A day at the front line in Sri Lanka
Access for foreign journalists to Asia’s longest running civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government troops, is very tightly controlled by the Sri Lankan government. Getting near the front line area known as the ‘No Fire Zone’ is only possible with an officially sanctioned trip organized by the Ministry of Defence. Last Friday, April 24, I went on one.
The trip started at 3.30am, when I arrived at the military air base in Colombo. We went through 3 security checks, before boarding our plane at 6.30am. We flew north for about 30 minutes to a small airstrip at a place called Mankulam. From here, we boarded two Mi-8 helicopters. To avoid any ground fire, the choppers fly at maximum speed just above the height of the tallest trees, and when I say just, I mean scraping the leaves. This fast and furious ride lasted just 30 minutes to the town of Kilinochchi.
We had a quick briefing, and then we set off in a convoy of armored personnel carriers towards the front. The carrier that I got into was a very old, clunky thing of which there was not much evidence of suspension. The roads in the area had suffered 25 years of a civil war, and were in seriously bad condition. Myself and and a TV cameraman tried our best to grab pictures as we sped along at around 50 miles/h but we were being thrown around so much, even for me to get the camera up to my face and see through it, was near impossible. We held on the best we could, and I managed to get a few ‘usable’ frames of a scorched and destroyed landscape. Every single dwelling was either destroyed or uninhabitable. It reminded me of East Timor in 1999. Burnt out vehicles lined the road. What was most noticeable was the absence of people. There were simply no civilians anywhere.
After what seemed like hours, but was actually only one, we arrived at the destroyed town of Puttumatalan. Here we got into jeeps. The troops that were escorting us got noticeably nervous. They held their guns at the ready now, looking more alert and more intently into the coconut groves as we passed. We must be close now, I thought.
After about 20 minutes driving down a dirt road, we turned a bend. Suddenly, there were thousands of exhausted and weary looking civilians. They were being given small amounts of food and drink by the soldiers, but only enough to last them a day or so. This was when our escorts really started to hurry us. It seemed they didn’t want us to talk or view these civilians for too long, and after just 5 minutes, we were told to get back in the jeeps. Frantic calls were made on radios, and we were told we were now headed to the front.
In just under 10 minutes, we arrived at the place where just days earlier the Sri Lankan government soldiers had pushed their way through the LTTE defenses, leading to a mass exodus of civilians. Smoke billowed less than a mile away where, we were told, troops were continuing to fight. Being so close, our escort now numbered almost 100 heavily armed soldiers. We were severely exposed standing on a road that cut a path through the lagoon, but this was where we were allowed to stay the longest of any of the other stops.
For a full 30 minutes, we photographed and filmed what we saw around us. Clothes and rubbish lay scattered across the dry plain. While walking amongst all this, I found a packet of film negatives that showed mourners at a funeral. Sadly, it was rather an appropriate subject matter in such a place where so many had most likely died.
After driving back to the battalion headquarters, we were once again in an armored personal carrier, driving back to the helicopter landing area, with our driver narrowly missing 3 cows and even skidding off the road on one occasion. Once we boarded the helicopter, everything went so fast, and before we knew it, we were on our plane and heading back to Colombo. Stepping onto the runway, it dawned on me what I had just done. In a single day, I had been to the front line of a war in an area that is extremely difficult to reach and come back to civilization. I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, but what about the people trapped in the war zone? They didn’t get to fly back to the comforts of a city. They continued to endure the horrors of war in dire conditions and horrendous temperatures, with minimal food, water, medical aid or even shelter. What about those who got out, but had a long journey to a refugee camp ahead of them, with no clear idea when they can go back home. It reminded me of a book I finished reading a few months ago called ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Herr about his experiences as a correspondent during the Vietnam war, and how he found it strange flying in and out of war zones. I could see what he had meant a little more clearly now – just the craziness of it all.