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Nov-19-2012 22:44printcommentsVideo

The Vanni by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

The Vanni is a multi media, interactive comic book about conflict and migration focusing on Sri Lanka.

Aerial view of the battle zone, days after cessation of the fighting. Puttamattalan Beach, Vanni.
Aerial view of the battle zone, days after cessation of the fighting. Puttamattalan Beach, Vanni.

(LONDON) - The Vanni is supported by: Arundhati Roy (Booker Prize Winner, God of Small Things), Jon Snow (Newscaster, Channel 4), Frances Harrison (BBC and Author, Still Counting the Dead), Callum Macrae (Film Maker, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields), Vairamuttu Varadakumar (Executive Secretary, Tamil Information Centre), Liv Torres (Secretary General, Norwegian People's Aid)Roma Tearne (Author, The Road to Urbino) Beate Arnestad (Filmmaker, My Daughter the Terrorist) and is being produced with the involvement of a number of survivors of the conflict. 

In 2009, the civil war fought between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam reached a brutal climax.

In the North East of the island, on a spit of sandy beach, over 300,000 Tamil civilians were caught between the opposing sides.

In one of the most brutal counter-insurgency operations ever mounted, at least 40,000 civilians were killed. The exact number of dead may never be known.

My name is Benjamin Dix and I arrived in Vanni, in northern Sri Lanka, three days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Employed by Norwegian People's Aid and then the United Nations, I worked on reconstruction projects with international staff and Tamil nationals for the next four years. 

Self Portrait. UN Evacuation from Vanni. 16th September 2008
Self Portrait. UN Evacuation from Vanni. 16th September 2008

After the election of the nationalist Sinhalese president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the peace process broke down. The fighting escalated from bloody skirmishes and bomb attacks to all-out war. 

In 2008, the government ordered the UN to leave the Vanni, stating they could no longer guarantee our safety. Without impartial international witness, the war escalated rapidly. 

UN Evacuation from Vanni. 16th September 2008
UN Evacuation from Vanni. 16th September 2008

Three hundred thousand people were forced to flee their homes. They were herded towards government-declared 'No Fire Zones'. But in densely packed, supposedly safe areas, they were continually shelled for the next six months. 

300,000 thousand people flee the fighting towards No Fire Zones.
300,000 thousand people flee the fighting towards No Fire Zones.

Before the fighting even finished, there were many competing narratives about what exactly happened and who bore responsibility.

A fog of accusations and contradictions stifled a broad, public understanding of what occurred in 2009. 

Conveniently for certain parties, there seemed to be no concrete facts. The people with most to reveal about the war were the civilians who were forced through it. But their stories have largely been lost. Thousands of Tamils have fled Sri Lanka, seeking asylum in safer parts of the world, often forced to leave families behind. Inside Sri Lanka and out, many Tamils do not feel safe to reveal their experiences, fearing reprisals against themselves or their loved ones.

I am now working on a project that I hope will illuminate for a wide audience the experiences of ordinary Sri Lankan Tamils. 

Working with illustrator Lindsay Pollock, I am writing an online graphic novel which tells the story of a fictional but representative Tamil family between 2005 and 2012. 

The Vanni tells the story of Antoni & Rajini, their children Michael and Theepa, Rajini's younger sister Priya and Antoni's mother Apamma - and their dog Rocky. 

Family portrait. (Clockwise from left) Priya, Antoni, Rajini, Theepa, Michael, Appama and Rocky)
Family portrait. (Clockwise from left) Priya, Antoni, Rajini, Theepa, Michael, Appama and Rocky)

The story is constructed from survivor testimonies. Every significant event in the novel, from bomb attacks to internment to the isolation of asylum seeking, is an event that occurred to Tamil civilians in reality during the war and after.  

From a refugee camp in 2005, when the family hope to rebuild their lives after the tsunami... to the despair of 2007 when they had to flee the fighting and leave the coast… to the atrocities endured on the tiny spit of beach where the fighting reached its climax.

Illustration showing the atrocities in the battle zone
Illustration showing the atrocities in the battle zone

The graphic novel will depict the horrors inflicted on ordinarily families, as reported anonymously by survivors themselves. We'll be working from first-hand accounts and in consultation with survivors of the fighting. 

The story is told from Antoni's perspective in 2012, now an asylum seeker in London reflecting on the preceding six years of his life.

The reflections are in the form of conversations with his asylum lawyer, Nina… via Skype with Rajini in Chennai, where she lives in the purgatory faced by a refugee… and in his troubled dream states where his post-traumatic stress plays out night after night.

