This past fall, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released the results of a long-awaited inquiry into the final phase of the twenty-five-year war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It uncovered widespread mass killing, torture, disappearances, assassination, and rape. While the report blamed both sides, it reserved the harshest criticism for the Sri Lankan state, whose actions it said may amount to “crimes against humanity.” Yet the Sri Lankan government, which claimed it was fighting a war against terrorism, has faced little more than pro forma denunciations from the international community.

It is a striking measure of how thoroughly 9/11 and the “war on terror” have shaped international politics that, in this age of humanitarian intervention and “Responsibility to Protect,” Sri Lanka was able to carry on waging with impunity what was, in effect, a campaign of ethnic cleansing. To call someone a terrorist is to say that he or she exists beyond the pale of reason, acting out of a nihilistic rejection of ethical order and civilization. Unlike an “insurgent” or “guerrilla,” a “terrorist” is ipso facto illegitimate, because, as sociologist Lisa Stampnitzky points out, it is “a category with a moral evaluation intrinsically built into it.” As such, it is perhaps one of the greatest linguistic and legal tools for repressive governments ever devised: By branding an opposition movement a terrorist organization, they can justify all kinds of atrocities against anyone they suspect of being associated with that group. Political dissidents and social critics of all stripes are languishing in prison cells from Damascus to Cairo to Colombo because of the term’s sheer power, as codified in an ever-expanding web of anti-terrorism laws.

The word Kottiya, “terrorist,” crops up again and again in The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War (now out in paperback), Rohini Mohan’s extraordinary rendering of the brutal denouement of the war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil rebels. For decades, Sri Lanka has employed the logic of counterterrorism, but it was only able to achieve full military victory—on May 17, 2009—by taking post 9/11 assumptions and techniques to their logical, bloody conclusion. In a way, the Sri Lankan endgame was America’s war on terror in its platonic form, a hint of how our own conflicts might look if they were not somewhat shackled by legal and political opposition, or adversarial media (journalists and aid groups were barred from the Sri Lankan killing zones). The Sri Lankan operation, which uprooted a decades-old insurgency in a matter of months, was remarkable in its efficiency; in international military circles, the “Sri Lanka option” was reportedly looked upon with envy, which may explain why the official response was silence or, at best, milquetoast objections (Hillary Clinton, for example, said the world was “very disappointed” by the atrocities).

The troubles date back to the era of British colonial rule, which disproportionately benefited the ethnic Tamil minority. After Sri Lankan independence in 1948, various Sinhalese-majority governments stoked nationalist sentiments and steadily stripped Tamils of rights: in 1956, Sinhala was declared the sole official language; in 1970, Tamil films and newspapers from India were proscribed; by the mid ’70s, Tamils were increasingly locked out of jobs and university seats. Tamil political parties that sprang up in response were banned, leaving the Tamil nationalist mantle to a growing underground guerrilla movement, which included the LTTE.

The war began in 1983, following an anti-Tamil pogrom known as Black July, in which Sinhalese Buddhist mobs rampaged through Tamil towns, looting, burning, raping, and murdering, as the army and police stood back and watched. Many Tamils fled north, where the LTTE hoped to carve out a separate homeland (Tamil Eelam), and rebel ranks swelled almost overnight. What ensued was a permanent state of exception, in which anti-terrorism laws were used to arrest and disappear thousands of Tamils. In the Vanni, the northern territory where the LTTE held sway, it seemed as if this was in fact not a war against terrorism or the Tigers, but against the entire Tamil people.

