I am not sure what exactly the doctor gave me, but it is magic. I ate breakfast! I got out of bed without the world pirouetting around me! I feel like a new man!
And, just in time, it is eight in the morning and the people from LEADS are rapping on my door, together with the night-steward of the guesthouse. I open the door, still a bit weary eyed and they burst in behind me, enthusiastically. Breakfast was served (toast, toasted over a naked fire, and sugar tea – breakfast of champions) and eaten in a hurry. 7 tablets swished down with tea and I was ready to go.
Our first stop was to the Army base. Apparently we were meant to stop here the day before, but we had gotten away with it. I had thought that we didn’t need Ministry of Defence (“Emmohdee”) clearance to get anywhere, but apparently we have to let the army know when we got to Malayalapuram.
We head to the Army camp down a horrid road, thankfully, in our four-wheel-drive super-truck/ute thing. We are greeted at the door by a stern looking soldier, who calls over a stern looking leftenant, who offers us a seat and lets us stew for a little. To cool the mood, I ask the leftenant about himself, a thirty year old man from Kandy with two children, who had served in the army for thirteen years – since he was seventeen. I saw the recruits do a morning march, and may have been told off a little for taking photos of their marching (but without heart – they liked me already).
Then the leftenant looked at me sternly, as if to say I told you so, and told us to come with him into the base.
A slightly menacing glint in his eyes – “The Colonel would like to see you.”
We walk past the marching, assembled recruits, past a mess hall, a kitchen and some barracks and get to an office in a stand alone building, a Brigade Standard fluttering in front of the door. Before I had a chance to peek in, the leftenant steps past the doorframe.
A transformation, in a blink: his feet stamp violently, he slaps his hand to his cap in a stiff salute, his back jerks so straight that it looks like it is about to snap. He freezes for a second.
I wonder what I am meant to do. Before I can think it through, I kind of awkwardly hobble through the door, and nod my head, accidentally gangster-like. The Colonel ignores the leftenant, and giggles at my attempt at measured politeness. The rest of the party walks in to the room (the LEADS administrative officer and the Kilinochchi head of projects). Suddenly, a buzz of soldiers. Chairs appear. The soldiers are gone again. The Colonel smiles.
To my surprise, we begin casually chatting. We crack open a few (ginger) beers. We talk about Malayalapuram. We talk about the villagers, what they do and how they live. We talk about what people were doing to help the village: the Fathers’ packaging centre, the housing projects and the other plans. We talked about the Colonel’s personal project – his friends and him pooled together some money to buy an offset printer, a paper-cutter and an industrial binder – he built a notebook factory employing thirty villagers in his village.
As he put it in a follow-up email, though, “it is not a big one. Just like a baby.” He seemed to have taken real pride in his work in developing the town. I didn’t dare ask him details about his work before he became so interested in development.
After our conversation, we swapped “visiting cards” and I was off to meet Shyamika and her sister (from Empower, a Sydney based charity), who had apparently just been picked up by the LEADS monster-truck. The Colonel came out with me to greet them, and somewhat suavely blamed me for their not having a glass of ginger beer, “he [me, Yochi, Yohanan as the Sri Lankans call me] didn’t tell me you girls were coming, so he drank your cooldrink.”
Malayalapuram and Kilinochchi Town with the Sydney Sisters
After saying goodbye to the Colonel and the awkward leftenant (saying goodbye always seems to take a while in Sri Lanka, just a few minutes longer than what would ordinarily be comfortable) we jumped into the super-truck, and off we were to lunch.
The sisters deftly plucked at their food with their hands like locals. I shovelled away at my plain rice (because of my sickness) with a spoon. I still look like a fool when eating with my hands, I think I should just give up on it. We sipped KIK Cola, Necto and other bubbly sugar drinks (not half as sweet as the tea here though) and when lunch was over, we were off.
A bumpy road, a seriously bumpy road (it felt like I was in a paint mixer). I commented that the road felt like it was made by the devil. For some reason, the LEADS staff found this hilarious and burst out laughing – not quite sure why, but whatever, a good audience is a good audience.
Our first stop was the WRDS/RDS building. A building that, like many in the surrounding area, used to be grand. Now, its walls were riddled with holes, small ones from bullets, larger ones from shells. The back walls had collapsed, the roof replaced with Indian Government Aid provided tin. The presidents of the WRDS and RDS were husband and wife, and they were a little annoyed at their inability to serve their constituencies. Where, before, they had a flourishing agricultural co-op, and a savings club. Now, the had a broken building.
Next, we visited some houses of the villagers, each of them offering us a seat. Those families without a seat stood outside with us and offered us their bench. We visited a few woman-headed households. In one of the families, the mother’s husband died in the war, the twenty year old daughter, with a toddler child, was now a widower, forced to work hard day-labour to make ends meet. We visited the home of a land-mine victim, who’s leg had been amputated as a result of her injury, leaving her unable to make an income.
Throughout these visits though, hospitality was always shown. There was always a smile in the eyes of the families. This reminded me of a quote from the Cage:
“Despite the presence of death, fear and grief, life quickly assumed another kind of normality. ‘People still greeted each other in the morning with big smiles, and enquired after each other’s health, and told jokes,’” – Gordon Weiss at location 3763.
After the war, despite the poverty, the land-mines and the monsoon, this normality still existed: a hope.
After visiting some families, we hopped around for a quick sightseeing tour: seeing the controversial water-tower and the Government’s official memorial (the cuboid shattered by the artillery shell, a lotus growing out of it).
I had an amazing day with Shyami and her sister, and look forward to (hopefully) seeing them in Colombo!
Pictures to come