Illustration showing Antoni alone in London
Illustration showing Antoni alone in London

Besides telling a compelling story, the book will provide resources for the reader to find out more about the war in Sri Lanka, and related topics of conflict, terrorism, forced migration and asylum. 

Presented on the internet, the novel is augmented with photographs and video from the ground. There will also be maps, statistics, links and quotes embedded behind the illustrations. This reference material, sourced from organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and various NGOs will open channels for the reader to explore a variety of issues as deeply as they wish.

Additionally, statements from the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil media will be included, allowing the reader to independently weigh the conflicting voices against one another. 

The book is being written with great consideration to impartiality. This narrative is constructed from the lived-experiences of ordinary people; not the rhetoric of political leaders. 

We have been working on "The Vanni" for a year, entirely self-funded. In that time, we have traveled to South Asia to gather visual reference material, photographing flora and fauna, landscapes, typical Tamil villages, fishing communities and buildings.

We have spoken with Tamil survivors, asylum lawyers, and experts at a variety of organisations.

Lindsay and I beginning to storyboard in India, 2012
Lindsay and I beginning to storyboard in India, 2012

We have employed computer programmers to develop the website, filling it with useful resources, multimedia and a primer on the conflict in Sri Lanka.

And we have written & drawn a 20 page preview of the book. 

Chapter by chapter, we intend to make the entire book available for free, so this story can reach as many people as possible.

Work so far has cost in the region of £10,000. The entire project will unfold over approximately two years. But we can no longer afford to fund the comic ourselves. That's why we're asking for your help.

Every penny donated will help us produce the book to the highest possible standard. If you care to donate a little more, we'll show our gratitude with exclusive gifts for higher contributors. 

Despite the terrible bloodshed which unfolded across its fields and beaches, the Vanni is a stunningly beautiful part of the world. Many of the photos featured in this film are my own, taken during my time in Sri Lanka. Higher contributors will receive limited-edition prints.

We're also providing original artwork and even the chance to be featured in the background of one of the London scenes - and then receive the original page to keep. 

For details of the funding brackets, please see the information below.

Funding reward photo.1
Funding reward photo.1
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Funding reward photo. 2
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Funding reward photo. 3
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Funding reward photo. 4
Funding reward photo. 5
Funding reward photo. 5
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Funding reward photo. 6
Funding reward photo 7
Funding reward photo 7

In every crowded capital of the world, thousands of asylum seekers are totally anonymous. This book will introduce the reader to one such man - Antoni - showing the path which led him to his strange new life, alone on the fringe of an unfamiliar society. A good husband, father and son, who shoulders the guilt of the survivor, and the memories of the lost; a man who misses his family terribly, and waits for the slow cogs of obscure law to turn; a man whose last hope is to be allowed to start a new life, in a strange place, when all he wants is to be home, on his beach, fishing. 

Fishing in Vanni
Fishing in Vanni

Thank you so much for considering this project.

                                  Articles I've written or been involved with:

'Pain' of Sri Lanka's Aid Pullout. BBC. 23.09.08

UN 'Failed Sri Lanka Civilians'. BBC. 13.11.12

Sri Lanka's Killing Fields. Channel 4. 15.06.11

All the NGOs Asked to Leave Kilinochchi. BBC. 08.10.08

Fleeing Sri Lanka War. BBC. 20.09.08

Between Two Armies. Tehelka. 31.01.09

Beware the Wounded Tigers. Tehelka. 07.04.12


                                  The Vanni – Reviews and Endorsements

The story of the 2009 war in Sri Lanka in which tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were brazenly and brutally killed, is rapidly being buried by powerful countries with strategic and business interests in the region. This book seeks to unbury those terrible, sordid secrets and place them in clear view for the world to see. I hope these few words of support will help this book to find its way into the world. Arundhati Roy. God of Small Things. Most recent book Broken Republic

Aerial view of the battle zone, days after cessation of the fighting. Puttamattalan Beach, Vanni.

This is by any standards an important project. A significant voice in the call for truth and justice over the appalling war crimes which marked the awful end of the war in Sri Lanka. But what makes it particularly important is that it is told by a man who was there – a man who both cares about what happened, and understands how important it is that it never happens again. I urge everyone to support this project in whatever way they can. Jon Snow. Newscaster. Channel 4 News.

