“Be strong and of good courage. Do not fear or be in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
My journey begins – 16th November 1994
Colombo to Trincomalee by bus
My trip to Jaffna was coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It was 16th November 1994. I had to report to the ICRC Headquarters in Colombo 4. There were many passengers on their way to Jaffna with the help of the ICRC. All passengers had to confirm their identities by producing their National Identity cards. Once that was done I had to enter the bus that would take us to the Trincomalee Harbour, a distance of 270 km. Others, including a few doctors and patients, were already seated. I sat next to a doctor known to me, the Consultant Physician of the General Hospital, Jaffna who was also going back after his mission in Colombo. We were accompanied by a local delegate of the ICRC. That was only till we reached Trincomalee. Thereafter, an overseas delegate of the ICRC would take over for the onward journey to Jaffna.
An emotional departure
Our children were at home. My wife, Shelendra, accompanied me to the ICRC headquarters. She was standing beside the bus until the time of departure. I did not want to look at her as I knew she was feeling sad, not knowing whether she would see me again. The bus started moving. I could not resist the temptation of looking at her and waved goodbye. I knew she was heart-broken. For a moment I wondered whether I had taken the correct decision. It was, however, too late for such thoughts. There was no way of turning back. I had to carry on and I carried on hoping for the best and a safe journey with the Grace of God.
I was not in a position to talk to the passengers except the doctor who was seated next to me. Our ﬁrst stop was at Habarana, way beyond the half way mark on our way to Tricomalee. We had a snack at a way side restaurant before proceeding to the Trincomalee Harbour. That was refreshing after travelling 180 km in a bus without air conditioners. There were no mobile phones and I had no way of contacting home to say that I was safe and that we had reached Habarana, a town familiar to my family as we used to pass Habarana many times on our way to Polonnaruwa when I was working there. But this time it was different. I was on my way to the Jaffna warfront far away in unknown territory with another group of people. That journey from Colombo had taken nearly ten hours and we reached Trincomalee at about 6 pm.
Trincomalee to Point Pedro by ICRC Ship
Around 7 pm we boarded the ICRC ship after security clearance and checking our identification according to the list of passengers with the ICRC. In the ship there was more space and freedom to move around unlike the bus. I was able to meet and greet the other passengers especially the doctors who were travelling to Jaffna. They were aware that I was visiting Jaffna to be an examiner at the Final MBBS examination. All of them were citizens of Jaffna while I was the only person from the South in the ship. We got on very well and they were in fact looking into my comforts in the ship. I was provided with a sleeping berth. There were only a few sleeping berths available. The others had only seats and they had to sleep on these seats the whole way to Point Pedro. Some slept on the floor while the ship sailed all night.
I was able to take some photographs of different areas of the ICRC ship at the Trincomalee Harbour before moving into my sleeping berth. They seem to be very useful twenty six (26) years later to add colour to my stories.
ICRC Ship Flamboyan Sailing to Point Pedro
I slept well and was up by 6 AM. By then there was enough light and I moved to the deck to enjoy the surroundings and take some photographs as we sailed smoothly in the blue waters of the North-Eastern sea of Sri Lanka towards our destination. We passed Mullativu which was on my right and a little later we were nearing Point Pedro as I noticed the lighthouse far, far away. I was happy that we were reaching our destination safely and the vision of the jetty was getting clearer with another merchant vessel anchored there with a barge close by.
That was a ship bringing the essential items and food for the people of Jaffna. After passing that ship the ICRC ship FLAMBOYAN had to be berthed in mid-sea as the ship could not sail right up to the jetty. Most probably the sea was not deep enough for the ship to sail to that point to make it easier for the passengers to disembark.
Transfer from the ship to the Jetty
From the ship, all the passengers including the patients had to move over to motorboats operated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE/ Tigers). This was not a smooth transfer as the boat was moving with the sea waves and some passengers had to be helped. Thereafter, the motorboats moved swiftly to the jetty safely. There were only a few people at the jetty at that time and this included a few female “Tiger cadres”. As I came out of the motor boat they looked at me, I looked at them. They mentioned something in Tamil, which I did not understand. I think they knew that I was a visitor. A board prominently displaying that photos are prohibited was posted at the point of entry. However, I had taken some photos before leaving the ship.
Two people recognized me and came towards me. They identified themselves as two doctors sent by my friend Dr. M Ganesaratnam (Ganesh), the consultant surgeon at the General Hospital, Jaffna, to meet me at the Point Pedro jetty. They were Drs. S & S, two junior doctors working under Dr. Ganesaratnam at the General Hospital, Jaffna who had graduated from the Faculty of Medicine Jaffna. These two were to be, not only my guides but also my security officers during my stay in Jaffna. They were in total control.
Drs S & S were also given the task of transporting me safely from Point Pedro to the City of Jaffna and for this they had brought a special vehicle from Jaffna. However, I could not proceed to the vehicle straight away. There were more formalities to follow before entering “Tiger Land”. That was like entering another country: proceeding to Immigration and Customs before leaving the port of entry.
