In the afternoon I cycled north to find the Mavira Thuyilim Illam (Martyrs’ Sleeping House), where 2000 LTTE soldiers are buried. An old man pointed me in the right direction, but when I reached the turn off I was prevented from continuing to the cemetery by a soldier holding a rifle.
‘Why can’t I go down there?’ I asked, perching on my bicycle and looking past him to the gate. I knew it had been open a year previously. The soldier didn’t speak much English but he said ‘no’ again and blocked my path.
‘So if I go down there you’ll shoot me?’ I said, sarcastically, which was a stupid thing to say, even if he didn’t understand. I’m not good at being told what to do. He wouldn’t let me even take a photograph of the gate until I had the idea of asking, through mime, if I could take his photo, standing there looking so impressive with his rifle. Sri Lankans love having their picture taken and he quickly agreed! After that there was nothing for it but to turn around and return to town, although at least it was a pleasant cycle ride, past fruit trees, vegetable crops and buffaloes.
I later learned that the graveyard had recently been bulldozed and turned into offices for the Sri Lankan Army. This horrified me and I asked one local I met how this was possible.’They do what they like,’ he said, soberly. Then he told me that some of the people around here were crazy and I should be careful. I couldn’t help feeling that peace here is still fragile. Nobody wants a return to violence and suffering, but at the moment they’re largely being kept in check through fear. It is unbelievable that people are too afraid to protest the destruction of a graveyard. If prosperity comes quickly to the area and people are given their freedom back, i.e. the soldiers move out, and if the Tamils feel they are being fairly treated by the majority Sinhalese government, then Sri Lanka can move forward to being the strong, beautiful country it should be. But if the government tries to quell the Tamil minority by keeping them weak, broken and afraid, as they were by the war, and doesn’t make a substantial effort to rebuild communities, then it seems inevitable that trouble will resurface. The actual fighting in the civil war may have largely been confined to the north and east, but all Sri Lankans have been affected by it, and no civilians want a return to such dark times.
On the way I was buzzed several times by UN vehicles roaring up and down Temple road. There are a lot of UN buildings along Temple road and surrounds, very distinctive with their white exteriors and huge blue UN capitals painted over the top. Somehow, I found these buildings a little bit in your face and testosterone-fuelled for my liking, although I understand the need to stand out during a conflict. Even their huge white vehicles read more like ‘wanker’ than ‘peace-keeper.’ There were several other charities in the same area, including ‘Save the Children’ and ‘Stop Violence Against Women’, and this was heartening to see.
I reached the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil just in time for the 4pm puja, when offerings were made to Murugan, the God of War, and his elephant headed brother, Ganesh. A priest smeared some white powder on my forehead and I gave a R40 donation, which I thought was small until I saw other people just dropping coins into the box. This Hindu Kovil is one of the most important Hindu temple complexes in Sri Lanka, and in July and August pilgrims come from all over the country to attend the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil festival. Pujas go on day and night during this time, and carved wooden animals and gods are carried through the streets. The wooden Jaffna horses became famous when the revered Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa used them for his interiors, and antique versions are now worth thousands of dollars. As I was leaving I passed one of the smaller temples and glimpsed five plump girls in saris doing yoga!
Travelling to Jaffna Once you have your permit you can now travel to Jaffna on any bus going there, although you can’t yet stop between Vavuniya (vow-nya) and the Jaffna peninsula, without special permission. From Colombo you could catch a train to Vavuniya (9½ hours), and then change, or you could buy a ticket for one of the many buses direct from Colombo. They all travel at night, leaving from about 7.30pm. The best place to buy a ticket is at one of the travel agencies on Galle Rd in Wellawatta, Colombo, but travel agencies in Fort also sell tickets. As little as a year ago the journey was interrupted by multiple security checks and took at least 15 hours, but now the bus only stops three times: once for a tea break, once at a checkpoint and once in Murukandy, in the Vanni region about 15km south of Kilinochchi. It reaches Jaffna after about 10½ hours. A ticket on the more expensive buses costs R1200, but you can travel for as little as R400 on a basic bus. The ‘luxury’ buses are more comfortable but they’re also freezing, due to the unnecessary use of air-conditioning (see below); and they play films at a sometimes piercing volume