By The Economist –
IN A war-scarred pocket of jungle in north-eastern Sri Lanka are the remains of the last stronghold of the rebel group, the Tamil Tigers, before they were wiped out by the armed forces in 2009. It looks like a godforsaken place: just to get there busloads of people drive through a swelteringly hot landscape of bombed-out houses, emaciated cattle and mangled cars. But then, surreally, appears a swimming pool, 25 metres long and seven metres deep. This was where government photographs once showed Velupillai Prabhakaran, the pudgy leader of the Tigers, taking a dip and reclining on a lilo.
As wartime propaganda goes, the images were unbeatable. In fact, the pool also had a serious purpose. The frogmen of the rebels’ crack naval wing, the Sea Tigers, trained there, learning to destroy ships by attaching magnetic mines to their hulls.
Today triumphalism abounds among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala population. The army found the pool in 2009, drained it, then invited tourists in. Now they come by the thousands. Mostly Sinhala visitors from outside the Tamil north, they gawp at the empty pool, then gulp iced drinks at the adjoining Café Sixty Eight (run by the army’s 68 Division). Signs are only in the English and Sinhala languages.
The pool is one stop on a tour of former war zones in the district of Mullaitivu, one of the worst areas of fighting during a conflict in which up to 100,000 people died. On a recent Buddhist holiday tourists crammed into Prabhakaran’s favourite underground bunker in the village of Visuvamadu. When he was alive, the concrete structure, buried four storeys underground, was air-conditioned. Now it is stuffy and stinks of sweat.
At nearby Vallipunam, tourists view the torture chambers with their smelly, open latrines, and walls on which inmates scratched poignant notes, many of them expressing faith in God. Inside another bunker sits the container that held the diabetic Prabhakaran’s insulin vials. Visitors shuffle through a secret underground passage leading from the wardrobe of a Sea Tiger leader to his garden.
For more than a year after the war, much of Mullaitivu was off-limits to civilians. But even now many Tamils still cannot return home because of the danger of landmines—and the lingering military presence. Though Tamils are not excluded from the tours, few attend. M.A. Sumanthiran, a Tamil legislator, complains that the tourist trail is “a kind of gloating”, which he believes does not help post-war reconciliation.
Some visitors, however, have darker reasons for coming. An old woman from the southern city of Galle confessed she had not expected the journey to be so tiring. But she said so many men from her village had died fighting the Tigers that she had to come. If only the Tamils, too, could have their journey of reckoning.