The War To End All Wars
The government called it the Humanitarian Operation. In the spring of 2009, the Sri Lankan Army was finally cornering the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in its northern strongholds. The gritty guerrilla separatist movement had been locked in a bloody twenty-six-year-long civil war with the state, but the end game was approaching. On January 2, the Tigers’ inland capital, Kilinochchi, fell. From there, the militants were gradually pushed fifty kilometres to the east until their backs hit the Bay of Bengal near the small town of Mullaitivu for a Custer-esque last stand.
By mid-May, the government was circulating pictures that showed the body of the Tigers’ iconic leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.
A bullet hole messily adorned his forehead between blank, gaping eyes, like a morbid oversized tilaka, the Hindu mark of piety on the brow. The war was over.
Three years later, I’m crawling down the A35 highway that connects Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu. It’s a fifty kilometre drive through village after village shattered by artillery shells, bombs and bullets. In the brush, red skull-and-crossbones signs warn of minefields and unexploded ordinance. Charred, twisted frames of bicycles, buses, cars and autorickshaws are piled by the hundred in open spaces along the rutted dirt track.
The destruction is heavy, though not particularly shocking after war. Rather, what is shocking is the absence of civilians, of any semblance of normal life amid the post-apocalyptic backdrop. Where civilians once were, there are now soldiers. Sound structures have been garrisoned and field camps have been turned into permanent bases. Sharp-looking soldiers wearing cutoff gloves keep their fingers dangerously close to the triggers of their assault rifles. Others peer out of roadside bunkers. THIS LAND BELONGS TO THE ARMY is spray-painted on the pockmarked walls of some of the abandoned civilian buildings.
In the last days, weeks and months of the war, it wasn’t just the Tamil Tigers pinned down by the government forces along this road. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians driven from their homes by the conflict were with them; they had few other options. Any credibility that the government retained in the eyes of these refugees was lost when it set up “no-fire zones” for civilians to flee to. These zones quickly turned into perilous free-fire areas; death traps for many who tried to find sanctuary and a potent dissuader to others. In an increasingly dire situation, the Tigers seemed to offer the best shot at security, food, water and medicine. Those who did not want to follow the rebels risked being gunned down by the militants as they made a run for it across the frontlines. There was nowhere to go.
As the government advanced farther down the A35, the number of refugees snowballed. With every kilometre, their situation became more even desperate. They camped along the road, with little cover from the thick shellfire. By May, the outgunned rebels and frightened civilians with them were boxed in to a small spit of sand separated from the mainland by a lagoon. The final assault was not pretty.
At the end of the war, the government shepherded surviving civilians in the area into military-controlled internally displaced persons camps, where many remain today. Supporters and members of the Tigers (or those who were alleged to be) were rounded up and forced to go through “rehabilitation” before there was any hope of being released.
In the end, the “Humanitarian Operation” killed tens of thousands of civilians according to United Nations estimates (more precise figures will probably never be known) and shattered the lives of hundreds of thousands more.
The decision to go north was made in haste over drinks with my girlfriend at Colombo’s colonial-era Galle Face Hotel. It was our first day back in Sri Lanka and we planned to do vacation things. But at the same time, there was an allure in the north, seeing something that few others had the opportunity to witness; seeing first-hand the juxtaposition of the friendliness and beauty of the country I had come to know, with the horrors that could be bestowed upon it.
A day later, we were on a slow train clunking north through the jungle to Vavuniya at the end of the line. For a long time, this provincial town represented the frontline between government forces and the Tigers: the gateway to the conflict zone. The town’s name is pronounced differently to the way it is spelled – Vaw-nya, or something like that – and I had plenty of opportunities to practice it whenever one of our inquisitive fellow passengers approached.
A typical exchange is as follows. “The next stop is Anuradhapura,” ventures one, referring to the ancient Sinhalese city of massive Buddhist dagoba mounds and a highlight of any tourist’s itinerary if they’ve made it this far north.
