Radhika Hettiarachchi

Radhika Hettiarachchi is a development practitioner, arts curator, and researcher who has worked extensively in the areas of reconciliation, peace, and conflict. In this interview with Women Talk, Radhika talks about the significance of the Herstories and the Community Memorialisation Project that curate and archive narratives of resilience and hope in times of war and peace in Sri Lanka. The projects draw on the forms of letter writing, memory mapping, trees of life, multimedia, arts, and exhibitions to document and share oral narratives of women and communities that otherwise may have vanished from history.  


You have a decade of experience in the development sector, working in organisations such as UNDP, United Nations, International Alert, Development Strategies Group, and also partnering with Search for Common Ground. What drew you towards working in the development sector?

By the time I did my Master’s, my interest in social issues had switched from an interest to doing something about it. After the 2004 tsunami, I came back to Sri Lanka. I got the opportunity to do some work here and continued in the sector. It is this interest I had in social issues that drew me to the development sector.

My work evolved over the course of twelve years from being involved in the sector. I am a researcher, arts curator, and development practitioner. In all of those things, my focus area is conflict transformation and peace-building.

In terms of other types of projects, I curated Colomboscope. I have been involved in the advisory board of the Colombo Art Biennale as well as with various pro bono initiatives, supporting smaller projects.

Where does art fit into the whole development discourse?

In a place like Sri Lanka, it has been one of the spaces that has been less regulated and less forcefully manipulated; not that there has not been suppression of the arts and suppression of voice through the arts. But art has always provided a space for voicing concerns or talking about social issues in a way that complements activism.

In terms of the development discourse, I think the arts allows for a more humanistic perspective to come into the discourse. Art fleshes out people. Whereas a lot of us in the sector get so involved in delivering projects we tend to, even when we do a participatory needs assessment, make it about extracting information for delivery. It loses the soul of it.

Bringing the arts in creates opportunities for voice. It creates a more holistic picture of how we are involved with each other. It creates more connection between people. Art allows opportunities for empathy that numbers and straightforward delivery of projects do not. Art adds a dimension that is intangible but connects people to people at a different level.

Can art forms and projects that relate to art be used for reconciliation, resolving conflict, and to express? Is that something that you have experienced with your work?

I would say so. I definitely think that it does allow for such expression. For example, the Herstories project that was done together with Viluthu Centre for Resource Development was started in 2012, at a time when there was a heavy restriction on NGOs and voicing grief. We had a culture of silencing. At a time like that, having storytelling and expression through art as a mechanism was useful because the mechanism of self-expression actually allows you a non-verbal way to communicate what you are going through.

Even if you do use words, the space it allows is personal. You can express yourself in a way that is your own, without censorship. The story-teller is able to control the narrative in a way they choose, excluding or including what they choose. Obviously, the conditions matter and there is an argument made that there is self-censorship anyway because of the environment. But, at least, it offers you the space to tell your story in the way you want to tell your story without mediation.

That feature of not being mediated is quite important because I think a lot of people make the mistake of speaking on behalf or collecting these stories and then writing an article, which is then an opinion piece. But having a platform where people can just say what they want to say, for instance if they have written a letter and it is unedited, that non-framing is important for people to feel that they are able to express themselves in their own words. In terms of the sense of ownership of one’s own story, the space that art, storytelling, and self-expression in non-verbal forms creates is satisfying to people.

This builds self-esteem. It is a feature that I would say we don’t practice enough in development because from one side it is perceived as delivering programmes and on the other side it is perceived as being a beneficiary. But when you actually have conversations with each other it becomes a collaborative exercise of helping each other. There is a space, even in development, for expression rather than extracting of information.

Herstories started in 2012. As you said, it was a time of high censorship and surveillance in Sri Lanka. How did Herstories emerge as an idea and developed?

For me, I wanted to do something like this for a while before. Again, this comes back to my development experience where during the tsunami we were going out and asking people what they wanted. In general, there are these various tools for extracting information of what people need in order to be able to deliver all this aid.

When you go to a village the stories people tell you is not about what happens in the tsunami or what they lost but it is a life story. We are conditioned, as development practitioners, in doing needs assessments. Even though people tell you all these stories, they stick with you for about a week and what you come back with is a report on what a certain village needs. There were these amazing stories of strength, courage, and survival that we could not share with a large group of people.

But because of the restrictions, time, security concerns, and high militarization, a lot of organisations were afraid to do this kind of work. The one organisation that was willing to go ahead with this was Viluthu. Shanthi Sachithanandam who was heading Viluthu at the time was a wonderful brave woman.

What was the significance of the time in which Herstories was initiated in Sri Lanka?

The triumphalist narrative that was being created by the government at the time was that we have won a war and given people freedom. That whole narrative was about the victor versus the vanquished.

