Seaside view from the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, before the tsunami
Exactly five years ago, on the morning after Christmas, an earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra. With a magnitude surpassing 9.1, it was one of the mightiest quakes on record. It spurred a series of tsunamis that devastated parts of Asia and Africa, and it killed at least 230,000 people. Jerry and I had just spent a month in Sri Lanka, one of the hardest-hit countries. When we heard the news, we shifted our holiday plans and traveled to Phuket, in southern Thailand, to cover the aftermath. What follows is an essay based on my journal notes from our month of travels along Sri Lanka’s edges, before Mother Nature altered the coastline forever. It’s the second in a two-part series. The first, a personal essay about reporting on the tsunami from Thailand, ran yesterday.
The Sea Before
Note: We visited Sri Lanka during a ceasefire in a 30-year civil war between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese government and the minority Hindu Tamil Tigers. That war ended in May 2009, but thousands of Tamil civilians remain in camps, and country is scarred by war. Jerry and I visited both south (predominantly Sinhalese) and north (predominantly Tamil) during our travels. In every corner of the country, Tamils and Sinhalese agreed: war would come again—and it did. Below are scenes from Sri Lanka’s waterfront, as it was in late November and early December 2004, just before nature pitched Sri Lankans a curveball in already catastrophic times.
A storm comes. Black towers of clouds fade into a sheet of gray as lightning prickles distant rooftops. It comes, like most Asian storms, hard and fast. We dine tonight on the ocean, in Mount Lavinia, just south of Colombo. We order devilled fish, chicken curry and spicy rice. Two cats mingle with our feet and whine for scraps — feisty.
For a long while, we are the only people at this restaurant, so barren is this beach. A tropical beach with little hint of tourism. A couple of quiet men stroll through the darkened sand, talking and smoking, their silhouettes like mist. They have no light but that faint blip of a cigarette. A southbound train rumbles past, people cramped inside and spilling out the doors. The tracks follow the shoreline, closer to the water than any road. This place has the feel of a town abandoned after battle; roughened, empty, a little spooky.
This morning I talk with Marcus, the desk man at our guesthouse. He spent 17 years in the Navy, in the north and east, and he describes his combat days with the hallmark precision of a tragic remembrance. “Our camp was attacked by LTTE in 1985. Third through fourth of May 1985. I was engaged in that face-to-face attack. We retaliated after 48 hours of attack.” He remembers three soldiers died and eight were badly injured: an amputated hand, an amputated leg, shrapnel wounds. After all these years, he still remembers the names of the dead and the cities they came from.
Marcus tells me he was excited to fight, not scared. He felt a duty to defend the lives of innocent people from “terrorist insurgents.” He thought he would die in that attack. “I thought there was no way — I must sacrifice my life.”
He admits the Tamils have not been treated kindly in the past 50 years; they suffered under the Sinhala-only law, which made Sinhalese the official language. “We must look at both sides.” But warfare aimed at civilians — bombs and raids in public places, a mark of the Tigers — is unconscionable, he says. “We must stop this nonsense.”
This afternoon, Jerry and I catch a train to Colombo. It takes 30 minutes in a shabby car with hard seats, hordes of people. The tracks skirt little shanties by the sea — nothing else on this coastline. Nothing but the poorest of homes, shacks huddled against each other. Women bathe at communal spigots, dogs laze in the shade. I watch their eyes as we slowly bounce by. (I remember their eyes later when I see pictures of these tracks, ripped from the earth and all these homes, gone.)
We arrive at Colombo’s main station amid hustle-and-bustle and a riotous noise. A moaning, more like it. Buddhist monks occupy the sidewalk, chanting in unison, protesting the LTTE. They do not want a separate country, a monk tells Jerry. They want a unified Sri Lanka, Tamils and Sinhalese. So they sit and chant their story amid the frenzied rush of humanity getting on and off the trains.
The sea, Colombo
Strolling around Colombo’s seaside fort: it feels as though the war is not over. Snipers skitter atop skyscrapers; two wiggle and wave when we spot them from the street. All government buildings hide behind thick barriers of sandbags and concertina wire. A lone soldier peeks from an empty seaside lookout on a playground of rainbow-colored swing sets.
