From the Prologue: A Little Adventure:
car bumped slowly along the muddy track through the forest, slipping and sliding between trees in the encroaching dark, the slap-slap of the wipers barely clearing the torrents of water hitting the windscreen to allow fleeting glimpses of the dark track ahead.
A sudden loud explosion detonated beneath us. Hari, our driver, hit the brakes and the car slid to a halt.
‘Puncture,’ he said.
‘Are you sure? I thought it was a landmine,’ quipped my companion, Mukund. ‘But we’re all still here!’ he added jubilantly, but nervously.
It was May 1993 and we had just crossed into the no man’s land in northern Sri Lanka that divided the territory controlled by government forces to the south from the areas administered by
the Tamil Tigers, at the time the most feared and notorious terrorist organization in the world. We were making our way towards Kilinochchi that lay on the southern edge of Jaffna lagoon, the northernmost headquarters south of the Jaffna peninsula of the LTTE,
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which was the official name of the militant separatists fighting for an independent Tamil state.
For over a decade I had
been working on a photographic portrait of the country, making repeated visits in between other assignments in Asia. The beauty of its varied landscape and the richness of its culture had inspired me. But since the riots in Colombo, in July 1983, triggered
by a Tiger ambush of a small army patrol in the north, and the resulting ethnic violence that displaced a hundred thousand Tamils, the escalating civil war had unavoidably demanded my attention. At first the conflict was confined to the north and east but,
increasingly, suicide bombings and political assassinations brought the war to the heart of the capital.
Just three weeks before, on May 1st, while
attending a May Day rally in Colombo, the country’s president was blown to pieces along with his security personnel, by a suicide bomber on a bicycle. The blast had obliterated his features and only the still functioning Rolex watch strapped to the wrist
of his scorched and mangled arm identified him. I had narrowly escaped being at the site of the killing, as I had been planning to photograph the rally. Fortunately, I decided to wait in the city centre near the business district where the rally was expected
to arrive towards midday. It never arrived. An eerie silence gripped the city, while a heavy security presence patrolled the deserted streets before the news finally broke.
Shortly after this incident I had literally bumped into an Indian journalist from Chennai. I was walking through the French windows onto the terrace of the Galle Face Hotel, a camera round my neck and an equipment bag over my shoulder, and he was coming
the other way. We collided. He exhaled a cloud of smoke as he pulled the cigarette from between his lips, grabbing my shoulder to steady himself.
he muttered. Then looking up he smiled, ‘Are you staying here?
‘No. I’m based in Colombo part time.
‘This is my favourite hotel. Let me buy you a drink.’ He glanced at my bag, ‘You must be a photographer. I’m Mukund. Indian Express, Chennai. I’m here covering the state funeral.
What’s your poison?
We shook hands and I accepted his offer. A few minutes later we were settled on the terrace with its black and white chessboard floor,
facing the Indian Ocean, with two cold beers. The Galle Face, a grand relic of the colonial age, is one of Asia’s infamous oriental hotels, like Raffles in Singapore.
I told Mukund of my narrow escape on May Day. He told me he had been to Jaffna more than once on previous assignments and he knew the Tiger leadership. He was here on his own, filing stories for his paper, but I saw him also as a bit of a renegade,
the lone correspondent on the lookout for the unique story, the one that challenged the official narrative. Between clouds of cigarette smoke his lips would twist in a wry smile and, hunched over his beer, his demeanour suggested a restless agitation. And
he had a plan.
‘Do you think they did this?’ I asked him.
‘The place is wild with rumours, as always. Listen, as a photographer would you be interested in a little adventure I have in mind? If successful I guarantee you’d get an interesting set of pictures.
His ‘little adventure’ turned out to be a somewhat perilous proposal. Now, in the wake of the assassination, he said, was an opportune moment to try and make it across the lagoon into the far north
to report on how the Tamils were surviving cut off on the Jaffna peninsula. This entailed some risk as the government had recently declared it illegal for journalists to cross the lagoon north of Kilinochchi.
But the lagoon was the only way into Jaffna for us, because government forces held the narrow land route known as Elephant’s Pass and, on the seaward side to the west, the Sri Lankan navy kept watch over
the lagoon. Yet it was known that the Tigers ran night-time convoys of boats, ferrying supplies into the besieged Tamil capital that had been subjected to frequent bombardment and cut off from electrical power for four years.
