Sri Lanka has been in civil war for over 20 years. Gina Heslington recalls being trapped in the crossfire of a bomb attack in Trincomalee.
Sri Lanka is like a tear drop below India’s face; as an island of bewildering beauty and spiritual wealth, it is an exotic Eden for many holidaymakers. Yet for the island’s inhabitants, the reality is much grittier, as the violent interracial conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil factions continues.
Founded in 1972, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were originally a merging of several nationalist Tamil groups based in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Since then, the LTTE has systematically used aggressive and violent tactics as part of its fight for an independent Tamil state. Now officially listed as a terrorist organization by 31 countries, over 64,000 lives have already been claimed in the crossfire of the conflict.
On April 12, 2006, I found myself caught in this crossfire when a bomb went off at a busy market in the North eastern port town of Trincomalee, just 100 metres from where my three friends and I were sat in an internet café.
The sound was loud and unexpected, as if a heavy object had been thrown against the window. It was only when everyone in the café hurriedly jumped up and left in a frenzy of upturned chairs that we realised we were in danger. Suddenly chaos enveloped the once sleepy, dusty streets. Panicked mothers ushered their children indoors, as thick grey smoke, rising from a burning vegetable market stall, enveloped us all. Civilians wove in and out of the growing number of gathering soldiers.
In the pandemonium, we were taken in by two VSO Volunteers working for one of the many aid agencies in Sri Lanka. We watched as the first news filtered through the BBC website: 14 people killed and dozens wounded, with limbs strewn across the streets. My stomach turned as another blast shook the house.
We stayed overnight, and by morning, a bomb curfew had been announced: no one could leave their homes until it was declared safe. Overnight, mobs had burnt down over 40 businesses, largely through the use of hand grenades. All we could do was wait.
Trincomalee has a long history of violence. Half of the town people are Hindu Tamils and the rest a mix of Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslims. Age-old tensions have resulted in frequent acts of bloodshed; such as the assassination of Vanniyasingham Vigneswaran, a strong supporter of the LTTE, which had occurred just five days earlier. Much was made of the murder by the LTTE and apparently the town had since been holding their breath in anticipation of some sort of retaliation.
Hours passed before we decided to risk the curfew and drive to a safer part of town on the coast. We drove through the streets cautiously, our white land rover packed with provisions. At a road check point we were halted for five minutes before being ushered on, temporarily safe thanks to our European passports. As my friends and I checked into the French Garden Hotel, it felt as if we had arrived in the eye of the storm; a paradisiacal oasis of palm trees lining the turquoise waters of the Bay of Bengal.
The next morning we welcomed in the Tamil and Sinhala New Year in a beach-house a few hundred yards along the bay, where the German VSO couple were staying with a friend of theirs. We sipped tea as we tried to calmly digest the facts. The mobs were drunk, and everyday more houses were being vandalized and looted. The day before, three innocent people had been burnt alive in a rickshaw and others had been hacked to death. Although the curfew was still officially in place, whole families had begun to evacuate as talk of “ethnic cleansing” against the Tamils gathered momentum.
Despite the grim news, there was a flicker of hope. VSO had contacted the German family that morning to inform them that the situation was too dangerous for them to remain. Safe transport had been arranged for them out of Trincomalee, and there was space for us to travel with them.
The next morning, an explosion fractured the fragile paradise. We froze as we stared at the thick smoke rising from the shore. A peace worker informed us that our German friends had left earlier that morning, “With the French girls from the hotel next door, they could only take volunteers.”
Terrified, I knew we had to take matters into our own hands. Within the hour, the four of us were sitting squashed up in a rickshaw, but it wasn’t long before we ground to a halt. I looked at the driver questioningly, “I won’t go any further, it’s no longer Tamil. You swap drivers.”
Walking meters from enemy lines we found another driver in an identical vehicle, but this time with Buddha smiling at us from the windscreen instead of dancing Hindu Gods. He carried us to the centre of town and dropped us off in the eerie streets of the abandoned area. Every building was either boarded up or burnt and blackened, with only the cows and goats left roaming the streets. After a few minutes of walking, we saw the outlines of two battered buses. Joining the swarm of families and suitcases, we crushed on and endured the seven hour journey to Colombo in a sweat of relief.
A white flag of sorts was flying from every house that we passed, at times nothing more than a crumpled shirt. Beneath each one stood the silhouette of soldier, cradling his gun as a reminder of the peace being so carefully guarded.
The official line originally claimed that all the deaths in the attacks on the April 12 were Sinhalese, and explained that the ensuing violence against the Tamils was the result of crimes of passion in reprisal. Other sources claimed that the explosion was pre-meditated, with the explosion of the bomb giving a ‘green-light’ to allow the Government to conduct a calculated attack against the Tamils. It was said that the army stood by as gangs of Sinhalese men incinerated Tamils with cans of gasoline.
More than 1500 people were displaced in the turmoil and at least 60 injured. The record of destruction also includes about 40 businesses that were looted, 15 vehicles that were torched and 60 that were smashed. It is now recognised that the 14 victims of the bomb attack that were in fact a mix of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, killed by a bomb attached to a bicycle activated by a remote control. The story received little coverage in Britain or elsewhere.
The tear drop island of Sri Lanka cries out for peace, yet we in the West only turn our heads when a large amount of blood is spilled.