Fall/Winter 2003

Artist Project / Birds of Freedom

Tamil tigresses

Justine Kurland

Despite sporadic ceasefires and numerous mediation attempts over the last two decades, the people of Sri Lanka continue to endure one of the world’s most protracted and vicious civil wars. A variety of failed power-sharing arrangements designed to quiet disputes between the Tamil minority and the majoritarian Sinhalese government following the country’s independence from Britain in 1948 led to widespread civil unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. Aid agencies estimate that since 1983, when repeated attempts by the Tamil to gain political self-determination first within and then apart from the federal government devolved into open conflict, more than 70,000 lives have been lost; well over one million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the fighting. Both sides in the conflict have been accused by international organizations of grave human rights abuses, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the use of rape and torture, and the forced conscription of children into military units.

Following a series of violent clashes within the Tamil community in the mid-1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emerged as the main militant group. The movement is known for its strict military discipline and ruthlessness; among its various special units are the Black Tigers, a squad of specially trained suicide bombers, and the so-called Birds of Freedom, a group of young women fighters. The following images, depicting a small squad of the Birds of Freedom—in military dress uniforms and carrying the group’s trademark cyanide vials around the necks—were taken in early 2002 by New York-based artist Justine Kurland in northern Sri Lanka.

Justine Kurland is an artist who visits New York more often than any other city. She is represented by Gorney Bravin + Lee.

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