(AlertNet) The packed buses hurtle along the once forbidden, dusty A9 highway from the Sri Lankan capital across the former frontline to the “liberated” north – a region held by the defeated Tamil Tiger separatists for the best part of a quarter of a century.
Along the way, the buses stop and passengers descend into the hot afternoon sun, taking out their phones to photograph displays of blown-up water tanks, captured boats, armoured vehicles and monuments dedicated to the army. In some places, they buy a cool refreshment and a souvenir t-shirt.
More than two years after the Indian Ocean island’s 25-year-old civil war ended, an entire generation of Sri Lankans is finally getting the opportunity to see a part of their country which was off limits. A place they had heard about, but never imagined visiting. A place now healing from the ravages of war.
“It’s really interesting to see all this,” says accountant Gayan, 33, from the capital Colombo, as he holds up his BlackBerry to snap a picture of his brother and father posing in front of a captured truck. It’s on display at an army-run roadside “tourist spot” at Elephant Pass, a strategic military base fought over repeatedly during the 25-year civil war.
“Growing up, we would hear about the Tigers and were scared of attacks in Colombo, so it’s good to have peace and see the north,” he said, sipping some ice-cold Coke at the cafe and examining the other war relics on display – a tractor and wooden boat once owned by the Tigers.
Sri Lanka’s army retook Elephant Pass, under Tiger control since 2000, as part of its 34-month offensive to end one of Asia’s longest modern conflicts once and for all – retaking nearly a third of the island’s land mass which the Tigers controlled, until a cataclysmic final battle defeated the separatists in May 2009.
In the nation’s south, including Colombo, the victory brought an end to the constant fear of suicide bombings and other attacks that killed thousands of civilians – a hallmark of the Tigers, who were on the terrorism lists of more than 30 nations.
Now, as communities return to find their homes destroyed, possessions lost and little means of making an income, some aid workers and residents question this “war tourism” in an environment where survivors worry about their next meal and are still haunted by their violent past.
“It’s wonderful that the war has ended,” said a foreign aid worker based in the northern Kilinochchi district, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the government.
“But given it was a horrible finish and that war-affected people are still struggling financially and emotionally to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives, it’s too soon and insensitive to be making even a small business out of it or erecting memorials to those partly responsible for civilian deaths.”
The government rejects allegations that it intentionally killed civilians during the final offensive, when some 300,000 were held hostage by the retreating Tigers.
It has ratcheted down the presence of foreign aid workers, especially in the north, where by necessity they worked with the separatists and often had their organisations infiltrated by Tiger operatives.
T-SHIRTS AND ARMY NOTEBOOKS
Most of the Tamil civilians were forced to flee with the Tigers, until army operations allowed hundreds of thousands of them to pour out. They were sent to crowded displacement camps lacking proper sanitation.
There is no conclusive figure on how many civilians were killed in the fighting in the final months.
A U.N.-sponsored report, criticised by the government as being filled with unfounded accusations that initially emerged from Tiger propaganda outlets, says there was “credible evidence” thousands and perhaps tens of thousands killed in shelling and fighting.
Yet no one who gets off the buses mentions the bloody end of the war or the struggle survivors are going through, despite the pick-up trucks laden with World Food Programme sacks of grain and large white lorries with the familiar blue “U.N.” lettering – a telling sign that aid is still needed here.
Along the A9 Highway, which runs through the centre of Kilinochchi town, a massive concrete water tank lies fallen on its side, blown up by Tigers retreating from a place they unilaterally declared the capital of Tamil Eelam, the country they wanted to carve out as a Tamil-only preserve.
The destroyed tank is enclosed within a wall, together with a plaque and a “Souvenir Galore” shop run by the army. Visitors take a few snaps, have a cold drink and buy a black t-shirt or baseball cap with “Kilinochochi Re-awakening” emblazoned across it, or opt for the smart Sri Lanka military field notebooks on offer for a just few hundred Sri Lankan rupees.
“During the week, there are many buses and people stopping. At weekends, we get the most amount of visitors – around 600 or so,” says Nalaka Vijaypala, 24, a Sri Lankan army soldier in civilian clothes, the left side of his head scarred from sniper fire during the war. “The army runs this place … It’s popular.”
Other monuments are also on display along the route – a giant cuboid with a bullet lodged inside it and a lotus flower and the gold, red and green Sri Lanka flag emerging from the top of it – in memory of the Sri Lankan army “in the gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism which has terrified this land,” reads the plaque.
The government has quickly repurposed its military assets and personnel for civilian purposes, in part to help President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-war development drive and also to keep the roughly 100,000 troops in the north gainfully engaged after the war.
But for some war survivors, it is just too early.
A few hundred metres down from the imposing cuboid, 35-year-old war widow Subendine, who sells vegetables by the roadside, says the visitors bring discomfort.
“They come and go … they take their pictures. They don’t ask us or even want to know what happened,” she said.
(Editing by Bryson Hull and Rebekah Curtis) Courtesy: Reuters-Alertnet