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A trip up north

We recently took a trip up to Jaffna and the north of Sri Lanka. I’d never been before – too dangerous during the war and since then we’ve been too preoccupied with getting Jungle Tide running properly to do much exploring. Besides, Sally’s brother Jeremy and nephew Tom who came to see us last month both wanted to go there so we delayed our trip until they could accompany us. What follows is an account of the trip which is also a short extract from the book I’m writing: Broke’n’English – Learning to live in Sri Lanka. Anyone know a literary agent???

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There’s not a lot to do in Jaffna. Actually that’s probably not true, it’s just that there’s no information and hardly anyone speaks much English. Or indeed Sinhala, which creates problems when you turn up with a Sinhalese driver who doesn’t speak Tamil. The vestigial tourism industry appears to be run by a mix of NGOs (or former NGO wallahs) and the military, notably the Navy. Sound fellows all, no doubt, but not showing much of a clue about what visitors want or how to drain their pockets for the benefit of the local economy. The famed library, destroyed with its priceless collections at the start of the war and since rebuilt, is open only to its local members most of the time and to ‘visitors’ for an hour or so at the end of the day. The Information Desk was unstaffed when we went. There are several impressive Hindu temples and many good if less impressive churches for visitors who want to engulf themselves in religion, and a large but uninterpreted Dutch fort – like Mannar’s heavily damaged in the recent war even more than it was in the historic past – but I’d seen so many of those that another one held little interest. What did fascinate me was the collection of ruined buildings. All over the north shelled and wrecked homes can be seen with depressing regularity, but in the north’s ‘capital’, Jaffna, there are also the ruins of many civic or religious buildings which were clearly once of huge local importance. One in particular stands opposite the new Jetwing Hotel and the even newer Cargill’s Square shopping complex. It was obviously destroyed some time ago as banyan trees grow up through its walls and foundations. We asked our taxi driver “What is this building?” “Ah, Sir, breaking in problem time” “Yes, we know, but before breaking, what was it used for?” “Sir, Government building” was all we could get from him. I’m not a ghoulish war tourist, but I don’t think I’m the only visitor who would love to know more about these places, and what Jaffna was like before the war. How much would it cost to put up a few signs? A lot less than the cost of the lavish ‘war memorials’, which I’ll come to.

Jaffna may have a proud library but as far as I could discover it possesses not a single bookshop – other than the usual outlets selling school textbooks. There is no local guidebook and no city website. But as noted it does now possess a brand new shopping centre and a Jetwing hotel. The former houses a large and well stocked supermarket so full marks to Messrs Cargill for that, but the rest of the small complex is of limited range. The Jetwing charges Jetwing prices but doesn’t deliver the level of quality one associates with their other hotels and doesn’t even have a swimming pool. The guest house we stayed in was clean and run by a well-meaning and hard-working woman with little English; the rooms were small and dark and the food dull. Two oases we did discover were Morgan’s, a delightful garden bar on Temple Street, and the nearby Mangoes restaurant – fabulous dosas at knockdown prices. But Jaffna is a gem waiting to be unearthed, or maybe unearthed and waiting to be cut and polished.

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To the west of Jaffna Sri Lanka peters out in a series of flat islands joined by causeways or ferries. Some have Dutch names (Kayts, Delft), others Tamil names (Punkudutivu, Karaitivu). Up early for the 8am ferry to Delft, the first causeway linking Jaffna to Kayts is a well-surfaced road, presumably rebuilt since the war, flanked in the dawn light by rectangles of prawn and crab nets and traps in the flat calm waters. Jaffna has a reputation for the best crabs – and the best mangoes. Silhouetted fishermen check their traps soundlessly; the tide flows left to right under the causeway making no fuss at all. An honour guard of pelicans, Brahminy kites and spoonbills mans the wooden and concrete posts alongside the causeway. Further out stilts and flamingos go about their business paying us no attention. Once on Kayts, the road becomes potholed and the second causeway, from there out to Punkudutivu and the ferry, is a bumpy old ride with a couple of inches either side separating the van from the briny. But buses somehow do the trip.

They, along with bicycles, motorcycles, tuk-tuks and the occasional car or van congregate at the end of the pier. The eight o’clock ferry is free and is a motorised sardine tin run by the Navy. We were warned we’d have to pay a few rupees on the return journey in a ‘private boat’. Packed into the hold on hard benches we waited for the engines to start and therefore, more importantly, the fans. Even at this early hour it was stifling. The fan nearest to us had a union flag emblazoned on its middle and a notice informing us that it was ‘sponsored by the Delft Society (UK)’ – hard to think of a more niche organisation. A genuine fan club. It was non-operational, having a round-pin plug next to a square pin socket. Perhaps a metaphor for the relationship between the UK and Sri Lanka. A sailor eventually turned up with an adaptor and put us out of our sweaty misery.

