The Jaffna diaries

Ben Bavinck, a Dutchman born in Indonesia, lived in Jaffna from 1954 until 1972, as a missionary and a staff member of Jaffna College. In 1988, two years before fighting resumed between the LTTE and government forced, he returned to Sri Lanka at the behest of the National Christian Council (NCC) of Sri Lanka, for which he oversaw relief and rehabilitation. Six years later, in 1994, he again returned to Jaffna, then under the control of the LTTE; he stayed, in several capacities, until September 2004. The following are slightly edited excerpts from the diary, translated from the original Dutch, that Bavinck kept during this latter period, being published here for the first time.

Writer's introduction: The Tamil Tigers started the war again on 11 June 1990, by attacking police stations in the Eastern Province. The Sri Lankan Army recaptured the districts of Batticaloa and Amparai, and drove the Tigers back behind the lagoon, which runs parallel to the east coast. While doing so, the army indulged in many atrocities against Tamil civilians. On 3 August, the Tamil Tigers attacked two mosques in Kattankudi, a largely Muslim town, killing 120 worshippers. After this, Kattankudi remained disturbed for a long time.

6 September 1990, Kalmunai, Eastern Province. On this day, I left for Kalmunai in a van carrying solely Muslim passengers – there was not a single Tamil. Tamils are not safe in either the Sinhalese or the Muslim areas of the Eastern Province. We started out at 6 in the evening. When we reached Mahiyangana at 2 am, we slept on the street in front of some shop. At 6 the following morning, we started off again and finally reached Kalmunai at 11:30 in the morning. It was quiet in the town. Some more shops had opened but there were hardly any Tamil people on the streets. Tamils can hardly leave their homes at all.

But the Muslims too feel completely insecure in the Tamil areas that are not under army occupation. The conductor of Muslim-filled van was particularly interested to know how I was able to travel freely in those areas. Apparently, he saw me as some kind of bleached Tamil, because I spoke the language – an impression that others had had, as well. Yet despite the fact that the Muslims are being persecuted by the Tigers – and it is certainly true that they are likewise living in fear – their plight generally remains less pitiful than that of the Tamils, who are being threatened both by the army, by the Muslims, and also have become victims of the irresponsible provocations of their own 'liberation movement'. Journeys to the east always make me very depressed, due to the fate of the Tamil community there – one that seems to be completely defeated.

7 September 1990, Batticaloa. After a restful night in Kalmunai, I left for Batticaloa on a bicycle, as no buses were plying. I first cycled to Kallar and then on to Kalluthavalai, where I crossed the lagoon on a boat and reached the paduvaankarai, or 'sunset shore'. I did this to evade Kattankudi, which even for me, as a white person, might not have been completely safe. We had just heard about the shocking disappearance of Father Hebert, a Jesuit priest, near Eravur, another area of significant Muslim agitation. Now I could proceed to Batticaloa, following the parallel road on the west side of the lagoon, and then take another little boat and re-cross the lagoon to arrive at my destination. This meant cycling 55 kilometres along roads with hardly any shade. But everywhere were small stalls where toddy was offered to thirsty travellers; I found that not only does toddy quench thirst, but it also gives renewed vigour, due to the glucose it contains. This route also reminded me of another clandestine route I had taken in the north earlier, when crossing the lagoon to Jaffna. Here too, hundreds of people, along with their full families, big bags in tow bundled on their bicycles, pushed along in the burning sun.

In Batticaloa, the town was slowly beginning to revive. On Saturday, the market was visited by hundreds of people. Some shops were open, and there were more people on the streets. Even the army checkpoints proved very accommodating. A rumour was circulating that the Tigers had threatened to enter the town again on Monday, 10 September – three days hence. Everybody I talked to was terribly upset by this prospect. Would the quiet, which had finally been achieved, again be disturbed for no reason at all? And would the army again be provoked to attack civilians – which could then, again be effectively used in Tiger propaganda?

These feelings regarding the Tigers' irresponsibility led one of my Tamil friends to the conclusion that there is no course but for the Tamils to turn their backs on the Tigers. The Tamil community, he felt, needed to put a stop to a long-held ambiguous attitude: that of being extremely critical regarding the Tigers while in conversation amongst themselves, all the while continuing to show outward support for them, especially in reaction to the cruelties of the armed forces. "The people in Jaffna haven't learnt this lesson as we have been forced to learn it here – namely, that this ambiguous attitude can ultimately only lead to great misery and disaster," my friend told me. "The sooner they give up this attitude and turn away from the Tigers, the better. There is no alternative!" Never before had I heard a common Tamil citizen analyse the plight of his people so radically.