We pass bombed-out buildings, just the shells still standing; we pass others reduced to heaps of broken bricks. Again and again, police officers stop us and ask where we go — no problem to look around, but no photos allowed. Colombo is a place at odds, with the tarnished remnants of colonialism and the feel of a city quietly under siege. There’s a police post, sponsored by Coca-Cola, beside the Galle Face Green, the city’s great promenade. There are checkpoints on the roads. There is tension and worry.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, we’ve almost forgotten. We drink beer at the Galle Face Hotel as the sun sets over roiling seas. Construction workers pound behind us; the ocean pounds before us. A chipmunk visits, taking my offerings of fried spicy cashew, propped on the leg of my chair. Crows cackle in the palms above us. The Indian Embassy stands within view; it is well-guarded, like all others. Soldiers prepare for another storm, erecting a tarp over their rooftop perch beside a mounted heavy machine gun. The sky blackens, the sea turns slate, the air cool and good. The rain chases us inside as it pummels the banquet tables on the lawn, white cloths and glasses drenched. Men in white shirts and black pants leap the wall and sprint to retrieve the dishes.
We return to Mt. Lavinia that night by taxi. As we pass through the Tamil area of Bambalapitiya, our driver tells us Tigers are bad for business. “Tiger people are dangerous,” he says. “They are suicide people.”
I tell our driver we are from the United States.
“Ahh… Bush,” he says.
I ask what he thinks.
If Bush had not been re-elected, he says, America would face more problems with Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda is a problem he understands — terrorists, he says, like the LTTE. How many times have the Tigers blown up hotels? Terrorists are bad for business, he says.
It’s a Poya day, a Buddhist holiday, and the streets are bare. We head to a cramped little office in Bambalapitiya to buy LionAir tickets to Jaffna in the Tamil north. These days, the agent tells us, Jaffna is “more normal than Colombo,” where every day brings a new murder or three.
LionAir resumed flights to Jaffna with the ceasefire in 2002, after a four-year hiatus. The company opened in 1994 but, “Unfortunately,” the agent says with a downward glance, “one of our planes was shot down.” All 48 passengers and crew disappeared off the coast of Mannar Island.
Nov. 27, Jaffna
We drop closer and closer to Jaffna, passing over sparkling estuaries. Emerald forests, egrets in rice paddies, red dirt roads, crisp air: It’s beautiful, stunningly so. But the airport is a bunkered high-security zone. More soldiers, more encampments, more looks of war. There is nothing to indicate it has stopped. This is Tamil Eelam, at the northern tip of the island.
The 17-kilometer road into town passes shot-up schools and bombed-out homes, businesses with nothing left, buildings with trees and bushes growing inside; mile after mile destroyed. Most every corner in most every neighborhood is guarded by a Sri Lankan Army bunker with soldiers watching.
We hire a van for a day trip, driving north and east, then back to Jaffna and west. It’s potholes all the way, nothing maintained. And everywhere, we see the Sri Lankan Army, the Sinhalese. Soldiers occupy the best beaches, Tamils tell us, and they’ve mined them all.
The young soldiers we talk to admit they don’t like it here. Tamils and Sinhalese living together, in fear.
These torn causeways wind through groves of palms, flush with birds and cows and goats, and more birds and butterflies, and more birds, all day long. Brahminy kites and cormorants, spot-billed pelicans and black-crowned night herons, little egrets, great egrets, grey herons, painted storks, red-wattled lapwings. I’ve never seen such birdlife in such abundance. The birds, so light on their legs; they walk through minefields with peaceful feet.
The homes we pass were lovely and elegant in a previous time, perched on the property of retirement dreams. Before: there were colonial art-deco villas set deep within coconut groves. Now: there is nothing but shattered walls and rooftops gone. So many families vanished, and all the contents of those homes with them.
I’m on our balcony in Jaffna. A cow swishes its tail across the street. People pass on bicycles and a small fire burns against a wall. The sun strikes upon the bombed buildings around me.
We spent the day in a three-wheeled taxi driven by Mr. K, a newfound friend. He has a difficult past, having traded the life of a Tiger for that of a family man. He knows men have been killed for the political thoughts he now harbors – all he wants is peace and normalcy, a future for his children.