Mohan begins her story in 2008, by which point an entire generation has grown up with this war. The events she describes unfold against the backdrop of a major Sri Lankan army offensive in the north, which the government dubs a “humanitarian operation,” and which ultimately succeeds in eradicating the LTTE, while killing some forty thousand civilians. Mugil, one of three Tamils whose lives Mohan traces in intimate detail, joined the movement as a thirteen-year-old girl, filled with patriotic zeal and revolutionary fervor. When Mohan picks up her story decades later, Mugil is leading a team of young female Tigers in combat. But it slowly dawns on her that this latest round of fighting is unlike anything that came before. Her doubts grow, and the turning point comes one day when she is hiding in a tree, watching as her fighters below are surrounded by Sri Lankan soldiers. After the soldiers leave, Mugil descends to find “five naked girls, their bodies twisted in the last moments of struggle, [lying] still in the mud. No one had told these girls this could happen.” Not long after, Kilinochchi, the LTTE’s de facto capital, falls to the Sri Lankan army, and Mugil quits the Tigers to join the hordes of Tamils fleeing the territory, as missiles and cluster bombs rain down on them. She manages to survive the end of the war, and a large part of Mohan’s book follows her subsequent efforts to eke out a living in ravaged villages, trying to adjust to a world in which the dream of a Tamil homeland appears to have been extinguished forever.

Sarva, another of Mohan’s three subjects, is detained on suspicion of LTTE membership and winds up in the hands of the dreaded Terrorist Investigation Department. Here the totalizing force of the word terrorist becomes painfully clear. “Being charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act changed everything,” Mohan writes. “Rules, even if they could be bent, would not apply to a Kottiya. It did not matter whether he denied being in the Tigers or said he was trained against his will.” Sarva is blindfolded, beaten with a thick rope, has his head stuffed into a gasoline-drenched bag, and, at one point, is gang-raped by interrogators. He is sprung from his hellish detention thanks to the superhuman efforts of his mother, Indra, the third subject of The Seasons of Trouble. Ultimately, Sarva leaves his mother behind and flees the country, as thousands of Tamils have done, hoping to make it to America. Indra plunges herself into heavy debt to pay smugglers, but Sarva soon finds himself waiting endlessly in safe houses, stuck in a limbo analogous to that of the Tamil community as a whole.

The effect of these three interwoven narratives is haunting, and The Seasons of Trouble is a work of daring empathy. Mohan manages to give us direct access to the worldview of impoverished Tamil villagers and the seemingly Faustian choices they face. The Tigers themselves had little regard for civilians, placing land mines and planning ambushes, then melting away into the jungle, leaving villages and towns to face the army’s wrath. For many, a particularly deep grievance was the Tigers’ forcible recruitment of children: Mugil joined voluntarily, but the teenage fighters under her watch, who were raped and murdered by the army, had been press-ganged into service. During the final siege, the Tigers prevented thousands from fleeing to “safe zones” the army had declared (which, admittedly, would turn out not to be all that safe), beating back and firing at desperate crowds. In the end, the LTTE proved willing to sacrifice Tamil lives in an attempt to save itself.

And yet, for most Tamils, to abandon or try to overthrow the Tigers was unthinkable, in part because—and this is true for most popular guerrilla movements—state oppression tends to bulldoze the simple dichotomies of civilian and combatant, or partisan and neutral. In Mugil’s family, for example, only she and her brother ever picked up a weapon, but her father printed propaganda for the movement, and her mother fed fighters countless times. Sarva was forcibly recruited, but then came to identify with the group’s goals.

The LTTE were able to command allegiance in part by establishing a monopoly over the discourse of nationalism within their communities, and dominating every aspect of life. In Tiger territory, gambling was banned and thieves would be publicly flogged to death. For members, drinking and marriage were both outlawed (an order that held until Velupillai Prabhakaran, the venerated leader, himself fell in love). For a fighter, there was no greater honor than to join the Black Tigers, the group’s suicide squad, and until the early 2000s, the LTTE may have deployed more suicide bombers than any outfit in the world. If all this sounds like a Tamil caliphate, then it should show how wrongheaded the current debate over the nature of Islam and religious violence truly is. Nationalism, too, can function very much like a religion, in that, as the sociologist Razmig Keucheyan has said, it allows “citizens to inscribe their existence in a totality that transcends them.” Thus Mugil’s war wounds felt like “trophies—bodily commitment to [Prabhakaran], to a freedom and autonomy her community dreamt of. Even in the scream of the most blinding pain, there had been an equally physical satisfaction: I lost blood for a reason. All those times, she had felt deeply that she had moved everyone closer to the heaven they were dreaming of.” If militant Islam is not unique in its asceticism or its cult of martyrdom, then it suggests that social context, material conditions, and the exigencies of power—rather than ideology alone—are the best starting points from which to understand these insurgencies.

