The national flag of Sri Lanka fluttered in the breeze. Soldiers milled around. Omanthai looked like an international border. But in fact it was – and is – simply the key point for crossing into the north, the final theatre of the Sri Lankan war. It might just as well be known as the Forbidden Territory, so tightly has access to the north been controlled by the authorities since they vanquished the Tigers nearly two and a half years ago.
Before my arrival in Omanthai a few weeks ago, I had been living in Sri Lanka for well over two years, working as a foreign correspondent and trying to cover what was taking place in the country. But this was only my second chance to travel, independently, north of this crossing point. The first had been a flying visit to Jaffna, at a time of relative ferment just before the presidential election of January 2010. On that trip, the military politely escorted me and a few others from the Palali airstrip into town and then left us to our own devices.
In Sri Lanka, though, that is a relative term. We did have two military-intelligence staff tail us for our 48 hours there. They were quite open about being military intelligence and followed us wherever we went – even, comically, when we kept reversing and turning on one occasion when we got lost. They were friendly, helpful at times, suggesting interesting places to visit or film. Undoubtedly their presence in the background somewhat inhibited people, like the fishermen selling their catch in the Sunday-morning market, from sharing their views about the forthcoming election day. But we went all over the city and did manage on the whole to meet the people we wanted to talk to.
In fact, being tailed by the security forces was useful in a way. With such an escort, that same January we paid a rare visit to one of Jaffna’s many high-security zones, areas under army control whose residents have been evicted. It was eerie. The houses were now cloaked, almost engulfed, by vegetation, some of the walls barely peeping out. Idols of Hindu deities could be seen in shrines, as all over Jaffna, but these were no longer being visited, no longer receiving the prayers of believers. Our driver, from the town, had never visited such a zone and was shocked. By now some of this land is being restored to its owners, but it is a long haul.
On more than one occasion in 2010, I applied to go north with a small team. Each time we were turned down by the authorities, even though we wanted to report on the supposedly open proceedings of the government’s home-grown commission looking at the last years of the war – a body much criticised internationally but vigorously defended by Colombo. But then – fast forward to Omanthai and our recent visit – in July of this year the government announced that it would no longer restrict foreigners from travelling in most of the north. That is not quite true. Journalists still need special permission, but now via the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, not Defence.
This time we had our letter of permission, and duly waved it at any soldier we saw. At the entry point, security personnel sat in huts of corrugated iron, the rooms filled with thick ledgers, details of visitors past. They checked the document carefully and, eventually, waved us through. As we were about to get back into our vehicle, the wind kicked up a big cloud of dust, engulfing us all. The female soldiers were almost helpless with laughter. The whole exchange, the whole crossing, turned out to be a moment of goodwill.
Just a few years back, there was one government checkpoint here and another one manned by the LTTE not far up the road northwards. The security regimen at the time was very different. ‘All the tyres would be removed from vehicles coming in from the north,’ our driver – a northerner – told us, ‘just to make sure there were no explosives.’ No longer.
As you head north on the A9, often known as the Kandy-Jaffna Road, the war’s legacy is never far from view. Unescorted by the soldiers, we passed a former LTTE tax administration building – now a petrol pump. Other, flattened, buildings remind you that, in 2007-08, everyone had fled this region. However, the blackened fields also show that today people are back, slashing, burning and clearing, trying to make the soil fertile. Clusters of soldiers went by on tractors and, with extraordinary regularity, there were neat, manicured army camps and signs showing how northern Sri Lanka is divided up: Welcome to 66 Division, Welcome to 561 Brigade. For how much longer will the north remain essentially one huge garrison? For a lot longer, it seems.
There are a few large, white Buddhist dagobas – stupas – some of them newly put up. A politically conscious Tamil might tell you there are too many. A Sinhalese will tell you absolutely not: Why shouldn’t the security forces have their Buddhist places of worship? In Sri Lanka, nothing can be seen in isolation from politics, from the war, from the often conflicting worldviews of the different ethnic identities. There is controversy over place names, with burgeoning accounts of how Tamil names are being changed to Sinhala ones. A national newspaper printed a photograph of the sign on the newly reopened Omanthai railway station rendering the name, in the Latin alphabet, as Omantha – the Sinhala version. A letter-writer to a newspaper has claimed that street names in the north are being named after Sri Lankan soldiers who died in the war. She quotes a Tamil resident as saying, ‘Granted that they fought and won the war, but Tamil people don’t feel it right to name roads here after Sinhala soldiers.’
At any rate, there are of course Tamil Hindu shrines as well. Behind one, a temple was being lovingly built, with intricate carvings of gods, sacred beasts and flowers. The temple has been 22 years in the making, but the Tamil caretakers told me it has always been a sacred place, where travellers stop for a blessing. These men, like almost everyone else in these parts, were caught in the horrors of the final war zone, forced by the Tigers to move with them as they retreated from government forces and prevented from leaving, then bombarded by – mainly – the government. They had been driven from their homes earlier.
