2023 Size : 31 x 22 cm Mixed media on paper, acrylic color, rodrick pen Painting by Thajudeen Rukshana, an emerging artist from Sri Lanka who created and sent this upon Vijayalakshmi’s request after their conversation about Palestine and Sri Lanka.

Vijayalakshmi, one of the regular walkers said: “The cows don’t know race or ethnicity, no? They will go towards any human assuming they will give them water. That is how the cows walked into their death. The sheer pointlessness of this feels a lot like what is happening in Palestine. Who gave guns and who made the electric fences for the farmers? There is no room to speak to these poor farmers as fellow human beings, to point out that killing these harmless cows is horrifying, that we don’t need to do this.”

Batticaloa Justice Walkers at the Mylathumadu Protest site speaking with the cattle farmers
International Human Rights Day Silent sit-in, 1996

The conversation, as it proceeded, made it clear that accumulated grief, of decades, perhaps lifetimes, had been triggered. We broke down speaking of the people of Palestine, the cows of Mylaththumadu, and the people of Sri Lanka, including ourselves. The walk, we recognised, is the container to hold and move through these emotions everyday.


Sarala Emmanuel, a regular walker, wrote in her ‘Walk Diary’ on 19th November, 2023:

“So many roses on my balcony today…
My heart breaks
For my land my people
And your land of olives, sun birds and your people…”

She read out her poem and broke down. Many of us, with her.

The sunbird of Palestine on the ‘Justice Tree’ where the walk ends everyday along with other slogans about ongoing issues in Sri Lanka. In the Palestine message it also says ‘nam parpome’ which is the Tamil translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s anthem of people’s protest across South Asia, ‘Hum Dekhenge’.

மட்டக்களப்பு, மே 2022

அன்புடையீர்,
வணக்கம். நாங்கள் இவ்வூர் மக்கள்.
இன்று அமைதிக்காக, நீதிக்காக நாங்கள் நடக்கின்றோம்.
நம் அனைவருக்கும் பொருளாதார பாதுகாப்பு அத்தியாவசியமாகும்.
நம்பகமான, திடமான அரசாங்கம் எமது உரிமை.
பசியின்றி, பிணியின்றி, கல்வி, சுகாதாரம் என அடிப்படை தேவைகள் பூர்த்தி செய்யப்பட்ட நிம்மதியான வாழ்வே எம் அனைவருக்கும் தேவை. நீதிக்காக வீதியில் இறங்குவது இது முதல்முறை அல்ல. யுத்தம், அனர்த்தம், வன்முறை என்று வீட்டில் நாட்டில் நடந்த, இன்றும் நடந்துவரும், பல பிரச்சினைகளின்போது நீதிக்காக வீதியில் இறங்கியுள்ளோம். வாழ்வின் அடிப்படைத் தேவைகள் உள்ளமை கேள்விக்குள்ளாக்கப்பட்டுள்ள இன்றைய நிலையில், எமது ஊரை, நாட்டை மீட்டெடுக்க அமைதியாக போராட வெளிவந்துள்ளோம்.

இப்போராட்டம் நம் அனைவருக்குமானது.
வாருங்கள். சேருங்கள்.
ஊருக்காய், நாட்டுக்காய் வாருங்கள். நமது வருங்கால சந்ததியருக்காய் ஒன்று கூடுவோம்.
அமைதி காப்போம். போராடுவோம்.
வாழ்க மக்கள் போராட்டம்!

One of the handouts we printed and distributed during the walk. Translation is as below.

Batticaloa, May 2022

Dear all, 
Greetings. We are people of this oor[1]Oor, in Tamil is a phrase that means place, village, town etc. It is a layered and complex declaration of belonging in a way that English translations such as ‘town’, ‘village’, ‘place’ … Continue reading.
We walk today for peace and justice.
Economic stability is essential for us all.
A trusted and stable government is our right.
We all need a peaceful life where our basic needs such as food, education, and health are met. This isn’t the first time we have gotten on to the streets for justice. We have taken to the streets to ask for justice that has been denied due to war, disasters, violence, etcetera that happened and continue to happen at home and in the nation. In the current context where basic needs are no longer assured we have stepped on to the street again to fight for our oor and country.

This struggle is for us all. Come. Join us.
Come for this oor and for this country.
Come together to protect our future generations.
Let us protect the peace and let us struggle.
Long live peoples’ movement!

Sharadha, a regular walker, noted that she has been processing questions in the walk. Her questions were about human greed.
“The yearning to know where that greed comes from? When you know that the land, the place, also belongs to someone else, in Palestine, in Mylaththumadu, in North East Sri Lanka, why do we as humans crave to have sole ownership of it? Where does that desire come from?”

We sat in silence with her questions. We do not have answers.

Ponni asked, what does it mean to be ‘silent’ in the midst of such loud horrors? When the powers that be are so glaringly loud, how can we remain quiet? Are we really quiet?

Vijayalakshmi spoke of their last visit to the Mylaththumadu farmers’ protest site: “A young woman who has been part of the protest said that rather than sitting there with them, we should go on the road and shout on their behalf. We didn’t say anything. It’s not that protesting loudly is not relevant anymore. Who am I to tell this young woman that one kind of protest is ‘better’ than the other.”

We spoke of the momentary relief that slogans, adrenaline pumping protests, provides, that it is still of value and cannot be underestimated. We acknowledge this entirely and do not ever have a self-righteous answer defending a ‘silent protest.’ As so many of us have been and continue to be part of louder protests, we saw that perhaps the only suggestion from our own experience would be that we recognise that the relief it provides is momentary, not sustained. Meanwhile, the silent protest can hold the noise, too, along with it the undeniable truth that the momentary release that loud protest provides remains as essential as silence.

