Uncomfortably comfortable in Jaffna

We are driving from Jaffna back to Colombo along the A9 highway.

Around us the land is dry. Too dry for the thick vegetation, tea plantations and rolling hills we saw in Kandy but strong enough to host a scatter of shrubs and bushes. Our van takes us over Elephant Pass, a strip of newly paved road. Across the way is a humanitarian mine relief van – a reminder of a different time just 7 years ago. The old buildings are sparse, rooted in the earth, murmuring tales of a history come and gone. Newer buildings, still in construction, stand alongside their elders. Waiting to live out their time along the Elephant Pass. Both blend into the scene of Jaffna: simple, lonely, but still standing.

The Elephant Pass was a long contested piece of land between the Sri Lankan army and the separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) because it was the gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula.  In 2013, the Sri Lankan and Chinese government invested Rs. 19,125 million to renovate the road and allow for ease of travel. After all, by land, A9 is one of the few ways in and out of the North.

The empty, abandoned and half standing houses contradict the story that the tarmac tries to tell. The tarmac conceals a history that the houses still bear, scarred with bullet wounds and bloody with rot. But the smooth tarmac road is nice to drive on. It’s not bumpy like the roads in Delft Island or winding like the road from Kandy to Colombo. It feels comfortable driving on this road. Easy, smooth, relaxing. I could sleep. But I fight to keep my eyes awake, stare out the window, and imagine a life much different than the one I’m enjoying in this air conditioned van. I am uncomfortable.

It’s hard to find personal accounts of the war online but more and more, people are documenting their memories and locking them in between two binds. Rohini Mohan’s In the Seasons of Trouble and Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead are two creative accounts of the war- telling stories from the perspective of civilians mothers, sons, fighters, teachers and priests. Stories from humans, alike. 

A memorial stands proudly after the Elephant Pass. A giant cement wall with a bullet pierced in the interior sits in the middle of a lush, green park. Quite the contradiction compared to the dry, arid landscape of Kilinochchi. There are no cars parked nearby, no tourists flashing their cameras. The memorial seems to have an interesting tale to tell: perhaps one that is apologetic of the war or perhaps one that boasts its victory over terrorism. The man dressed in an elaborate military uniform decorated with medals and badges, surrounded by common men sweeping in the park, suggests that the latter. The plaque in front of the monument confirms it. It was erected by the government to praise the Sri Lanka army’s “gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism”. If the propaganda wasn’t strong enough, it was erected a little less than a year after the war ended. In the middle of a Tamil-majority town.  On land that belonged to top Tiger, Thamil Chevlam. On land that was also a children’s park. I am uncomfortable.

The plaque by the memorial reads: “The victory memorial is a tribute to the glorious forces and to the state leadership by His Excellencey the President and the Commander in Chief of the armed forces Mahinda Rajapaksa who was born for the grace of the nation with the guidance and coordination of the Secretary Defence Honourable Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the greatest victory achieved capturing the town of Kilinochchi on 2 January 2009 through a humanitarian operation which paved the way to eradicate terrorism entirely from our motherland and restoring her territorial integrity and the noble peace. The monument was erected in the town of Kilinochchi which was held as the terrorist stronghold in memory of the magnificent victory achieved by 57 division supported by 58 division with taskforce 2 and 3 of the Sri Lanka arm ably supported by rest of the security forces in the gallant operation to annihilate savage and brutal terrorism which has terrified this land over 20 years is masked by a cuboid and the projectile, which is penetrated this cuboid symbolizing the sturdiness of invincible Sri Lanka arm to blossom forth in a lotus of peace enwrapped in the fluttering national flag that programs the resplendent majesty of the nation’s glory.”

It’s Independence Day here in Sri Lanka. Unlike the rest of the country, there are little to no flags flying in Kilinochchi, less in Vavuniya and virtually none in Jaffna. If there are, we don’t see them. My time in the North felt ambivalent. Contradictory. Like two stories were struggling to have their voice heard.

I am uncomfortable.

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