And so, by the time we hit our second round of beers I had warmed to Mukund’s enthusiasm. I needed more pictures from the Tamil perspective, and Mukund seemed to know his way around. My
only reservation was that from the Tigers’ perspective Indian journalists were not exactly flavour of the month as, two weeks earlier, the Indian navy had sunk one of their vessels killing a prominent Tiger. But I kept this to myself, and by the third
beer I’d agreed to accompany Mukund on his adventure to the forbidden north.
There were few drivers willing to negotiate the hazardous drive into Tiger-held
territory, but Mukund knew one from previous visits, a Tamil called Hari who was known and trusted by the Tiger cadres. We left at nine one morning and had reached Anuradhapura by lunchtime where Joint Operations Command gave us only verbal clearance to proceed
north. At Vavuniya the army refused us permission to continue without written authorization from Anuradhapura. Finally, permission was obtained at 4 p.m. on condition we reached the barrier before 4.30. We were given a motorbike escort and that evening we
crossed into no man’s land, in a rainstorm.
We struggled to help Hari change the wheel in the mud, drenched by persistent rain as night fell. Huddled inside
the car in soaking wet clothes, we continued our journey. On each side the rough road was thickly wooded and, here and there, colourful but sinister Tiger memorial posters were caught in our headlamps. On arrival we were given a meal by lamplight, and slept
on mats on the Red Cross storeroom floor.
The next day, we were told there would be no lagoon crossing that night and we would have to wait. Meanwhile, Tiger cadres
from the LTTE visited to check our credentials. There were few cars in Kilinochchi, but many Tamils were riding bicycles up and down the dirt roads. The market place was swarming with male and female Tiger cadres; some were no doubt the notorious female suicide
bombers known as Black Tigers.
By the end of the day we were told to prepare for the crossing the following night. We informed Hari that we would try to return
within two or three days, and he agreed to wait for us. These crossings were organized clandestinely, only at night, to take people and supplies in convoys of small boats to the besieged Jaffna peninsula. Tigers ran convoys of up to a hundred and fifty boats
powered by outboard motors, and the crossing took on average three hours.
At around five in the evening we were taken in a lorry along a series of dirt lanes for
an hour, before being transferred into a tractor trailer. As it grew dark, the tractor dragged us across mudflats through open country dotted with palmyrah palms. At sunset we reached the edge of the lagoon, where the evening breeze had a brackish smell. The
boats were being loaded with crates of supplies: vegetable oil, cans of kerosene and even cows, as well as weapons and ammunition wrapped in polythene bags.
were waiting for our boat when the twilit sky suddenly lit up with tracer fire to the west and, as night fell, the pounding of gunfire echoed across the water. Tracers streaked across the sky, followed by rapid bursts of fire and explosions that continued
for twenty minutes. Then it abruptly stopped. In the silence a horned moon was setting over the lagoon, and we were told to get into a boat. Cadres supervised the loading. Rumours circulated that the navy had just blown a Tiger leader’s fast-boat out
of the water ahead of us. We wondered if the crossing would take place, but the Tigers seemed undaunted by this enemy fire as our boat was pushed silently through shallow waters along the causeway between mud banks. Then there was a long wait. Searchlights
from seaward scanned the night sky. Around midnight we were transferred to a twin outboard motor boat that was roped to tow four others full of supplies, including two cows and a calf.
Armed cadres boarded our boat, ‘as an escort’ we were told. The horned moon turned the colour of blood before sinking into a murky darkness, and searchlights from both sides pierced the darkness intermittently as we began to cross.
I sat in the bows as Mukund chain-smoked next to me.
‘You’re very calm,’ he said. He seemed nervous. I had thought he was the hardened war correspondent
and I would be the one needing reassurance. But he was right. I felt oddly serene as our clandestine flotilla ploughed through the night waters of the Jaffna lagoon.
‘Some years ago, I lived on an island in the south with these monks. I learned to abide in the present moment, undisturbed by thoughts of the past or future. But it takes a situation like this to really put it to the test. So far it’s working,’
I smiled at him as he lit another cigarette.
‘So, you’re a Buddhist?’
‘I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. I don’t have a devout belief in reincarnation or anything like that. It’s more about paying attention to the present moment, which is always sufficient to itself. The old Chan monks
in the mountains of China understood that.’
Mukund peered at me through the darkness with narrowed eyes. ‘Zen and the art of keeping cool under fire,
eh? Well, last time I was here I can tell you the shit hit the fan. On the beach the other side, we were running for cover from helicopter gunships firing at everything and everyone. That was an interesting present moment.’