On the quay at Delft Sally and I had the same immediate reaction: “Isn’t this like Rottnest?” she said. A year earlier we’d spent a day on that island off Perth and the similarities were surprising and hit us both. It was also a lot like Sark. Perhaps there’s something in the way small islands speak to us, something that connects their visual language and geography irrespective of latitude and climate. Of course there were differences. Delft is built not of pottery as one might wish but it is built of dead coral. Great lumps of it making everything from dry-stone field and garden walls to churches and forts. It doesn’t look anything like anywhere else in Sri Lanka. One piece of coral stands about six feet high and is revered as it is apparently growing by itself. Carved deities, incense burners and coloured cloths sit on and around it. We were taken around the island in a converted pickup truck, stopping to admire a baobab tree; a ruined and atmospheric British hospital with a Dutch pigeon cote in the back garden from a time when the birds were the only form of communication with the mainland; a Buddhist temple dating to the Anaradhapura kingdom when the whole island was for a relatively brief time Buddhist; an indent in the ground looking like a giant footprint said to have been made by Hanuman as he hopped across from India; the nearby remains of a hundred metre long building constructed by the Dutch simply to stable their vast collection of horses, then on to ‘the wilderness’ – a barren seaside plain populated by wild horses descended from the inhabitants of those stables and left behind when the Dutch abandoned Ceylon following its takeover by the British. Some of the horses had elaborately permed manes and looked quite fetching. Perhaps they shopped at the place on our road which advertises ‘bridle wear’.

The whistle-stop tour over, there were still two hours to kill before lunch and the return ferry so they took us to the beach. Small problem: no shade, nowhere to get anything to drink, no changing facilities or toilets. We and a few other hapless tourists moped disconsolately around for a while then asked our drivers to take us back into town, ‘town’ being a relative term on Delft as the only settlement is the size of a small village by the ferry dock. Here we managed to kill the remaining time in a café where no-one spoke any English, then in the other café where we had booked lunch, which was actually rather good. Then off to the jetty to claim first place in the queue and prime seats on the return boat, due to leave at two thirty. A jolly-looking waterfront bar turned out to be exclusively for the Navy. Next to it a building declared itself to be the ‘Naval Sewing Centre’. I’m still trying to work out what might go on in there.

There were a couple of false starts as groups of Sri Lankans pushed past us and on to the jetty. Thinking they were the usual queue-jumpers we tried to race them only to be turned back by the Navy. These were not returning tourists but the WAGs of naval personnel off on a jolly on a gunboat. Among the many boats tied up at the quay in various stages of dereliction and seaworthiness one had attracted my camera’s attention earlier. It was a large open boat whose wheelhouse was an elderly tuk-tuk roped across it towards the stern. A curiosity to photograph was all I’d thought. Until it emerged that this was our return transport. We all clambered aboard and arranged ourselves on the various planks serving as seats. The captain sat sidelong to the action in the tuk-tuk’s driver seat, gazing out to sea and wearing a headset, though whether this was anything to do with running the ship or just his personal in-boat entertainment system I couldn’t be sure. It was equally unclear whether the two guys in the passenger seat behind him were the bosun, first mate, purser or cabin boy, or just his friends, or even the first two passengers to clamber aboard who grabbed the only upholstered seating in the boat. Although thunderclouds menaced in the distance the sea remained obligingly calm and we made it back to Punkudutivu without mishap. I couldn’t remove an imbecilic grin from my face for the whole bizarre trip.


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We’d arrived in Jaffna by the relatively little-used coast road from Mannar; stretches of recently applied tarmac frequently interrupted by lengths of dirt-track where a blown-up bridge waited to be replaced and a diversion took us over the river on a few concrete pipes. We returned south on the A9 through the famed Elephant Pass where a long causeway and bridge connects the almost-island of the Jaffna region to the main part of Sri Lanka. Elephant Pass was of great strategic importance during the war and two contrasting memorials stand at either end. To the north is the war memorial itself which tells how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa beat the Tamil Tigers almost single-handedly with just a little help from one of his brothers who happened to be Defence Minister. Oh, and a few words are added about how nice it would be if everyone lived in peace and harmony. I know history is written by the victors but this is a particularly crass example and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

At the southern end of the causeway, by the new train station, stands a more interesting and more touching memorial. The eye-catching bit is not the statue of the soldier whose self-sacrificial gallantry is commemorated (Corporal Gamini Kularatne) but what stands in front and to one side of it: the rusted and shell-pocked remains of the strange Tamil Tiger vehicle he disabled – a converted armoured bulldozer which, armed and packed with explosives, was trundling towards the strategic army base before Cpl. Kularatne managed to climb aboard and throw a couple of grenades into it, killing himself in the process. The event happened in 1991 but the memorial is of course post-war. It records that the soldier was posthumously awarded Sri Lanka’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross by the President. The President’s name is not recorded, since it was not Rajapaksa.

