Home > Hindu, Manacare, Sri Lanka, Travel, Uncategorized, War > Falling off the beaten path

Falling off the beaten path

As our first experience of Asia, Sri Lanka already held a special place in our hearts, so our second visit was to be a little different. We’d decided to volunteer with a small one woman charity called Manacare in Hikkaduwa. After a few weeks of painting, organising and learning there the owner of the charity Joy expressed her interest in expanding her reach to the war torn north. As a place previously forbidden to us, Carl and I jumped at the chance to visit the unexplored Jaffna peninsular and put in some primary research for Manacare. Amidst questioning and puzzled faces we put in our application for Ministry of Defence permission to visit the north and three days later it was granted!

Compared to the Indian trains the Sri Lankan train was a rather pleasant experience. We had our
own seats, there was no overcrowding and someone even came to collect rubbish throughout the journey. The train however stops in Vavuniya, the gateway to the Vanni region where civil war was fought for almost thirty years. After this point railway stations lie in pieces and what were once train tracks are non existent amongst the overgrowth. Unfortunately for us, the road was not much better. Throw in a reckless driver, a fifty year old government vehicle only vaguely resembling a bus and with holes for windows and doors, seats that are unsecured and what we have is an eventful time ahead.

As loyal Cockman fans will note we have survived some horrendous bus journeys on our travels, but nothing compared to this. Ten minutes into the journey and the dirt track road started to join us in the bus through the holes in the floor, sides and windows. Along with other passengers we tried desperately, opening windows, closing them, clogging up holes but to no avail. Our task wasn’t helped by our driver who repeatedly threw the bus to one side, sometimes up on to two wheels, to avoid a collision with oncoming traffic without committing the heinous crime of reducing speed. We were therefore glad to reach the checkpoint for the Vanni region at Omanthai and produce our papers to some rather bewildered army officials for security checks.As the journey continued the relentless dust cloud clung to the hair of the Sri Lankans creating highlights, and the black dirt stuck to the faces of Carl and I. It was not until we got to our hotel, expertly named ’Treat Oooo’ that we realised that the dust had managed to enlarge our eyebrows making us look like evil dwarfs from ancient times. We marvelled at a young Tamil mother sat behind us who juggled holding onto a baby and a 3 year old in an attempt to keep them aboard the death wagon. At one particular point we all flew at least three feet out of our seats with the adorable 3 year old landing lip first on the bar in front of her. Blood spewed everywhere and she was somehow thrust onto my lap as a kind onlooker fed her water and I dabbed at her lip with the Carl-emergency tissue I always keep handy.
We got used to the bumpy ride and looked with a deep sense of sorrow at the baron land that we travelled through. The bus was overtaken by a shared feeling of melancholy as we gazed out into the unfamiliar surroundings. Overgrowth was cut off by yellow tape displaying the skull and cross-bone mine warnings. Buildings that may have once flourished with life dotted the desolate scrub land, now baring the weeping scars of war and violence. Upon witnessing one small house bursting with bullet holes I felt choked and an overbearing sense of guilt took me. I imagined the family that lived there fleeing and realised that as a Western woman I will never really understand the human sufferings of war. Up until this point war was something unreal, something that lived inside the BBC news programmes on the TV. Something that existed in a foreign land far far away; but now I was in that land and the sadness of the people that I was yet to meet was evident in the terrain and the tightness of my throat and heart.

Jaffna town itself bore houses sprouting vines, trees and bullet holes with walls torn down by shells and roofs demolished by overhead fire. Despite the melancholy that swept the town, Jaffna was not an unpleasant place to be. As the only whites in the village we were greeted by looks of astonishment followed by frantic waves and fits of welcoming laughter. To these people we were signs of normality returning to an area ravished both physically and mentally by war.

We visited the forlorn train station, inhabited by stray dogs with skins of leather, and peppered with bullet, shell and grenade scars and bleak Tamil graffiti. The sounds of war reverberated throughout the broken walls much louder than the chugging of a train. Our experience was lightened by a young boy, maybe ten trailing us around bringing a contrast of mischief and playfulness into the bleak building. He would wave at us and shout 10 rupees, giggle and disappear behind a shattered wall only to reappear minutes later. I marvelled at how this boy lived, inside the video games of the ten year olds at home. I wondered what these people, who had lived through such suffering would make of the capitalist trivialisation of war for entertainment value and what the ten year olds in the UK who play these games would make of the real thing.

Jaffna is a captivating place despite its desolate landscape. Lying low amongst lagoons and a gentle sea and dotted with unexplored islands, its inhabitants seem to make the most of what little they have. As we walked among the remaining houses curious mothers would emerge, child in hand, to wave and marvel at our ghostly faces. Self conscious as we were, it was the symbolism of our visit that was most important; our freedom to move and interact with the locals signalled a process of transition away from many years of isolation and conflict.

  1. Fritz Glunk
    November 2, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Dear Sor Madam,
    would you have more of those significant Sri Lanka Photos?
    Could we ask you to use them for photo reportage in our magazine GAZETTE (http://www.gazette.de)? Ideally free of charge?
    I would be happy to read you soon because the deadline is approaching fast.
    Fritz Glunk

    • cockmans
      November 7, 2011 at 4:26 am

      Hi! Are the images likely to be used alongside a written article on Sri Lanka? I would prefer that they weren’t used alongside anything politically divisive or critical as I have work to undertake in Sri Lanka soon! Many thanks, Carl

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