PROCEED TO IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS BEFORE ENTERING “TIGER LAND”
Immigration and Customs clearance at the “port of entry”
If Omantai was the point of entry for people travelling to the Northern city of Jaffna under Tiger control by land, for those coming by ICRC ship the Point Pedro jetty was the “port of entry” to Jaffna. The Tigers were in full control of the British-built jetty since 1990. An old pre-independence British-built building was used by the Tigers as the Immigration and Customs offices. They were manned by none other than the Tigers themselves wearing special kits to suit their job. There was tight control of all aspects of entry to another land. Everyone entering had to undergo a thorough check of their luggage at this point. Doctors working at the General Hospital Jaffna were no exception. Certain items were prohibited and this included newspapers from the South of the country. Liquor and cameras were taboo too. Once cleared, a pass was issued at the entry point to each passenger. All these checks took a considerable length of time. No one could interfere in this process and there were no “Political Chits” or for that matter “Tiger Chits” to break the laws except for a very, very few highly selected guests entering Jaffna for a worthy cause.
I had the status of special guest because I was entering Jaffna on the invitation of two respected citizens of Jaffna, namely Dr M Ganesaratnam and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Jaffna for a purpose and that was to be an examiner at the Final MBBS examination. Furthermore, I was the first Sinhala Doctor to enter Jaffna peninsula after the onset of the civil war in 1983. That was a clear sign that those in control had no objection to my visiting the Jaffna peninsula to help the medical students complete their examinations and obtain a medical degree from the Faculty of Medicine, Jaffna. They were supportive of this cause on the request made by my friend none other than Dr M Ganesaratnam, the only consultant surgeon available to treat all the people including “their wounded” and also teach and examine medical students.
I had the status of a special guest at the point of entry to the Jaffna peninsula —————Point Pedro Jetty————–
Everyone who came with me in the ICRC ship, all being residents of Jaffna including the doctors, was taken to a separate counter for immigration and customs clearance. I was not taken in with them. No one checked me or my luggage for any prohibited items. I did not have newspapers or liquor with me, but I had a camera which was so precious to me especially on this trip. I managed to get away with my camera in my bag. No one questioned me. I was cleared in double quick time in a special “red carpeted lounge”. As I exited the “lounge” my guides who were standing outside accompanied me to the vehicle. The others including the doctors were still inside the respective offices and as such I could not speak to any of them to say that I was leaving the jetty. I finally met them at the Jaffna Hospital the next day when they explained to me the long procedure they had to follow at the Immigration and Customs officers at the jetty. The ICRC personnel had free entry to the peninsula and were picked up by their official vehicle.
The ICRC officers had nothing to do with my entry to Jaffna, my clearance or my transport to Jaffna. That was the responsibility of the Host.
My guides took me to the “official vehicle”
The official vehicle that I was to travel to Jaffna was parked outside. It was a British-made Austin Cambridge (A55 made in the 1960s) with an unusual number plate which I had not seen before. On closer inspection, I noticed that the number plate of the Motor Traffic Department of Sri Lanka had been changed to a new number in Tamil designated by the “Tiger Motor Traffic Department”. I did not ask any sensitive questions but was only observing what was going on in this part of the country held by the rebels.
First stop in Point Pedro – breakfast Jaffna style!
My doctor guides were very friendly and cordial. They realized that I was tired travelling for nearly twenty-four hours after leaving home. Therefore, they decided to take me for breakfast. After leaving the jetty, we travelled towards the Point Pedro town. There were no hotels. We stopped at a way side ‘Saivar kade’. That was breakfast time and I saw them making thosai, ‘ulundu wadai’, ‘masala wadai’ and ‘sambar’. I was hungry as well as I did not have dinner after a snack at the Trincomalee harbour. What they were making was ‘mouth watering” and they ordered all the items available which were served hot, hot. I enjoyed the typical Jaffna breakfast and that was followed by a cup of plain tea served in typical Jaffna style.
Now, belly full with thosai and wadai I was ready to proceed further to our destination, the city of Jaffna thirty (30) km away and I was eager to get there as soon as possible, contact my friend Ganesh and inform him that I had arrived safely.
But hold on Sir, one guide said, there are important sites that you must see before you leave this region what is called the Vadamarachchi Division of the Jaffna peninsula. I changed my mind and decided to proceed on the sightseeing tour as suggested for I will never get another chance to visit this area. Looking back I have no regrets. That was fully worth the time spent visiting those sites in this region; some related to the civil war and others to the natural beauty of the region destroyed to some extent by the civil war.
I am sure most of the readers would not have heard about these stories from the rebel held territory in the 1990s, leave alone seeing them. Please await my next story for all those details and more about my other experiences as I travelled to the rebel controlled city of Jaffna on rugged war damaged roads in my official vehicle, the Kerosene driven Austin Cambridge A55 with the two doctors S & S who now were my friends, my guides and my security officers in Jaffna…
Dear Reader, you might also like to read our next story which is the continuation of the above, Please click this link : Overcoming barriers to enter war torn Jaffna under rebel siege / Part 3
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