Where have all these people been for the last few days? I wondered. I could picture them huddled and cold beneath their useless boats, paralyzed by a fear born of violence, afraid to move around enough to even cook a meal for their children. For the two days of the curfew they’d hidden, waiting in terror for an unknown reprisal.
Uncle Money and I wandered freely among them. Not because we had to be there. Not because we were trapped, but because we were privileged. Circumstance and the lottery of birth had conspired to give us the wealth and means to travel to foreign lands and wantonly endanger our own lives for absolutely no good reason whatsoever. This was not our place. Tomorrow we would be back in comfort and relative safety. These children would remain, living under boats, struggling to eat, fearing the bullets that could arrive with every new day. Their trying lives were our reckless entertainment. They would remain, amid the suffering, and against all odds.
But looking out to sea, one could almost feel hope looming just over the horizon. I walked behind Uncle Money and watched the shadowed underbellies of softly lapping waves gently kiss the brightly striated reflections of dawn as the sun finally peeked above the hard line of the ocean. Those few boats lucky enough to have engines, and the few men lucky enough to have access to them, motored out into open water. A child shrieked with laughter.
It was fully light by the time we reached the bus stop at the edge of town, and in the slanted sunshine of early morning I could see shops beginning to open. People walked back and forth across the street, stopping to chat with friends here and there. Smiling eyes reflected sunshine into the faces of loved ones not seen during the curfew. There seemed to be fewer soldiers on the street, but perhaps that was just an illusion born of normalcy, and as I looked down the sand-strewn streets of Trincomalee, I felt an inkling of what almost was, and what still might be.
A few months after my visit to Trinco the civil war erupted in earnest once more. I wasn’t there; indeed, I wasn’t in Sri Lanka anymore, but the reports were horrific. My friend Jake was doing aid work in the area, and from him I learned that almost everyone had fled the city. Many of those who didn’t were killed in the fighting. Many of the remaining homes and buildings were destroyed by bombs and guns, and still more were knocked down by roving elephants that could smell the abandoned stores of grains and lentils within.
The war is over for now, and I wonder sometimes what Trinco looks like. I wonder what happened to our hotel owner whose name I’ve forgotten. I wonder what happened to the children on the beach, to the lone soldier who had helped us. I wonder about the soldiers we saw that last morning, as we were about to board the bus back to Galle. Uncle Money had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to them as they leaned against their guns and smoked.
I didn’t notice anything at first.
Uncle Money grinned at me and pointed again. And then I saw it. Every single one of those soldiers, every single one, had his hat on backwards.