By September 2008, I had become accustomed to fitfully sleeping in a fortified underground bunker. After four years of living in Sri Lanka as an aid worker, I was then being constantly woken by sporadic air attacks surrounding the Tamil Tiger de-facto capital of Kilinochchi, in a northern district of the country called Vanni.

The sonic boom made by a fighter jet, swooping low and bombing its target and then thrusting through the sound barrier to escape anti-aircraft fire is an almost indescribably frightening sound.

For months, the security situation in Vanni had been deteriorating as the Sri Lankan army made constant progress deeper into the Tamil Tiger territory. My colleagues and I, working for the United Nations in Kilinochchi, became increasingly unable to effectively deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance to the approximate 3,00,000 civilians in the region.

These communities, which were sporadically scattered throughout the jungles of Vanni, were struggling to survive under mosquito nets, with little access to food and water supplies. Rather than effectively delivering aid to them, we found ourselves acting as international witnesses amid the intensifying violence.

During an extended period in the bunker, with Kfir jets circling above, I was lent copies of two graphic novels: Maus and Palestine by Art Spiegleman and Joe Sacco, respectively. I read them cover to cover. I was captivated by the power of these two comics, how they both sensitively conveyed so much of the violence and suffering I was witnessing around me.

Completely demoralised by having to write my dehumanised daily SitReps – situation reports – for the UN, which had little effect on our ability to provide aid, I was suddenly inspired by visually representing the desperate situation in Vanni. I began including my own photographs within these reports. The effect was immediate, the SitReps were shared widely among colleagues around the world and messages of support and empathy began to pour in from all corners of the United Nations.

At 10:45 am on September 16, 2008, I was in the final UN convoy to evacuate from Vanni. For the week prior to this we had been holed up in our compounds as civilians outside the gates demonstrated, pleading with us to stay. They wanted us to bear witness to their suffering and rightly feared further violent reprisals if we left.

I had spent four years living in this region, alongside this community. The experience of cowering inside a bunker, while the very people we were there to serve were outside and exposed to air attacks filled me with a profound sense of shame. In short, it changed the course of my life.


Survivor’s guilt

For the year after I left on that convoy, I received a constant stream of messages, each one telling me that a colleague or friend in Vanni had died. With each message I descended deeper into a spiral of guilt and abandonment. During this lonely period of adjusting to life back in Britain, I bought a motorbike, riding by myself from London to the Black Sea and back again. On this solitary journey I began to think about how this negative ball of shame, lodged in my gut, could be turned into something positive. I began to explore the idea of visually representing the scenes I had witnessed in Sri Lanka.

In July 2012 I was introduced to an artist, Lindsay Pollock, who was living in north London. I sent Lindsay some photographs of Vanni and he replied by illustrating the images. The mission was immediately set: we were going to tell the story of Vanni as a comic book. Lindsay and I spent weeks poring over photographs, film clips, websites and official documentation of the war and began to build a visual database of the story.

We secured funding from the Arts Council England and were able to cover our costs interviewing Tamil refugee and asylum seekers, mostly in London, Zurich and Chennai. Due to the draconian laws in place, we decided not to interview in Sri Lanka and instead we focused on survivors who had escaped and were refugees in southern India and Europe.

We travelled around the rural areas of Tamil Nadu on a single motorbike, with Pollock hanging onto the back, so that he could see and photograph rural Tamil life. This gave him a deeper understanding how to illustrate it.

A page from Vanni

Negatives into positives

On returning to the UK, Raminder Kaur at the University of Sussex convinced me to take up the project as a PhD in Anthropology, which I completed in 2016 and have adapted with Kaur into a series of articles. This allowed me to focus on the methodologies I was using, to explore how real-life experiences of conflict could be fictionalised into a graphic novel.

As the Vanni project and my PhD developed simultaneously, I realised that what we were producing was a powerful and engaging tool which could communicate complex and traumatic experiences. The use of illustration afforded our Tamil contributors the anonymity they desired. Many of them were in precarious security and legal situations, so representing their testimonies through Pollock’s illustrations gave them confidence to share their stories. We also quickly realised that comics were able to take the viewer into environments, such as torture cells, that are unavailable to most press photographers.

PositiveNegatives was founded in 2013 when Pollock and I were commissioned to adapt an Open Society report about Somali diaspora communities in seven European cities. This series of comics, called Meet the Somalis, used the same methodologies of interviews and illustrations we were developing for Vanni.

Over the course of the past seven years PositiveNegatives has continued to grow, receiving commissions from media outlets such as The Guardian, to represent stories of sex trafficking on Abike’s Story and NGOs such as the Norwegian People’s Aid on stories of Syrian migration to Europe in A Perilous Journey. We now run co-creation workshops with academics internationally, exploring how to link complex research into conflict, climate change, etc, with the graphic art form to ensure these narratives reach a wider audience.

As PositiveNegatives has developed, academics began to respond to our work and partner with us to create artwork illustrating their research projects that we have won awards for like the AHRC Research in Film Award 2019 for Life on the Move about mixed migration in the Horn of Africa. These days we are a small, but dynamic team, based at SOAS, University of London, specialising in visually representing research and real-life stories through art and co-creation projects and adapting our growing portfolio into innovative educational resources for schools.

Vanni: A Family’s Struggle Through the Sri Lankan Conflict was published in September 2019, 11 years after my departure on that final UN convoy. Through Vanni, we continue to demand justice for the victims and survivors of the Sri Lankan conflict, whose voices are routinely ignored.

Benjamin Dix, Senior Fellow, Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.