Mr. K drives us to Kurikadduwan, where we board a ferry to Nainativu, a small island where Hindus and Buddhists meet. Amid 5,000 Tamil villagers sits a Buddhist temple where the Buddha himself walked 2,500 years ago. He came to Sri Lanka, ironically, to stop a war. Legend says he left his footprint here, which is why thousands of Sinhalese Sri Lankans make pilgrimages to this island. Hence, the government stationed a Navy garrison here.
Just outside the temple, along the road from Buddhists to Hindus, is a Navy bunker. A 21-year-old soldier asks Jerry if he’d like to photograph his gun, a T-56 LMG. The soldier comes from the inland city of Kandy and has been stationed here six years. I do the math and realize he was 15 when he came to this island of peace.
Back on our balcony in Jaffna, the rain comes lightly from a heavy cloud over wavering sun. A clunky armored personnel carrier shuttles a load of soldiers up the road. A bus follows with more officers, then a truck. There has been rioting in Jaffna for the past two days. The circumstances remain cloudy, but it seems to be a squabble over fishing and money. At night, we’ve heard the jolting booms of grenades.
Mr. K has told us two boys died in last night’s fighting. A curfew was set from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., though we don’t know if it still stands. There is no news here beyond word of mouth. This afternoon, we had hoped to see an old ice factory, a five-story building on the coast, so Mr. K began driving in that direction. The narrow road met a cramped intersection crowded with people. We inadvertently found ourselves in the center of rioting, where yesterday’s deaths occurred. The locals politely advised us to leave immediately.
Jaffna has grown on us, but its troubles run deeper than we can go.
Trincomalee, the eastern edge of Tamil Eelam. It could be Seattle, but it’s decidedly not. A city on a bay, islands and harbors, hills and fishing boats, birds and blue sky. Trinco sits on gorgeous land buffered from the sea. But it shelters the worst of ethnic hatreds and war-formed mentalities. Buildings are barricaded and marked with skulls and crossbones. As Jerry says, it’s as though no one here gives a shit, and shit is literally everywhere. So is garbage, so are guns.
The owner of our guesthouse is a man named Tilko, a Tamil who came of age in London. There, he drove a taxi, washed dishes and put himself through engineering school. He says his people are deeply united in their fight for freedom. “We are terrorists in the world’s eyes. But the people have suffered.”
Tilko returned during the ceasefire to help rebuild. He has opened several hotels, north and south, but he waits for lasting peace to pursue his grandest visions – he wants to build a resort on a small seaside plot outside Jaffna, and another one here, facing a coral island that’s good for snorkeling.
But it is not yet time.
Now, it is time to live with war in mind. Tilko plants rice and bananas on his vacant lands. That way, if the bombs fall one year, the fields can be replanted the next, he says. When he works on his hotels in town, he buys only cheap (though tasteful) materials because he knows the building may not last. “If there is war, we have to rebuild.”
Jerry and I take a tuk-tuk to the nearby tourist beach of Nilaveli. Our driver turns down a dirt trail and there it is, big wide sand, a few men casting lines, and nothing. No hotels, no restaurants, no tailor shops or tattoo stalls. It’s what happens in paradise when paradise goes to war.
A few scattered hotels lie farther up the road. We stop at a place where, for $17, you can rent a basic room with a porch overlooking the ocean. The pool-in-progress remains as it has for years. A military bunker sits next door. There are no guests when we visit, but the manager assures us things pick up in spring.
Dec. 26, Thailand
A tsunami strikes Asia, killing 230,000 people or more. Hardest hit are Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
The little hotel we visited in Nilaveli is gone; we read about it in updated online guidebooks. “Flattened,” “totalement detruit,” “completamente distrutto.” Much like the streets we strolled in Trinco, where the waves scattered landmines far from their designated fields. Much like the tracks south of Colombo, where the tsunamis killed at least 800 on a southbound train. That train was called the “Queen of the Sea.”
A week or so after the tsunamis, an envelope arrives from Mr. K. “I pen this letter to remember you. I and my family are in good health,” he writes. But northern Sri Lanka is not. Mr. K sets off around the Jaffna Peninsula, to help where he can.
Mr. K sets off to do what millions of Sri Lankans have hoped to do for decades: rebuild and renew. And restore life to a devastated land.