Bunker graffiti: The story of unsung soldiers | Sunday Observer

Bunker graffiti: The story of unsung soldiers

For Sri Lankans, graffiti has always been a top notch art or rather a way of expression, for centuries. This art of the common man dates back to the early stage of Buddhism in the country. The ancients dedicated their caves to the Maha Sangha and wrote, Agatha Anagatha Chathudisha Sagasha Dine (offering this cave to, the arrived and non-arrived Maha Sangha of all four directions) on the cave walls, in their own rhythm. Eventually, Sigiriya escalated graffiti art into a whole new level. Carving the thoughts of the common folk is the beauty that popped out of the Sigiri graffiti. With such a legacy on graffiti, today we talk about ‘Bunker graffiti’ or Bunker Kurutu Gee, where soldiers who fought for the sovereignty of the motherland poured out their hearts on the cement walls of a bunker.

Charith Kiriella, a former journalist turned civil activist, compiled graffiti written by soldiers during the 30-year war.

Some were written on bunker walls, some in LTTE dungeons and some were found in the pockets of trousers of the dead soldiers. The Sunday Observer interviewed Charith to learn about his amazing journey through Bunker Graffiti.

“I first came across bunker graffiti more than 20 years back, and was astonished at how an ordinary soldier could present his thoughts so poetically. It was unbelievable. From that day onward I started collecting bunker graffiti whenever I travelled into battlefields,” Charith recalls.

He was not alone in the journey. Former Army Commander, Lt. General Daya Rathnayake and former Civil Defence Chief Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera were two others keen on collecting graffiti written by soldiers.

In June 2018, they hosted an exhibition displaying all the collected bunker graffiti, which drew the attention of the public.

“It was an exceptionally emotional moment for us. Widows and parents of soldiers who were no more came in their numbers to view the exhibition. They read the graffiti hanging on the walls, touched them and said, “this could have been written by my husband, my son, my brother...” They felt those graffiti close to their hearts. In other words we could enliven the fallen heroes by a collection of their aesthetic skills,” Charith explained his experience. With the huge success and acceptance of society, Charith and the others decided to turn all the graffiti into a book. The result was the launch of Bunker Kurutu Gee (Bunker Graffiti) late last year.

The book comprising 131 bunker graffiti is an instrumental piece in the country’s war literature, Charith believes. “The world witnessed bunker graffiti through World War II, the Vietnam war and also the Indo-Kashmir war. But this is the only effort of compiling all the graffiti into a single piece, I believe,” he said.

When they hosted the exhibition for the first time, they asked the soldiers to come forward and recognize their graffiti if any, among the collection. But no one appeared.

Hence it was an indication that all the versification belonged to the dead soldiers. “I’m just the editor of this book. I have no rights upon the graffiti in the book. I have only the happiness, being able to contribute to the war literature of the country.

Some may suggest that a country doesn’t need war literature. But in my opinion it is something we need desperately, and which we lack right now,” said Charith.

Beauty and greatness cannot be found in any poem that targets racism or hatred. These soldiers are the people who indeed witnessed the brutality of the war, and their graffiti shows the emptiness of finding glory in a war where hundreds of thousands had had to suffer.

At least four to five graffiti were found in a dungeon in Dharmapuram, Mullaitivu. Six-foot long and two-foot wide tiny cells were home to 18 soldiers who underwent inhumane torture for almost 12 years under LTTE captive.

The pain they suffered without a ray of hope, was carved on the walls using rocks. Perhaps it was the only joy they had for the 12 long years of their life. They had all been burnt to death at the final stage of the war.

Every penny earned by selling the book and any other related activities would be dedicated to the welfare of disabled soldiers, said Charith. “At present, there are at least 27,000 disabled soldiers. In an attempt to give them psychological support, we are in the process of building libraries for them.

We have already completed the first library project at the Boossa camp and plan the next library in Kekirawa,” he explained.

Bunker graffiti is not another episode of glorifying the end of war. Instead, it is an authentic collection of thoughts turned into poems by a person who had lived every second of his life embracing the uncertainty of life. Consequently, the reader too has to be discerning when reading the story of unsung soldiers brought to us in Bunker Kurutu Gee.