I’ve just returned from a week in Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost city, which was largely destroyed during the war. The signs of recent conflict and destruction were everywhere. I saw several de-mining units, minefields next to houses, burned-out tanks, bullet holes in every other building, an enormous LTTE cemetery, fortified military posts on street corners, bombed out neighborhoods, and palm trees cut in half by mortars.
Blackouts still occur several times a day, and I even found a spent artillery shell in the field next to the building in which the HHR staff was conducting a seminar on children’s rights.
Even more interesting was the ride up and back.
The LTTE’s territory has been reduced to a strip of land just south of Jaffna; since the signing of the cease-fire, people have been free to transit through the area. However, they have to deal with four extensive checkpoints; two for the LTTE and two for the government at both entry points.
The military’s procedure, I thought, was exhaustive. All of our luggage was thoroughly checked, as was our van’s undercarriage and our identity papers. The officials (all Sinhalese) seemed rather nice, considering that the other passengers were Tamils. But then, after a 2 km ICRC-controlled no-man’s land, it was the LTTE’s turn.
Tough it’s considered a terrorist group by the US government, the LTTE is actually a much more comprehensive organization. Within its territory, it has its own police force (uniforms and all), judicial system, banks, and even a newly established human rights secretariat. So it was no surprise that its border officials were just as well-organized as their Sinhalese counterparts. The presence of a white person, however, made things even more complicated.
Apparently US soldiers have been training the military in the north, so I came under suspicion, despite having brought along only my Swiss passport. Mrs. Xavier, my boss’s wife, insisted on accompanying me when an LTTE “intelligence agent” said he just wanted to “ask a few questions.”
It was more of an insult session than an interrogation; as Mrs. Xavier remarked, he may do intelligence work “but he didn’t SEEM very intelligent.” He came out with such memorable and utterly irrelevant questions as “Why do you have a beard, man, are you trying to look like Bin Laden?”
I felt like asking him “Wait, who’s the terrorist here?” but luckily between those questions Mrs. Xavier was scolding him in Tamil to mind his own business. The best part was when he ordered me to unroll the sleeves of my t-shirt, because “Now you’re entering an LTTE area and you have to respect Tamil culture”!
Considering the fact that he was wearing jeans, a polo shirt, a baseball cap and shoes, while I at least had flip-flops on, I’d say I was doing the better job of respecting his culture.
On the way back, meanwhile, my CD case required a special clearance because the LTTE is trying to keep pornographic DVDs from entering their territory. I think they have bigger things to worry about than porn, like maybe putting roofs on their school buildings. Mr. Xavier already plans to write the LTTE a letter reprimanding them for doing everything possible to hurt their image.
Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)
Posted Jul 23rd, 2004