Monday, August 22, 2016

Travel Monday: Experiencing Sri Lanka's Post-War North

I moved to Sri Lanka in early 2008 and the island was still at war in the north-east with no end in sight. Back in those days in Colombo, I recall always feeling a frisson of awareness and traces of uncertainty around the escalating level of violence and despair. It seemed far away, but at the same time also close. The war was never actually far from the mind because of the security checks, road blocks, constant presence of the military, battle updates and the random acts of violence. And yet, life in the capital city still went on. On 19 May 2009 the three decade war ended and there was a palpable sentiment of unquenchable grief and desperate hope intertwined. 

As an outsider you can't help but quietly observe, process and ponder because you're largely ignorant of what came before, what just happened and what it all means for the country. Although the end of the war was celebrated, there was a heavy undercurrent of immense sorrow for those who lost loved ones on both sides and a mixture of relief imbued with pain and hurt. In one sense, I understood why people celebrated the end of the war because it meant the fighting, violence and destruction had ceased. But at the same time I could also see the confusion and discomfort that permeated below the surface at the act of  celebrating thirty years of hate, killing and cruelty.

Due to obvious reasons, during the war, it was not possible to travel to the north and east of the island.  I understood this, but I still felt like I didn't have the full picture of Sri Lanka. It always felt as if there was a missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle. A few months after the war ended I found myself on a road trip exploring the island from the south-east to the north-east. I wrote about parts of that journey in the blog post Travel Mondays: Road trip from Yala to Trincomalee, however, I kept a lot of  thoughts and views coming from any post-war observations to myself. I also wrote another blog post on a trip up to Jaffna in Travel Mondays: Colombo - Jaffna by bus, train, boat and coach and I kept this travel focused.

Now it's been more than seven years since the end of the war and I still have this yearning to know more to complete the jigsaw puzzle. If you've been reading the news or things on social media there's plenty of perspectives on the north. A lot of it is political and economic from both inside and outside Sri Lanka. There's not much you can do about that because the end of the war has brought the country opportunities for development, growth and gain. And everyone seems to want a slice of the proverbial pie. At the same time there is also much talk about reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation, but in truth the process has been terribly slow.

For me, I believe in experiencing things for myself. As much as I like to read and hear about another person's experience, I'm a kinesthetic learner. So spending more time exploring the north is part of how I prefer to educate myself. In this way I get my own firsthand experience without another person or party filtering the lens.

Although I have traveled up a few more times in addition to what I've written on this blog I think it will definitely take more time and maybe even moving up there for a spell to get a real feel for things. My recent road trip last month took me to parts of the north and north-east that I haven't had the opportunity to visit till now.

Kilinochchi in the northern province was one of the places on the itinerary. It was where the land battle known as the Battle of Kilinochchi took place between November 2008 and January 2009. Up until then it had been the administrative center and de facto capital of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ("LTTE").

July has been a particularly luscious time of the year to be traveling in the north, which is part of the dry zone for the island. Rather than it being very dry, it was wonderfully picturesque with many shades of green, flowers and water filling the lakes and rivers.

I hadn't really known what to expect when entering the town of  Kilinochcchi because it had been pretty much destroyed during the war. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much rebuilding and rejuvenation had taken place to the town - the roads have been developed and appear better than some roads in Colombo; there are also new administrative buildings and the main street is lined with newly built shops and outlets.

If not for the remains of the massive old water tower as a constant reminder of the war, you could be forgiven for thinking the town had never seen devastation. The water tower used to provide water to the whole town but was blown up by the LTTE as they retreated during the last days of the battle.

The other remembrance is the the unusual war memorial constructed to commemorate the victory of the Sri Lankan armed forces. It is essentially a concrete block that has been pierced by a brass bullet with cracks visibly depicted in the concrete, and out of an upper crack a brass lotus flower has blossomed. 

I read in a newspaper article titled "Monuments of War" that "The concrete block is said to signify the LTTE and the bullet the crushing blow that the army dealt upon it, says a soldier who was stationed nearby. The lotus flower signifies peace, and the depiction of it emerging from a crack in the concrete indicates that it took the destruction of the LTTE to achieve this."Whatever it's meant to symbolize, the unfortunate fact is that it fails to create any peaceful images in the mind. If anything, it could be said that it's more than a little provocative to the populace that is still recovering from the legacy of the war.

It's somewhat hard to imagine the vast numbers of people who lost their lives in the war or to wonder that most of the people you see have lost loved ones and are still struggling to rebuild their lives after the war. But it really happened, they really did and it's definitely still a struggle.

Upon leaving Kilinochchi along the A9 and then taking the A35, the scenery is actually quite eye-catching despite being quite flat and undeveloped.It's so green and lush considering you're in the dry zone of island.

There are a few small towns to pass through and I can't help but muse on what might happened in these places during the war. In these quiet towns there are noticeably more bicycles and motorcycles than cars, and young people seem to delight in taking to the road on their bicycles in a leisurely fashion.

About forty or so kilometers heading east along the A35 we come to Victory Monument of Puthukkudiyiruppu. It's pretty hard to miss. The monument depicts a soldier in full combat gear clutching an assault rifle and a Sri Lankan flag. A pigeon looks to be taking flight from near the assault rifle, but you can have to look a bit closer to see that.

