Posted By craig on May 17, 2010
We left Mannar in the morning set off for Jaffna. We entered a security checkpoint at Omanthai. It was here that the rest of our adventure was put into jeopardy as I was a foreign citizen without a Ministry of Defense pass.
It is common in Sri Lanka for cars to get stopped at random as there are checkpoints all over. In Colombo, we had been stopped at least 4-5 times in the prior week as we made our way about in a borrowed car. Shami was driving as she still has her Sri Lankan drivers license. As cars pass by checkpoints they are flagged aside at random and their paperwork is checked. She was only asked for paperwork once as most of the time whenever I wound down the window on the left (passenger) side of the car, the police would see me and wave us on. She said it was because I am white. I’ve been in situations where I’ve witnessed racism and I’ve been in situations where I’ve been treated with racism. This still felt odd, although it became a joke to her, what else are you gonna do at that point?
This checkpoint was different. It was the main entry point into the former LTTE stronghold area and every car, bus, and truck is stopped and passengers checked out. I didn’t realize, at that point, that a military pass was required by all foreigners to go beyond this checkpoint. I handed my passport over with no second thoughts. At this point I had become quite comfortable hiding my cameras and lighting gear and wasn’t even worried. Then I was called out of the car and told I couldn’t go with them. We had to convince the officers that I was traveling with family who were all citizens and wasn’t a “tourist” or media per se (as far as the Sri Lankan military is concerned, if anyone asks, I’m a graphic designer, LOL). What saved us at this point was that Shami had her New York drivers license in her bag. It has her married name on it, matching mine. She had specifically kept all her local identification and her passport with her Sri Lankan name to make things easier as far as conducting any business (she owns some land) while being there. There are a lot of taxes and double standards directed towards foreigners who are perceived to have more money to spend, with prices on services sometimes being over 600-900% what a local would pay.
After passing through the checkpoint and wiping my brow I got an opportunity to really look around where we were traveling through. The following 120 kilometers to Jaffna were a sobering bunch, especially passing through Kilinochchi, the former center of LTTE operations. A vast majority of the buildings and homes were abandoned and broken, riddled with bullet holes and blast marks. The signs of a three decade war cannot be erased from sight in 9 months, and I’m sure from the hearts and minds of it’s victims for generations. Again on this day, the the day past, we passed armed military personnel every kilometer or so. There are warning markers everywhere making sure on knows not to stray off the general path as to avoid latent mines.
After arriving at a small convent in Jaffna, we were directed to our guest quarters for the next few nights. We had a tea and then headed along in our van along a series of causeways to arrive at a decrepit ferry that was to take us along with a good hundred others to the island of Nainativu. We were only allowed about 40 minutes as the next ferry was the last one back for the evening.
The ferry was not terribly unlike a lot of the Native American fishing boats of the Great Lakes. Most people are squeezed down under the deck with only a small laddered exit per starboard and port, with one extra small escape on the stern, where the big and battered wooden rudder was. The ferry is powered by a hand cranked diesel engine that operates at a deafening level.
As the seas got only slightly rough on our starlit crawl back (there are no lights either inside or outside), I found it scarily easy to comprehend how so many can perish in the tragic ferry incidents one hears about in southeast Asia from time to time…