We were moving very slowly, at about 3–4 knots, pulling our cargo through waters that turned phosphorescent, glittering and sparkling with a bewitching glow as I dragged my fingers beside
the boat. The motion sent sheaves of fluorescent light like meteor showers over the dark pelt of the sea, conjuring a strange mesmerizing beauty that consecrated these hours, which were filled with the imminent threat of death in another storm of tracer fire
under the mute vault of the sky. Every now and again the cows emitted an agonizing groan. Beneath a star-filled sky, the wind, initially astern of us, swung to port and hurled spray across our bows as we hugged the northeast edge of the lagoon until we hit
a sandbank and came to a juddering halt about two hours before dawn. We waded ashore through waist-deep water, helping to carry what we could. We were then given shelter in a beaten-up bus before being transferred to a pick-up with an armed escort. By five
in the morning we reached the Subhas Hotel in Jaffna town where I was installed in a room on the first floor with its own air conditioning in the shape of a huge shell-hole blasted in one wall: a room with a view of a battle-scarred town. We were the only
Very soon three men in civilian clothes paid us a visit. Their polite manner barely concealed their underlying reservation concerning our possible motives.
To their questions about the purpose of our visit we gave non-committal answers, expressing only a general interest in the condition of besieged civilians. The men, who we soon nicknamed the Three Stooges, would depart only to re-appear each day at different
times and places, keeping close watch on our activities.
Mukund asked them to convey a message to the Tiger leadership requesting an interview with Prabhakaran,
the notorious Tiger commander. While we waited for an answer we roamed the streets of Jaffna, where many areas had suffered extensively from previous bombing raids. The streets were filled with the strange smell of burning vegetable oil emitted by motorcycles.
The price of a litre of petrol in Colombo was around 40 rupees. Here, after being cut off from the mainland supply for four years, it was 1,500 rupees, so engines were fuelled by a mixture of kerosene and vegetable oil and primed with eau de cologne.
Many buildings were shattered ruins, including the public library, which had been ransacked and reduced to a hollow remnant, pockmarked with shellfire and bullet holes. Only
the statue of Saraswati, goddess of music, the arts and nature, appeared almost intact, playing her veena in the forecourt, a peacock at her feet. At the college we found students who still studied and completed their exams by kerosene lamps, and in schools
we found art classes had produced many paintings of shell-shocked faces, crude depictions of houses in flames and of lurid bomb blasts. At Jaffna hospital we visited trauma clinics where grieving widows were being counselled and from whose wards we heard terrifying
screams at night. In their homes, we marvelled at people’s ingenious methods of powering radios or cassette players, such as wiring them to a bicycle dynamo: a family member would pedal nonchalantly in the middle of the room with the stand propped under
the rear wheel, while the others listened to their favourite music. At times the half-deserted streets felt like a ghost town, while sinister land rovers with blacked-out windows occasionally patrolled the lanes and we wondered whether Prabhakaran himself
was watching us from behind the smoked glass. Mukund never got his interview.
We hoped to return after a couple of days, but now, owing to the incident on the
lagoon during the night of our crossing, all further boat convoys returning to Kilinochchi had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. There was a fear they would be hit by a naval onslaught or attacked by helicopter gunships. We felt trapped, and wondered
how long Hari would wait for us because there was no way of communicating with him. We requested the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) to evacuate us on their ship that sailed up the east coast from Colombo every so often with medical supplies,
but they refused, pointing out that under current restrictions we were in Jaffna illegally. We began to despair, wondering how long our presence would be tolerated by the Tigers, while the daily appearance of the smiling Three Stooges only added to our unease.
At this point I began asking myself why I’d agreed to this adventure. What was I doing here? I thought of those days, years ago, on my long retreat as an upāsaka,
a lay Buddhist devotee, on a secluded island in a lagoon far away in the south. It had been a time of peace, since when this island nation had been ripped apart by savage and ruthless conflict. What had happened to cause such suffering? And was this photographic
project of mine just a futile attempt at portraying how a beautiful, culturally-rich island nation can descend into hell, whilst putting my life in needless danger? Perhaps I should have become a monk back then, something I had briefly considered.
I managed to make a call to Colombo, where nervous friends awaited our return, and learned that army command had wind of our visit and were none too pleased. We were stranded,
as well as being in potential hot water with the authorities, and there was nothing to do but wait it out in the Subhas Hotel. Boredom set in, and Mukund’s humour grew darker.
‘There aren’t even any whores in this ghost town,’ he complained. ‘Perhaps they’re all suicide bombers. They should have a sign at the hotel entrance: “Enjoy a night with a Black Tiger – 3,000 rupees
an hour, inclusive of funeral expenses.”’
