This is the continuing story of Gajaman Nona, an accomplished Sinhala poet, who was born in 1758. Emerging from a time capsule, GN finds herself in year 2011. The lady, who during her lifetime experienced dire poverty and took care of her four children with much difficulty, finds that her economic circumstances remain much the same 250 years into the future. However, unlike in the 18th and 19th centuries, a little investigation reveals that in 2011, there are more ways than one to make a ‘respectable’ living. Armed with information gleaned from perusing the newspapers and conversations with a group of people who appear to be untiringly working for the well-being of fellow human beings, GN decided to establish a NGO. Although she cannot quite decide what this NGO should be doing, being industrious, she doesn’t allow the lack of a clear aim to deter her and establishes ‘Rough Guide Inc.’, an organization which, as the title suggests, seeks to help fellow-citizens navigate their way through the difficulties encountered in their quest to live happy and fulfilled lives in Sri Lanka. She decides that the best way to launch her NGO is to undertake a fact-finding mission, a fashionable much-used strategy by people working for the well-being of others. The war victory celebrations in the country (she doesn’t quite understand what they are celebrating although the government keeps mentioning Tigers) and constant talk about the North and the Vanni makes her decide that her first fact-finding mission would be to Jaffna and the Vanni. Her insights on the situation in Jaffna and the Vanni and suggestions to those who wish to visit these areas are given below.
Suggestions to the traveller to the North: Results of the fact-finding mission
- GN, who was travelling in her brand new four wheel drive with Rough Guide Inc. boldly painted on the sides of the vehicle, got the shock of her life when she was stopped at Omanthai, where a board which reads ‘entry-exit point’ is very prominently displayed, and her driver was instructed to alight from the vehicle and sign in/register at the army point. While her driver was registering a young army officer walked up to her, asked for her national identification card and wanted to know who she was and what she did. Her annoyance turned to confusion at being questioned because she was under the impression that the state of emergency no longer existed, everyone, including foreigners, could travel freely to the North and Sri Lanka was well on its way to becoming the miracle of Asia- a beacon of democracy and economic growth in South Asia. She tried to ask the young men in vain why they were stationed there registering people but they had no rational response. Indeed, this encounter did make her wonder whether the North was another country…
Suggestion: When you travel North, particularly if you are travelling in a vehicle that clearly shows you are from a NGO, please be prepared to answer questions from young army officers, who are probably quite bored and looking for chit-chat with anyone who passes by.
- On the drive along the A9 GN spotted several shops that were being run by friendly young men from the military- strangely enough not many shops run by local civilians. Since GN had heard a lot about all the good development work that was being done by the government as part of the ‘Northern Spring’ initiative she assumed this must be part of that programme. After all, the civilians after years of armed conflict and displacement probably had no capital to start up small businesses anyway, and it would not make economic sense to let the business opportunity go to waste. So she thought it was valiant and resourceful of the military to enter the commercial sector in order to fill the void. Also who better than the military to show civilians how to run efficient businesses.
Suggestion: Please do your bit and contribute to the military economy of the North to uplift the lives of the conflict-affected civilians by stopping at these road-side shops and having a bite to eat or buying a t-shirt with ‘Kilinochchi Reawakening’ emblazoned on it.
- Since President Mahinda Rajapakse in his speech at the 2nd celebration to mark the war victory mentioned ‘freedom from terror’ and ‘freeing thousands of civilians in the North, who were held as hostages’, GN expected to see the people in the North living freely in prosperity. Instead, to her surprise, she passed army camp after army camp, soldiers on the road and even soldiers in what seemed to be private houses. When she tried to speak to a few citizens who were gathered at a local grocery shop just outside Kilinochchi town and asked them about the situation in their areas, she noticed a young soldier sidling up to them to listen in on the conversation. After observing this for a few minutes she turned around and asked the young man whether he was happy being stationed in the North, the soldier who responded by saying that he missed home and his family, in the same breath told her not to cause trouble and to be on her way. She couldn’t understand why the soldier was worried as the people were very unwilling to speak openly with a stranger anyway. She might have been mistaken but she thought she saw fear in their eyes when she asked them whether they were enjoying their new found freedom.
Suggestion: Those visiting the North, particularly the Vanni, please refrain from bothering the local population by talking about politics, the war, the ethnic conflict or the situation in their areas because walls have ears. In fact, it is best that you do not talk to the local population at all, particularly because there are so many people battling with each other to speak on behalf of the Tamil people- from NGOs, the different sections of the Tamil diaspora and Tamil politicians to the government. Best save the Tamil people the trouble of speaking for themselves.