Such context is abundant in The Seasons of Trouble’s narrative deep dive into the world of Tamil Eelam, in which, after the prologue, Mohan’s first person is entirely absent. The sense of total immersion (with scene-by-scene reconstructions at the expense of exposition) and the use of free indirect style are markers of the resurgent nonfiction novel. Examples include Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Mohan follows faithfully in this tradition. The effect is arresting, but also occasionally discomfiting: Except for the brief introductory note, the reporting is completely hidden from view. Late in the book, for example, Sarva meets a British official in a pivotal moment that is so finely drawn, so palpably precise in its setting and dialogue, that you feel Mohan must have been present—but we are left only to assume.

This is the type of concern that led Dwight Macdonald to disparage New Journalism, an obvious precursor of such writing, as “parajournalism,” “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” Classic muckraking journalism once aimed to inspire empathy in its coverage of conflict and poverty, but in an increasingly economically segregated America, one that wages perpetual war while its citizens are largely inured from the bloodshed, it may be failing at that task more than ever before. Perhaps as a consequence, the modern-day revival of the nonfiction novel has often seemed to be filling a gap: One of its major trends has been a renewed focus on the downtrodden and oppressed in places like the working-class Bronx or the Katrina-ravaged Ninth Ward or the Mumbai slums. This form, for all its shortcomings, can work as an act of translation. The Seasons of Trouble and its predecessors appear to be animated by a deeply political concern: How to make the lives of the poor, the remote, the brown and the black, legible? How to make their actions and aspirations meaningful, their deaths grievable? By doing away with the traditional authorial intrusions, and by recruiting the full array of techniques from literary realism, these works sometime succeed in grounding us so thoroughly in the inner logic of others that empathy becomes easy and solidarity possible.

And even now that the Sri Lankan conflict is over, empathy and solidarity remain vitally important. Its war crimes have not pushed Sri Lanka into pariah status; instead, Western powers have maintained their cozy relationship with the country’s military and political class. Australia has emerged as a vocal ally, while US special forces reportedly continue joint exercises with the Sri Lankan military, despite Washington pressing the government to conduct “investigations” into human rights violations. Meanwhile, Sinhala supremacists, dizzy with victory, are whipping up majoritarian hysteria. When Divyan, Mugil’s husband, visits Colombo after the war, he encounters a mob of Sinhalese Buddhist extremists on an anti-Muslim rampage. (While many Sri Lankan Muslims speak Tamil, they have a distinct identity.) “One of the mobsters thrust his agitated face so close to a youth that their noses almost touched,” Mohan writes. “He was spewing abuse, and his hands scrunched the young man’s shirt collar. Cornered against a sack of coconuts, the young man let his body go limp and kept his eyes on the ground. A No-Halal T-shirt wearer smashed the glass of a bus bearing Arabic lettering and then ran into a nearby mobile shop and tore the displays down. Another one ran to a closed shutter, unzipped and pissed in front of it.”

For the Sri Lankan state, the regions of the erstwhile Tamil Eelam are a Sinhalese Lebensraum, and throughout Vanni the army has banned Tamil memorials, razed Tamil cemeteries, erected Buddhist billboards, and repurposed old Tiger haunts as war museums and tourist destinations. The prospect of a Tamil homeland has been eradicated, and all that’s left are stories like those recorded in The Seasons of Trouble, which makes the book a rare example of history about, and from the point of view of, the losers. This is Sri Lanka’s tragedy, but it is also Mohan’s triumph.

Anand Gopal is the author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (Picador).