One of the caretakers, Rajendran, told us his brother had been killed. Another, Murugesan, lost his 24-year-old son. ‘I must have seen 10,000 bodies in the war zone,’ he said. ‘If you weren’t in the bunker, you would die.’ The men gripped our hands firmly; they seemed thirsting to speak to visitors, to have contact with us.
Continuing north, the road is lined with large hoardings for things such as Airtel mobile-phone services. Welcome to the modern world. At Mankulam we stopped for breakfast. There was just one obvious place to eat, and it was of a genre now widespread in the north: a military-run cafe. The Cafe@224-A9, a reference to its milestone position, served up a mean fried rice and good Sri Lankan ‘short eats’, the ever-popular pastries, as well as Lipton tea, Sri Lankan-style – milky and sugary.
Next to the food-and-drink kiosks, one soldier trimmed the hair of another at a military-run barber shop. The soldiers had tried to make the place homely, having brought in a small merry-go-round – though there were no children when we visited, only some goats. The soldiers told us that, on most days, they play Tamil films on their wall-mounted television to get the local kids visiting.
At almost the northern extremity of the mainland, before the Jaffna peninsula, lies Kilinochchi, the former LTTE headquarters. Here, at first glance, life seems normal. A year ago no building here had a roof, but it is different now. Shops line the main road. When I dropped into some of them, however I was reminded of the abnormality lurking just below the surface.
The first shop we visited was a jeweller’s. The man on duty, who greeted us warmly, said he had lost everything in the war. Like most others in Kilinochchi, he had been caught in the final battleground. We asked how things are now. In answer, he merely turned, lifted his shirt and showed us shrapnel wounds.
In the next shop, a strikingly beautiful young woman was dispensing medicines. She smiled shyly, and we asked a bland question: How is life now? ‘I was hit in a shell attack,’ she said. ‘I lost a leg.’
From palmyrah to coconut
Not everyone was wounded, but most, like the temple guardians, remain severely traumatised. That includes those who fought – on both sides. The most northerly part of our road journey, from Elephant Pass at the base of the Jaffna peninsula to the city itself, had all appearances of being the most unsafe. Nowhere else is the road so heavily flanked by signs warning of uncleared mines. Along this road, the frontline between the government and the Tigers shifted as the conflict ebbed back and forth.
In Jaffna town we met a young army corporal on patrol. He told us of the time the Tamil Tigers broke the ceasefire, not far along the road. ‘Many of my comrades were sleeping. Others were playing cricket,’ he said. ‘The LTTE caught us unprepared. They stole our uniforms and started shooting. There were so many dead bodies on both sides. I feel so sad because of the friends I lost. Even the LTTE looked like innocent young people. One looked like my sister’s son. They could have been nice people – maybe they could have been my friends.’
In the same city we met a young man who had been part of the LTTE, right up to the very final days of the war. ‘We felt fear,’ he admitted, ‘especially when we saw others die.’ There are moments like that in Sri Lanka today: when the common humanity of people on both sides of the country’s divide is manifest. But a traveller in the north of Sri Lanka will also see things that serve to divide emotions and do not seem calculated to bridge the country’s sore divide.
In Kilinochchi, right by the road, half a dozen soldiers, supervised by an officer, scrupulously tended to a huge monument (see photo) to the government’s war victory. One soldier snipped at the grass with scissors. Its centrepiece is a massive concrete cube representing the Tamil Tigers’ violent insurrection, pierced and cracked by a large bullet said to symbolise the ‘sturdiness of the invincible Sri Lankan army’, and topped with a ‘flower of peace’. The adjacent tablet says President Mahinda Rajapakse was ‘born for the grace of the nation’.
While we were there, a busload of Sinhalese tourists from the highlands, including a Buddhist monk, arrived to gaze admiringly at the monument before continuing on their way. By contrast, few local Tamil people seem to visit. One told us he finds the monument insulting, bombastic. The same sharply contrasted emotions apply in places where the military and the government have simply razed LTTE cemeteries and constructed new buildings – including at least one military base – on top of them. Thousands among the former Tiger fighters were forcibly conscripted, many of them children, and some lie buried there.
As some people – including me – go north, others go (or are forced to go) south. During the second week of September the government brought about 500 alleged former LTTE cadres to the deep south of the island on a tour conducted as part of their ‘rehabilitation’ process. (This group was among the 11,700 being put through this controversial procedure in government-run camps.) One newspaper said the tour was aimed at exposing them to Sinhalese culture. It is all deeply paternalistic, but it is the pattern of the new Sri Lanka. Like every other big government-organised programme, it has been given a Sinhala name, in this case the picturesque Thalruppawen polruppawata (From palmyrah grove to coconut grove). Pictures of the large crowd of Tamil ‘visitors’ show them streaming through the streets of Matara, the town at the southern tip of the island, wearing yellow T-shirts, which the government says are ‘symbolic of their desire to get back to normal life’.
A curious journey indeed, and one capped by the ex-rebels playing a cricket match against a team including the former Sri Lanka captain and now government MP, Sanath Jayasuriya. The former Tigers won. It must have been a sweet victory indeed.