Towards Kurunegala
9 September 1990, Batticaloa-Kalmunai. On Sunday I cycled back again, following the parallel route behind the lagoon.

10 September 1990, back to Colombo. Back to Colombo, but now during daytime. That was nice, but the trip still lasted 11 hours due to the significant number of checkpoints, and because of the need to travel with a military escort between Amparai and Maha Oya. After my return, I read in the papers that the Tigers had caused several explosions in Batticaloa on Sunday night. Evidently, the Tigers won't allow normality to return to government-controlled areas: their dogma says that disturbance is a must. What the ordinary Tamil people experience and think, meanwhile, is immaterial. Above all, they should not feel at ease under government rule.

13 September 1990, to Murungan in the northwest. In this very dry area, the Methodist Church runs a farm, Jeevodayam, on the banks of the Aruvi River. This day, I left for Murungan with two lorries together with one Reverend Mylvaganam and his wife, as well as several drivers and cleaners, all of whom were Tamil. After an easy journey we reached Madhu, the famous jungle sanctuary, where we drank tea. It had evidently rained there, as there were big puddles on the road. It also looked as though more rain would be coming, because there were very dark clouds to the north of us. So, on we went to Murungan and Jeevodayam farm. The whole seemed very deserted, with hardly any people on the road. At 5 in the evening we reached the farm, after cutting a number of tree branches to allow the lorries to pass. We had a quiet night, with just some distant gunfire near Mannar.

15 September 1990, Murungan-Colombo. The next morning I left early, leaving Rev and Ms Mylvaganam at the farm. The journey to Vavuniya was straightforward, but we could see that it had rained again in the night. I visited Rev Kanagaratnam at Oppuravillam, where I also unloaded a few bags, before proceeding to Vavuniya. But there we got into trouble as, due to the repeated rains, the tank bed at Maharambai had turned into a mud pool through which the lorries couldn't pass. An alternative route was indicated, but to follow it army permission was essential. Fortunately, this proved to be no problem and, in fact, the alternative route turned out to be a wonderful shortcut – we were in Vavuniya within a quarter-hour. I continued with the lorries to Colombo, though it began raining again when we took the road leading south.

In Galgamuwa we stopped. Later, it became clear that this was done to give one of the cleaners the chance to buy a small bottle of arrack and some Coca-Cola, which he immediately began drinking. Having arrived in Kurunegala, we decided to have our evening meal at some of the food stalls on the side of the road. Everything seemed to be going very pleasantly. But when I happened to turn around, I saw two fellows who had driven up in a pick-up hitting the drunken cleaner repeatedly in the face before picking him up and throwing him onto the pick-up's bed, apparently to carry him off. I ran over and, fortunately, was able to put my arms around the cleaner and drag him off the pick-up. The other two men began to shout at me very excitedly in Sinhalese, most likely warning me to mind my own business. But they didn't try to hit me. Instead, they continued trying to attack the cleaner, and with each volley I was forced to embrace him to protect him from the blows. Seldom in my life had I seen people who were as agitated as those two. In the meantime, a small crowd had gathered around us, some of whom tried to calm the attackers, but to little effect.

At this point the unfortunate driver of the lorry, satisfied after his meal and entirely unaware of what was taking place, appeared on the scene. The two attackers suddenly shifted their attention to him, attacking him with renewed fury before grabbing his wallet from his shirt pocket, tearing his shirt. Again, I was forced to intervene. The cleaner, bleeding from his mouth after I was able to get him into the lorry, now got down again and re-joined the fray. Just when it seemed as though the situation had gone completely out of hand, a police constable suddenly showed up. He was accompanied by a very large, impressive man in civilian clothes, who started yelling at the two attackers so ferociously that neither could do anything but bow their heads like two shamefaced schoolboys, before meekly handing me the driver's wallet. The police officer asked me whether I wanted to file a case against the miscreants, but assuming that this would only lead to further trouble I politely declined. We thanked him for his timely assistance, climbed into our lorries and drove off.