The full story of the 2009 war in Sri Lanka has largely been ignored by the global press and international society. This graphic novel is telling the story to a new audience and simultaneously telling it in new ways to the few that already knew it. Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in a conflict, which left unreparable damage to Sri Lanka, but also to the international community´s reputation for protection of human rights. This Vanni story needs to be heard in order to avoid it happening again. Liv Torres. General Secretary. Norwegian People's Aid

This book is doing completely new things with drawn and recorded images and new technology and using the mix to tell an important but largely ignored story to a new audience. It's a simple but compelling way of rendering a morally complex story. Human rights groups and journalists should watch this project with interest and learn how to engage people in issues that too often seem remote. Frances Harrison. Author of Still Counting the Dead and Ex-BBC Foreign Correspondent in Sri Lanka, Iran, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan

The stories of forced displacement, mass killings, disappearances, systematic rape and wanton destruction of towns and villages have become a permanent feature of any discussion about the war in Sri Lanka. At a time when many feel that what is left to be revealed is the extent of the already known horrors, Benjamin Dix's graphic novel comes to alert us to yet another dimension of this war - the plight of asylum seekers. Based on true events, the author combines his experience of working in the war-torn Vanni and allows people to see into one another’s hearts to understand and stimulate new discussions and fresh political action for justice and peace. Vairamuttu Varadakumar, Executive Secretary, Tamil Information Centre.

The graphic novel when well done is a highly charged medium of concentrated information in relatively few words and memorable images. The Vanni is one such novel, presenting the haunting, powerful story of displacement that followed a brutal conflict in the almost forgotten corner of the world called Sri Lanka. Roma Tearne. Author of The Road To Urbino published by Little Brown

Atrocities committed by governments still occur with distressing frequency and leave in their wake abiding memories of intolerable pain that cripples lives and whole societies. It is even more intolerable when the world seems to ignore the mayhem ever took place. That is why this poignant graphic account is so important. The Vanni is well researched and the brilliant illustrations elucidate the immense horror and bring the crimes as experienced by the individual survivors close to the reader’s heart and mind. Beate Arnestad. Filmmaker: My Daughter the Terrorist and Silenced Voices; Tales of Sri Lankan Journalists in Exile.

I am really happy of your hard work for us (Vanni peoples). Graphic is wonderful idea. Easy to understand the problem everyone. Every single line telling lots of Tamil people`s storey in Vanni war. Such a great research that you have made about the Tamil people who originated from Vanni. You have carefully done this research and state the truth. There are lot of Antoni are still living in Vanni but nobody analyse their problems like you. As a Tamil women i am great full to you. Your friend Lindsay Pollock really very good artist. Perfect work Lindsay every picture telling real storey. This graphic novel is one of the evidence for our war life. Thank you so much for the wonderful work Dixie and Lindsay. Keep going. Anonymous. Young Tamil survivor of the war. London.

This is a wonderful project. Terrible war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by Sri Lankan government forces at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The men who are responsible for those crimes are still in power. This has been said before, but it is worth repeating: Without justice there can be no peace, and without truth there can be no justice. This book will, I believe, be a vital part of that truth-telling. It deserves all our support. Callum Macrae. Journalist and Film-maker. Director: Sri Lanka's Killing Fields

I am happy to see an emotional yet honest publication that gives an insight into Vanni. Thank you for such a meaningful and in-depth creation. Lindsay’s illustrations complement the text perfectly and emphasize the need for awareness of the massacre that occurred in 2009 in Sri Lanka. I hope this piece of work will open the eyes of the international community and to bring justice for the people who lost their lives in this war. Vanni Kumar. Survivor of the Sri Lankan Conflict. London

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

Sensitivity and impartiality are fundamental to this project. Working with survivors of a horrific conflict requires considerable ethical consideration as this is an extremely vulnerable study group. We are therefore working in close conjunction with the ethics department of the University of Sussex to build a comprehensive framework that allow us to proceed with the research needed to make the book but with the constant vigilance of professional researchers, under an ethical framework.

Designing and implementing this project using new media techniques has potential hurdles. We found, for example, on launching the preview site that some older Internet browsers would not support some of the embedded files, especially film clips. This is a hurdle that we are working out how to avoid as it would hamper the distribution of the project if only people with modern software were able to interact with all of the project online.

The illustrations are produced by hand and are extremely labour intensive. Keeping up with deadlines of illustrations as the story grows and takes shape will be a challenge for Lindsay and also for me to not change my mind too often and ask him to re-draw too many illustrations!

The photographs and illustrations sent out to backers will be mailed in hard backed envelopes to avoid any damage. The limited edition photographs of the higher donations will be sent in cardboard tubes to fully protect the prints.

Visit: to learn how you can help bring this project to reality.



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