“We’re going to Vavuniya,” I say, botching the name.
Silence. Pause. Awkward smile.
It was not just my fellow train passengers (most of whom disembarked well before Vavuniya) who shared this confusion: When I called a hotel to book a room, the polite receptionist hesitated for a moment before pointing out that “this hotel is in Vavuniya”, in case I was confused about my intended destination.
The surprise was not particularly unexpected. The sweltering, war-torn inland region of The Vanni is a far cry from the white sand beaches and tranquil old world tea plantations featured in the country’s tourism advertisements. During the war, it was nearly impossible to get there. And when the conflict ended, foreigners had to apply to the Ministry of Defense for permission to enter the region. A relative lack of things to see, a broken infrastructure and horrible roads effectively keep most away. The only convincing reason for an outsider to go is to get a first-hand look at the aftermath of the conflict. Few are interested in doing so.
Sri Lanka’s war, for the most part, was able to escape much attention from the international media. Part of it had to do with timing: the last episode began at the same time as Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon, and the fall of Kilinochchi in 2009 was eclipsed in the news by Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Middle Eastern news could allocate few minutes of airtime and few inches of newspaper column for other, faraway conflicts.
For many in the West, Sri Lanka was a small, intricately complicated and alien country; a faraway place without oil and with very little bearing, significance or influence on their home countries. The battles and atrocities went unseen and happened in places with unpronounceable names (my hotel in Vavuniya was located on Soosaipillayarkulam Road, for example, and Puthukkudiyiruppu was a major Tiger stronghold on the A35).
In a world filled with wars, famines, natural disasters and other unfortunate incidents, Sri Lanka did not make the cut. And with many international reporters denied entry to Sri Lanka during the war, and those allowed in refused access to the conflict zone, it was a war without faces, abstract to observers.
With the histories of many ethnic conflicts, the roots of Sri Lanka’s war are complicated. In short, the Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, representing about three quarters of the population. They are mostly Buddhists and claim their ancestors came to the island from northern India.
Sri Lanka’s Tamils are mostly Hindu and the largest minority group in the country. Tamil roots in Sri Lanka go back thousands of years, but during colonial times many Tamils were imported from southern India (where the Tamil people originate) to work on tea plantations. While the squiggles of the written Tamil and Sinhalese languages may look similar to the foreign eye, the languages are mutually exclusive and unintelligible between the two groups.
During the 20th century, an advent of militant nationalistic Buddhism swept up some in Sri Lanka. Much of this was driven by a notion that Tamils had received preferential treatment under colonialism. In 1956, eight years after achieving independence from the British, the government passed the Sinhala Only Act, replacing English with Sinhala as the official language of the state. The language law made it difficult for educated Tamils – many of whom only shared English as a common language with the Sinhalese – to get government posts. More discrimination followed. Affirmative action schemes at universities saw fewer Tamil students enrolled and crackdowns were taken on Tamil political activities. For the Tamils, it quickly became clear that Sri Lanka’s government did not represent their interests.
By the early 1980s, armed Tamil militant groups had formed in the north of the country hoping to form an independent state. In July 1983, an LTTE attack on Sri Lankan Army troops in the Jaffna Peninsula at the northern tip of the country agitated Sinhalese nationalists. The response was a pogrom. Tamils in mixed areas were hunted down by mobs, and their shops and homes gutted. During this time necklacing – the placing of a tyre doused in fuel around the head of a captured individual before lighting it on fire – became prominent. Between one thousand and three thousand Tamils were killed in just a few days during that bloody summer.
The events of July 1983 pushed the country into civil war. Support for Tamil militants grew exponentially and their ranks swelled. Just across the Palk Strait, India began providing training for the guerrillas, and Sri Lanka turned down a dark path that would last for two and a half decades. In a later U-turn, Indian troops would land in Sri Lanka in 1987 to act as a peacekeeping force, ultimately fighting the same Tigers they had helped train, before calling it quits in 1990. It was one of those kinds of wars.
