April 2, 2018 11 min to read
7 Things to know before Traveling to Sri Lanka
Why did I decide to go back to the homeland?
To put it simply – because it’s home. No matter where you are on this planet, even the slightest thought of returning home will have you believing that you are returning to an environment and people that will care for you and protect you.
My home is where I am free to move how I please. To be able have the freedom to decide and behave how I am most comfortable. And it all boils down to one thing – where my identity is its truest.
How did you struggle with going back to a nation where you might feel you would be a second class citizen post a war that broke Tamil morale?
Not once did I feel like I was a second class citizen. When you are surrounded by your family and those who are very much like you, you would not feel as though you are below them. In the traditional homeland of the Eelam Tamils you are an equal member of your household. Although being born in Canada and visiting the homeland after 20 years the Tamils I interacted with saw me only as their kin and not an alien.
Here in Canada members of our society boast our great diversity. When we are out and about we hear how our diversity allows us not only to interact but to build and prosper together. Although these interactions are vital for our development, at the end of the day we always return to those who are most like us. We return to a home that protects our deepest values and we maintain a connection with people who have similar beliefs and aspirations. And in 2015 I witnessed this among a whole people. People that considered themselves having a unique ethnic identity.
In 1799 the first British Colonial Secretary Sir Hugh Cleghorn made a vital discovery and relayed it back to England, for it only to fall on deaf ears. In a report he stated that two distinct ethnic groups had existed and divided the island as their homeland. Both groups had their own unique religion, language, and culture. To bring the two households together as one and give majority rule to one of them is a direct attack on the home of the Tamils. A place where they can no longer live with the same freedoms, protection and support.
The sad truth is not everyone will agree. And the reason for this is because not enough thought or willingness to understand has been put into peoples’ thinking. I urge those that are visiting the Tamil homeland to gather knowledge of past and present experiences and to distinguish the root causes of the problems Tamils face daily.
Would you tell people to go?
I would advise people to visit our homeland in a heartbeat. But there is a catch. Too many individuals travel with blinders on. And they fail to see first hand the daily issues people face and do not have enough background understanding on the root causes of these issues. So they are left with the only option and that is to travel the country as a tourist.
Last year I travelled alongside my family and remember telling my brother not only to enjoy the sights and sounds of our homeland but to keep an open ear and a pursuing eye into the daily movement of the people. And our discussions have proven his experience was worth that much more.
So to all those who plan to travel to the homeland I urge you to do some background research before you travel and while on your travels be open to all of the sights and sounds not just the ones that give you temporary enjoyment.
Do people openly talk about what happened? Is it safe to?
The year before I travelled with my family I made the decision to travel on my own. I decided to visit the homeland after 20 years of setting foot there only to reach Sri Lanka in the heat of the 2015 election. The news of a new regime taking over was followed by mixed feelings about the new presidency. One thing was absolutely certain – the Tamil people wanted Mahinda out. It was humiliating to have his face plastered on every street corner asking for support for the election, when only a few years back Mahinda and his regime intentionally attacked, imprisoned, and left to die the very same people.
The new presidency brought some people to believe they would see an improvement compared to the nastiness that came with the previous regime. But one thing was clear – there would be no way these improvements would lead to the needs of the Tamils being met.
Tamils in their traditional homeland are some of the strongest people I have come face to face with. After enduring decades of conflict and years of humiliation, they still hold strong to their beliefs. After all that has happened, most individuals are not afraid to call out the bullshit and share their stories.
After an all out attack on their lives and everything they fought to protect, these Tamils have shared their stories with confidence. Confidence they will get their due respect but more importantly to strengthen the confidence of those willing to hear their stories.
After coming out of a bloody war it is obvious that not everyone would feel safe or comfortable speaking about their experiences. The one thing I tried to do was speak with a wide range of people whose experiences of the entire conflict leading up to May 2009 would be different.
I spoke to individuals far removed from Mullivaikal and therefore had an external view of the chaos – similar to us living in the diaspora. I spoke to Tamil store owners in Colombo who were born in the South and who never shared the same experiences of the Tamils living in the North and East.
I also spoke to individuals on the front lines in May 2009. People who had to endure unspeakable losses and were forced to live in ways not a single person on this planet would want to be treated.
I spoke with the young, who were forming new experiences and questioning why their lives were at stake. I also spoke with the elderly who had witnessed atrocities and were given a chance to grow into knowledgeable individuals with their own answers as to why they felt they were targeted.
There was a common tone among the people I spoke to, and their needs were rather concrete. Their underlying need was to provide their community, family and themselves with the best opportunities to grow. And also to be able to raise new generations without having fear they will be targeted for the choices they make.