I was astounded by the whole situation. Admittedly, the drunken cleaner must have made some insulting remarks. But still, the whole incident made me feel that, even in a large place like Kurunegala, a Tamil could not take his or her security for granted. Fortunately, we had no further problems and reached home before midnight.

The isthmus attack
Almost a year later, Jaffna is in the hands of the Tamil Tigers except for the harbour of Kankesanthurai and the Palaly airfield on the north coast – the main base of the Sri Lankan armed forces. However, there is also an army camp at Elephant Pass, situated on the isthmus connecting Jaffna to the main land. This camp controls the main road leading to Jaffna.

31 July 1991, Colombo. The Tigers have started a furious attack on the army camp at Elephant Pass, having surrounded the camp on the north and south sides. The army has landed a relief force on the east coast near Vettilaikerni, which is trying to break through to the beleaguered garrison. (Interestingly, in doing so the army is following the line of small Dutch forts that were long ago built on the isthmus.) In the meantime, all traffic to and from Jaffna is blocked, apart from pedestrians and cyclists who are allowed to come in from the south, but not to return. Lorries cannot move and, due to the continuing curfew, ships cannot be unloaded at Point Pedro. All this is very disturbing when one considers the food situation. Therefore, we are already preparing to send lorries with food as soon as the curfew is lifted. For my part, I want to go to Jaffna immediately after it opens up.

There have been a few hopeful developments on the political front. First, there is the so-called Private Members motion by opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party MP Mangala Munasinghe, which urges Parliament to set up a committee that would be tasked with preparing a 'solution' for the ethnic conflict. The governing United National Party greeted the initiative with great enthusiasm because it offers hope that the SLFP, which up till now has been very negative, can now be involved in finding a solution. Further, the President Ranasinghe Premadasa has also given a speech to an audience of Buddhist monks in which he stated that peace could only be achieved if a just solution for the minorities were found. He also noted that he counted on their cooperation in finding such a solution.

13 August 1991, Colombo. A week ago the Elephant Pass army camp was reached by army troops who had landed on the east coast, and the siege by the Tigers was broken – a real victory for the army. For the Tigers, however, it is a nasty defeat, especially given that losses on their side seem to have been very heavy. The terrible thing is that most of these dead Tigers were young boys and girls, who died advancing into machinegun fire from the fort. The army also incurred heavy losses. After this, what are the army and the Tigers going to do? How does this end?

Today I finally met one of the first people to have been able to come out of Jaffna, my friend Jeyasingh. He described the great enthusiasm with which nearly everyone in Jaffna had supported the attack on Elephant Pass army post, which according to Tiger propaganda was to have been a decisive blow against the army. Many young people had signed up to fight for this goal and, if necessary, to die. One of these had been the daughter of the principal of a premier school in Jaffna, who indeed had been killed in the fighting. Apparently, hundreds of children died in the sandy waste around Elephant Pass, and there was great admiration for such courage.

In Jaffna there had been no actions by the air force, though there had been a few cases of shelling from Palaly, which had killed ten people. Yet food prices during this time of blocked passage reached astronomic heights. Kerosene went up to Rs 250 per 750-cc bottle and sugar cost Rs 100 per kilo. But now that the way is again open, and the ships have again started unloading at Point Pedro, these prices have fallen quickly. Moreover, businessmen who had hoarded supplies are now releasing these back into the market.

Meanwhile, we hope to go to Jaffna within a few days, together with four lorries. With a single stroke of the pen, the president has changed the entire procedure for getting passes into the area, which has led to significant delay. The good news is that Munasinghe's motion for a parliamentary Select Committee has been accepted by the SLFP – fantastic! Now they must go ahead!

16 August 1991, on the way to Jaffna. We did indeed start on our Jaffna expedition. Along the way, in Anuradhapura, we discovered that one of the lorries was missing. For the other three, I organised the process of checking with a new brigadier named Jayasundara. Finally, by around 11:30 in the morning the missing lorry also turned up, and so was able to be checked as well. That checking, it should be noted, was no joke: everything had to be unloaded and then re-loaded. Even the diesel tanks were emptied and then filled to a level commensurate with the distance to be covered. The air from the spare tires was let out, the tires were removed from the wheels and the inner tubes were checked. The military police were very strict but correct. All in all, the checking lasted from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. By the end, however, the kerosene we carried was approved and the lorries were sealed. After this, we had a restful night.