All sides committed atrocities against civilians. The Tamil Tigers ethnically cleansed some of their areas, expelling tens of thousands of Muslims. What indiscriminant artillery barrages were for the Sri Lankan Army, suicide bombers were for the Tigers. The LTTE’s suicide squad – the Black Tigers – showed little hesitance in striking civilian targets in government territory. The most terrifying attacks came on the country’s crowded trains, buses and markets. Even while Colombo looked like an occupied city during the war – with sandbagged gun emplacements at nearly every intersection in the city centre – bombers still got through.
It was the notoriety of the Black Tigers that earned the LTTE spots on lists of international terrorist organisations. After the September 11 attacks in the United States, groups like the Tamil Tigers found it hard to keep any legitimacy in the eyes of international players. Under the banner of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was able to aggressively go after the Tigers by whatever means he saw fit, with few questions from the international community.
There is little to keep one in Vavuniya. The dusty dirt roads, oppressive dry heat and low buildings make the town seem like it belongs in Sudan rather than in the stereotypically-lush tropics of South Asia. Behind the reception desk at the hotel a whiteboard lists guests and their rooms. A couple of slots are marked down for the international aid organisation Oxfam, while my girlfriend and I are simply referred to as “2 forin”. We hunt down breakfast and then hop on a bus to Jaffna, the unbearably hot Tamil cultural capital that sits at the northern tip of the country’s teardrop outline.
A large army checkpoint north of Vavuniya marks the entrance into the Vanni proper. We’re pulled from the bus to talk to an officer who will decide whether or not we can enter.
“What is your occupation?” asks the soldier.
“Writer,” I say.
“Journalist” is not the right answer here. Sri Lanka is still not particularly hot on the profession. In fact, in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom rankings, Sri Lanka came in at 163 out of 179 spots. Local journalists who have dug too deep have ended up dead or disappeared, with many suspecting the government to be responsible. Foreign reporters are usually just deported or denied entry. In post-war Sri Lanka, free speech is difficult and enquiries with Tamil locals about what happened are met with uneasiness. Confiding to some of the few Westerners living in the north that you are a journalist is met with a “shh”.
“Writer?” he asks.
“Yes, I write things,” I say, mimicking writing by hand as if I were a calligrapher.
Photocopies of our passports are made and a pass to enter the region for a few days is drafted up by the officer.
Outside of Vavuniya, the jungles that crowd much of the country melt into dusty brush. The uninspiring landscape is punctuated by small villages, rickety stalls selling black market petrol of various amber shades in beat-up soda bottles, and shot-up structures old and new. There is a certain obsession with the names of big roads in the country, perhaps because there are few good ones. This is the A9, the longest road in the country connecting the Sinhalese cultural capital of Kandy in the centre of the country with the Tamil heartlands farther north.
As often happens with good roads in not-so-nice places, the A9 was fought over fiercely and destroyed. Today, workers in orange reflective safety vests clog sections of the road, repairing the war damage in the hope that it will be an easier drive one day.
Sri Lankan buses are colourful affairs – brightly painted scenes of beaches and mountains are splashed on the exterior and there is usually a large, flashing depiction of a deity at the front of the bus, behind the driver. Sri Lankan pop songs blare from a stereo, and there always seems to be a speaker conveniently placed next to your head. There is never any room for bags – and even on the longest imaginable leg of travel, you, the traveller, will most likely be the only one with any luggage at all. Despite the fun, festive atmosphere, these buses are painfully slow, hot and crowded.
After the better part of a day, the bus inches into Jaffna. On the city outskirts, a Hindu devotee, half naked, his body suspended by hooks through the skin in an act of faith, hangs from a vehicle on the other side of the road. Things are a little different up here.
