18/06/09 Anuradhpura Hotel Room - 21:35
I think, finally, it has sunk in, in this precious moment of quietude. I need to get an early night but my mind won't rest easy. It hasn't escaped me that Anuradhapura is the farthest North I have ever been in Sri Lanka. As a child I would travel up here with my family to see the ancient ruins and monuments of myth. Tomorrow though, we all will be going further, much further. We had gotten clearance and in the morning a 'Major Kumara', who has been assigned to be our military escort, will arrive to take us to Vavuniya. Heidi, whom I cling to for escapism in these times of impending reality, is alerted to my nervousness. 'Don't worry' she says, 'it'll be adventure'. I smile, Heidi has a way of capturing the absurdity of the situation. It'll be adventure alright. I just hope I don't leave the lens cap on.
As restless night begat an overcast morning, I sat at the hotel doorway deep in thought. Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara had informed me that a ‘Major Kumara’ would be accompanying us on our journey. To keep us from straying from the beaten path, for safety as well as inconvinience I'd expect. When he finally called he spoke in Sinhalese, I spoke back in English. It was a habit of mine that I had grown accustomed from living in London all my life. I couldn't speak a word of Sinhalese but could understand it just fine. This threw off the Major, 'I'm...outside in the... the...hotel.' He said in broken patois. I went out to meet him. He was a tall, bulky man with a centre-parting that he kept adjusting gingerly. He had a scar on his left cheek, from a bullet wound we later found out, and shrapnel in his knee that induced a noticeable limp. He was disgruntled from his long trip from Colombo so he gave me a brisk handshake and proceeded into my hotel room for a quick shower. We waited. Half an hour later and we made a move. It was apparent from the outset that we were on his time not ours.
You see, Major Kumara was supposed to be have the weekend off. He was called on short notice just for us amateurs. I got to know this only because of the fact that he would speak freely to Chandana our driver believing that I, feigning ignorance of my mother tongue, didn't understand a word of what he had said. I did, and it was obvious he didn't want to be there. We were all convinced that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity however, and even if it meant being a pain in the ass for Major Kumara we were going to make the most of it.
The road to Vavuniya goes through a major checkpoint at Medavachchiya. This was near the old de-facto border crossing between the LTTE held territory and the South. We saw streams of people being herded through long checkpoints. Bags were checked and people frisked. Working men and women, I gathered, mostly going Southward. It seemed like a massive operation, a border checkpoint between two zones, one civilian the other military. This was the gateway to the North and once on the other side there was no looking back. This was the dark side of the island that had been shrouded under the flag of the LTTE. Few foreigners had been past this point and it dawned on me that whatever we'd see from now on in, not many have had the chance to see before us. This was it, I remember thinking, this was our one and only shot to get it right. I wasn't going to miss a single second so I switched my camera on and pressed record. I had no intention of switching off until Chalai. I looked down at my viewfinder. Blank. The lens cap was on. I smiled and made sure the others didn't see. I took the lens cap off and threw it out the window. Amateur hour, I thought, was most definitely over.
The Road To Vavuniya
As we headed north it felt like the road was crumbling away beneath us. We all would sit silently as we watched the country pass by out the window. It seemed as if the beauty of the country, its colour and life was being drained from it the further north we went. The lush greens of the paddies and rice fields gradually faded into mud brown patch works of waterless prairies. The trees became gaunt, the land featureless and flat. There appeared either side of us abandoned cattle, their faces sunken and bodies withered. They had wandered down from wherever we were headed and soon the skeletal cattle gave way to the gutted ruins of farms, homes and schools.
We stopped at one such village. Most buildings there were simply the single wall ruins of shops, market stalls and houses. These were poor homes, for poor people. Bullet riddled cars and lorries, doors ajar exactly how they were left when abandoned. Lives had been lived here. It was a surreal moment for me and for the others. Looking over the carnage it was hard to imagine what had preceded us. We came across a primary school which we entered. We walked among piles of books on the floor, filing cabinets smashed and tables and chairs thrown across the place. I picked up a damp book with the words ‘Year 9’ written on the cover. I opened it. There were children’s names written down one side and columns down the other with ticks or crosses in boxes. It was a roll call register. I walked over to the black board where the last class to be held I saw was mathematics. I took my finger and smudged a number ‘4’ on the chalk board and immediately felt bad for doing so. It felt like sacrilege. I was in a ghost town surrounded by ghostly possessions. I instinctively brushed the chalk from my finger tip and headed back to the van. It would prepare me for what would come.
Our first stop would be Menik Farm. An IDP camp that housed most of the people displaced from the recent fighting. The single most contentious issue in this war has been the amount of civilian casualties and the fate of the surviving homeless. I made sure I had my facts and figures written in my notebook on arrival. There are over 400, 000 displaced people in Sri Lanka. Just under 300,000 of them held in Vavuniya. Thats a bigger population that Bradford crowded together into a smaller area than most townships in England. Around 140,000 people were already in IDP camps before the massive influx of the North Eastern Tamil civilians in May. The night before I had carefully recorded all this information, the idea was that I would be prepared for the big day, professional so to speak. Like a proper journalist. I would be reporting from an IDP camp in Sri Lanka, it would be a baptism of fire so I had better be ready. It was almost immediately that I realized how ridiculous I was being. No amount of preparation would ready me for this.
