How I found peace in Sri Lanka
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,