Into a war zone - Smiling Sri Lanka - CycleBlaze

February 15, 2020

Into a war zone

The next train at platform two will be...
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MULLAITIVU - The nearer you get to the coast - in this case the Bay of Bengal - the more you notice something that's not immediately obvious.

We have ridden here from Kilinochchi, the town in which we disembarked from the train. I half took in the marble plaque at the station, lettered in Tamil and English, but I'd have been better to take more notice. You'll see why in a moment.

Air-conditioned train travel
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What slowly sinks in is how many new buildings there are here, and how many more are being built or renovated. And then you look more closely and see the bullet holes in the walls.

Scars of battle
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It was here that the Tamil Tiger separatists fought most desperately in the civil war. And that plaque at the station pointed out that the war, which it described as stupid, wrecked the train line. In fact it stranded a train, which the Tigers used as a barracks. Traffic has only recently been restored.

We spotted the signs first as the train rolled gently towards Kilinochchi. Three of the houses beside the line had RED CROSS painted on the roof.

Field hospital
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You'd guess cynically that any householder with a ladder and a pot of paint would have clambered up there to suggest to pilots that his was not a home but a hospital. But if that was the case then the lettering would be erratic, and different on each house. But it wasn't. It was the same size and the same style, so in all probability these really were houses taken over as field hospitals.

The war began in 1983 and it ended only in 2009. A long time for such a small island. And what caused it? Resentment.

Those in the north of the island speak Tamil and are largely Hindu. Historically they came from southern India, a trend encouraged by the British. They felt themselves second-class citizens when independence came in 1948, pointing out that most of the politicians, state employees and lawyers were in the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking south. I don't doubt there's more to it than that, and other people's wars are never easy to understand. Nobody knows even know how many died before the Tigers were defeated. By then, they had started building ships and even a submarine.

Searching for submarines
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We went looking for them - it's not every day you see a home-made submarine - but three long sandy lanes to the sea revealed nothing. We asked local people with the help of a computer translation but they knew nothing, so convincingly nothing that we began to wonder how anybody could not have known about a military shipyard.

We think we found where it had been. We were told to look for a military building on the beach. There we found three bored soldiers, none of whom spoke English or , incidentally, Tamil. They knew nothing, although they thought they'd heard of a submarine and sent us back the way we'd come. In the end we decided that everything had been broken up and carried away.

The Farah III broke down off the coast, was stormed by the Tamils as a gun platform, and eventually drifted ashore
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We did, though, find the remains of a Jordanian freight ship whose crew had the misfortune to break down just off the shore. The Tamils sailed out, removed the crew and used the ship as a gun platform. When they were themselves overcome, the ship was left to beach itself and much of what poked above the waves was cut off for scrap.

This was where the last battle happened. The southern forces crowded the Tamils on to the beach and surrounded them. Remains of military vehicles and a wrecked landing craft litter the land behind the beach. A bullet hole through a windscreen was the last thing its driver saw.

Remains of war
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All is calm now but it's hard to know what resentment, what memories, may lurk. People seem less smiling, friendly but without the effusiveness of southerners. There are certainly fewer Sri Lankan flags. Nobody likes to be defeated.

The national memorial to the war is overblown, vain-glorious and must sit uneasily with the locals
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The Tamil people's own memorial, to civilians as much as soldiers, is humble, more realistic but crumbling through neglect
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We spent today on a long straight road close to the sea for want of an alternative. This is a poorer area than the south, little visited by tourists, dependent largely on the fields of cropped rice that were our most constant scenery. There never was much tourism here, despite the glorious beaches and clear, turquoise sea. But what there was has had trouble recovering from the war and then a tsunami.

Nothing like an understated declaration of love for Valentine's Day
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We talked to a lot of people today, usually getting the drift if not the details. The most mysterious was a wizened man who, writing in the dust, told us he was 70. People age quickly here. "By the time we're 60, we're tired," was the way that Madhu put it the other day. Some keep their vitality. This old boy came pedalling past us in sandals on a black, single-speed bike made in the 1950s. He lost a little of his lead on the gentle rises but then, when he got going again, he waved first his right and then his left arm like an overeager jockey.

"Catch me! Catch me!" he seemed to be saying. "Or try to, anyway, because I can ride faster than you."

Maybe he wanted a race. I think he just enjoyed the mischief. We never found out because we stopped to take a picture of Ganesh, the elephant-boy god, painted on a bus shelter. Disappointed, he turned back and embarked on a one-sided conversation in which it appeared not to be important that we understood him. Our only role was to look puzzled.

Undeterred, he began - or at any rate we think he began - to invite us somewhere. To his home, perhaps. We couldn't think where else. Not waiting for acceptance or refusal, he set off pedalling again down the road.

Sadly for him, and I feel guilty, we turned further into the track we had already entered and went off in search of home-made submarines. He was to  be disappointed and so were we.

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Dave MorganI'm in Kilanochchi and would like to ride to Mullaitivu tomorrow. If I can find accommodation between Mullaitivu and Trincomalee. Hopefully, around halfway. You two appear to have followed this route; where did you sleep? I assume you didn't do the 100+ km in one day?
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1 month ago
Leo WoodlandHi Dave

Sorry about the delay in replying. You've doubtless resolved the problem by now.

I've gone back to my list of daily rides. And I see that we did indeed ride 121km from Mullaitvu to Nilvali and then 22 to Trincomalee. And that, as you doubtless read, was not without much suffering.

We found somewhere out of our class at Nilvali, a place of pools and bars and cabins and stayed there for two nights while I dragged myself back from the dead.

I'm sorry if you're having trouble finding places to stay, at least on that day. The economy collapsed the week we left and indeed the whole island was closed, in and out, the day after we flew out. Covid and the lack of tourists, and then the financial crisis, will doubtless have closed a lot of the places that were open back then.

Sorry not to have brought your cheerier or faster news. What became of you in the end?
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1 month ago