The Works of Silence War Memorial in Killinochchi, North Province, Sri Lanka.

The Works of Silence

In the aftermath of Sri Lanka's civil war, Udeni M.H. Appuhamilage explores the impact of silence on individuals, particularly women who endure suffering even after the war's official end. She delves into the nuanced role of silence, which goes beyond resistance or communication, revealing how it becomes an integral part of narratives, shaping and reflecting emotional and affective content.

On 18th of May, 2009, the Sri Lankan state military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, bringing an end to the civil war that rampaged the country for almost three decades. Even after the end of the war, however, the fears and uncertainties keep influencing everyday life, for example in the frequent scene of children playing ‘war’ by shooting each other with wooden sticks. The end of war does not automatically imply peace or an end of violence. War and its effects linger on, seeping into the everyday (Das 2007) even decades after its official termination, subtly shaping and manipulating what people do and do not do.

Shanthi’s life narrative, which I discuss in this piece, clearly reveals the sufferings of war that women endure even after its official ending. A widow at the age of 27, and the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, Shanthi lives close to the border of the North, and North-Central provinces of Sri Lanka. From 2012 until 2014, I worked with her community for my doctoral research. Prior to 2012, I had worked in the same area as a clinical supervisor for a non-governmental organization that offered counselling and psychosocial services for survivors of war-torture. In fact, it was my clinical work with war-affected communities that led me to start with the PhD research project. My clinical clientele was not homogenous; I worked with children and adults, of different religious faiths, primarily from three ethnic groups. They held different political views, openly and/or secretively aligned themselves with different armed groups, and imagined futures of peace in various ways. Despite this diversity, they shared the same language of trauma: silence. When I subtly inquired into these silences, many of them responded with a similar answer: “Why should I tell you? Can you not see?”

Clinically, silence is often interpreted as a sign of resistance. Therapy mostly relies on words; silence threatens such practice. Psychoanalysis, for instance, discusses silence in relation to transference, and highlights how it indicates a resistance to unconscious material arising either from the person’s past experiences or a current transference situation (Lane, Koetting and Bishop 2002). Communication studies, and specially linguists interpret silence as serving a communicative function (e.g., Agyekum 2002, Schegloff and Sacks 1973). My encounters with silence (both in research and clinical work), however, felt more nuanced. Silence served the people beyond its conventional understandings as an absence, a resistance, or a tool of communication.

Shanthi helps me to question and discuss this power of silence in a post-war context. My conversations with her were soaked in silences; yet, they never felt like a resistance or a purposeful act of communicating a specific message. Our silences were not about what we did not disclose, or in other words, what we ‘silenced’ in the conversation. Instead, they were integral parts of the narrative, revealing – and not concealing – affectively laden content. For instance, the narrative about the death of her mother was shadowed with silences. Her mother was killed when Shanti’s family fled the battle zone. They could not carry the death body nor give it a proper burial; they just left it. The death of her mother, and the tragedy of having to leave her body unburied were ‘silent’ topics in Shanthi’s family. Even though no family member asked the others not to discuss it, everyone somehow knew that it was to be left silent.

However, this did not mean that Shanthi did not grieve or process what happened. Even at the time of our conversation (more than a decade later), she was still processing the loss. Tears streamed down her face, as she shared her memories of her mother with me. While Shanthi made no apparent attempt to cry or not to cry, she did relate to the tears, emphasizing her struggle to understand what those tears meant.

“I cried all the way. I was sad, but it all happened so suddenly. She screamed and fell down. I stopped; so did my brother. But father hurried us, yelled at us, saying we should not stop. So we ran. We met this group of people waiting for the Army to take them to the camp. I was still crying, but I know it was not just for the loss of my mother.”

(long silence)

Grief and confusion run deep in her narrative. Her silence contains not only her inability to grasp that confusion, a shockingly powerful reality – the loss of her mother -, with its complications; it also contains her own processing of that confusing reality which was not welcomed by the social, political, and family climate and her own distress at the time. Moreover, the silence also reveals a strategic means through which that conflicting past manages to infiltrate the delicate peace of the post-war context, despite its concerted political censorship. As such, the rhetoric of silence, in her case, demonstrates how the past, present, and the language of trauma become one with her body. On my part, I did not have the words to relate to her narrative, to her words and silences. Words, with their structured and precise meanings, felt like a too sharp and a risky weapon that could have damaged the intensity and intimacy of the moment that Shanthi and I were living. Silence, on the other hand, felt like a potentiating means that enabled me to be with her, and the powerful, confusing, and intimate affect that coloured our encounter.

That silence communicates is a given. Yet, understanding the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of silence in any conversation is always complicated. Silence contains a rich repository of possibilities for interpretation, inviting an intricate collaboration between two (or more) people in conversation, since any interpretation chosen from among a plurality of possible meanings needs to somehow serve the context of the conversation, and that of the two or more people in communication. There may be an emptiness in silence and many scholars equate this emptiness with absence (e.g., Picard 1952). However, as the narrative above shows, silence is anything but an absence (Appuhamilage 2015). Silence fills the space of emptiness with a different quality. Its permeable boundaries and emptiness potentiate silence to create and re-create meanings as it seeps into the intersubjective and intra-subjective realities of an affective encounter. Such silent ‘being’, which is both confusing, and significantly meaningful at the same time, offers the silent person an alternative way of ‘being’ – absorbing, resonating, and responding – in the face of powerful affect.

This blogpost was originally posted on 30 September 2017 on


Agyekum, E. (2002). The communicative role of silence in Akan. Pragmatics 12(1): 31-51.

Appuhamilage, U. (2015). Silence: An absent presence. Demos, Issue 2.

Das, V. (2007). Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lane, R.C., Koetting, M.G. and Bishop, J. (2002). Silence in psychodynamic psychotherapy. Clinical Psychology Review 22(7): 1091-1104.

Picard, M. (1952). The World of Silence. IN: Gateway Editions Ltd.

Schegloff, E.A. and Sacks, A. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica 4: 289-327.