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.