DRIVING NORTH along Sri Lanka’s newly relaid A9 highway last August, our van came upon an immaculately green lawn that stood out in a landscape of desolate scrubland. We were just outside the town of Kilinochchi, the former stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and stopped to take a look. A broad tiled path cut through the middle of the grass, and crouched on either side of it were three politely smiling government soldiers, using scissors to snip, one by one, every stalk that had grown too tall or unkempt. The path led up five short steps to a platform, and surging up from it was a huge, perfectly rectangular slab of concrete. Embedded near its centre was a larger-than-life brass bullet, polished to a golden shimmer, from which several deep fractures radiated outwards. The deepest of these rose all the way to the upper edge of the slab, and from it burst an enormous brass lotus frozen in the act of unfolding, glimmering in the vast, cloudless sky. This monument was constructed shortly after the government’s decisive victory over the Tigers, who for twenty-six years waged a bitter civil war for a separate Tamil homeland. From the ruins of war, the monument seemed to declare to the island’s historically Tamil north and east, the flower of peace was at last blooming.
Early the next morning, having driven east from Kilinochchi for several hours over narrow, rutted dirt roads, we came to the quiet village of Mullivaikal, right on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast. The final battle of the war was fought here in May 2009, and the site has attained mythical stature among the country’s Tamils. More than three hundred thousand Tamil civilians were trapped in a small area around this village for five months as the Tigers made their last, desperate stand against the Sri Lankan army. Most had been displaced from their homes by a steady army advance that began in early 2008, and forced to retreat eastwards with the rebels. In Mullivaikal, exhausted, wounded, with little food or water and nowhere left to go, they dug hundreds of bunkers for shelter against the army’s indiscriminate shelling. According to a UN report, which the Sri Lankan government aggressively disputes, as many as forty thousand civilians died in the war’s last days.
That number would have been far higher had not a small number of dedicated Tamil doctors and nurses stayed behind instead of crossing over to the safety of government lines. In the last days they ran a makeshift clinic out of Mullivaikal’s abandoned primary school, saving hundreds of lives without proper instruments or anaesthetics. Four years on, there was hardly any sign left of those events at the school. The classrooms had been repaired, the school reopened. It was the middle of school holidays, but uniformed students were setting up chairs and sweeping out classrooms, and several teachers were preparing cauldrons of rice and curry for lunch. The hustle and bustle was in preparation for the opening of the school’s new library building. There were several visitors from outside the village too—educators, donors and well-wishers who had contributed to the project. Despite the flurry of movement all around, they spoke in whispers and walked with light steps, out of respect for all that happened here during the war.