How I found peace in Sri Lanka

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

The Tigers’ lair was deep in the jun­gle. It was dif­fi­cult to find nd and tough to get to; two hours jolt­ing,g, semi-prone, in a trailer dragged by a trac­tor,r, watching for mines. This was a war zone for decades. The paddy fields were aban­doned long ago to the pea­cocks and their per­pet­ual ual courtship, dozens of them ev­ery­where, each male madeade fab­u­lous by de­sire. The man-made lake that once fed the fields was cov­ered in lo­tus flow­ers. A croc­o­dile basked on a rock in the shal­lows, jaws gap­ing as if in won­der at the lonely beauty of it all. Well into the thicker brush, down a maze of paths and tun­nels through the thorn tre trees, we came first to what was le left of the Tigers’ guard post. JustJu rub­ble now where 303 fight­ers held part of the perime­ter of what was,w in ef­fect, a sep­a­rate sta state. Their la­trine, the on only recog­nis­able struc­ture­structu left, was now home to a 15ft In­dian rock py python. The main camp was much fur­ther into the jun­gle,j blasted to near obliv­ion,oblivio like the move­mentmo it­self. It had been the per­ma­nent base for 1,000 fight­ers, three times that many when re­cruits in this east­ern Tamil heart­land were tran­sit­ing to the bat­tle­fields of the north.

It had been a small town of con­crete, breeze blocks and un­der­ground bunkers. Maybe the place was lev­elled by the Tigers them­selves, when the war ended in a bloody Göt­ter­däm­merung, 100 miles to the north. But the re­mains of their dis­tinc­tive uni­forms, the emp­tied am­mu­ni­tion boxes, and – more chilling – the hu­man bones that were ly­ing about spoke of col­lapse, and flight, and worse.

Our guides couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell us. We didn’t in­quire if they had

Michael Buerk, who re­ported on the coun­try’s civil war, re­turns as a hol­i­day­maker to find that tourism is help­ing to heal old wounds

been fight­ers them­selves. Eight years af­ter the war ended, it is still not a ques­tion that can be asked.

We had set off, shortly af­ter dawn, from one of the most in­ter­est­ing ho­tels I have ever stayed in. Jun­gle Beach is a col­lec­tion of 48 “cab­ins” clus­tered in trop­i­cal seclu­sion be­tween the jun­gle and the sea. It’s not just the lux­ury of the chalets, with their air-con­di­tion­ing, their ter­races and decks, king-size beds and state-of-the-art bath­rooms and lighting sys­tems. It’s not the beach, though that’s three miles long and the ho­tel has it all to it­self. It’s not the food, ex­ot­i­cally sourced and fas­tid­i­ously pre­pared though it is (and the bar­be­cued Sri Lankan lob­ster and jumbo prawns be­side the surf un­der a dark vel­vet sky is my most mem­o­rable night of the year so far). It’s not the end­lessly oblig­ing ser­vice from so many friendly and cour­te­ous peo­ple that set it apart.

It is the way it is help­ing to heal the gap­ing wounds of war.

War is all most peo­ple here knew. It went on for nearly 30 years, the long­est civil war in Asian his­tory, and for much of that time the east was Tiger ter­ri­tory; a state with its own bor­ders, courts, even traf­fic po­lice equipped with radar guns. Much of the time, the army was banged up in the old Bri­tish naval base at Trin­co­ma­lee, 20 miles to the south, and only ven­tured out along the main roads, in day­light. For many round here there was no work, no school, for two gen­er­a­tions. Par­ents wouldn’t let their chil­dren out for fear of mur­der at the blood­ied hands of both sides, or ab­duc­tion – the Tigers were al­ways short of man­power and made killers of thou­sands of women and boys.

Jun­gle Beach is a first prom­ise of change, bring­ing high-end tourists to this cor­ner of a tor­tured par­adise. Al­most half the staff have been re­cruited lo­cally. For all I knew, the waiter who brought us our eggs Bene­dict at breakfast was once in­ter­na­tion­ally de­fined as a ter­ror­ist with the Tigers’ trade­mark cyanide cap­sule neck­lace and striped camos, as ex­pert with a T-56 as­sault ri­fle and a bay­o­net as he is now with more do­mes­tic cutlery. The war wid­ows work mainly in the laun­dry and the kitchen. Shan­thi Ku­mari, 34, was left half-starv­ing with her two daugh­ters when her hus­band dis­ap­peared like so many oth­ers. Now she’s a kitchen stew­ard with a salary suf­fi­cient to build a house with a TV, a fridge and a gold­fish tank. The war wrecked her life, she says. The ho­tel put it back to­gether again and means a fu­ture for her two girls, aged 15 and 10. She says the ho­tel man­ager, an in­spi­ra­tional fig­ure and a Tamil him­self, “is a god to me”. There are so many oth­ers, she says, who would give any­thing for a sim­i­lar chance.

The guests need know noth­ing of the war. This is an ex­clu­sive re­treat,

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