BY NITYA AMALEAN
It was midnight on March 28th, 2007. The entire city of Colombo was alive with vigor and exuberance. The nation was awake and watching the Cricket World Cup final which was taking place in the West Indies. Sri Lanka versus Australia. Daytime in the Caribbean meant an all night match in Colombo. The streets were deserted as all patriotic Sri Lankans were glued to their television sets. Drinks were flowing and curses were being thrown at the Australian team. Local cricket grounds were filled with the youth of Colombo who were intently watching the match on numerous television screens. Our hearts pounded as we watched the then captain of the national cricket team, Kumar Sangakkara, affectionately known as Sanga, hammer a six into the boundary.
We adorned ourselves in the famous blue cricket jerseys and proudly waved the flag, the yellow lion emanating strength and fortitude. Suddenly, the television screens went blank. The power went out and the city was covered in darkness. There was silence and we all looked at each other, wondering. The only visible light was the bright red streaks in the black sky. Straining to see, we heard deafening sounds of firing. My heart stopped. I was paralyzed. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations to ever exist, was conducting an air raid and dropping bombs in the city right before my eyes. Realizing what was happening, the grounds turned into a panic. My brother grabbed me and we ran towards the building connected to the grounds. The fighter jets in the night sky were flying in low altitude and the ground shook when we heard a resonant blast just a few meters away from us. An announcement was made stating that nobody was allowed to leave the premises. Phone networks were shut down and there was no way of reaching family and friends. All thoughts of the cricket match were forgotten. Around 5:30am, as the sunlight illuminated the terrified city, we could see the sky was filled with smoke. We still hadn’t heard from our loved ones but the roads were cleared and we were told that it was safe to head back home.
My twenty five thousand square mile island is home to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual population of twenty million people. Sinhala Buddhists comprise of the majority and Tamils the minority. Severe underrepresentation of Tamil rights in every social, political, and moral respect led to the creation of young, militant Tamil groups that had their own ideas for liberating what they regarded as their traditional homelands, the north and east areas of the island. The brutal killings of countless Tamils by violent Sinhala mobs in 1983 further alienated the Tamil community. Some fled to neighboring India while others sought political asylum in the north of the nation. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emerged as the dominant group and fiercely started preparing for battle. They brought in men, women, weapons and other military resources and, from their jungle forts in the northeast provinces, they waged a merciless guerilla war against government forces. For twenty-five years, in the land up north, society had been restructured to follow the savage rules of ethnic antagonism and hatred. They were one of the first terrorist organizations to create the concept of suicide bombings and the usage of child soldiers. The LTTE were ruthless.
Colombo, the city I lived in, is in the southwest region of the island. How fortunate my family and I were to live here, in a city that did not suffer the ruthless game of battle and warfare. For fifteen years, life went on as ordinarily as it possibly could. Repeated security checks were commonplace during my drives to school and back. Having an important Tamil leader living on the next lane meant that my entire neighborhood was filled with barricades and patrolmen. The streets would be empty at 9pm, except for the occasional drunkard singing for freedom. Nightlife was close to minimal. The odd chance of having a good time on a Friday night was often spoiled by policemen raiding bars and clubs, searching and sending to jail Tamil youth and anyone who didn’t have identification on them. On a few occasions, my mom would tell me that I didn’t have to go to school that particular morning. My twelve-year-old self would jump for joy and return back to bed. What my mom didn’t tell me was that the government had released a news alert stating that all schools in the city and surrounding areas were shut down for the day as there was imminent threat of attack or raid.
In May of 2009, the civil war that ravaged the island for a quarter of a century, killing more than seventy thousand people, finally ended when the Sri Lankan armed forces eliminated the elusive leader of the LTTE. During the last few months of war, the Tigers were cornered and took refuge by ordering more than three hundred thousand civilians to move out of their homes and act as human shields. While the end of the dire conflict was cause for celebration, beleaguered Sri Lankans were left to deal with the repercussions of a war in which neither party could profess the moral high ground.
