By Namini Wijedasa | in the Mullaitheevu district
What I did was right,” read the words on the wall of chamber D-05, a small and dingy cell that still smells of urine.
Sivakumari, a Tamil woman, had left them there. The army believes she was killed by fleeing terrorists before the war’s end. She was among an estimated 76 people locked up in LTTE prison cells at Visuvamadu. Most of them were executed.
There are other, equally poignant, notes scratched into those dirty walls. An unknown prisoner in chamber B-08 writes, “Bad things befall good men.” Another nameless person in A-06 appears to profess his faith: “My mother, father, and Jesus.” Yet another has futilely scribbled, “Do good, speak good, think good, and good will happen to you.”
Order in chaos
The complex has 60 single-person cells and six group cells. It was opened by Pottu Amman, the LTTE’s feared intelligence chief in 2004, and is believed to have housed men and women who had betrayed the organization including spies for the government. The majority of them were Tamil.
The cells are miserable, poorly ventilated spaces. Some of them have ankle shackles on short chains attached to the ground. And each has an open latrine in a corner, emitting the smell of human waste. Despite their grate doors the air inside was heavy.
The military wrested this area from the LTTE in January 2009. Back then, it was a war-ravaged mess. Today, there is order in chaos here – chaos that comes from the hundreds of busloads of “tourists” that continue to descend on the Mullaitivu district; and order that comes from the heavy military presence.
Army detachments have been set up at regular intervals, amidst the rudimentary housing of war returnees who are struggling to regain their lives. With the war over, soldiers are now regularly assigned to guide predominantly Sinhala visitors on the “terrorism tour.”
The gruelling excursion takes them right across the Mullaitivu district. The main attractions are the LTTE prison cells; two underground bunkers used by Prabhakaran, one of them built four storeys into the earth; an open-air war museum; a swimming pool that was used, not only for the LTTE leader’s recreation but to train Sea Tigers; the home of Soosai, the Sea Tiger chief; the rusting wreckage of the Farah-3, a Jordanian vessel hijacked by the Tigers; and the entire stretch of land along the northern coast where the final battles took place.
Till recently, these places were off limits to outsiders – that is, for those who were not military or inhabitants of those areas. But now that restrictions have been relaxed, Sri Lankans from other parts of the country are teeming in. Many of them are first time visitors. (You must still register your vehicle at certain entry and exit points; there are no other formalities).
It is a backbreaking journey, by no means for the faint of heart. The main road is still under construction and one line of traffic is frequently halted for interchanges to take place. The internal roads are uneven and potholed. The dust is as invasive as the heat.
The tourists mostly arrive on buses or vans with the windows open. Among them are old men and women, pregnant women and babies. Some, particularly those from nearby districts, even travel on ‘Canters.’
One such crowd-from Anuradhapura smiled broadly into our camera as they jolted violently along. Their faces were coated with thick grime. The back of their vehicle was packed with people, bedding, cooking utensils, water cans and provisions.
Indeed, many of these visitors bring with them all their requirements and buy only a few sundries from the north, like nelli cordial, dried palmyrah roots or fruit.
Even the sweets shops that have sprung up outside tourist venues are run by Sinhalese from Ratnapura. “We do the sweet shops everywhere, including in Jaffna,” said one trader, offering us some kalu dodol. And it is the army that operates the cafes adjoining the terrorist hotspots.
At Visuvamadu, people lined up to enter one of Prabhakaran’s bunkers. Because these quarters can quickly get cramped, the army only sends in batches of people. This bunker is two storeys deep. One of its dense concrete walls has sustained a long crack as a result of an air strike. The crater can still be seen nearby.
The bunker is located next to a house that Prabhakaran had used while in the area. In its garden is the car that his younger son, Balachandran, used to ride. From the sky, a pilot would only see a massive water tank. But underneath is the bunker. It has thick, bulletproof iron doors. There is a lecture hall, a dining area, toilets, an office room and a bedroom. An army guide explained that it had been air-conditioned. Now it was smelly and dark. The bedroom has a large oxygen cylinder and a nook for weapons. A cupboard for “secret documents” is now bare.