19/06/09 – Menik Farm 8:30 am
The sand is red, dry and unkind. We are waiting for the Major to allow us to get out. Looking through the tinted windows we see this place is devoid of emotion. Look at the faces. I think about the lives here. What were they? Doctors? Teachers? What kind of identity do they have now? What is it to be an IDP? What camera could possibly hope to capture this kind of reality? Jesus, where’s my notebook…
We were asked what we wanted to see and I said I wanted to see how these people lived. I wanted to see if conditions were good enough and ask them how they felt. We were given the seasoned tour – IDP’s were running their own shops, buying and selling basic amenities to each other. There was a bank, a post office and schools for children aged 6-18. There was even a ‘cultural centre’ where some sort of play was being held, people were applauding and getting involved. There was a vocational training centre for young men who wanted to learn carpentry and engineering could do so under the watchful eye of a soldier. There was even a computer centre where there were about 10 computers for about 16 students. If there was an internet connection I wasn’t sure. But they seemed pretty happy with it. ‘I would never have had the opportunity to work on a computer if I hadn’t come here.’ One student said to me. I don’t know if it was my own skepticism but all this seemed to me to be slightly cosmetic. There did seem to be genuine push to provide a certain standard of living to these people. But for what purpose? Was it to simply distract these people from their situation or to provide them with an education that they could employ after they got out. We asked a group of young men to speak to us. They looked at us and our cameras, then they looked over at Major Kumara. They declined. Some would push others in front, as if children who were camera shy. But there was something about the way they declined, it wasn't as innocent as camera shyness - it was fear. A fear of what? There seemed to be a climate of wariness wherever we went as if stray words would harm as much as stray bullets.
Those who did speak, spoke openly of the opportunities they had and about how much they were enjoying working and living here, at times though it seemed they were speaking to the Major, not to me or the camera. But this enthusiasm exposed a greater disparity. In the carpentry mill I asked a young man sanding wood what he was making. ‘I’m just training. Not making anything.’ He said. At the computer centre I asked a teenager if he intended to further his computer skills at university. He laughed, ‘I can’t go to university, I’m here.’ I stopped myself from asking him what the point was then. Speaking to Heidi later, she suggested that these places might have been built for the benefit of the government not the people. Implying that they had provided shiny new things like computers and sewing machines to serve no other purpose than to distract international observers from the destitution that surrounded them. The novelty of these vocational training courses was hard to ignore. Why provide buildings of concrete for people who live in temporary tin-housing?
Water was an obvious issue here. There was running water but we saw up to 50 people surrounding a single pump. At another well, there was simply a long line of buckets and a single woman filling them as a small child carried each full one away. The logistical task of housing, feeding and medically treating over 300,000 people is enormous and our escorts made it clear that they believed they were doing the best they could under the circumstances. When asked they made a point that they might not be able to access water quickly, but they at least had access to water. No-one would die of thirst here, they ensured. However providing medical treatment, they said, was the biggest concern.
Major Kumara led me into a medical facility. We asked the patients to step aside for me and I went in with the camera. It was dark, and cramped. There were people with all kinds of ailments sitting and standing around two tables where doctors were doing their best to administer aid. There was no privacy here, people would be telling the doctor of their dysentery amid a crowd of people waiting for their turn. I walked in, my eyes fixed on my viewfinder. The faces looked into the lens, sad faces. This is good I thought. There was an old man with his jaw bandaged up. I zoomed in. ‘Excuse me! Hello?’ came a call from behind me. It was a doctor. ‘Can I help you?’ Major Kumara told him I wasn’t press, I was just a student. He looked at me. ‘I don’t care who you are, don’t you have the decency to introduce yourself when you come in here? This is a hospital.’ Major Kumara spoke to him in Sinhala, I interrupted, ‘I’m sorry I was under the impression…’ He shook his head and carried on examining a small child his wound. It was then that my hand wavered for the first time. I felt guilty and lowered my camera. I looked around and looked at the people I had been filming. The old man, the sad faces. They weren’t looking at my lens they were looking at the doctor, clutching their arms and heads in wretchedness. God, what was I doing? I left with my head low, and my camera switched off.
Heidi and Phil had wandered off before then and we met back up as I left the medical unit. They asked if I had gotten anything good. I said yeah, really good stuff. Heidi noticed me distracted, ‘What’s up?’ She asked, ‘Nothing’ I replied, ‘what else do we need?’ I usually relied on her memory as mine was never any good. She mentioned to me that I wanted to see a house but she had reservations about doing so. She didn't think it proper. Major Kumara led us to a small home near the entrance to the camp. It had a thatched roof and corrugated walls. He informed the occupants that we wanted to film inside, the old man ushered his children and wife out of the way. I reluctantly stepped in, Heidi stayed outside. The words of the doctor were ringing in my ear. ‘Have you no decency’ he had said. I walked past the old man into his house, filmed his children, filmed his home. ‘Have you no decency’ again I heard the words in my mind. I filmed the old mans kettle, his breeze-block stove. 'Have you no decency'. There was one room, separated by a shelf of powdered milk and food wrapped in newspaper. I filmed his linen and I filmed his babies cot. 'Have you no decency.' I filmed his bed and I filmed his chamber pot. ‘Have you no decency’. Every shot was an intrusion, and every second of film felt like theft. I heard the clicks of Phil's camera go behind me as I went about filming the rest of this man's meagre possessions. This was a dwelling not a home, but this was a man and not an animal. As we left I made sure to shake the old man by the hand and said thank you in a way that he would understand beyond language. I said it with my eyes to his, so he’d know how grateful I was that he’d let me into his home. He said ‘thank you.’ There was also fear here too, but this fear was of us.