In January of 2012, my family and I visited the villages and towns in the northern province. We had travelled extensively and appreciated the monuments, temples, tea plantations, and beaches that were found in the southern regions of the island. But this trip up north was wholly different to anything I have ever seen before in Sri Lanka. For the first time, I was standing on the land that had been a playing field for hostile battles and been witness to the killings of fellow Lankans; Sinhalese and Tamils. Jaffna was a ghost town. Driving on the dirt road in the ‘no civilian’ zone, I saw numerous abandoned houses with bullet holes scattered across the walls. There was nothing and no one. Streets were crammed with dismantled motor vehicles and empty gas tanks, left behind by fleeing civilians that abandoned them and continued running for their lives.
Visiting the Tiger headquarters, we discovered the exceptional resources they had created. One was a runway, which emerged into a lagoon for homemade fighter air crafts to take off on. The thick jungle that surrounded the runway made it impossible for the Sri Lankan air force to identify it. We were taken to a massive swimming pool which was used to train deep sea divers to place bombs on ships and boats. The Tigers were ruthless but intelligent. It pained me to see the depth of their brutality. The highlight of the trip was the visit to the terrorist leader’s underground bunker. We needed to drive many miles into the jungle. The bunker was situated around thirty feet underground. It was dingy, dark, and filthy. Conversations about killing innocent civilians, taking away children from their parents and training them into becoming soldiers, planning the assassination of then Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi were made in this very place. It was claustrophobic and the air reeked of bloodshed. I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know to feel in that moment. I needed air.
Surrounded by so much cruelty on a land that I fondly call paradise island is heartbreaking. We explored the few tiny islands off the coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. The journey to Kayts was exquisite. We were driving on a narrow road with the ocean stretching for miles on either side of us. The beach was untouched. The clear blue waters and white sand reinforced my appreciation of the beauty of my island. Once we reached the land on the other side, we were among flora again-briny bushes, oleander, and the stately palmyra palm. Hidden in the trees, we found settlements which have remained immaculate since the Dutch and the Portuguese left. We came across mansions decorated with bulls and peacocks, quays, villas and the red-striped lighthouse. These buildings belonged to the golden age, a period when everything was not torn apart by civil war. Everything was abandoned. We took a ferry to the island of Delft. It was a long, hot hour in the choppy sea but Delft was magnificent. Delft is home to five thousand islanders, five thousand cows, and a herd of wild horses. It even seemed as if the war had not eaten its way to this magical island. Life here had a dreamy antique feel with no cars, no plastic, and nowhere to eat. We found a tuk-tuk and set off to explore the busy streets. The horses roaming around freely were a delight to watch. They have about them something of the spirit of this archipelago; majestic, disowned, and pertinaciously wild.
In the months that followed the culmination of the civil war, I visited the refugee camps that accommodated the few thousand survivors of the north. The experience was very emotional. Women and children were the majority. I was crushed when I met the children who had been abducted from their homes and indoctrinated into terrorism; the remaining child soldiers. They watched me with terror as I handed them ice cream cones but the look of fear was soon replaced with one of confusion. The shocking realization that these young children, orphaned by war and brainwashed by the terrorists, had never seen an ice cream cone before because they were training to mantle AK-47’s was shattering. These victims of war had lost everything, yet I saw resilience in their eyes and demeanor. They were determined to survive, to move on from their fear and deprivation and to start living life again.
Driving back home from all my travels, I was unable to fathom what post-war Sri Lanka would be like. For the first time in twenty-five years, my country is free. But how will the different ethnic communities survive together after years of conflict and mistrust? Terrorism is no more but peace has yet to be formed. It will be gradual process for the Tamils to feel equal to their Singhalese counterparts. Steps towards reconciliation have been implemented but without addressing the problems that started war in the first place, the island may suffer a destructive future. My family and I continue to support the displaced, the wronged, and the victims of violence. We want to help rebuild the nation. Yes, my country has its flaws but to me, it will be always be paradise island, tropical and beautiful, a home.