By Andy, 65. Byron Bay, NSW
It must have been early February 2005 …
I was bored with my current job, so on a whim I bought a ticket to Sri Lanka and boldly decided to become a volunteer in the post-tsunami southeast coast of that troubled land.
Prior to leaving, I spoke with an experienced manager of a non-profit organisation who, once he heard my plans, clearly warned me not to go into that area. Why? The Sri Lankan army was taking advantage of the carnage to make a final push against the Tamil Tigers on the whole east coast. It was a hot war that the international media was not covering except for getting mileage from boatloads of refugees attempting to flee to countries like Australia.
I had been travelling for a while and must have been in Kandy about a week when I finally made the decision to go to the coast. So I joined about forty locals on a rickety, ancient bus winding down from the hills and heading to Batticaloa, perched on the mideast coast.
On arrival, I got off to stretch my legs and get some water when I saw a horrendous sight. The tsunami had devoured a cemetery and graves were obscenely open for all to see. Snapped at the base, coconut palms and headstones strewn about like toys after a tantrum. I quickly turned away in respect and embarrassment.
Heading south was gruelling. No one spoke to me. (I thought no one spoke English until later.) I ran out of water, the trip was taking far longer than I had been promised and ominously, we were frequently passing soldier posts with piled sandbags and large calibre machine guns.
I still remember this moment like yesterday.
My fellow passengers all started fearfully peering at the chipped and dusty front windscreen of the bus. It was like a scene from a Vietnam war movie. The thin bitumen road was paralleled by red dirt and long grass. In the middle of the road was a soldier aiming his rifle at the driver. He, in return, eased the bus to the verge and as if in slow motion got his paperwork, always showing his hands. As he got down the stairs a soldier sprang onto the bus with his ancient M16 at his shoulder, swaying it side to side. When he saw me, he came up to me and used the barrel to indicate for me to get off the bus as well. Bizarrely, I thought someone may steal my pack when I was gone, so I took it with me!
I was in shock/calm, and clearly remember the thought that with all my searching and travelling for “Truth” and spiritual answers, and here I am going to be shot in the dust. It was actually slightly humorous …
As I got to the top step, I was greeted by a steady barrel and two red eyes aimed at my forehead. The soldier motioned me to come down and stand at the side of the bus facing outward. I could now see that a firefight was in action. A soldier was crouching down with a whip aerial radio strapped to his back, talking fast. Others were scouring the long grass. It was all happening so fast …
Now, this country had been at war since the fifties, so the people have seen much suffering and fear and are tough. But when I glanced up into the cabin I saw a woman stony faced, looking straight ahead, refusing to be a witness to what was to inevitably happen. There was a trickle of sweat running from her head covering leaving a shiny trail down her smooth brown cheek.
I clearly remember the thought that with all my searching and travelling for “Truth” and spiritual answers, I am going to be shot in the dust.
It seemed to me that the soldiers were panicking and scared. They didn’t seemed to know what to do with us (yes, all men were lined up against the bus by this point) except aim their rifles from the shoulder like executioners, which I’m fully sure they were intending to be very soon.
Miraculously, a military vehicle drove up and an officer stepped out. The tension dropped amongst the soldiers immediately. I carefully opened my pack and displayed my passport. The officer didn’t acknowledge me but nodded to a soldier to move me back on the bus. One by one the men were interrogated under a nearby tree. Some were beaten, especially the young men. All of us were still under the watchful eye of angry soldiers. Until after what seemed an eternity, we were allowed to continue.
As soon as we were out of danger, I was surrounded by all the men. Yes, they could all speak English and all spoke at once. What had happened was that two Tamil Tigers had raced past a soldier post on a motorbike and thrown a hand grenade, killing two soldiers the previous night. In revenge, the soldiers went to the nearest village and opened fire, killing fifteen people. They were out for more blood. Despite the officer turning up, I can’t believe we weren’t all shot. Possibly an international issue if an Australian was killed as our conservative government of the time was fast friends with the Sri Lankan regime. But, of course, I was to find out that the SL government wasn’t past murdering NGO workers and blaming the Tigers.
I finally got off the bus and hired a tuk-tuk to get me across the armies temporary bridge, which, of course, had just been hurriedly constructed after the tsunami. As we crossed on our way into Arugam Bay, I was in for possibly the biggest shock of the day.
There, winding her way through hundreds of soldiers and massive military vehicles, was a lithe blonde girl/woman carrying her surfboard and only wearing a g-string bikini — blissfully unaware of the death and mayhem a few weeks before, ignorantly unaware that this is mostly a Muslim/conservative Buddhist area.
As usual, there is much more to this tale but I reckon that’s enough for today.