I tried to do a piece to camera from outside the old man's house but the words couldn’t come. I tried to play the journalist but I was failing at the first hurdle. How could you remain impartial to all of this? How do you remain detached? It belies decency, the doctor was right. Would it have made a difference if I had asked permission to film his patients? Would it have been better for us to have asked the old man if we could enter his home and film his family instead of simply telling him that we were? No. This is no business of mine unless I had a degree in medicine or law, I remember thinking, unless I could serve a greater need.
A Genuine Purpose
19/06/09 Menik Farm – 9:52 am
These people are in desperate need, but they are not animals to be poked and stared at. Nor are they objects of empty sympathy for the eyes and lenses of the world media searching for a ‘human angle’. That notion, has become absolutely redundant for me now.
Allow me to be brutally honest. When I came here, I saw simply an opportunity. For myself and for this documentary. The first thing they teach you in journalism school is the ability to detach yourself from the story. A journalist is an observer, a witness driven by a higher purpose. I also had a camera and I knew what ‘good footage’ meant back home. Emotion was what sold. Poverty and destitution was currency in a field like mine. This is the truth. Images that made an impact; barbed wire fences and malnourished children, the so-called ‘human angle’. I had approached this camp in the same vein as any other journalist would. It was a story to be gotten, something that would help me as a means to my own end. I felt I had good intentions. I thought whatever I would film and see would someday find itself in front of people who could perhaps make a difference to the lives here. But here is the harsher truth: when coming to a place like this, looking into the eyes of these people and questioning them, sticking a camera in their faces – in pursuit of this ‘human angle’ you lose a bit of your own humanity.
Despite this inner uncertainty I filmed anyway. I knew no other way. Yes, there were barbed wire fences, yes there were a lot of children in desperately dirty clothes and litter strewn everywhere. Yes indeed, there was abject poverty. Opportunity was ripe for potent pictures. But I had been taught a lesson by now and had a responsibility. I could have crouched behind barbed wire and made the children look like cattle. Or grabbed a shot of a crying baby and made it looks as if it were hungry. I know what power images like that are worth back home. But it would have been dishonest and would not have served any purpose except provide spectacle for gawking masses back home. I refused to take part in any of that.
Undeniably, there had been progress in terms of sanitation and health care here. But just as legitimate were the concerns about how long these people would stay in these camps. Functioning villages they might have been but the invalidity of artificial constructs as a means to foster a community were stark. Heidi, Phil and I were under no illusions either. We knew that what we had seen had been the most developed part of the camp. The tourist section. It was fraction of a much bigger picture and whatever success stories here were mere pin-pricks of light surrounded by darkness. We only saw about a thousand people in this village, what of the rest of the 300,000?
We were hurried out of the camp by Major Kumara who was eager to move us along. That irked us slightly as we wanted to explore further and perhaps talk to more people. He informed me that Brigadier Prasanna De Silva had been in touch and that he was waiting for us up in Chalai. Frustrated, we got back in our van and left un-satisfied but knowing we had what we wanted. I immediately wanted to see what Phil had captured on his SLR. He had taken lots of pictures of the children. I remembered noticing the children who were around us the whole time. To draw smiles from them, Phil would take a picture and show them their goofy expressions. They posed and made faces and followed us around wherever we went. Just like they would anywhere else in the world, I remember thinking at the time. I had watched as they all gathered around Phil's knees, tugging and nagging him to take more pictures. They had held Heidi's hand as she was trying to steady a shot for my interviews. We had laughed as they arranged themselves in a row as Phil would take their final picture. There was joy here in this camp but only among the children who knew nothing of human rights and liberty. All they knew was that the tall Englishman had a new toy and it fascinated them. That was the only honest thing I had captured from Menik Farm. I had almost lost any semblance of journalistic integrity, but by then I didn’t feel journalistic integrity was worth all that much. I had my humility and that was enough.
It would be a four hour journey to Chalai, along the way the patch-work prairies gave way to more rubble and devastation. The dark side was getting darker, the roads more deteriorated. I looked around to the others who were watching the world fly by, silently in thought. I felt a vibration in my pocket. It was the Brigadier. He was in Chalai and was indeed waiting for us to arrive. ‘How were the camps?’ He asked. ‘It was quite an experience.’ I said. ‘Mmm, I’m sure. But believe me Guy,’ He said, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.’
He was right.
Next: [On Sri Lanka Part III: The Heart Of Darkness]