Meanwhile our dwindling funds daily diminished, eating the same monotonous curry, now shared by the ever
more frequent appearances of the Three Stooges.
After ten days we were told another convoy would cross the lagoon and we would be leaving at dusk. At last our
spirits lifted and only a lurking fear of possible attack from helicopter gunships, as Mukund remembered from previous visits, marred our deep sense of relief. The flotilla of small boats set off as night fell. We sailed into a strong headwind and all night
the spray from waves breaking over the bow soaked us to the bone. I had my cameras and rolls of film sealed inside plastic bags. When we arrived, we were amazed to find Hari still waiting for us. He told us emphatically that if we had not been on this convoy
he would have returned to Colombo convinced we had been kidnapped or killed.
From Kilinochchi we drove back down the same route through the forest. It was no longer
raining and the earth had dried out so we drove faster along the rutted track, raising clouds of dust that occasionally swirled through the windows. And then ahead of us, some distance before the checkpoint, we saw scattered objects littering the road: items
of clothing, burst bags of dal and rice, shoes, personal items. We stopped and got out. Hari was nervous. ‘We shouldn’t stay here. It looks like there’s been an ambush.’
‘But who ambushed who?’ I asked.
Warily I stepped off the road into the forest, camera at the ready. The air was breathless.
In the silence I heard flies buzzing ferociously somewhere. Further on we found more food and household items littering the forest floor. It was the banality of the items of day-to-day survival that gave the scene a terrible poignancy. It looked as though
whoever had dropped these things had fled into the bush. Or if they had been killed, the bodies had been removed. I took some pictures.
Mukund said, ‘We’d
better go. We’ve got to get through the checkpoint ahead. We don’t want to get caught up in something here.’
We got back into the car and, as
we drove on through the forest away from territory controlled by the Tigers, I was reminded of another incident a year before, in the east of the country, near a village where there had been a massacre. Women and children had been among the victims. I was
shown the body of a woman who was pregnant. She was beautiful; very dark skinned. The flies were gathered at bullet wounds, dried blood streaked her face and one eye was bloated and swollen. Staring at the lifeless figure of what a few hours before had been
an expectant mother I had asked myself what might have been the last thing she saw. Had she died instantly or only gradually, painfully? What was the final image her retinas recorded as the bullets struck her? Was she thinking of the unborn child in her belly?
Or was her last vision only the face of her killer? Did it even matter? Now she was dead and the new life within her cut short before birth, just another statistic in a brutal war fuelled by ethnic hatred. War had exposed me to all the aspects of existence
that are kept safely hidden from view in peacetime: the raw trauma of contingency, sudden death, the cruelty and violence that simmers in the depths of the human soul. I had lifted my camera to take a shot of her beautiful scarred face and then relented, ashamed
by the clinical dispassionate nature of the act, as though I would somehow add to her violation. Since then I had begun to doubt the role of the photographer in conflict zones. Perhaps documentation was necessary, but had any photograph stopped a single war?
Did the media not thrive on exploiting the human tendency to derive vicarious pleasure from gazing upon images of death and destruction? I had arrived on this island over a decade ago in a time of peace, and thought it a veritable paradise as I had immersed
myself in studying its religion. And within a few years it had descended into one of the most vicious wars of the late twentieth century, and I had become a witness to terror and immense human suffering.
On the way back we stopped at Ritigala, a remote hill known for the ancient stone ruins of a very early monastic community founded around the first century BCE. Perhaps I thought that by wandering among the relics of a sacred community
that practised meditation and peace for hundreds of years we would cleanse our minds of the trauma of our Jaffna adventure. We wandered the stone meditation paths that had been trodden by barefoot monks for centuries, and the silence of the forest conferred
some sense of equanimity.
For a thousand years an ascetic community of monks known as pansukulika, ‘ragged robes’, practised strict austerities
here, having broken away from the dominant orthodoxy by rejecting all ritualistic excess. In this forest monastery there were no Buddhist stupas, bo trees or carved statuary; only caves, stone paths and raised platforms possibly used for communal meditative
practice. They had reverted to seeking the purity of the arahant, the ultimate spiritual goal of the Theravada tradition. But they declined around the eleventh century and, for eight hundred years, the ruins and caves vanished beneath thick jungle
until British archaeologists rediscovered them in the nineteenth century.
