By Celina Cramer –
Namini Wijedasa’s experience on her Terrorism Tour sparked off dormant memories of my short visit to Jaffna. This was last August. It was a “very typical trip” in a Rosa bus with our large family headed by the family’s most influential person: a former high ranking officer. You can imagine the VIP treatment: no checkpoints, no queues. The tinted bus, rolling on the dusty road potholed by bombs, with blaring conversations and a radio frequency that never got it locked, playing all genres of songs from Sinhala, to Tamil and back and forth and few Hindi notes as well. I was saved by my IPod. As we got off the air-conditioned vehicle, we complained of the heat, with our hats and sun glasses protecting us from the scorching sun of the North. Passers-by looked at us puzzled: Sri Lankans? Can’t be? They should be used to the sun and the heat like us. I was amazed when I saw a bunch of girls riding their bicycles and hurrying off, like the group of lost tourists riding Vélibs in Paris during summer. In Colombo that same bunch of girls would have been riding in either a Tuk-Tuk by day or a cab by night.
As we arrived at our rest-house, my aunts ran to pick the best rooms with the attached-bathroom and the air-conditioning. Wiser me, escaped the commotion to stroll down the road. An old Catholic church with its walls peeling off its paint against tall palmyrah trees that shot off the dry ground, my friends who had joined me on the trip, posing away immortalizing scenes that could not be found elsewhere, houses against each other and a mosque just few blocks away. Everything seemed so discreet in this town; the young faces smiled and greeted us, while the older ones looked at us with eyes that had gone through the darkest of times. I stopped to ask if we could rent some bicycles during our stay. My guts blocked my Sinhala. I only said “Bicycle…rent?” To which a young man replied, “Thangachchi (-Sister), police station” and motioned to the left. I smiled, and said “Nanri” (– Thank you). That was what I had retained from the few years I had lazily learnt Tamil in school when I lived in Colombo.
I had already pictured my three days in Jaffna; riding with my buddies, visiting kovils, museums, libraries and occasional photoshoots down the beach, and definitely eating isso wadei and Karathha Kolumbans– Jaffna mangoes, the sweetest on the island! I was just getting ready to head to the police station when my mother hails me over and asks me to get ready for dinner: the Head of some important office had invited the busload over. My ride had to be paused momentarily, soon to resume I hoped.
The next day. A guided tour to Nagadeepa on a boat-ferry, where we had no queue to wait for and got the best spots on the coakroach-filled man-carrier. On the temple-island, a humble monk welcomed us, he explained his hardships and later bid farewell to us while getting into his Montero- gifted by a generous citizen concerned for his survival in the bad times- and saw us off into the insect-filled boat.
Next stop, the Battle field: this is where Prabhakaran slept, this is where he ate, and this is where he watched TV. 5 mins here, 10 mins there. ‘But stop! Now if you don’t have the National passport you cannot visit this spot Madam’. I contemplated presenting the yellow card with stereotypical details of my identity on it; it was not a passport but an identity card, at least it was definitely the national one with the logo and everything else on it. Does that meet the requirements? So should I step out or not…am I not a Sri Lankan on it? I stepped out, my cousin and his girlfriend too. None of us had the said document.., but still… I thought I am Sri Lankan… I sighed, knowing that, that was not enough… and quite unfortunately it was not going to solve the issue of my identity. Influence and something else helped us visit this site. Prabhakaran apparently swam there.
Lunch at another unknown but supposedly great person’s house – fried rice, devilled-chicken and chocolate icecream on the menu. Seriously? Did I come all the way from Colombo to eat this? And how on earth did this house stand the wrath of the 30 year war??? Three questions marks, like the three Chekovian dots in plays to portray the intensity of the silence that follows a dramatic line. Just as the 3rd question was being formulated and found its way to my mouth, I was soon distracted by the chilled Portello that was being served. The three days came and went in this order.
On our way back, we stopped over at an archeological site which turns out have proof of the existence of ancient Buddhist monasteries and temples. Yet another site out of the 2500 archeological sites in Sri Lanka that trace the Buddhist civilization. And I was quite sure that even though we were in the Northern Province, which show heavy anchorage of the Cholar influence and its prominent Chakravarthi dynasty, out of the 2500 only 7% of them had traces to this grand civilization and another 7% tracing Islamic influence and of course the remaining 68% must all be leading to Buddhist sites.
Never does this Wonder of Asia stop surprising me.
Three days later back in Colombo, everyone else planned the next trip to the south. But I couldn’t move on. I couldn’t help but feel I had missed out on something important. Is this what you call visiting? 3 days of lunches and dinners, 3 days of sight-seeing through a tinted bus, 3 days of unexplained ruined homes, faces and lives that were shattered progressively for 30 years… and we left Jaffna.
I knew something. I knew I will return. I will apologize for rushing through and ignoring your pain and suffering. I felt them and feel them now too. I came and went in 3 days. But you suffered for 3 decades and now I come.
*Celina Cramer graduated recently from the Université Paris 1 Sorbonne – Panthéon in Economic and Social Administration.