The city of Jaffna has been under government control for over fifteen years now, but it still has the air of a conflict zone. The brightly painted colonial-looking buildings near the coast – flashes of pink, radiant greens and blues – are faded, yet quaint save for holes ripped into them by war. An ancient fort built by the Portuguese in 1618 crowns the downtown area. It was shelled and garrisoned at times during the conflict as castles make great strongholds, even in modern battles. The grass overgrowing its ramparts that overlook the sea make it seem undiscovered, full of adventure. But a glance back at the broken buildings in the courtyard reminds you that it is just another casualty of war.
We stay at a guesthouse frequented by aid worker types on Temple Road, though we are the only guests. Temple Road is a long street east of the city centre that runs to the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, the beautiful, golden Tamil Hindu temple in the city, built in 1749 on a site dating back to the 10th century. The road looks like it was saved from the brunt of Jaffna’s conflicts and is lined with UN and international aid organisations, many with thick metal gates and signs indicating that guns are not permitted on their grounds.
The owner of the guesthouse is a nice, small woman with a piercing laugh. Despite the horrors of the war, she seems to miss the days when business was good and the guesthouse – and its courtyard bar – was filled with foreigners every night. She advises us to give her a call if we run into any trouble with the police or army in town.
A short walk from the hotel, next to the temple, there is supposed to be a memorial to a Tamil Tiger member. When we arrive, there is nothing there. The spot, next to a mostly dried-up pond and a busy ice cream shop, is an empty lot containing little more than some smashed concrete. This same routine is repeated downtown at other supposed memorial sites. Eventually we get the point and don’t even bother trying to find the large martyrs’ cemetery north of town.
At the end of the war, the Sri Lankan government made a concerted effort to extinguish any traces of the LTTE. Even though Jaffna had been held by government forces for quite a while, memorials to the Tigers erected by the population were somewhat permitted – a Sri Lankan version of an attempt to win hearts and minds. When the war ended, the bulldozers moved in, taking down statues, pillars and desecrating cemeteries. Huge, beaming portraits of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, took some of their spots, reminding the Tamil population of the government’s victory here. The government was presumably afraid that such monuments could be rallied around, serving as reminders to the population of the sacrifices they made.
For several decades, the Tigers maintained a fanatical widespread following that is absent from most guerrilla organisations, save for perhaps Hezbollah, Hamas and a small handful of others. A culture of martyrdom – quite similar to that in the Middle Eastern groups – was embraced and encouraged. Through discipline and devotion, the Tigers were able to establish a formidable fighting force, one that took decades to defeat.
The allegiance of conscripts was to be entirely to the cause. All-female units were formed. Men and women in the organisation were prohibited from sex. Soldiers were given capsules of cyanide to wear around their necks in case they were to be captured. Devotion to the leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was strong. Many of his followers called him the Sun God, and he lived and died for Tamil militancy. His activities started in 1975 when, at the age of twenty, he assassinated the mayor of Jaffna. For the rest of his life he was on the run, the most wanted man in the country. Among supporters and cadres, the respect he commanded was absolute.
Even when the Tigers engaged in forced conscription (including that of seizing children from families to become child soldiers) and brought the wrath of the Sri Lankan government to the doorsteps of the civilian population, this culture ensured a broad, never-wavering support base.
The LTTE ran like a machine. With the help of wealthy Tamil expatriates outside the country, it was able to establish legitimate and illegitimate businesses internationally to bankroll its operations. A fleet of merchant ships engaged in trade and also allowed the Tigers to get weapons to their forces. With capital, the LTTE was able to establish a capable guerrilla navy and the only guerrilla air force to date – albeit a non-traditional one that used small prop planes and gliders.
When the machine was defeated, Sri Lanka’s government wanted to purge all memories of its existence.
I may have misspoke earlier when I related that there was an absence of civilians along the A35, the site of the government’s last push on the Tigers.