- Curiosity made GN travel further into the interiors of the Vanni in her brand new four-wheel drive. Once again, she thought she would be able to visit the areas in which the final battle was fought but was told that since she was an NGO she could not proceed further without clearance from the MOD. She couldn’t understand why everywhere she went in the North everyone was asking her to obtain the permission of the Ministry. What does the Ministry do in the North? Does the Ministry run the North? Is there a parallel government that begins at the entry-exit point at Omanthai that is run by the MOD? She decided she had to investigate the matter further as she found it all quite, quite confusing. Here she was, thinking that the Northern part of the country had been liberated from the Tigers, yet soldiers were constantly asking her for MOD authorization. Did the government sign the North away to the MOD at the end of the war? But isn’t the Ministry only a part of the government rather than THE government in the North?
Suggestion: In order to avoid constant altercations with the security forces, please ensure you have clearance from the Ministry of Defence or in the alternative, take the guided tour of the North that is very helpfully being conducted by the Ministry. This way you will be able to access areas that are out of bounds to ordinary citizens and those working in NGOs and other organisations such as the UN, and be able to see the areas liberated from the clutches of the LTTE.
- Since GN had heard that people who had returned home from IDP camps were facing difficulties as they had to live in temporary shelters and had limited access to water, sanitation, health and education and even livelihoods, she thought she would investigate further and try to unearth the ‘true’ story. Yet, when she approached a village in the interior she was stopped at an army check point and asked where she was going. When she told them she was on her way to see the living conditions of the IDP returnees she was promptly refused permission to proceed further. As GN is not one to give up easily, she travelled to the nearest army camp and asked to see the officer-in-charge (OIC) and inquired why she had been refused permission to travel further. The OIC asked her the reason for her travel, and when she very honestly told him that she wanted to see how the IDP returnees were living, was told that it was because of people like her that untrue stories were being spread outside the country about the government of Sri Lanka. He firmly told her that if she had anything to contribute, like for instance, funds to build roads, bridges or houses, they and the Presidential Task Force (PTF) might consider allowing her to work in the area. Otherwise he asked her to return home and not cause further trouble. When she returned to her vehicle, her driver, a young Tamil man, who looked quite shaken and worried, advised her that in the future she should not approach army officers and challenge/question them as it could lead to trouble both for herself and Rough Guide Inc.
Suggestion: Word of advice to NGOs and those wishing to work in the Vanni- if you want to gain entry to the area it is best you do not undertake fact-finding missions or engage in any programmes, such as awareness raising or psycho-social care, that are likely to cause discomfort to the government. Instead provide hard cash and support the PTF’s and army’s efforts to ‘rebuild’ the North.
- From the Vanni GN sped away to Jaffna hoping to see something different, perhaps happier people looking forward to the future. Once again she was surprised to see the heavy presence of the army. She was quite taken aback to note that all the soldiers, both in the Vanni and in Jaffna, spoke only in Sinhala. In fact, GN had been quite worried initially about travelling to the North as she doesn’t speak Tamil and was wondering how she would communicate with the people or even ask for directions if she got lost. With the presence of Sinhala speaking soldiers at every junction, she realized that it was entirely possible to navigate one’s way through the North without any difficulty. She remembered reading that several Tamil speaking policemen had been trained recently but didn’t come across any of them. Perhaps they had been posted to other parts of the country.
Suggestion: Do not be afraid that you will have to learn Tamil to travel to the Northern part of the country, which is predominantly Tamil speaking, as guides in the form of Sinhala speaking soldiers are at every point to assist you. Even persons who are afraid they might get lost do not need to worry. There are plenty of signs in (only) Sinhala that will enable you to find your way.
Stay tuned for more adventures in GN’s new life as the head of a NGO travelling the country to bring solace to the disadvantaged and disempowered.
Gajaman Nona is the latest entrant to Banyan News Reporters on Groundviews, which uses satire to raise awareness on and interrogate corruption, war crimes, impunity, censorship, civilian displacement, abductions, torture, extra-judicial killings, human rights violations, “national security” and humanitarian aid. To understand why satire is such a powerful expression and mechanism during violent conflict and severe media repression, read Bridging comedy and conscience.