The way the war ended was with a military solution while the conflict was more rooted in socioeconomic and ethnopolitical dimensions. The way in which it was being articulated was very much around a hero myth. And that hero myth necessarily was a masculine one.

The whole idea of the project was really about capturing, recording, and documenting the stories of one of the most affected groups of war and violence, making sure that in some way we feminise this history for the future. Otherwise it was going to be lost.

It was about trying to have this documentation done during the eyewitness period of the first three to five years. Because otherwise it changes. It has already changed. I can see the change between when we did Herstories and now when we are doing the Community Memorialisation project, jointly implemented with Search for Common Ground. The way you narrate history changes because when you ask somebody for their story you always look back on it. You look back on it from where you are. If you are talking to somebody in a camp, it is different. If you are talking to somebody who has been resettled, the way they will tell their story is different. It was really important to try and capture it when that emotion was raw.

At the time, nobody was talking about transitional justice and there were no formal mechanisms till after this government came to power in 2015. Almost without being conscious of it, what we were doing was truth seeking, truth telling, and archiving those narratives. We started the truth seeking part of the transitional justice process three years before it became the norm. At that time, post war, this was one of the first women’s public history projects.


At the centre of those narratives are mothers, from the North as well as the South. What was the significance of motherhood in that whole discourse?

In one way, it was about how to approach women, as women are one of the most affected groups. Within that context, where daughters and sons were lost to so many people, it was a natural group of people to talk to because women themselves are generally the guardians of history. In conditions of war, women are the ones who grab the most important things but also your photos. As a result, so many people had their photo albums with them. Women are the carriers of history. Talking to these mothers was an extension of that.

Mothers are an interesting connecting point of the North, South, and East because if you have lost a child, you connect on a different level. The idea of capturing the stories of mothers was very much about not only just recording women’s histories but also about recording that sense of loss.

In Sri Lanka, as with other places like Argentina, mothers’ movements have been very strong. It is always the mothers who are joined up across regions to try and stop the war and try and look for the missing. In our consciousness, motherhood is important. That is one of the reasons why we approached Herstories through mothers.

These oral accounts of history that was told by mothers – how did these redefine and challenge the homogenous notions of motherhood in Sri Lankan society?

Those amazing women that we interviewed were all these people we would generally block into one. Generally, you would think these are all mothers who have experienced violence or mothers who lost children. Then it loses its sense of individuality that each of these people are different. Through the focus on the one story, rather than group stories, there were opportunities for people to start from the very beginning of their lives and go to the end. It was a way of thinking about themselves, where they are, and who they are, as mothers and women.

The women’s stories showed a shifting in their own perceptions, of what the role of a woman should be. Because a lot of people would say I go out like a man and do all this work. They say things like when I put my kids to school my husband was not here so I had to go out and do this. They were indirectly saying that this was my husband’s role but I did all of this. There was a sense of pride and recognition that they have moved beyond the socially assigned role for them.

In some cases, women were looking after their husbands and children. They were working. Every single one of them had a recognition that they were strong women. I have courage, I have love, I have strength – all of those things were things that they recognized as qualities in themselves.

Allowing people that platform to tell the entire life history and then to reflect on their story did bring out those slight changes of how they perceive themselves, which can only broaden the horizon. So many women talked about how they have lived post war; after losing a husband, raising their children on their own. For a lot of women, the way they talk about it is the way they approach what is perceived as a man’s world.

Today with the transitional justice and reconciliation processes formally launched and we are talking about it openly, how did something that started in 2012, if you look back at it from today, relevant to today’s processes that are in place at the moment?

We wanted to record and archive this history so that it is not lost. We wanted to layer the narratives that were being created and move away from the single narrative at the time. But in the end, what we were also doing was truth seeking and truth telling. The memorymap.lk site, which is part of the Community Memorialisation Project, jointly implemented with Search for Common Ground, is part of that natural process.

One of the things that are very different about this project is that unlike Herstories, where the space was very restricted, now we can actually use these archives to go beyond the archive; to have conversations on the ground about the other and others’ experiences.

So far we have been to 450 villages and spoken to over 1200 people. We have conducted consultations with over 2000 people in conversation about sharing these histories and leading conversations about how can we develop empathy for the other; and if we have empathy, how can we prevent this from happening again. The truth seeking and the truth telling has helped us create an avenue for conversation on non-recurrence. That is how it fits into the transitional justice process.

There is a marked difference in the way people tell their stories. During 2012/13, there was no space and this was one of the few places that they could share. There was a sense of the desperation of needing to tell. Now, after this transitional justice framework and all the conversations around that, I think there is more of a transactional relationship of how people tell. They always did seek justice but now it is an expectation of immediate response or in some cases I would say the stories are different or it has changed based on today’s conditions. There is a sense of what can we get from this.