Chewy as it is for us pacifists to swallow, it is an unfortunate fact that war (or the preparation for imagined future wars) acts as midwife to a lot of technology which may be adapted for more peaceful uses. And that’s true of both conventional warfare – radar and the internet both come to mind – and less conventional conflicts such as the civil war in Sri Lanka, although here it is more likely to be intermediate or alternative technology. There is no doubting the resourcefulness of the Tamil Tigers whatever view one may take of their aims or morality. They had field artillery, a miniature air force, converted bulldozers to tanks as we have seen, and a navy, known as the Sea Tigers. In 2006 the Sea Tigers captured a Jordanian freighter, the Farah III, which had anchored off Mullaitivu with engine trouble. Having conveyed the crew to safety (the LTTE were merciless with their Sri Lankan foes and with Tamils who disagreed with them but had no quarrel with foreigners) they raised the anchor and let the ship run aground, where they systematically stripped it of everything of value (having first nicked its cargo of rice and other goods) to be turned into military hardware. The skeletal remains of the ship stood on the beach for years after the war ended – and feature as the cover photograph of John Gimlette’s wonderful book Elephant Complex. I was very keen to see and explore it but turned up a year too late. What was left of the ship had been sold for salvage and removed. It had become something of a tourist attraction and we were told that the Government was worried that this may lead to it becoming a kind of shrine to the Sea Tigers.

Strange, then, that the Sea Tigers’ dockyard ‘museum’ remains open close by, though it’s hard to find. As museums go it has to be one of the oddest. Head south east down the A35 until you pass a contender for the world’s most tasteless war memorial – a phenomenally ugly and garish erection featuring raised guns flanking the Sri Lankan flag – then look for a red dirt track on the left with a small sign indicating ‘Sea Tiger Museum’. If you then take the correct fork in the road (unsigned but pssst, it’s the one on the right) you emerge into a yard with a lone soldier standing sullenly and wordlessly in a kind of home-made sentry box. Ranged around the edges of a dirt yard the size of a football pitch are the war-damaged remains of what I gather was only a small part of the Tigers’ sea power, ranging from a converted jet ski up to quite sizeable fast launches. This being Sri Lanka I was most disappointed not to find an armoured swan pedalo among them. But it’s the submarines that grab the attention, from one-man jobs not fully submersible to a full-sized vessel under construction when time was called on the Tigers’ war effort. At the far end is a test and launch tank whose gates once led into the ocean. Information is minimal and the soldier speaks no English but even in such an off the beaten track attraction the local nose for a tourist proved to have its usual sensitivity. We’d been there maybe twenty minutes when a lad with a refrigerated box on the back of a small motorcycle rolled up. “Ice cream? You like ice cream?” We did. It was astonishingly hot and the container promised choc ices which we selected. “You have chocolate ice cream?” “Yes, Madam. Chocolate have”. A rummage in the box led to a revision of this statement. “Sorry, only orange have”. “OK, then, five orange ice cream”. Who cares? Anyway, we’d probably have rewarded him for his entrepreneurship if he’d been selling sand. Sadly the ‘orange’ iced lollies were fluorescent pink and tasted abominable. I ate three of the five (I hate waste), we gave one to the soldier and our driver ate his own uncomplainingly.

The end of the war in 2009 took us news-starved foreigners by surprise, but didn’t come as a surprise to Sri Lankans who had been expecting it for months. And stockpiling celebratory fireworks accordingly. Ironically, according to a friend of ours, the photographer Stephen Champion who recorded so much of the horror of the civil war from start to finish, and who therefore should know what he’s on about, the defeat of the LTTE was partly due to their decision to diversify from guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings into full-scale frontal assaults using their home-made military hardware. Taking on the Sri Lankan army in battlefield conditions amounted to a kind of fatal hubris; they could never hope to win a conventional war with unconventional weaponry. International events over which the LTTE had neither control, influence nor even interest, namely 9/11, then led to their being proscribed and demonised as ‘terrorists’ in the west’s ‘war on terror’ and to the drastic reduction of a great part of their foreign arms supplies and their foreign media influence. Defeat was only a matter of time. Though it still took another seven years. And the sheer bloody-mindedness of Rajapaksa who understood correctly that only overwhelming military force would defeat the Tigers and didn’t care who else got hurt or killed in the process.

I never know what to make about the tendency some people have to diminish war. People in Northern Ireland who refer to ‘the troubles’ or in Sri Lanka to ‘problem time’. Is it a reluctance (understandable) to face up to the horrors, or, more positively, an attempt to move on? ‘Problem time’ to me is redolent of something like the washing machine breaking down and flooding the kitchen, not the deaths of thousands. “Now problem all gone, Sir” our Jaffna taxi driver had continued. “Now all good”. Which it clearly is not. But if we pretend things are OK does that increase or decrease the likelihood that they will become so? Answers on a postcard.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Tom April 6, 2017, 6:06 pm

    Thanks Jerry, I enjoyed reading that. Good memories have somewhat brightened this dull Thursday afternoon in England!

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