What is the mode of survival? Are there people supporting one another, or is it individual survival circumstances?
One thing that is clearly evident is the breakdown of a community unit by intentional and systematic means.
In Vanni – a small community of multiple households had the freedom to share a communal well. There was balance and an understanding of their moral obligation to protect the well for everyone’s wellbeing. These same community members were forced to flee their homes in 2009 and upon return they were dealt with one of the worst blows they could face. Not only were their homes turned to rubble, their community well had been bombed and filled in.
In 2015 I had the opportunity to witness the struggles these community members faced on a daily basis. Now that the well was no more, they were now travelling far distances for their water and for the most part, it was a scarce resource. Meaning, it was now forcing the people to compete for adequate resources to ensure the wellbeing of their individual household.
While this and many similar situations were taking place across the Eastern coast, there were those that lived with a level of comfort in Jaffna. They were handed a sort of freedom that I consider to be an illusion. The young student population were being blinded with material well being. When you yourself have material well being you tend not to see that your neighbour is struggling to feed themselves.
What about the Militarization/Occupation on the A9
When you decide to travel to the homeland I would ask you to be conscious about one specific moment. As you move from the predominantly Sinhala south and move up towards the traditional homeland of the Tamil people in the North/East – Open your minds to the sights you will see along the A9.
One way to break down a community is to break its will. And with what I witnessed I was left broken.
I took the time to travel to the south of the country and while there I too had fallen victim to the lifestyle of a tourist. As I travelled through the central regions of the country into the lion’s den, I witnessed an environment of comfort. An environment that had no trace of a longstanding ethnic conflict. The values and needs of the majority was the complete opposite to what I had seen in the North East. I too fell for this illusion and for a split second believed everything was better now. That was until we made our way back up the A9.
The lions were not in their den – they were littered across the 300 kilometer strip to the North. And at this moment I was brought back to reality. The reality that the Sri Lankan Army, Navy, and Airforce bases were strategically placed where they would be able to watch over their prey and instill fear into those who had to bare witness to these sights.
The harsh reality is that the Sinhala population do not face these circumstances whereas Tamils have to come face to face with the very same people who ripped into their flesh and soul on the daily.
Rallies/ Interactions with people/ What are these rallies able to do
The second visit I made to the homeland in two years I was given an opportunity to witness the very fire that burns in my heart in the hearts of the Tamil people.
A rally was orchestrated to bring together Tamils across the North East to re-ignite our fight for liberation. After having come face to face with death to standing shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and sisters I wholeheartedly believe there is no force on earth that can prevent the Tamil people from reaching their liberation.
Everyone attending joined together to profess their love for their Tamil language and their homeland out loud and in unison as we sang the Tamil Thai Valthu. In this moment I realized the resilience of our people. I also realized our fate was in our own hands. These rallies that took place across the Tamil homeland was out of necessity. As necessary as it was for Tamils living in Canada to take over the Gardiner.
Every step someone takes towards sharing our collective issues with the world has to be met with the utmost support. Every action someone takes towards building and protecting community values needs to be met with the utmost support.
And so anytime I see an individual or an organization taking the necessary steps towards liberation I will judge their actions on its key facets.
- Whether it values life or destroys it.
- Whether it brings people inner strength and dignity, both as individuals and community.
- Whether it affords protection to the weak, the exploited, and children.
- Whether it has the basic human qualities that will win it friends.
I want to end off by telling you a deep rooted lesson I learned by simply studying the seeds that took form, sprouted and grew to prosper in Tamil Eelam.
The Palmyra tree has given life to Tamils across the land – It has provided everything from protection, sustenance, support and dignity through its many uses.
There is another tree which can only survive with the support of the Palmyra. The fruit of this tree is digested by the crow and its seeds are dispersed directly onto the trunk of the Palmyra. These seeds then begin to use the support of the Palmyra to reach down into the earth to form its own roots.
This tree is known as the Banyan tree and will grow to completely cover the Palmyra from plain sight. And at first glance you may believe the Banyan tree is a pest that uses the life of the Palmyra for its own well being which would then rid the Palmyra when it’s of no use. At a closer look you will begin to see both trees do in fact live harmoniously and thrive – even though they are two different trees inhabiting the same space.
As important as the Palmyra is to both the Banyan tree and Tamils, it is time to understand that it is of necessity that Tamils around the world begin to support one another for the wellbeing of ourselves and our seeds.
To all my brothers and sisters ready to come back to our homeland, I want you to remember these things. Every step you take on this land you will feel the resilience of our brothers and sisters. Every place you visit will shower you with the experiences of the Tamils who were here before us. Our people are not dead, our language has not been forgotten and most importantly our identity has not been buried. They may have tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.
AP – Community Activist