Up until recently Sri Lanka was not the most popular tourist destination because of the war that had started in the North back in the 80s and only ended in 2009. In fact, even now the echoes of that war roam the streets of northern towns and islands, where you pass through checkpoints and see fields covered with red ribbons that say ‘Danger! Land mines!’ Disarming millions of mines will take many years to come.
The islands in the Palk Strait that lie between Sri Lanka and Indian province of Tamil Nadu, are shadowed by many Sinhalese soldiers that keep an eye on the local population. The culture of these islands is unique and strange, as they had remained inaccessible to foreign visitors for a very long time and lived their quiet life of isolation for the duration of the civil war. The coral buildings and walls, Tamil temples adorned with colourful statues of gods, clear blue ocean and even wild horses – this part of Sri Lanka is waiting to be opened to the curious eyes of foreign travellers. But maybe not just yet.
In the North of Sri Lanka where most of the surfers, divers and beach bums don’t have the time to go, war is something real and quite palpable for the local people, something that happened just less than a decade ago. Even in touristy Hikkaduwa in the southern part of Sri Lanka, a Sinhalese woman who took care of the hostel said that her husband had died in the war. She does not blame the Tamils for that and even nostalgically remembers the times when she had to go the UAE to earn money for the family.
Luckily, at some point I also met Vaj. Born in Colombo, ten years ago he decided to have a fun trip up North, when this was still a doubtful enterprise available only for the locals. At the market in a local town, Kilinochchi, he had some difficulty in communicating with the local Tamil-speaking population, when suddenly a woman spoke with him in Sinhalese.
This is how he met Amma. She was also born in Colombo, but her husband is Tamil, they got married back in the 70s when the war had not yet started. Then the terrorists split the country into two fronts, while Amma and Tata continued minding their own business, raising peacocks and working their land to sell vegetables and fruits on the market. Every day they could expect the militaries from either side to come and take away their food. The three children that they had left Kilinochchi for Colombo and never looked back. Amma is 75 now, and she rides her bicycle like she just completed Tour de France.
During the war she used to ride her bike into Sinhalese camps in the jungle, to deliver them food, and trying to avoid being caught by the Tamil rebel army. Sometimes, hungry young men from the Tamil rebels would ask her for food, and she’d give them food. For her, they all were just stupid little children, shooting at each other and playing with bombs. While the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) kept control of Kilinochchi, local population tried to pretend that the bodies of ‘traitors’ hanging from the trees around their village did not belong to their friends or neighbours.
Vaj has been visiting his adopted family ever since he met them. Luckily, he later started to bring CouchSurfers to the place, for Amma to feed. The day before I arrived she had a bike accident and hurt herself, so we went to visit her in the hospital, gathering a huge crowd of other patients to stare at us, as Amma was touching our bellies to make sure that we’d eaten enough.
No matter what happens, eating well is the solution to all problems. Especially when it comes to tea. Even now, when she is over 70, she looks very beautiful. My guess is that in her youth she was helluva beauty queen.
We eventually bid farewell to Amma and Tata and set off on a journey to the east coast of northern Sri Lanka, Mullaitivu. Mullaitivu was the last remaining base for LTTE after the government forces had pushed them away from Jaffna and Kilinochchi by the beginning of 2009. Among the main attractions of this part of Sri Lanka are former command center of the Tamil Tigers: a chain of underground bunkers and old trenches in the middle of the jungle, still surrounded by impassable mine fields.
Old weaponry from the civil war is kept in a sort of open-air museum, an unnecessary reminder of how war blasts used to echo around Mullaitivu. Thousands of people had been left displaced after the Sinhalese troops recaptured the northern parts of Sri Lanka and blew a final blow to the LTTE. For several years, those civilians were kept in makeshift IDP camps in miserable conditions, while government intelligence tried to weed out those of civilians who had had military ties to the rebels during the war.
But the strongest echo of the civil war up here, in the north, is a shipwreck from 2006. The Jordanian trawler Farah III was en route from India to South Africa, transporting tens of thousands tons of rice, when the engine malfunction forced the crew to send a distress signal and run ashore near Mullaitivu.
Initially captured by LTTE rebels, the crew was eventually released to the Red Cross. As for the trawler, it was not only looted for food supplies, but also stripped of all valuable electronics and gear. When the insurance company came to inspect the wreck after the war was over, they found that buying a new ship would be cheaper than restoring and gearing up this one.
So Farah III was left to lie here, on a beach in Mullaitivu, reminding everyone in its rusty glory that there was once war and unrest in these lands.
It is a matter of time before someone figures out that Farah III is a brilliant spot to shoot horror movies. We climbed to the upper deck to take some stunning ghost ship photos.
Finally, here is some singing for you. Someday chickens will become famous all over the world, and then I’ll tag along!