You may see Antoni as you walk down the street- head down, lost in thought as he weaves his way through a throng of people. You may sit next to him on the bus, or brush past him in the supermarket. He may live next door to you.
He hides a troubled past, which continually haunts him. And he is just one of the thousands of asylum seekers in every capital of the world, whose lives are totally anonymous.
In The Vanni, a multimedia graphic novel by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock, we discover Antoni’s roots in Sri Lanka, and his journey to England as an asylum seeker, after being forced to come here during the closing stages of the civil war in 2009.
In a unique format through illustrations and photographs that sometimes morph into each other, the reader finds out that Antoni was happy with his occupation as a fisherman in the north of Sri Lanka. Yet his humble existence, with his wife, two children, mother and sister-in-law was brought to an end in 2008 when they were forced to flee from the escalating violence in the area.
The graphic novel documents the family’s struggle to stay alive as they become helplessly caught up in the bloody showdown between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The inspiration for the character of Antoni came from Dix’s work in Vanni from 2004 until 2008 with Norwegian People’s Aid and then the UN.
In September 2008 the UN decided to withdraw its entire staff from the war zone after the Sri Lankan government warned it could not guarantee their safety. This was a decision that was criticized by the recent Petrie report, an internal review of the UN’s actions in the last months of the civil war.
The report stated that the UN failed in its mandate to protect civilians in the last months of the Sri Lanka civil war.
Dix disagreed with the UN pullout at the time, and following last week’s leaked report, told the BBC that the UN should not have evacuated the north, leaving behind a civilian population “with no protection or witness”.
Dix’s last days in Vanni in September 2008 affected him profoundly and inspired him to create the multimedia novel. He recalls a stressful few days before the UN evacuation, with members of staff being denied passes by the LTTE to leave the area, the army closing in to southern areas of Kilinochchi and crowds gathering outside the UN offices, begging them to stay and witness the conflict.
“The last time I saw one particular family that I had known for three years, they were all huddled together in their small trench of a bunker with their 2-year-old daughter that I had known since birth. Artillery was landing in the near distance and I had to hug them goodbye and wish them ‘luck’. That was the singular most terrible moment of my life. The complete sense of abandonment of friends is something that will stay with me for life. “
After returning to the UK, Dix completed a Masters degree in Anthropology of Conflict and Violence. But he wanted to further explore ideas surrounding conflict. Using the vast array of photographs, film clips and memories that he had acquired from his four years in Vanni, he is focusing on the often forgotten stories of people caught up in the violence in Sri Lanka.
“But I didn’t want to tell [the stories] in a way that only people interested in Sri Lanka or academics would read, I wanted to try and reach a wider audience,” he says.
The statistics relating to Sri Lanka are shocking – about 70,000 died in the last few months in a conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the last three decades. Although the LTTE committed war crimes, by preventing civilians from fleeing the fighting and forcibly recruiting people into their army, most of the civilian deaths in the closing stages were caused by the Sri Lankan government’s indiscriminate bombing attacks in no fire zones and on hospitals and humanitarian buildings.
Although the Sri Lankan government did its utmost to stage a war without witness, in the three years following the end of the conflict, a plethora of evidence has emerged showing clear human rights violations by the ruling Rajapaksa regime.
This evidence includes photographs, video footage, witness testimonies and reports from various human rights organizations. Dix says that despite the clear evidence of abuses of power previously and currently being perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government, little has been done by the international community to hold the state to account.
“The men that are responsible for so many deaths and so much suffering continue to reign power in Sri Lanka and continue to be invited to the UK to meet the Queen for her Jubilee celebrations, to have diplomatic relations and now are about to host the Commonwealth Heads meeting next year,” says Dix.
Instead of focusing on the shock factor, through stark figures or gruesome photographs of war crimes, Dix hopes to inform readers by focusing on the human element of war and the experience felt by all refugees fleeing different conflicts, as they start afresh in an alien environment.
“I wanted to compellingly present the effects that conflict has on an innocent family that is caught up between the warring parties.”
Dix hopes that The Vanni will give readers who know little about the conflict an accessible and impartial introduction into the issues concerning Sri Lanka and the events leading up to the end of the civil war and the rippling effects in its aftermath. After this, he wants readers to act on what they have read by supporting established advocacy organizations (such as the Sri Lanka Campaign) in their attempts to hold the government accountable for its actions.
The novel, of which a preview is accessible online, are mainly comprised of illustrations of Antoni’s experiences, drawn by Lindsay Pollock.
Inspired by conflict related graphic novels such as Palestine by Joe Sacco and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Dix hopes that the multimedia aspect of the project will allow the reader to interact with the book on different levels. A reader can look at the narrative only, but should they wish to find out more the novel also acts as a resource where they can learn about the conflict and issues of asylum, conflict and terrorism via links to web references, reports, photographs and information provided by human rights experts, asylum lawyers and those who were directly affected by the violence in Vanni.
Dix believes that the graphic novel format can be used as a powerful advocacy tool.
“Our Facebook and Twitter pages are awash with people pushing the causes that they are concerned about. So I thought I should try and do something different, something that sticks out and grabs people’s attention and although it’s a tragic tale, it can be presented in an attractive and interactive media that is engaging to read and will hopefully engage people.”
To reach the widest audience Dix and Pollock are making The Vanni novel freely accessible online. They have created the preview through their own funds, but hope to continue the novel through donations.
They have launched a campaign for donations through Kickstarter, the crowd funding website, and hope to receive £40,000 by the end of the year to fund the rest of the project. Click here to donate and find out more.