The barred doors and shuttered windows, the knotted groups of soldiers twitching their fingers against the triggers of their Kalishnakovs, the sand-bagged bunkers sheltering pairs or trios of camouflaged kids all huddled around a massive belt-fed machine gun, the complete lack of civilians: Perhaps, had we not been so utterly stoned, we would have noticed these things earlier.
The town of Trincomalee sprawls across a wide, sandy bay on the east coast of Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged center. It claims a population of around 100,000, but for a few days in the fall of 2005 it felt much smaller. A dusty, windswept, one-street village, home to more feral dogs than people, it was the epicenter of the island’s decades-old civil war. It was a city that had struggled beneath the yoke of violence and insurgency long before being struck down by the tsunami of December 26th, 2004. Uncle Money and I had arrived by bus. We had both lived in-country for months, having come to Sri Lanka to lend what help we could to the survivors of the tsunami, or at least to unearth and properly bury the bodies, and so we barely noticed the filth and detritus scattered haphazardly across most south Asian cities: the garbage, the stagnant pools of something, the piles of human and animal waste. The bus had dropped us off just outside the city limits for reasons we didn’t bother to consider at the time as we were primarily concerned with having run out of rolling papers.
We wandered down the streets leading deeper into the city until coming upon the main road, all along the way knocking on shop windows to pantomime (unsuccessfully) our need for papers and waving at the soldiers. When we paused at an intersection I couldn’t help but notice the number of guns pointed at us. Not in a menacing way, it just so happened that all the soldiers — 10 or 12 at least — were facing us with guns that hung over their shoulders, barrels forward.
I looked at Uncle Money.
“Dude. What the hell is going on here?” I asked.
“I dunno man,” he replied. “Maybe it’s some kind of holiday?”
Being unaware of any Sri Lankan holiday celebrating the ubiquity of Soviet-era armaments, I remained skeptical. I was also nervously, if somewhat subconsciously, aware that the timing of our visit coincided with an extremely divisive presidential election. Somewhere in there was also the knowledge that “Trinco” was an active civil war zone.
“Or maybe it has something to do with the election,” Uncle Money said. Apparently we were thinking along the same blurred lines.
It wasn’t as though we were unaware of the stupidity inherent in our situation. We were, after all, halfway through a poorly planned hitch-hiking trip through a civil war zone. Our confusion, in the end, was less a product of misunderstood facts and more a result of willful ignorance. We simply hadn’t been capable of accepting the magnitude of our idiocy. It was easier to feign incomprehension than to admit foolishness.
We left the street in favor of the beach, which was breezier, fresher, and somewhat less riddled with soldiers. We approached hotel after hotel, only to find them locked and un-lit. Most of the buildings on the beach were at least partially destroyed. Some were swept away completely, their bare foundations the footprints of the tsunami which devastated the region nearly a year before. Even nine months later, very little reconstruction had taken place. In Trincomalee, caught between conflict and poverty, there was little time to indulge optimism, and the scene didn’t shock us. We’d been working in Galle, in Sri Lanka’s southeast, since a week after the Christmas devastation. The destruction here was perhaps greater, and the recovery certainly slower, but between the war and the ravages of the tsunami, there was little left untouched in the country. Utter destruction is not easily measurable in degrees. And certainly not when you spend most of your time very, very high.
Yet, as we approached a newer looking, two-story affair painted bright yellow, we detected movement through a window and immediately ran up to the glass doors and knocked. A round, well dressed Sri Lankan man answered and ushered us inside. “What are you doing here?” he asked in excellent, if heavily accented English. “Don’t you know there is a curfew?”
“Really?” I asked. “The soldiers didn’t say anything.”
He shook his head and shot me a grim smile. “Not the soldiers,” he explained. “It’s the rebels. They don’t want anyone to vote so they announced a curfew. No one is allowed on the streets today or tomorrow. They have placed snipers here and there around the city, and they say anyone seen on the streets will be shot.”
I shivered involuntarily and looked at Uncle Money. He seemed, as usual, completely unconcerned. I flashed back to a few days previous, following his crazy, bald, English ass along dirt roads in the dead of night, the smell of wild elephants seeping out of the jungle all around us. He hadn’t been worried then, either. Crazy bastard. It was one of the things I loved about him.
The big yellow building turned out to be a hotel, albeit an empty one, and after settling on a price for the night we had dinner with our host and listened to stories from the war. I don’t recall his name, but I remember him telling us about his education in the U.S. and about family members lost to violence and disaster. His building had withstood the waves, and he had managed to replace the blown-out doors and windows fairly quickly, although much of the furniture was lost. The place felt empty, with just a few plastic chairs scattered around a wobbly table.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back,” he told us. “But someone must. This country is too beautiful. This place is too wonderful to just give up. I had to try to make something here.”
He cast his eyes towards the floor, his despair evident. Decades of war. A devastating tsunami. Then half-a-breath of national mourning followed by more war and persistent, direct threats against civilians. It had worn him thin. Yet, like Job, he continued to believe. In his homeland, his people, his culture. He continued to believe in hope.