As we walked back to the car I wondered about a possible link between the demanding nature
of an extreme puritanical tradition and the latent violence implicit in regarding others as impure. For purity implies defilement in the other. And later, this raised general questions in my mind about links between the roots of violence and the sacred. In
the religion of archaic societies, the two were closely intertwined. Purely biological or evolutionary explanations for our violence always seemed to me inadequate. Ideals of purity, and the self-mutilation involved in extreme ascetic practices, were also
forms of violence.
For the previous five years, as the war against Tamil separatists in the north and east was further complicated by a nationalist insurgency
in the south, I had been making repeated visits to Sri Lanka. A former Marxist group, known as JVP,ruthlessly suppressed by Mrs Bandaranaike in the early seventies, had transformed itself
into a militant Sinhalese nationalist organization opposed to any compromise with the Tamils.1 In protest against the presence of 80,000 Indian ‘peace-keeping’ troops in the north, under a deal struck between Jayewardene’s government
and India’s Rajiv Gandhi, the JVP began attacks against military and civilian targets along the south coast in an attempt to bring down the Sri Lankan government. Some Buddhist monks were known to have supported this nationalist group.
During those years an eerie atmosphere of fear permeated the idyllic beaches and the small coastal villages that nestled amidst the lush tropical vegetation. Bodies were washed
up from the sea with their genitals missing, and severed heads of victims were sometimes displayed on wooden stakes along the south coast road, visible to school children on their way to school. Rumours abounded about state-sponsored paramilitary death squads,
known as the Green Tigers, who worked at night rounding up hundreds of village youths suspected of complicity with the JVP insurgency.
Estimates of the ‘disappeared’
from the south during those years of terror range from 30,000 to 60,000. Perhaps the true number will never be known. Yet at the time there was no murmur of protest from the international community about these sinister and brutal extra-judicial state killings.
The JVP were equally brutal with their tactics, but the government response and the number of innocent youths detained, murdered or ‘disappeared’ was grossly disproportionate, conducted clandestinely and on a scale comparable with the much better
known Argentinian human rights abuses.
In January 1994, barely six months after the journey to Jaffna, I witnessed decayed corpses, assumed to be some of the ‘missing’,
being exhumed from a mass grave on a bleak hillside near an army camp at Sooriyakanda. Watching human skulls being carefully unearthed by forensic teams from the stinking pit below my feet, some with damp swatches of tangled hair still growing out of rotting
scalps, was deeply unsettling. It was quite different from the sight of the newly slain. Those at least retain a recognizable human form, even if the blank gaze of their open yet sightless eyes is a dark window into our deepest fears. A mass grave, by definition,
is utterly dehumanizing: corpses thrown or tipped, like so much garbage, into an open pit like a landfill. Years later their decaying remains are disinterred, often entangled with one another or in broken segments, decomposed worm-eaten flesh sometimes still
clinging to bone. They are barely recognizably human, and their manner of disposal speaks of the hatred and contempt that motivated their brutal killing. I had interviewed some women along the coast whose sons had left one evening and vanished into the night,
never to be seen again. Their grief was unending and inconsolable, for it was without resolution. I wondered whether these remains would offer, to some of them at least, the terrible relief of closure. And I asked myself how this island nation could have sunk
into such an abyss of sickening horror.
Three years after
this journey to Jaffna, in January 1996, I was in a small jeweller’s shop in the central business district of Colombo known as Fort, photographing a selection of gemstones for a book due to be published the following year. By 10.45 a.m. I had finished,
packed my gear, thanked the jeweller for his help and climbed into the waiting taxi outside the shop that was situated opposite the Central Bank. As we drove off and turned the corner, barely a hundred metres from the shop, I heard gunshots and a few moments
later an explosion ripped through the air compressing my eardrums and causing the taxi to swerve, buffeted by the blast. Behind us a huge black mushroom-shaped cloud rose above the buildings. The driver began accelerating away, but I persuaded him to turn
The street was unrecognizable. The shop front I had just left was partially obliterated. There was splintered glass everywhere, parked cars were smouldering
charred wrecks, bleeding figures with torn clothes were running in all directions and nearby office buildings were on fire. Having narrowly missed the blast I was, by chance, the first photographer there and in the chaos I captured wounded people being carried
out of burning buildings. The Tamil Tigers had tried to access the mezzanine level of the Central Bank with a truck full of explosive, but a suspicious security guard triggered a skirmish with small arms fire in the street causing the bomber to detonate the
truck outside the bank. This was the last of several narrow escapes. When I left a few weeks later it was for the last time, after an association with the island nation that had lasted fifteen years.