In January 2010, The NY Times released its top ten places to visit in 2010 citing Sri Lanka as the number one destination. After 25 years of civil unrest, I never thought I would see the day when the U.S.A. would actually recommend visiting Sri Lanka as a travel destination. I had a weird feeling in my stomach, because 25 years ago, I left Sri Lanka with my husband and infant son because of the fear that my son’s life would be impacted because of the warring factions on both sides of his heritage.
I remembered vividly how my brother’s life was in danger on that July day in 1983 when Sinhalese mobs were rioting and killing Tamils in retaliation of the killing of 13 Sinhalese soldiers by Tamil “separatists.” They weren’t called terrorists in those days. During the riots, thugs took over my brother’s home, so my brother, his wife and four year old son lived with us for three months. Pregnant at that time, I was fearful for my unborn son’s future because of his mixed parentage.
It was strange how caste and creed had never played such a prominent role in our lives before this. Although in 1956, there had been an outbreak of violence between the two ethnicities, people accepted each other after that and learned to co-exist. My mother and my husband’s mother were both of Dutch descent and our respective fathers were from the two opposing ethnic groups—Sinhalese and Tamil. My husband and I were both raised as Christians in Colombo, where racial integration was very commonly accepted and neither my husband nor I identified very strongly with our paternal heritage.
Soon after the July ’83 riots, the rift grew so wide that marriages between the two groups was being tabooed on both sides. In fact, my close friend Mark Ponniah, a Tamil, was visited by a group of Tamil militants the day before his planned wedding to his Sinhalese fiancée, and ordered to cancel the church wedding otherwise he would suffer serious consequences as a traitor. Fueled by fanatics on both sides, the chasm seemed too wide to build a bridge, although several countries had tried.
During my 25 years in the U.S.A., I adopted it as my home and proudly became a citizen. I had been back to visit the remnants of my family twice during this period. The last time was in 1995 when there seemed to be a calm in the fighting as Jaffna – the stronghold of the Tamil separatist guerrillas fell to the Sri Lanka Army. During the four-month stay there with my two young children, I experienced and relived the terror as the Tamil separatists set fire to a vital petroleum refinery and the heightened security and ensuing firepower of the Sri Lanka Army. A few weeks later, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of dynamite into the Central Bank in the heart of Colombo. As we left Sri Lanka a few weeks later, I lost the desire to return lulled by any future fleeting sense of complacency.
Sri Lanka has a variety of wildlife and jungle animals and in fact, two wildlife sanctuaries have been popular tourist attractions. It is therefore natural that the symbol of the Sinhalese is the Lion – the king of the jungle. The Tamil separatist rebels called themselves the Tigers. The elephant plays a prominent role in Buddhist rituals as brightly adorned elephants carry sacred Buddhist relics in processions through the streets. Ultimately, it was the elephant that played the pivotal role. After three battles at the strategic Elephant Pass, the gateway to the North of Sri Lanka, the Tamils finally succumbed to the force of the Sri Lankan Army.
Much has been destroyed during the 25-year long war and the fabric of unity torn. Lives have been lost and good talent, one of the country’s best natural resources have left for greener pastures. But, from time to time, my mind goes back to more peaceful times when we walked the warm tropical beaches, drinking coconut water, eating the widest variety of mangoes and bananas and tropical fruit that is hard to come by in this hemisphere. Then, I hope that tourists will be able to experience the wonder that I knew as “Serendipity” and “Taprobane” in one of the most hospitable countries in the world.