It was seven in the morning and we were at the Jaffna bus station. Using the few Tamil words I knew, we managed to reach the private bus station. Thankfully there was a bus to Mullaitivu with a few seats to spare. We braced ourselves for a cramped three hour ride.
Sri Lanka is famous for its beaches, hills, ancient ruins and Buddhist temples. The tourist trail including the backpacker one follows these destinations. Mullaitivu, however, does not feature on that map. It is a open library if you are a traveler who seeks to understand Sri Lanka beyond its postcard destinations. It is the town that witnessed the final phase of the three decade long Sri Lankan war.
Though the war ended in early 2009, the signs and scars are still visible in Northern Sri Lanka. And nowhere are they as evident as in Mullaitivu. What’s also odd is that it is the capital of sorts for the war tourism controlled and managed by the Sri Lankan army. Tourists are mostly domestic and they arrive from the southern parts of Sri Lanka. For many, their visit to Mullaitivu is the first one since these areas were out of bounds under the LTTE which controlled the north.
Hopefully with time, the war will stop being the identity of Mullaitivu. The town and the adjoining region is sprinkled with war memorials and museums. In an odd way, it also seem like a tribute to the same rebel group they showcase victory against.
This was our journey into the memory of Sri Lankan war. Here is what the physical memory looks like.
On the road from Jaffna, not long before you enter Mullaitivu, is the Waddukwakal Bridge or Causeway. It could easily be on a sight-seeing guide purely on merit of its idyllic scenery. This narrow road over the shallow lagoon connects Puthukkudiyiruppu and Mullaitivu. Fishermen in knee deep waters lay nets for their catch and bids hover over the lagoon. The comfort of its scenery almost masks the war-wise significance.
Towards the end of the war in 2009, this was the setting of an intense battle between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE. With the opponents on either side of the causeway, this place witnessed thousands of civilians escaping the conflict zone. Walking through still waters of the lagoon was the only way to do so.
The army billboard close by provides information, in its trademark self-congratulatory style. Wadduwakal Causeway remains a grim reminder that human lives are what the insensitive term ‘collateral damage’ means.
The LTTE was founded and headed by a charismatic and reclusive leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. LTTE cadres ironically conferred god-like status to their leader though it was dubbed to be a people’s movement. Prabhakaran, their ‘sun-god’, was the single largest reason for the long & destructive war.
According to most reports, his body was found floating in the waters of the lagoon a few kilometers north of the Waduwakkal Causeway close to Putthukudiyuruppu. Whether this is the actual spot, we could not verify. Our trishaw driver was not keen on getting off the vehicle and walking towards the spot. He was though, certain that this is where Prabhakaran’s body was found. It would be my guess that many trishaw drivers around Mullaitivu would know of this place even if there are no official markers.
War Museum, Putthukudiyuruppu:
Further down the road is a site that is promoted as a tourist site by the army and the government. This is the war museum. The museum is an open air site with captured LTTE guns, under-water attack vehicles, canons, rocket launchers; etc. The same premises are also home to a small room with pictures and posters of the humanitarian operation of Wanni( that is how the army refers to the final phase of the war).
The irony of the war tourism is most evident here. Somehow, the museum also seems to celebrate the spirit of LTTE which was able to build these effective, though unsophisticated weaponry without being a professional army.
Victory Monument, Putthukudiyuruppu:
Right next to the war museum is the kitschy ‘Victory Monument’. It features a soldier holding the Sri Lankan flag in one hand and a rifle in another. A dove on the rifle seems to signify the peace-loving nature of the army. The monument is flanked by a lion in each of its corners. The lion is national animal of Sri Lanka.
Some pro-Tamil reports call the monument ‘flashy’ as it resides in a place where many civilians lost their lives too. But their deaths or the remembrance of it, find no mention in any of the monuments. Also, the monument is layered with symbolism; the presence of the lion reinforces the victory of the predominantly Sinhalese army over the Tamil tigers (LTTE).
Sea Tigers Swimming Pool:
In the jungles close to the Mullaitivu, lies another site on this odd tourist trail. This was the Olympic size swimming pool, where sea tigers (the naval arm of the LTTE) were trained. It was by far the largest swimming pool we had visited at 83 feet in length and with a depth of 22 feet.
The swimming pool also had a glass window on one of the walls towards the deep end. It is said that the commanders would keep an eye on the training through this. The English and Sinhala description on the board derides Prabhakaran, as expected. But interestingly the staff of Café 68, situated right next to the pool, was watching a Tamil movie on tv. The café is called so because the site is run and managed by the 68th division.
The LTTE kept experimenting and upgrading its weapons. That being one of the reasons why it managed to control large parts of the island nation. One example of their experimentation is the submarine.
Located somewhere close to Mullaitivu is the submarine they were trying to build and experiment in a tank for stability. There is hardly anything or anyone here except the submarine and a lone soldier who keeps watch.
Remnants Of Farrah III:
Farrah III, a Jordanian ship on its way from India to South Africa was captured by the LTTE after it developed some engine issues. It is said that the rebels had stripped the ship and used it as their operational centre.
Till a couple of years ago, the ship still was still there. But now, only the remnants remain. The authorities apparently stripped it down.
Bullet-Ridden Houses Of Mullaitivu And Puthukuthiriyuppu:
Sri Lankan authorities and aid agencies have done a commendable job of rebuilding these towns which saw the worst of the war. But every now and then you can see walls which speak of the war’s terror.
We saw many houses with holes caused by firing. The holes are like scars on a face which has otherwise received cosmetic treatment.
These are some of the remnants of the three decade long war in Sri Lanka. Mullaitivu will be of interest to every Odd Traveller who seeks to learn more than what the tourism brochures have to offer in Sri Lanka. More than anything else these sites are a reminder about the utter futility of war. Visiting these sites(which are hardly frequented by foreign tourists) is a way to understand the island nation a little better.
How to get there?
Buses go to Mullaitivu from Colombo and Jaffna. If you are on a better budget, hiring a car from Colombo should be quite easy.
How to get on this Odd war heritage trail?
- Ask your car agency to get you a driver who is aware of these places
- Hire a trishaw in Mullaitivu town to show you around. All these places can be visited within half a day and the trishaw should not charge you more than 2000 LKR(about 15 usd). Keep this Odd Traveller post handy, in case the trishaw driver doesn’t know all the sites J
Follow my journey as I travel to 12 different countries to take a challenge in each one of them. These challenges should end up in some learning for me and who knows, may be for you too J