With the Herstories project, a lot of people told their stories and there was a sense that it was a desperate attempt to at least tell their side. Whereas, now, with this transactional nature of this relationship, there is also frustration because what they want from transitional justice is not being delivered as quickly; by telling this story you expect that justice and when that does not come there is frustration. So, you can see that difference in the way people were talking about their truths then and the way they talk about their truths now.

Let’s talk about the more recent Community Memorialisation Project that you conceptualised, which continues to archive memory and oral history in Sri Lanka. Could you elaborate on what this project is about?

There are three phases of this project. One is very much focused on the village and homogenous groups. We saw this so many times in Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara. When you are a single community you are able to express anger, hatred, and frustration about the other communities or about your own. I think in a way we have been quite careful but also quite sensitive to the idea that we need to work within mono community groups.

Whether it is ethno or religious, when you work with mono community groups you can prepare people to meet the other honestly. That has worked because in the second phase we are brining people together and you are able to share what has happened to you and connect with the other on a more human level.

The next phase is really about then going across to communities in other districts; to be able to actually see what has happened and come back to your community with that knowledge. What this project has done is it has created much more space not just to record these stories but to have a positive impact on recurrence.

A children’s memory mapping component was added to this project, which is a lesson I learnt from Herstories where there were always these mothers and children in the same room and when the mothers are telling their stories the kids are listening. There was a trans-generational conversation.

So, built on that, I borrowed this methodology which was about drawing memory maps and village maps, and then the grandparents would fill in the gaps of memory. There is a transference of memory and in that trans-generational conversation there is space for having conversations about what life was like. Not that nostalgia itself is perfect, but at least a conversation can then shift to what kind of values we need for the future, in order for this not to happen.


Could you explain about the specific methods that were used for documentation throughout the project and what their significance is?

The collection of the stories has always been in a multi media format. Letters, videos, photo essays, the trees of life, and the memory mapping exercises are both verbal and non-verbal forms of expression. The letter writing format also gives you an addressable other and it gives you somebody to tell your story in your own words.

Every single person has written a letter. That letter is interesting, even from a methodological point of view, because for a woman to be able to write a letter in your own words, of your own life, is important because you can do it in your room or when you have time. It gives you your own space and a safe space to tell your own story. It also takes you away from the male gaze. There are no people watching you. There are no people telling you what to write and how to write.

The multimedia form of getting the stories out also enabled the multimedia form of sharing those experiences. The women and communities always knew that these stories were going to be shared everywhere and that your story and what happened to you will be heard by others. That was one of the key features of the project.

We have it all in the National Archives and we have it online but that does not mean that a certain demographic will access it. Multimedia and travelling exhibitions were held, as a form of taking it around, widening the dialogue and access to these stories.

The exhibition moved from place to place into ordinary community halls or libraries. In most of these places, I would see on average about 400 people daily. It reached out quite a lot. It was about the conversations it generated. If you look at the comments book, about 95 percent of the people immediately understand that the sharing of these stories is about reconciliation. If you read that, it does not matter if you are Tamil, Sinhala, or Muslim, people immediately recognize that access to somebody else’s story creates empathy.

What was the significance of generating these projects on an alternative media space and what freedoms or outreach did these spaces generate, different to the mainstream media?

Both projects are under the Creative Commons license so people can use stories as long as it is credited and non-commercial. That has been useful. Because now there is emphasis on co-existence in the education system, having these stories and videos there is useful. I have got so many people responding in some places in Sri Lanka, saying that they have used it in classes, which is what it was intended for; so that these stories would be used for another generation as a launch pad for dialogue.

One of the interesting things of having this as a web platform was when the exhibitions were taken to Canada and London. These are diaspora hubs. In Canada, a group of young diaspora saw the exhibition and used the stories online to write letters from Canadian mothers to Sri Lankan mothers. In London, they used the web platform for conversations at their diaspora meetings. It has extended the reach of these stories from the ground in Sri Lanka.

What that has done in a way is that the media format has actually allowed for the discourse to go beyond what it was intended for.

What does the future hold for you as well as these two projects?

With current media, what we have created are citizen archivists and citizen documentation. This is great. More and more people and organisations entering this field is good. Hopefully, the organisations I have worked with and started these projects will take it forward.

I also have some other ideas, which are again art projects but are related to documenting heritage. I am going to focus on that in the next few years and also, in particular, working with children.

One of the things that came out from the children’s memory mapping exercises was that this space for inter-generational conversations is not there because people are too busy. Even if they talked, they do not talk about these issues. That creates a huge gap in understanding civic responsibility and understanding how terrible the cost of conflict actually is. That is one of the areas that we need to work on more. There has to be more opportunity for inter-generational dialogue. A lot of the kids are growing up after the war and for them it is an abstract concept. Having access to people who have lived through it and the experiences of people who live through it is important to have because they are going to be the people who decide in the future whether to fight, flee, or to make changes.

Date of Interview: 30 November 2017

Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage


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