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My first impressions after visiting Post War Sri Lanka

February 2, 2012

My first impressions after visiting Post War Sri Lanka

 

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On 31th December 2011 I arrived in Sri Lanka for a once month visit. I arrived back in Australia on 30th January 2012.

Without doubt the lifting of the burden of war has vastly improved the quality of life for most Sri Lankan’s. There was an increased presence of small businesses, food outlets and clothing shops aimed at the local population. Multistorey buildings have sprouted up along the Negombo/Colombo road and hotels in most places were filled. Galle was completely booked out due to a literary festival being held in the city. Most Sri Lankans I spoke to were happy to say that this was their biggest year in tourism on record. The most noticeable change since my last visit in 2001 would be that the road blocks and check points had been removed. It was a refreshing difference to drive on the Negombo road passed the Bandanayake International airport without driving around a blockade of steal barrels and bored looking armed forces.

 

Travelling north beyond the safe haven of the Puthalam you could see that the main highway was in the process of being upgraded. Every few kilometres work crew of labourers had blocked off one lane as they worked on the other. In three years time there will be a much better road, but for now it is hard going.

 

Security increased severely when coming toward the town of Mulitivu. A very large checkpoint had been set up to check the identity of ever person heading up the A9 highway to Jaffna. Passports of all travellers of every traveller were registered with the possibility of being refused entry. Just three years ago this was a war zone where the LTTE and the Government forces had fought each other. As I waited for the paper work to be completed by an army officers two young Tamil ladies in the Sri Lankan army converse with me. They were just curious about where I came from and how it was that I could speak Sinhala (albeit very broken) and where my wife was born; what children we had; how long we were married? They even asked if I could tell how to visit Australia.

I was given permission to continue on to Jaffna along the A9. The road was becoming increasingly rough. It was near sunset when we passed through Kilinochchi. Up until 2008 Kilinochchi was the LTTE capital. Surprisingly the town was rather dull and lifeless where the only point of interest was a large water tank lying on its side. The same water tank that the LTTE had blown up before the made a hasty retreat from the Sri Lankan forces, thus leaving the population no water to depend upon.

 

We did manage to stop at the strategically important town at Parantan where we were met by a friend. Most shops were closed for the night but a few still operated. Many showed signs of recent repairs. Several shop fronts were still pot marked with bullet holes.

It was dark when we crossed over the Elephant Pass bridge that linked the mainland with the Jaffna peninsula. It was even darker when we pulled into an army HQ to obtain permission to visit the Mullattivu district where the final battle of the civil war took place.

From here we arrived at our accommodation in the centre of Jaffna city at a place call ‘Blue Haven’. (Which on second thought should been called ‘Faulty Towers’). Fire crackers were blasting off all about as the local Tamil population prepared for a Hindu festival.

 

The following day I was able to see Jaffna in full. You can see how that city was once a very vibrant and beautiful city that had fallen into neglect due to the civil war. There glorious classic old home that had been deserted for so long that they had fallen into disrepair between houses with people living in them. Hindu decorations were construction of the days festivals as firecracker echoed across the city.

The security presence of the city was obvious, with arm posts on any on the corners. However the soldiers appeared to be more relaxed than I was expecting. They did not seem to mind the continuous blasting of fireworks. Many seemed very curious to see a western face so far north but were quick to smile when I noticed them. This is was in stark contrast to twenty years when I was stopped at security checkpoint near Anuradhapura by very tense and serious soldiers.

 

Later in the morning a Sri Lankan soldier arrived at our hotel as guide for the Jaffna. He was a very enthusiastic and friendly veteran who was all too happy to show the bullet that was lodged in his head just behind his right ear. With his help were able to travel to the islands around Kayts, northwest of Jaffna. This are also had a collection of destroyed, damaged and deserted houses from the war. Even though the LTTE were driven out of this area over a decade the many of the previous owners had never returned. Some of the deserted houses were blocked off with warning that they could be mined.

 

By the next day our enlisted man was replaced with an officer who would escort us to the Mullattivu area. This area was still considered to be a security zone for several reasons. One was to prevent outside agitators from exploiting local population. The other was to ensure that the visitor did not stray off the paths stand on a landmine. We travelled south to the Parantan junction on the Sri Lanka mainland, then drove east along the A35 highway. This was the same highway that the LTTE had used to force hundreds of thousands of civilians travel as they tried to escape.

 

After several kilometres along the A35 you could see obvious signs of fighting. Despite the rapid regrowth of the jungle you could see random palm tree wising their tops. I asked our about the tree and he explain that they had been blown off in the fighting. Further on you could see damaged buildings and houses. Some places had deserted farmland but in general farm was still going on. Schools were operating with along the way with children attending.

 

The closer were came to Mullattivu to more damage could be seen. The government had collected a large stockpile of damaged and disabled vehicles and stored them in fenced off yards. Metal sheets were used to obscure the view from snap happy travellers. There were also long stretches of road where you had to pass landmine warning signs. The demining operations were still to be completed.

 

At the final check point before Mullattivu a soldier spotted my ale face in the van and was some discussion as to whether I would be allowed to enter the area. After a few phone calls to superior officers I granted conditional permission to enter. I would be allowed to use my small video camera when viewing Prabhakaran’s secret bunker but I was not allowed to use large digital Canon SLR that I carried. This was not so for other places that was taken to see.

 

Prabhakaran’s secret bunker was disguised as an ordinary house ground level but hid three other floors beneath the ground. It was fully air conditioned with, blast proof doors, bathroom facilities and an escape hatch that went from the bottom floor to what looked like a beer garden.

 

I was also able to see the Sea Tiger chief Soosia’s lavish home that had every comfort and of a modern western home. He too had installed an escape tunnel. This was hidden in a cupboard. In the centre of his front yard was water feature and painted over the arch of his front door was the motto. “Your enemy is your greatest teacher.” Just outside the property Tamil locals had set up stall to sell their local delicacies, drinks and even plastic toys.

 

We travelled for a few more minutes down the road where a large collection of captured LTTE was being stored. Everything from guns to suicide vessels was being kept in neat rows for display. There were even several LTTE submarines and large sea going vessels. It was explained to me that the largest boats had been donated to fishermen after the 2004 tsunami and been requisitioned by the LTTE to be used for their war effort. Sitting near the end of the collect were two metal cages intertwined with barbed wire. The smaller cage was as tall as a man and would be used to punish one person. The larger was about 3 meters cubed would have up to 50 people jammed into it.

 

We returned south via the A34 highway which was also very rough. Every few hundred meters along the highway there was guard post. Every so often the landmine warning signs would appear along the roadside. Then after what seem like endless travelling we had arrived at the Vavuniya checkpoint to have our passports checked again.

 

Just a footnote about this brief overview:

The real survivors on the war appear to be the cows. There are thousands of them wandering about aimlessly.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2012 6:09 am

    Good write up. Did you manage to upload any pix of your visit. What’s impressed me most is how resilient people are – especially the Jaffna people, who’ve suffered so much for so long. These two excellent short films give a flavour of their lives.

    Like

    • February 17, 2012 11:04 am

      Mango,
      Thanks for your comments.
      I have uploaded a few select images to my face book site.
      I am being a little careful not let the best ones onto the net just yet. I estimate that I took about 5000 shorts with Canon DSL I borrowed from work and plenty of HD video with my little handhelp Zoom video camera. Some shots are just too good to give away for nothing. However next post will have some photo’s.

      As for the people in Jaffna. The are great people. Very friendly.

      Like

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