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The Pointed Path To Peace

February 4, 2014

April 2003

IN THE 12KM between Trincomali and Nilaveli, there are two police checkpoints, a World War II British veterans’ cemetery, a garbage dump that looks to be afire, many old bus stops – one bearing “Lovers Day” and “I Love You” graffiti – numerous brick shacks, and one expansive thatch-roofed shanty refugee camp. It is estimated over a million people are displaced after Sri Lanka’s civil war or “freedom struggle”. Tamils worry that many could see The Tigers (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE), as terrorists and they fear a war on terrorism. Economics are behind the peace agreement: the promise of foreign investment put peace on the table.

Driving down Sri Lanka’s east coast, war seems to be everywhere, touch everything. From Batticaloa, we drive past police training headquarters and more checkpoints, military sites, and automatic weapon-hauling troops running through obstacle courses and ground training. We continue south past bombed out houses and buildings wrought upon by war’s havoc, in between beautiful fields of fertile, arable land and rice paddies. We come across more army posts and armed troops piled into camouflaged trucks and jeeps or riding bicycles with AK47s slung over their shoulders. Every road lined for miles with coiled razor wire and barbed wire fencing. Some areas camouflaged the wire with palms, but camouflage is camouflage, not decoration nor beautification. Imagine everyday going to and from school or work, confined by barbed wire. Afternoon comes and many towns are closed for prayer. Women are garbed in white or black, and children are wearing mauve school uniforms. We are in a land of mosques, beards, beef pastries, and no alcohol. In Oddamavadi, we pass under a giant banner that reads: SADDAM HUSSEIN MUST WIN: SATANIC BUSH MUST PERISH. We are Western non-Muslims in a Muslim area of a non-Western country during a Western War on Terrorism.

We reach the small east coast fishing village of Arugam Bay. Here, corner stores display pictures of Osama Bin Laden and Mecca, and vocalized opinions are that of “Americans bad! Canadians good! Support Sri Lanka!” This often translates into: give me money. There are few tourists, mostly surfers and a few girls. They are not used to Westerners here, and as weeks go by and lingering stares and halted gaits to get and see us females up close up continue, I often feel uneasy.

4:30am I awake to the light switching on then quickly off. Someone is outside the hut. Half asleep, I glance left out the window. A dark face appears in the black night two feet away. “Hey!” I exclaim, and point at him. Not thinking clearly, I clap my hands twice – perhaps in hopes to scare the guy off – nudge my boyfriend next to me and sputter, “Aron! There is a guy at the window!” The guy vanishes, only to reappear in the other window, now gazing at us straight ahead. Aron sees him, gets up, standing 6’3”, he bellows something out – and he was gone.

In the morning, we tell Ranga, the owner, about the incident. Ranga is a kind man, a big man with a big beard and a big belly, always wearing a blue sarong. He is a Tamil in a town of Muslims. He does not interfere. He tells us it is one of two reasons or types of people: first, it could be someone older, a brown sugar addict, “like my neighbor, the guy that always walks around here selling hash, or showing up with surf boards, looking for anything for a quick steal to sell and get cash. He used to be a nice guy, he is my neighbor, but now he is not nice even to his family;” or second, a younger 13-15 year-old kid wanting “to see boobies. Some Muslim kids have never even seen the arms of their mother or sister.” We figure our Peeping Tom was the latter, and though unsettling, at home we do not leave our ground-level windows wide open at night. It is hot here, in this eastern Muslim village, and we are staying in a beach hut for $10 CDN a day, including breakfast, for both of us.

There is a ceasefire, yet the scads of armed forces and razor wire all down the east coast belie it. We hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the bank in Pottuvil. We pass more army barracks with officers armed, ready, watching through the wire. We are told traps are set up in the marshes, and tires are positioned as clues. The horizon consists of bombed out, deserted areas, old war zones that a few survivors have returned to and now somehow inhabit.

In the bank in Pottuvil, two uniformed men with guns stand watch. One in a green uniform goes outside for a moment, AK47 slung over his shoulder. The other one, younger, in a dark mauve uniform, follows suit, only he leaves his automatic weapon on the seat just inside the entrance to the bank. The unmanned weapon, not ten feet away from me, remains in the front entrance of the bank unattended, long enough for me to notice and point it out to my boyfriend, and long enough to have gotten up, grabbed it and held the bank up – before the uniform scurries back inside to grab his weapon. Perhaps he is still in training.

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From → Sri Lanka

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