I recall the events of May 2009, from my flat on City Road, thousands of miles away, and mostly as snatches of news, press photos, mobile phone footage and lengthy online conversations with my friend Saville. We were both so distant from what was taking place in our island home , our only information filtering in through the news and sometimes friends and family from home, who seemed more sheltered from the news than we were, as we sifted through the news sites wondering how and when it would all end.
I read through an old post Ayubowan dated the 16th of May 2009.
‘I trawl the Internet for news every few minutes, wondering what has changed. I see people’s digital patriotism and ponder if the rumours are true, as photochemical evidence surface on the news as breaking alerts and exclusive footage. If the war is really at an end.
It frightens me the uncertainty as Sri Lanka’s future appears to hang in a balance. It seems to be the word on everyone’s tongue, this impending war victory. The end is nigh, they say as they look for out of season firecrackers. The great feats of soldiers of a government who have managed to “destroy terrorism”. Sri Lanka’s problems always arise from a legacy of myopia we seem to have inherited from the generations before us. We have selective memories and we forget too soon.
Weeks later, I recall my return to Colombo, where riotous celebrations had already taken place. Parliament junction was covered in flattened Coca-Cola cups. A veritable explosion of flags and bunting lined my road home as I drove back from the airport.
The North continues to remain as distant to me as it had been before. I am unable to reconcile others’ travels to the newly freed North; smiling family holiday photos against the post-war exotica of a barren shelled landscape, bullet-ridden homes, pristine shrapnel dunes, and the victors’ military spoils.
3 years later, I am living in Colombo, working in post-conflict development, embroiled in bureaucracies and wordplay, pushing for structural changes and social change like the clichéd development Samaritans that we have turned into, believing that there are differences to be made. The past few months have felt like betrayal as I learn to put my ideological differences aside for necessary work I try everyday to believe in greater good and other inevitable spin-doctoring.
When work-related travel to the Mullaitivu presents itself, I brace myself, partly intrigued and partly angry at myself for what has transpired. A formerly LTTE controlled area, Mullaitivu was the location of a large rebel base and the ground on which numerous battles were fought since 1983, until the Sri Lankan army took control of the town in January 2009 in the Battle of Mullaitivu.
I have now learned to be more positive. Perhaps that’s just the spin-doctoring talking.
We travel through the North-West, via Puttlam, through Anuradhapura and Vavuniya. The roads are unfamiliar, progress snaking across arid emptiness punctuated by repetitive towns and the occasional marker of archaeological significance and mytho-historical nationalist propaganda.
At Omanthai, the shells of old checkpoints form a warren that announces entry into the North with a cursory check by the army. I learn to reconcile many stories spun by the news and friends, into the relative realities of what I was seeing.
The road works power through full speed ahead, even in the dark absence of street lights at night-time, for infrastructure is where the development money is, we know. Yet long stretches remain broken and trying, with public transport links, houses, shops and even the occasional pedestrian conspicuously absent. The sun beats down on huddles of construction workers, men and women, I note. The dry scrub is barren, fringed with dry-zone wilderness. The ground is razed in part, singed blackened grass forming indelible shadows of the devastation this earth has known.
Our unholy trinity and its phalanx of messengers have left their flimsy marks on landscape, pledging their generous support to the region’s upliftment. Aluminum signboards crafted by the hands of the development aid apparatus, allude to geopolitical tilts and strategic alliances that funnel charity in return for dependency. Ferguson, Escobar and Moyo are the ghosts of my own past.
Concrete and tin shells of progress do not conceal the pronounced poverty of the makeshift dwellings that make up scant towns.
Puliyankulam. Odusuddan. Nanthi Kadal. Maankulam. Puliyankulam. Mallavi. Tunukkai.
News stories ring the place names familiar. Perhaps we are free in our passage, only occasionally halted by polite police or military personnel, but my mind and heart are heavy.
There is a young optimist our company; a protagonist of the war he has been in the region since the last phase of the war, for six years. He is enthusiastic about the progress that I fail to see. ‘Many people have been successfully resettled and the development, we are just starting! patanganme abhimukhaye innava vage…‘ Schooled propagandist rhetoric, I resist judgment- it is what he knows, it is what he believes. ‘Roads are being built and after all we must make the most of our victory.’ There is genuine, even perhaps endearing pride in his voice. Later he admits, there is not much change to be seen in our destination. It has been two years since he had last been there. ‘There’s not much development to be seen here. They built the state banks before the president visited… Mehe nam sanvardhanayak penne nehe. President enna kalin, banku tika nam haduva‘
There is an unspoken acknowledgment of reality, but he remains optimistic. There is even an effort to learn English and Tamil.
It only occurs to me many hours later what he may have been a part of, what he may have endured.
I do not hold him responsible, but I cannot share his pride.
Development, he confidently repeats, is happening.