The Calm After the Storm

We spent an enjoyable day hopping between the islands which lie off the coast of the Jaffna peninsular. We boarded a bus which teetered across a small sliver of raised land within the shallow lagoon. The water lapped gently below as the locals inspected us with curiosity. Inquisitive eyes searched for clues about the outside world, which for many of these people has remained a mystery for decades.

 

Palm trees dominated the landscape, joined by sporadic clusters of housing. A large proportion of these buildings remain uninhabited; reclaimed by nature they stand as overgrown, dishevelled monuments to the number of displaced Tamils. Most are without roofs and scarred with bullet holes. Once homes and schools, these organs of society have ceased to function, ravaged by the cancer of war. Yet humanity prevails on the islands. Although still far from previous levels of occupation, local communities operate peacefully and gleefully within previously unimaginable levels of freedom. 

 

The most populated stop on our exploration was the island of Nainativu (Tamil) or Nagadipa (Sinhala). This island is home to the ancient Hindu shrine of Sri Nagapooshani Amman and the Buddhist shrine Nagadipa Purana Vihare. Flocks of Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus make the journey to this previously inaccessible site of worship. It is here that the Buddha is said to have stayed during his visit to the island, while the Hindu Kovil is of immense importance for the ancient, snake-worshipping Naga inhabitants of the island. We boarded a boat with many Sinhalese Buddhists dressed in the customary white outfits of pilgrimage. There was an uneasy atmosphere as the inhabitants of the south explored an area of their own country so alien to them that they clearly felt insecure. As the boat approached the jetty my chest tightened. On first impressions it appeared that visitors docked and departed from an area next to the Buddhist place of worship, entirely bypassing the important Hindu Kovil further up the coastline. Thankfully it became clear that visitors enter through the former and depart via the latter, therefore avoiding unnecessary provocation.

 

The sites are of little architectural interest, having taken their current form in recent years. Far more interesting was the interaction, or lack of, between the two sets of cultures. The Sinhalese would pay their respects at the Buddhist shrine and then shuffle quickly past the Hindu Kovil, largely ignored by the Tamil contingent. Eyes would dart side to side and pilgrims would avoid making direct eye contact. Hazell and I were the only white faces and seemed to add a third party outlet for the tension. Unexpectedly, outside the Hindu Kovil, I ended up on the lap of the campest Tamil man I had ever met. I laughed nervously as he tried to make me comfortable on his slight frame.

 

On the boat journey back I was prevented from taking photographs of a sensitive docking point, a firm reminder that restraints are still operational in the area. We bumped into an interesting German named Walter who was stunned to discover we were tourists rather than NGO workers. Walter had been working in Sri Lanka for 25 years, so could be classed as an aficionado on the Sri Lanka conflict. He spoke fluent Sinhala and Tamil, conversing fluently to all Sri Lankans he met. He described his relationship with Sri Lanka as ’love/hate’, which was not the first time we had heard this term used. After so many years he felt his time to leave had come. I was struck by the tone of frustration which underpinned his description of a career dedicated to a single country. We blagged ourselves a lift, as characteristically, we had no idea where we were going. In the comfort of a company owned 4WD car we discussed the role of the Sri Lankan government, the UN and NGO’s in general. Walter concluded that many lives have been lost unnecessarily in Sri Lanka over the past thirty years; with better intervention the number of fatalities could have been reduced enormously.

 

We left Jaffna full of adoration for the locals and the environment. As we bounced past the minefields on the A9 towards the south, we discussed ways we might be able to help the area. A man next to me asked us where we were from and I explained our situation. He introduced himself as a Major of the Sri Lankan army; his regiment were currently developing infrastructure in the Jaffna area. He asked what I did, presuming I was an NGO worker, and I explained that I had previously worked in television. Mention of the media changed the tone of the conversation and his thick black moustache seemed to take on a firmer line.

 

He told me the Sri Lankan army are ’rebuilding these peoples lives’ and aiming ’to win their hearts and minds’. He showed me some picture postcard images of the south printed in his army issue diary. I flipped the pages and read the message from the Sri Lankan General written in English on the inside cover. The words were the exact same ’official line’ that had emanated from the mouth of my companion on the bus. I wondered how much money had been spent on issuing one of these diaries to every member of the Sri Lankan army. Passively, I enquired about reports in the western media of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan army. He smiled and said, ’you’re reading the wrong media’. The Major invited us to dinner at his house just outside Colombo when we were next in town. He gave me his telephone number to which I later sent a text containing my email address and a friendly request to ’stay in touch’. We haven’t heard from the Major since.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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