The sign near the Victory Monument states:
 "The Golden Sun of the Peace of all the people, rose wiping out the darkness of the North & East ... The pond symbolizes the great ocean around the island and national flower lilies that bloom in it symbolize our immaculate nation. The natural granite boulders laden at its base depicts our firm soil. The lions standing at the four corners of the base are to portray the warriors who came from multi directions to conquer and protect mother land sacrificing their lives. They are immortally seems (sic) to be protecting the sovereign land from enemies in the guise of lions. The jubilant soldiers emerge form the ground holding a weapon symbolizes the heroic troops. The national flag reaching the sky depicts the emancipation and pride of the country. The pigeon taking wings symbolizes conspicuous peace to the nation."

What speaks volumes in this tranquil spot are the lack of symbols that commemorate the dead. You have to visit the War Museum (entry is free), and more specifically the Information Center, that resides next to the Victory Monument to view the photo exhibition of the Vanni Humanitarian Operation. There are also military maps depicting the strategy taken by the armed forces in the final days of the battle. It clearly presents a one-sided view. In any case, it's not an enjoyable viewing experience.

A large group of people traveling on a private bus as well as two carloads of visitors have arrived at the same time to visit the War Museum and Victory Monument. I can't imagine their thoughts as they view the collection of naval vessels and weaponry exhibits. Unlike me, they probably have taken a definitive position on the war and who and what was right or wrong. In my case, I find it excruciatingly difficult to pronounce a side because the fact of the matter is that the whole country (irrespective of sides) has been and continues to be affected (and for those living in the war affected areas, devastated) by the war that cannot be forgotten. It's hard to accept, but if you were living in the country during any part of the war, then you inextricably linked to it. If I'm honest, even as a foreign expat, I feel that link.


I spent an hour strolling through this open-air museum. Everything looks old, dirty and derelict. There's a sense of morbidity viewing each exhibit as evidence of the atrocities of war, particularly the weaponry displayed in the back shed.

The whole experience literally made my heart hurt.

I'm almost relieved when it's time to leave. But, I know that as we're heading towards Mullaitivu we'll be passing through all the areas where the most intense fighting and final confrontation took place and where many innocent people had lost their lives. That doesn't leave me feeling all that comfortable even if the view out the window currently appears pleasing to the eye.

Passing Nandikal lagoon, the place reported as where the leader of the LTTE was found dead, doesn't quite register as a place of death and destruction. Instead watery mangrove setting of the lagoon belies what has passed and is now recorded in the history books of the Sri Lankan civil war. The words "so hard to imagine" keeping playing like a recorded voice in my head.

By the time we reach Mullaitivu I'm in need of some respite from all things war-torn. Mullaitivu Beach presents a seemingly relaxing spot until I remember that Mullaitivu was the location for the very last battle.

Mullaitivu is not a place that sees many foreign tourists, but surprisingly I briefly met a couple who were visiting from Australia  as well as a man from New Zealand who was enjoying an extended stay and seemed to have visited the region a few times.

It's still hard to imagine this town and coastline was the last stand of the LTTE. If you have read the local news on Mullaitivu most of it focuses on post-war politics, land and livelihood issues, concerns regarding the military presence, illegal deforestation and opinions on post-war investigations. Despite what you read or hear on the local news, the town, coast and people all have a certain gentle charm. One wonders what the future will hold for this place and whether it can recover from the hurts and losses of the war.

Over my stay in Mullaitivu, I spent time at the beach rubbing shoulders with the locals and visitors. The sun set was coming but along the east coast it doesn't set over the water. It always strikes me as unusual, though I know full well that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, because I'm too used to seeing the sun set over the water on the west coast.

A few locals come and talk to me in English asking me where I'm from and what I'm doing in Mullaitivu. They are open and friendly towards me and willing to strike up conversations and linger around me. The same cannot be said for their behavior to other visitors, particularly those coming from the south and of obvious Sinhalese background. In fact it appears they are less than friendly though not hostile towards them. What I sense, an please note that I could be wrong, is hurt and distrust more than anything else.

As much as it would be nice to inject some tourism dollars into the region it may be quite some time till it can realistically happen. There are simply too many post-war issues still on the table that need to be addressed by the government to rebuild the region.

Although this was not a "fun" travel experience (and I'm not one to buy into the concept or label of war tourism) I definitely felt good having spent some time in this part of the country. Admittedly, I'm still very ignorant of many things that matter to those affected, but I'm happy to acknowledge that. As much as I'm ignorant, I'm also gladdened to have made the effort to have traveled and spent some time in the region, connecting with places, people and to have been humbled by the whole experience.

Wars inherently makes us inhuman. It doesn't matter whether you are fighting on the front line or forming views and opinions from your sofa. It's too easy to turn a blind eye, or to forget about the human aspect of all those that knowingly and unknowingly participated in the war.

By visiting the places that were affected by the war and seeing the reminders and legacies of war, it serves as a remembrance of what transpired and of those who fought on either side or were caught up in the war. And it provides an opportunity to affirm that we do not want to allow such horrors to happen again. At the human level, it's also a way to show that we care and that the people and places that survived do matter.

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