Holidaying In A War Zone: Sri Lanka & The Tamil Tiger Conflict Of 2008

In 2008 I thought ‘The Tamil Tigers’ were an Indian cricket team. Then came a visit to Sri Lanka….
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In 2008 I thought ‘The Tamil Tigers’ were an Indian cricket team. Then came a visit to Sri Lanka….

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In 2008 I thought ‘The Tamil Tigers’ were an Indian cricket team. Then came a visit to Sri Lanka….

At the arse-end of a relationship so fraught that it had become surreal we decided (as, inexplicably, people do) that a holiday would sort things out. We walked into a Flight Centre and scanned at the choices. I fancied fulfilling a life long yearning to SCUBA dive with the frolicking Giant Manta-Rays in the Seychelles but that was out of our price range. The next option was Sri Lanka. We were quickly offered great deal of a flight plus five gratis nights at a five star hotel in the capital Colombo and a return flight via Galle, perfect for a trekking adventure via the mountains and tea district of ‘The Paradise Isle’. Rucksacks and sturdy shoes were packed. Three days later we landed in Columbo, a baking hot dustbowl........ and the middle of a war zone.

We were met by hundreds of belligerent armed soldiers aggressively eyeing people (including us) at passport control. I thought little of it other than it was a bit of a crap welcome, but no worse than landing in America really. We got a taxi to the hotel. It got much worse. What should have been a 20 minute journey took us well over an hour because we were stopped by armed police and soldiers four times, made to ask questions about our reason for being there, and had our papers checked while they communicated to each other non-verbally. The roads were lined with sandbag turrets topped with groups of soldiers scanning passers by with the sights of their machine guns.

I tried to get information from our taxi driver. Immediately he pointed to a small street market and said “Tamil Tigers…..bomb….yesterday….many dead”.

Jeffrey Boycott would have never done something like that.

We got to the hotel, a grand five storey sea-front statement of opulence. We were eventually allowed through a line of police and another of soldiers. Then two men in immaculate white tuxedos opened the doors into a huge plush velvet lined reception, a man in white top hat and tails played the grand piano and a lovely girl bowed and presented us with two ice cold cocktails. Two boys carried our bags as the receptionist explained that we had been upgraded, ironically, to the honeymoon suite. I then realised that there were no other guests. This was essentially a war zone, and had been for a while. Hence the free of change accommodation, probably funded by the local tourist board.

The hotel was calm, quiet and tranquil. It belied what you could see happening out of the window. A search of the TV and internet for information about what was going on had some yield, but they were only conflicting explanations. The Tamils were either exploitative illegal immigrants who had made a nuisance of themselves after settling illegally from their native Tamil Nadu region of Southern India and now demanded their own state. Or they were invited there as cheap labour to build the country’s infrastructure decades before and were told they had right to live there indefinitely, but the government had changed their mind and now wanted to uproot them and force them back to India. Certainly there were far more details, but fundamentally desperate people were fighting and willing to commit murder for their cause. While people were trying to have a holiday.

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To avoid any further domestic conflict I convinced my girlfriend that she deserved a visit to the massage and sauna facilities the hotel offered, and some time in the steam room. I put my trunks on and made the most of having the whole pool to myself, and very swanky it was too (but believe me it’s a hollow victory when you can actually do pretty much everything ‘patrons’ were asked to ‘refrain from’ in the 70s when there’s nobody to see you ‘swimming in the diving area’ and there is nobody to ‘duck’) I strolled to the perimeter wall of the hotel, read the sign saying ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHING ALLOWED’ and on my tip toes looked through the razor wire at a beautiful empty beach and sunset. As I made comparisons between the story of the Tamils to that of the Irish, and many others, in England, an army jeep pulled up in front of me, the other side of the wall, two armed soldiers in the back stood up and pointed their guns at me. Far from being intimidated (this was the 50thgun I’d been close to in three hours) I berated them for what they were doing. The men in the Tuxedos appeared to calm the situation down. They explained to me that rebel Tamils had been arriving via rowing boats, from bigger boats, to that beach, this had made the soldiers over-zealous.

Our attempt to walk into town that night was stymied as roads were now blocked by jeeps and armoured vehicles and pedestrians had to form queues to pass through filter zones. We sat in the cocktail bar, just us two punters, accompanied by Sri Lanka’s answer to Liberace and the squeaks of the bar mans polishing, got a bit pissed and went bed, having decided that we needed to leave Columbo. Fuck the freebie plush hotel and faultless service. In the morning we tipped them heavily and began the mission to the train station.

We patiently accepted the pushes and shoves of the armed soldiers and police as we cut a path to the station. Obviously when we reached it, it was chaos. We eventually got seats on a train to a village a couple of hours ride away. The train ride was quite incredible. We were in the last carriage, which has the seats facing backwards and has massive windows on 3 sides (including the back), so as we wound our way into the countryside we had a panoramic view of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

The following day we learned that a couple of hours after we boarded our train there had been a suicide bomb on the platform that we had used, with many casualties.

Over the remaining three weeks it was easy to pick up information about the trouble, it was heading northerly, as the soldiers pushed their enemy in the direction of India, a pretty simple strategy. We where heading southerly. We went up mountains, visited temples and trekked down to the south coast to enjoy the beaches, learn how to make fish curry and eat prawns the size of your forearm. Over the next few months there was decent news coverage in the UK as the trouble rolled on. The running battles and terrorism carried on for months as the fighting migrated north. I enjoyed being single as The Tamil Tigers were finally all bowled out.