Every week I would see white buses roll by on the road near my office in Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu District. They did not stop – nothing happened there except business and rebuilding after three decades of civil war. The buses continued on to the district capital and, from there, further north. They were full of Sinhalese passengers, the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, and until three years ago, a group that could not have come to this region. Before then, the district was the seat of the extremist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers. To non-Tamils, it was like the throne room of the Great and Terrible Oz. Even three years after the end of the fighting, it remained extremely isolated, rural, and sparsely populated.
Mullaitivu District was ground zero for a contest of memory between Tamils and non-Tamils. It was here that the war ended in an assault that killed upwards of 40,000 Tamil civilians. For non-Tamils, the thirty years of war had meant the near ruin of their country and its victorious conclusion a triumph of the human spirit. It was, for them, a unifying national struggle. For Tamils, the end of the LTTE left them feeling disconnected, the spare parts of a larger apparatus, not fully Sri Lankan and certainly not victorious. You could feel the tug. The war was still achingly present in the national imagination. And in Mullaitivu it was still physically present in the mass of material left by the fighting: trenchscape, craters, and the cracked hulks of buildings.
The Ministry of Defense assiduously curated these relics in a massive public relations campaign. They reconstructed iconic locations, designed complex memorials, built a luxury hotel, and ran refreshment stands throughout the region. The mostly Sinhalese war tourists passed from attraction to attraction, enveloped in glass. Less than half an hour from my office was one of the most famous sites: an LTTE bunker that was used to shelter their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. It received over 3,000 visitors a day, according to the Defense Department.
My Tamil friends decided they wanted to visit the bunker. “We should be allowed to see,” my friend said. “It is our leader’s house, our soldiers.” They hired a van and we became war tourists. Along the path to the bunker from the road, a display explained the significance of the site. There was no Tamil translation. The bunker was beneath a small family home in a rural village. In an incredible feat of engineering, the LTTE had excavated the sandy soil and built four basement levels and crammed them with offices, meeting halls, and storerooms. My friends quietly marveled. “Did you ever see a house like this before?” one kept asking, “No one in the world built a house like this. Only he had the self-confidence to build a house like this.”
The house itself was empty, just bare concrete floors and freshly painted walls. We descended into the ground, reading the English and Sinhala placards on the wall. Children ran past us into the lower levels, laughing like it was Disneyland. My Tamil friends stayed quiet, pointed to the walls, counted bullet holes, and guessed at what might have happened here in the final assault. Examining the curled smoke on the walls, they decided that the government soldiers had cut the electricity first and whoever had been inside had burned candles. One of them pointed to a Tamil name scratched into a plaster wall, the name of a famous cadre.
Outside, we walked among the baggy teak leaves on the grounds. Soldiers watched us through the trees. Nearly everything had been stripped away, dismantled. While we poked through a shed full of metal scraps an old man in a white sarong came up to us and began speaking in Sinhala. Few Tamils I met in the northeast spoke Sinhala and few Sinhalese seemed to speak Tamil. We had no words to respond. We stared at him until he said, “Oh, Tamil.” He turned and walked away.
We left the bunker and departed in our van along a recently re-opened road. After twenty minutes, a line of wrecked cars, buses, and lorries appeared, stretching to the horizon. The metal had crumpled and turned the color of old bananas. After the war had ended, when the district was empty, the Sri Lanka Army had gathered and catalogued all of the vehicles stalled on roads, stashed in thickets, and parked in LTTE facilities. My friend pointed to the pile and said something in Tamil. Another friend whispered, “Her father’s three-wheeler is in there,” explaining, “the LTTE confiscated it from her family.”
In the next few weeks, local Tamils came to the pile to claim their vehicles. I began to see the ruined hulks leaning in front yards, large rusting buses and family cars. To most eyes they were useless by this point; looters had stripped them of their engines and copper components. But the owners had an instinct to reclaim these objects, these things that had been stolen or cast off in flight. This discarded junk was theirs. It was the only thing among many lost things that could be physically retrieved from that time.
Near the end of my stay in the country, a Tamil friend told me that he was not sure the fighting was over. He was thinking of moving to Singapore to take a job as a hotel clerk. “Still this ethnic conflict,” he sighed. Another friend later told me, “This is not a period; this is a comma.”
Their frustration was palpable and for good reason. Nonetheless, I could not quite believe this and I am not sure that most Tamils do either. The LTTE is gone, scattered. My friend never left for Singapore. Instead he put out a bid for an ice factory in the district. His brother did the same. Block by block, the people of the northeast rebuilt. What else could they do? They seemed to be left with one question to answer: in the wake of all that darkness, under the clutter of all that history, how can one still be a Sri Lankan and Tamil?
Evan Thomas Rees is a former aid worker living in Texas. His most recent posting was in Sri Lanka’s northeast with a major NGO. His research interests include the dynamics of insurgency and the politics of ethnicity in South and Southeast Asia.