Many of the items in the bunker were removed by military intelligence but a container in which Prabhakaran stored his insulin vials still stands on a table. A model of a leopard, turned out by a disabled LTTE fighter and gifted to the terrorist leader for his 45th birthday, has also been left behind in the bedroom.
The queues to get into Prabhakaran’s bunker at Thevipuram are much longer. This is an astonishing construction comprising of a labyrinth of rooms scattered throughout its four underground floors. It has several bathrooms and also used to be air-conditioned. In addition to the main staircase are secret stairways leading to each level and, ultimately, to the surface. The LTTE leader was clearly conscientious about escape routes.
Despite crowd control by the military, this bunker was crammed to the brim with people. It stank strongly of sweat. Toddlers remerged into the light howling. Old people tried not to stumble down the stairs. Prabhakaran, who had built these hideouts for him and his inner circle, would spin in his grave if he knew just how many people were tramping through their narrow corridors today.
Here again were thick concrete walls and bulletproof doors. The complex has an underground car park – so that Prabhakaran could drive straight in – and a summer hut. There is a pistol firing range, living quarters for bodyguards and dog cages. There is also a funeral hall in the same premises and a jogging route.
There is a belief among Tamils that only Sinhalese are allowed into these venues. This is not true. The military makes no such distinction. Admittedly, however, the number of Tamils and Muslims visiting are far smaller than the number of Sinhalese. And all signboards are glaringly in Sinhala and English – even in the thick of Mullaitivu.
Balavisakan, a 35-year-old teacher from Chunnakam was seated in the shade with his 4-year-old daughter on his knee. They were both dressed to the nines because they were going to the annual festival of the Vattrapali Amman Kovil in Mullaitivu. He was with a group of 75 Tamil students and it was the first time they were visiting the bunker at Thevipuram.
Surrounded as he was by military personnel, the man hardly said anything. “Jaffna life goes on as usual,” he muttered, “nothing special.” They had also stopped at the war monument in Elephant Pass but they would not be taking the whole tour, he revealed, before pointedly looking away.
Meanwhile, an old man was heard complaining loudly on his way to view the LTTE swimming pool. The vehicles had to be parked at the entrance so people were forced to walk a long distance. They were already tired from nipping in and out of bunkers. Why were the tramping so far in scorching sunshine “just to see where that devil swam,” he asked his group. Apitath pissu, he muttered.
Others nodded as they stumbled along in the crackling heat. Moments later, they gasped in amazement when they saw the swimming hole where Prabhakaran had once taken his dips. It was 83 feet in length and, at its deepest, 22 feet to the bottom!
Photographs released in the past by the government showed the rotund terrorist leader floating on an inflatable bed. But this pool was not built merely to give Prabhakaran something to do in his downtime. Frogmen of the Sea Tiger wing had trained in it for deep sea operations.
As she walked back slowly towards her bus, an old woman from Galle confessed that she had not anticipated the journey to be so tough. But she had to come, she said. So many men from her village had died fighting the LTTE and this was the closest she would ever get to seeing what it had been like.
Also in the tour is a visit to Soosai’s home. There is nothing special here but for some secret passageways (including one leading outside from his clothes cupboard) and a deep pit in his garden that had reportedly held 50kg of gold. “Now don’t ask me what happened to the gold,” said an army guide, in reply to the inevitable question. “I was also there when they took it out but I have no idea where it is now.”
The most gut-wrenching section of the tour has to be the route of the final battles. It traverses ravaged landscapes where the shells of bombed out houses share space with singed trees, emaciated cattle and piles of mangled vehicles. There is mile after mile of complete destruction.
The area remains almost untouched – but for the sprucing up of tourist sites – from those dark days of fighting.
Tamil civilians take this route regularly on public transport but they don’t stop to “enjoy” the sights. There is much work to be done – demining, rebuilding, resettlement and serious psycho-social assistance.
For the moment, though, it is terrorism tourism that rules the day in Mullaitivu