Ponni reflected about how she realises, as she hasn’t been able to walk for the past month and a half (the longest time she has not walked since its beginning) that it was a space where she processed life and work. She remembered that when this current war in Palestine started, she wrote a placard: ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ She said:


I knew I was going away for the longest time. It was a difficult time in which I was leaving. As if there was any other kind of time. (Sigh). I don’t write new placards usually but I HAD TO write that board. Here, far away from the walk, I miss my keffiyeh that my friend bought for me from Gaza. If I could walk everyday with my keffiyeh and that board, it would make such a big difference in my heart that I am doing something. Without that space, I haven’t felt this kind of helplessness in a long time. The practice of the walk was my space that held my anger and all other feelings everyday. Without it, I feel uprooted. I am able to recognize that without an everyday practice of resistance, I give in to the logic of the structures of power. So I worry about safety and security. This worry is bizarre, as my walking everyday in Batticaloa is extremely ‘unsafe’ for many reasons as per the logic of the state. Besides, we don’t have the slightest inkling of what is considered dangerous by the powers that be on any given day any more. So, here, far from home, I worry about everything. At home, in the walk, I have a container for these feelings and I find a deeper place of grounding. When I walk these fears don’t disappear, but they don’t rule over me. Without the walk, I am forced to find other ways to get away from under its crushing force.

We asked ourselves:
If the walk is all this and more, are we really quiet?

We wondered about the Tamil word for peace and for silence—Amaithi. That it is one and the same.

Amara shared that amaithi for her is stillness. She described, in phrases that were brought together by the silence in between, the energy under the tree, everyday.

“We sit in the shade… with the lagoon moving quietly near us. The people—walkers, and others—at Gandhi park with their energies… our feelings and thoughts… flowing together into this space—this container…”

To her that amaithi, that peace and quiet, is stillness.

Sharadha shared: “I walk in silence but some days, there is a war inside me.” Perhaps the stillness of the walk can hold the wars within.

So what is it that we may be holding for the people of Palestine?

We reflected that all acts of solidarity are also acts of grieving.

Grieving, we know, is an important part of healing. Grieving in our societies, in Sri Lanka, in Palestine, and in so many more places, is not an individual process. It is collective, and often, it is interdependent. One of the most horrifying parts of these wars is that people are often not allowed to grieve. Almost fifteen years after the formal end of the war in Sri Lanka, the space to remember and grieve still remains an ongoing battle.

We in the Batticaloa Justice walk are grieving with and on behalf of the people of Palestine, even as we grieve horrors of our own. We know that these experiences are specific, and we also feel them as one and the same.

In Tamil society, the funeral singing form of Oppari, is done by women. We hold one another and sing-cry our grief. All the women in the funeral homes who sing and cry oppari together do so not for the dead loved one in that instance, but for many of their own losses, for each other, for themselves.

So perhaps we are joining in the oppari with the people of Palestine. Holding space for their grief while they cannot do so themselves. Perhaps this is worth something? We stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine as we grieve wars that have hurt us all.

As we sat that morning after the walk and had this conversation, we let go and cried. As if this war in Palestine released tears of the war in Sri Lanka, almost fifteen years after its formal end.

When a child cries from being hurt, we hold the child. We want to let the child release their pain in tears while we hold them, so that they feel safe enough to grieve.

The walk holds us as we grieve, for ourselves, for the people and cows of Mylaththumadu, for the people of Palestine, and so many places ripped apart by wars, again and again.

Sharadha spoke of seeds. That all loss also plants a seed. She remembered when we witnessed the memorial in Saukadi village, where thirty-three persons, many of them children, were massacred in 1990. As she saw the faces of children who live in the village now, she wondered which of them had returned to the earth in another form, after having been massacred. She felt at that moment that the killers cannot ever fully get rid of a people, try as they may.

In the context of such horror, the walk, its amaithi, gives us the space to remember the faith that all life and energy is circular. That which is destroyed is recreated.

Eventually, there is no victory for those who desire absolute destruction, try as they may.

Families of the disappeared silent protest at Gandhi Park in 2012
Sharadha, other Batti walkers, and other women at the Soukadi memorial. The memorial is held annually at the Memorial Cross, which is placed at the spot where the massacre occurred. The cross stands on the sand where the blood was spilt and the dead were buried.
Wishes for the festival of light, Deepavali, in Palestine colours on our Justice tree. When evil was vanquished and light prevailed.

So we, the Batticaloa walkers, leave you with the words of Sarala Emmanuel from the day she walked alone, with a keffiyeh on her head and with the people of Palestine in her heart:

“Today only me…
Thousand thoughts…
Carrying the bag of placards with slogans
Walk… alone
Not a call on my phone.
Only a cow glanced at me curiously
Umbrella (I carry the number of days of the walk board like people carry umbrellas)[2]Umbrellas are a mainstay in Batticaloa. They protect us from the rain and the sun. To lose or break an umbrella is felt and spoken of as a travesty, and the gift of a good umbrella is deeply … Continue reading
A woman carrying a heavy sack on her head passes by.
Keep my eyes up
Back straight
…Slow down
It’s a ritual
This path is made for me…
So I walk in my own sway”

[23rd November 2023]
Sarala walks alone with the people of Palestine in her heart

Suggested Citation:

Notes

Notes
1 Oor, in Tamil is a phrase that means place, village, town etc. It is a layered and complex declaration of belonging in a way that English translations such as ‘town’, ‘village’, ‘place’ etc. do not capture. And so we have retained ‘oor.’ 
2 Umbrellas are a mainstay in Batticaloa. They protect us from the rain and the sun. To lose or break an umbrella is felt and spoken of as a travesty, and the gift of a good umbrella is deeply appreciated. The Umbrella is just always there, keeping us safe and held and we, in turn, hold it and keep it safe. Much like our walk.