A hastily built parking lot near Puthukkudiyiruppu, bounded by trees and yet more warnings of landmines, is filled with buses and cars. Sinhalese tourists loiter, eating ice cream and snacks. The site, tucked a few kilometres away from the A35 in the jungle, is for a bunker used by Prabhakaran, once the Tamil leader’s hideout and now a showpiece of the government’s conquest.
While potential Tiger pilgrimage sites in inhabited areas were destroyed, some along the A35 have been preserved to show the government’s supporters what they accomplished in the war. The signs are only in Sinhala and English. Terrorist underground hideout reads one at the entrance to the bunker, which was concealed in a modest house, with thick trees overhead providing cover from the air.
Schoolchildren and families pose for pictures. Soldiers sit on the front porch of the house. There are a lot of smiles. People are enjoying themselves as they would at the beach, park, a festival or anywhere else one might go on a day off with friends and family.
Prabhakaran’s bunker, like the man himself, looks like it was built just to serve the cause. The house is small and simple, while the four-storey-deep bunker concealed below is hot and hard to breathe in. The space is more akin to the tunnels of a rag-tag fighting force on the frontline than that of a leader – especially one with money. It was captured in January 2009. Prabhakaran was not there, but the walls are still sprayed with gunfire.
Outside, the grounds are lined with firing positions – some hollowed into the dirt, others above ground with heavy metal plates surrounded by mounds of earth. My girlfriend crawls into one trench and the soldiers sitting on the porch shout for her to pretend she is shooting at the enemy.
The touristy scene repeats itself a little farther down the road where more civilians enjoy ice cream and snacks in front of a crude outdoor museum displaying military equipment captured from the LTTE. Some of the Tigers’ navy apparatus rests here, from fast fibreglass boats used for assault launches to small paddled suicide craft. Inside a hut, captured assault rifles and rocket launchers lie on top of dusty trash bags stretched across tables. Attentive visitors listen carefully to a soldier describing what is in front of them.
Next door, a large, new bronze statue rises up from a clearing. It depicts a soldier of the Sri Lankan Army, clutching a Kalashnikov in one hand and a flag in the other. A sign in front (again, only in English and Sinhala) reads The Golden Sun of the Peace of all the people, -rose [sic] wiping out the darkness of the North and East.
Despite statements by the government to the contrary, the past few years have not been about reuniting the country or healing open wounds. The victory was unapologetic, complete.
When the war ended, Buddhist clergy bestowed upon Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president since 2005, titles such as Glorious Overlord of the Sinhalese. There is a sense for some that a “united” Sri Lanka is a Sri Lanka dominated by the Sinhalese. With the Tamil civilians – the people who suffered the most – ignored after the conflict, this might be the case.
Ethnic and sectarian conflicts are not easy things to clear up. In Lebanon, where I live, the civil war has been over for more than two decades, yet talk of a return to violence remains on the tips of the tongues of many. Sentiments do not go away once the shooting stops. The Tigers are seemingly eradicated now and the Tamil population mostly disarmed. Arms caches turn up from time to time in the jungle and warnings from the government about the threat of the Tigers re-emerging are frequent. But in reality, for the moment, these areas of Sri Lanka are quiet and subjugated. Given the scope of the Tigers’ defeat, an imminent return to violence is unlikely.
That said, however hard one works to erase memories, anger will remain. It’s hard to see how there can be any meaningful reconciliation while the government’s version of it involves keeping civilians in internally displaced persons camps while turning their destroyed hometowns into tourist destinations. Nor can there be so long as the Tamils have a language they don’t understand forced upon them, are bombarded with images of the president and are generally ignored as citizens of the state.
The ambitions of the general Tamil population did not dissolve with the defeat of its fighters. Tamil militancy rose as a result of this population feeling that they were second-class citizens – or even non-citizens – in the state. The ideas were born before the guns and bombs, not by them, and are much harder to defeat than a military.
By Josh Wood