Sri Lanka's war-torn tourism
We bump along red dirt roads, passing ramshackle huts where people sit shaded only by a tin roof on top of four wooden poles.
They are passing the day watching huge buses – packed with tourists hoping to get a glimpse of a world few had seen before May 2009 – pass by. Up ahead in the distance is what looks like a wrecking yard. Piles upon piles of bicycles stand abandoned on the road side. A few metres further on, the piles of trucks and cars start, stretching some 200m.
But no spare parts or money change hands here. This field is a reminder of all that was lost, and won, during the final battle between the Sri Lankan military forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers, in 2009.
This is Mullaitivu, on Sri Lanka’s north-east coast, and the tourist attractions here aren’t the temples, beaches or tea plantations you’ll find on the rest of the island. These are places that give a glimpse in to the life of a much feared terrorist organisation and the final battle to eradicate it after 30 years – this is what the tourists are flocking to see.
War tourism is booming in Sri Lanka, at this stage mostly with domestic tourists, predominantly Sinhalese, who the area was off limits to for years.
They make the trip up to places like Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, where the government has installed massive victory monuments.
The self-organised tours also give them a glimpse into the rebels’ lives. Past the bikes and trucks, which people simply abandoned as they fled the bombs in 2009, we make a right-hand turn. We bump along through a former Tamil Tigers camp – now a ghost town. Former barracks sit damaged and abandoned, with graffiti tags made by government troops to show they now own the area.
It’s eerily quiet. Then up ahead we see it – the massive Farah 3 ship. The ship’s crew was taken hostage for two days by the LTTE in December 2006, after it developed engine trouble off the coast of their territory. The Tigers ran the ship aground and removed all its equipment, including radio communication and navigational equipment, for their operations.
They further dismantled the ship, using the metal to build other war machines.
The vessel was converted as a watch tower and as a platform to launch attacks on advancing Sri Lanka security forces.
Government forces captured the ship in the final days of the war.
Today, it’s just one stop in a district which saw the worst of the fighting during a conflict which killed up to 100,000 people. As we pull in to the car park, several buses pull up behind and the tourists pile out. Most head straight to the beach to get their photos taken in front of the infamous ship.
A short drive up the road are the remnants of some of the LTTE experiments – including the body of an experimental submarine. The Tigers did manage to build something of a functioning submarine. The semi-submersible vessel, used to send suicide bombers to avoid radar detection, was later found by the military, hidden in dense jungle.
We keep driving, through the army camp, till we hit Mullaitivu town, located right on the beach.
While there’s not a lot there now it’s sure to be a tourist hotspot in the future. The beach is tranquil and stunning. Fishermen drag huge nets from the ocean, sorting their catch right then and there. You won’t find a fish market much fresher than this.
Heading back west we make a stop off in a town that’s hard for even my Sri Lankan-born driver to pronounce – Puthukkudiyiruppu.
The small town is the site of former LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s bunker and draws around 3000 visitors a day.
He was killed by government troops in May 2009, and there is still debate around whether he was killed before or after surrender.
As we weave through the jungle we come to what looks like an ordinary peasant’s house – but as we enter it’s soon clear it is much more than that. This place once had all the trappings of a command headquarters.
Entering the dark stairwells of the house it becomes obvious how clever the Tigers were and how they managed to keep fighting for so long.
The house transforms in to a four-level underground bunker, carved out of rock. With very thick walls and bulletproof doors, Prabhakaran was able to live here unnoticed for months on end. It also has an underground vehicle entrance, where the Tiger leader could enter unnoticed.
As we descend deeper under ground into the once fully air-conditioned bunker – which goes about 10m deep – I begin feeling a little claustrophobic. By the time I reach the rebel leader’s room, tucked away in the lower-most floor, I’m ready to get out of there. It’s dark and dingy and reveals how passionate Prabhakaran must have been for his cause.
It was from a powerful radio set in this room that he is said to have instructed those in the field.
But there’s no quick exit, as I have to squeeze past hordes of tourists coming down the stairs eager to get a glimpse of the infamous leader’s most private sanctum.
It’s intense curiosity which brings people here and it’s clear from those I speak to on the tours that although they know Prabhakaran was responsible for so much bloodshed over the years, they had an ounce of admiration for the highly intelligent leader.
‘‘If only he’d used that for good, instead of evil,’’ one Sinhalese visitor says.
Though Tamils are not excluded from visiting these places, all the signage around them is in either Sinhalese or English, which some complain doesn’t help post-war reconciliation.
Driving in to Kilinochchi it’s hard to miss the huge water tower destroyed by the Tigers just before they lost control of the town in January, 2009.
A government installed memorial reads: ‘‘This tower is a silent witness to the brutality of terrorism. Yet, terrorists did not succeed in destroying our determination to secure freedom and peace. Terrorism shall never rise again in our great land. We are free.’’ A few metres away stands a souvenir shop.
Up the road, smack in the middle of town, is the victory monument. I’m told it was built on what was once a children’s playground.
The huge cube of concrete with a massive bullet protruding is also hard to miss, especially given that the perfectly manicured grass surrounding it is the only green vegetation to be seen after a dry spell.
The bullet that pierces the cube is said to symbolise the ‘‘sturdiness of the invincible Sri Lankan army’’, while it’s topped with a flower to symbolise peace.
A tablet nearby proclaims President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ‘‘born for the grace of the nation’’.
Locals seem to avoid the monument, with many finding it insulting. But that doesn’t stop the buses parking up and snapping photos.
In a country that’s been split for decades, post war tourism could yet build further resentment.
Nicola Brennan-Tupara’s trip to Sri Lanka was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
SRI LANKA'S 26-YEAR WAR
Lying off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka has been scarred by a long and bitter civil war arising out of ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast.
Beginning in 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, waged an intermittent insurgency against the government for 26 years in a fight for an independent state, leaving more than 70,000 dead.
Tension was sparked by the island’s colonial past when the country was called Ceylon.
The majority Buddhist Sinhalese thought the British favoured Hindu Tamils, so after independence from Britain in 1948, Sinhala nationalism grew. It caused further ethnic division and sparked the war.
While most of the fighting took place in the north, the Tigers often travelled to the capital Colombo to carry out suicide bombings. After two decades of fighting and four failed tries at peace talks, a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002.
However, hostilities renewed in late 2005 and the conflict began to escalate.
The government launched a number of major military offensives against the Tigers beginning in July 2006, driving them out of the eastern provinces. It then moved its attentions to the north, and in January 2008 formally announced its withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement, ahead of a final assault on the Tigers.
In May 2009, the government proclaimed victory over the Tigers after killing leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and taking control of Mullaitivu.