The next morning we started for Vavuniya. Our convoy's car went on a bit earlier in order to collect the kerosene, which we had left at the Church of Ceylon. The lorries would come later under army escort, so as to prevent any hanky-panky by the drivers between Anuradhapura and Vavuniya. After having collected the kerosene, we in the car had to wait for a time in Vavuniya for one Major Gunaratne to give us clearance. The kerosene and some bottles of altar wine were mentioned on our pass, but had to be approved again when we were checked in Anuradhapura.

The military police had done their checking correctly, but when the major finally turned up he refused to allow the kerosene, despite this not even being a prohibited item. So we unloaded the containers again and kept them in the checkpoint. At that precise moment, our lorries also arrived. One of the policemen again saw kerosene on our list and phoned Major Gunaratne, who again decreed that all kerosene had to be unloaded. All protests against this unreasonable interference were rejected, and so we again unloaded the additional kerosene and kept it with the previous supplies. The checkpoint now smelled like a petrol station. With an army escort, we could now proceed to the frontline and further to Madhu – we had not been allowed to take the road north to Kilinochchi. At the Tiger checkpoint, we were asked to take a sick woman to the hospital in Vavuniya, which we did with army approval. In Madhu, where we slept in the priest's house, we heard that the previous day a staff member of a British agency had been allowed to take 4800 litres of kerosene without any problem.

The next morning we continued our journey along a terrible road. The old lorries were suffering from one after another block in the diesel lines, and the oldest of all finally broke its springs. Nevertheless, we reached the Sangupiddy pier by one in the afternoon, and were able to immediately begin ferrying the supplies across the water to Kerativu. But two problems then arose: the Jaffna pastor had not yet arrived with his lorries, and the Tigers informed us that they wanted to levy a tax on our goods. A Methodist pastor who had been travelling with me went to the local Tiger office to formally protest against this, but eventually reported back that he had gotten into a bad row with one Captain Crazy – and that we could not leave without paying. Finally, by 8 in the evening we had sent the last lorry load on its way. After another unpleasant discussion at the Tiger office, we paid for the boats, the labour and taxes for a total of Rs 29,000. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

In the meantime, the Jaffna lorries had arrived and our goods had been loaded, so we climbed aboard and set course for Jaffna. Oddly, throughout this trip the lorries emanated a curious smell because they were running on a mixture of kerosene and vegetable oil. Eventually it began to drizzle, but we reached the church at Vannarponnai safely, where we could park the lorries for the night. Unloading would start the next morning.

Tigers and Scouts
17 August 1991, Jaffna. The next morning I went cycling to Vaddukoddai, Uduvil and Maruthanarmadam. Jaffna looked quiet. Everybody was cycling as usual. The Nallur Temple festival was just beginning.

I went to talk with a friend, Daya, who looked back on the Tiger attack on the Elephant Pass army camp. At the time, he said, the community in Jaffna had been in a state of psychosis: "A struggle till the bitter end has started." Very young boys and girls, many just 10 years old, had joined the Tigers, Daya continued, and parents were now in a state of panic because their children had disappeared. Even schools and other institutions had been persuaded to participate in propaganda meetings for the Tigers, with the result being that schoolchildren, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides had been keeping the roads to the front clear as the fighting was taking place.

At the time, he said, everything had looked so heroic. But in fact, during the first few days of the Elephant Pass attack the girls had been sacrificed, wave after wave being told to charge forward against the army's machine guns. Daya said he thought more than 1000 children had died during the attacks, while many thousands more had been wounded. Children were lying in hospitals without realising yet that they had lost arms or legs; Daya recalled a boy who had recently complained about pain in his finger, when in fact he had lost an entire leg.

What was the reaction in Jaffna after it became clear that the attack on Elephant Pass had been a debacle? Even now, there are people who believe that the Tigers continue to control parts of the army camp there. Others keep quiet about the whole affair. With some of my friends, however, I noticed that they had become much more critical in their opinion about the Tigers, and sometimes less radical in their views of a political solution.

~ Ben Bavinck is a retired missionary who lived in Sri Lanka for more than 30 years and now lives in his native Netherlands.

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