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Northern Exposure – crossing the minefields of Jaffna

IT WAS MY tenth journey to the island of Sri Lanka. Elephants had been the focus on all my previous trips. This one was different. I was leading a group of Australian travellers on an educational trip around the island. We kept to the tourist trail – the safari parks, the Buddhist temples, the tea plantations in the verdant high country, the archaeological marvels of the cultural triangle and, of course, Pinnawela, the famous elephant orphanage located on a former coconut plantation halfway between Colombo and Kandy.

It was at the orphanage that I introduced the group to the elephants I had come to know so well – including Raja, the blind tusker who had had his eyes shot out, and Sama, whose name means peace and who had lost a foot when she trod on a landmine somewhere up north.

Up north. In Sri Lanka that phrase denotes a whole other country within the tiny island state. Up north is where the troops belonging to the Sri Lankan army are sent to serve time. Up north is where the Tamils, who have been fighting for a separate state, are now in a fragile ceasefire with the government of the south. Up north is where the bodies of 17,000 Tamil fighters lie buried in the martyrs' graveyard. And up north is where more than a million landmines lay just beneath the surface, rendering huge tracts of land uninhabitable. Up north is where I wanted to go.

I farewelled my tour group at Colombo airport and retreated to my vast room at the Galle Face Hotel. The north-facing window drew my gaze along the coastal promenade, past Colombo's twin towers and towards an imagined elsewhere. But before heading off, I had an important rendezvous.

Arthur C. Clarke has lived in Sri Lanka for 50 years. On the rooftop of his rambling Colombo house he has a large telescope. He claims that the island is one of the best places in the world from which to gaze at the northern sky. Perhaps it is something to do with being at the southern end of the northern hemisphere.

My first encounter with Clarke was on my first trip to the island. My wife and I were researching our book on the Sri Lankan elephants. He was very encouraging. He opened doors for us (four years later he wrote the foreword for the book). Each subsequent visit would not have been complete without a rendezvous with him. And with each visit he would talk about his many projects.
He would show his diary that was littered with appointments of visiting dignitaries, satellite hook-ups to international conferences or impossible deadlines with publishing houses or television production companies. Clarke had just turned 86 when I saw him this time. He had slowed down. "Look," he said, showing his empty diary. "Not much is happening now." He was, however, still keen to push his ideas on the logic of using space elevators rather than fuel to launch rockets. "I haven't been north for a very long time," he told me somewhat wistfully when I mentioned I was heading for Jaffna. "It's safe now," he said. "Just be careful of those landmines."

 I JOURNEYED TO Jaffna by road in a united nations vehicle driven by Momo, a stocky ex-French-army explosives expert and now a team leader with one of the mine-clearing groups operating under the United Nations Mine Action program. The road north hugs the west coast and cuts through impoverished fishing villages before turning inland towards the ancient archaeological city of Anuradhapura, where an eternal flame of peace and enlightenment burns in the shadow of the vast Buddhist shrine. Not far from this popular tourist city, enormous tracts of land are cordoned off with razor wire. The Sri Lankan national flag flutters from strategically placed guard posts.

Leaving the Sri Lankan army-controlled territory and entering the region of Vavuniya, controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), just 100 kilometres from Jaffna on the northern tip, reminded me of the divide between east and west Berlin before the wall came down. There is no wall in this north-south divide in Sri Lanka. But there is a busy checkpoint where every vehicle is searched and where all trucks must be unloaded for inspection.

A thriving business has sprung up among the largely unemployed youth of the district. Within seconds they swarm like soldier ants over the trucks that cart everything from building materials to electrical goods. Before the focused gaze of the polite LTTE police in their bright blue uniforms, these young men unpack and repack the trucks while the drivers have their papers inspected and then queue to pay the compulsory taxes – up to 17 per cent of the declared value of their goods. The tax, levied by the LTTE, is for reconstruction. Few people seem to know where the money actually goes. It certainly doesn't go into road building.

The narrow potholed road continues north through the flatlands of Kilinochchi district and across the Jaffna lagoon via Elephant Pass. Jaffna district is now in the hands of the Sri Lankan army, so just before Elephant Pass the theatre of truck unloading and reloading is repeated, not to collect taxes but to satisfy the army that no munitions or explosives are carried in.

Around Jaffna I walked with the deminers as they painstakingly combed the soil, one millimetre at a time. Their high-tech detectors emit a high-pitched squeal that sounds like the peacocks that roam the Sri Lankan forests. Once a mine has been defused, a coloured marker is inserted in its place. Tape linking the markers reveals the extent and the pattern of a particular minefield. In many areas the tape extends for hundreds of metres in several directions, across farmland, close to schools and through villages.

The deft dance of the deminers seems a fitting metaphor for the north-south divide across this island. Tread carefully, listen intently and discover what lies beneath; that is the only way forward.

Flying south back to Colombo, I had a clear view of the submerged landmass that stretches for 30 kilometres and separates Sri Lanka from the south coast of India. Most maps record this as Adam's Bridge but to the Tamils it is rä'me, or Rama's Bridge. According to Hindu legend, the bridge was built to transport Rama, hero of the Ramayana, to the island to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravanna. From the air, the landmass looks like a series of stepping stones. It is a bridge to the north and a fitting reminder that north is almost always south of somewhere else.

 

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