June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment
“Ceylon is an experience — but heavens not a permanence” – D.H. Lawrence
Sri Lanka was calling me like a beautiful dream again. How did I know? Because when I thought about the tiny island I inhaled white jasmine instead of gulps of diesel fumes trailing from three-wheel taxis. I smiled at the thought of the cool breeze that accompanies the monsoon rains, instead of cringing at the reminder of sweat-drenched shirts under a scorching sun. And the promise of the crisp taste of a lime soda seemed heavenly to my palate. So I booked a flight, almost two years after I last set foot on Sri Lanka’s sandy shores.
My long-awaited return, however, was a little more complicated than I had hoped.
As I sat in disbelief in the departures area of Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike airport, drinking an ice coffee and shivering in air-conditioned confines listening to a muzac rendition of Credence Cleerwater Revivals “Joy to the World,” I wondered if I was wrong in coming back.
Just an hour ago, I had been on the arrivals side, fresh off a 10-hour flight from London, full of anticipation. I spent the last few paces to the immigration counter taking in statues of the Buddha and the enormous photo portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose grin was punctuated by a huge mustache somewhere between Wild West villain and Chicago Bears superfan. But when my passport was swiped, the immigration official paused, gave me the something is wrong eyebrow lift, and said, “Right this way sir.”
Immigration paper pushers buzzed around me, chatting in Sinhalese, but every few phrases I heard English words like “American” or “NGO” (an acronym that is particularly derided here). Being an expat in Sri Lanka is also a bit complicated, thanks to its colonial past, a bloody civil war, and a post-tsunami-aid hangover.
The man sitting at the desk facing me took turns speaking on four different phones: two mobiles and two landlines. “I’m discussing your situation,” was the only news I was given. Then, without even so much as eye contact, he turned away and another airport officer told me to come with him. “What’s happening?” I asked. “You must go away,” I was told. Right. Go away. Sadly, I knew the drill.
Two years ago, on my birthday, I was also kindly asked to “go away,” and subsequently sent to Bangkok. And so I was officially turned over by the men in pressed white shirts running the airport, to the women wrapped in bright blue saris running the Sri Lankan Airlines desk. Looking over a slip of paper handed to them by immigration, airline workers whispered and stole glances at me, like I was a hardened criminal. Then, having made some sort of decision, they finally responded by shaking their heads from side to side. This is the Sri Lankan gesture for something a little more complicated than a “yes” or “no.”
“What did you do here before? What was your business?”
“I worked for an NGO.”
“Was it a good one or a bad one?”
“Were you here during the war?”
“Must have been a bad one then. Now you are on a list, but problem is, you can’t find out if you are on the list unless you come here, that is the problem. So now you are here and now you know.”
I stopped talking and buried my head in my arms on top of the airline counter.
My fate was sealed. Once again, I was being asked to “go away.” But getting deported was hardly a significant occurrence in the jigsaw puzzle that is Sri Lanka. Besides, I had to remember that I wasn’t technically “innocent,” not in the eyes of Sri Lankan law, anyway. Before I was an NGO worker, trying to encourage local journalists to uncover truths. This time I was the reporter, wanting to talk about uncomfortable subjects, like human rights, and that is often grounds for expulsion in societies with image problems.
According to a United Nations investigation, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were annihilated by their own armed forces and the Tamil Tigers two years ago on this same island. But few [in the international community] have said or done anything about it. A documentary that recently aired on England’s Channel Four <http://www.channel4.com/programmes/sri-lankas-killing-fields/> compared the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 to Cambodia’s killing fields. The investigative special detailed the horrors perpetrated on members of the country’s Tamil minority population by both the Government forces, and the Tami Tiger rebels that used these civilians as human shields.
Two years ago, I was living and working in Sri Lanka, supporting and training local journalists as part of a media development project. We put together a newspaper and radio show that covered issues important to families displaced by the war.
Toward the end of the conflict we were sending a small newspaper up into the war zone, giving tips to people on the run how to stay safe and healthy, what kinds of foods to look for in terms of nutrition, how to care for children.
By getting caught up in what was becoming an undeniably bloody endgame, I felt panicked and hand tied, this was a new experience for me. I knew what was happening, most of the hundreds of foreign NGO people did, but we had been shut out of the shrinking battlefield. The UN had packed up its offices in the North, and the other international NGOs had followed, wishing local employees well as the war moved ever closer. Yes, we had hoped to defend the rights of all Sri Lankans, but somewhere along the way, through funding scandals, perceived foreign NGO bias towards the Tamil Tigers, and a host of other image problems, the word NGO became tainted. The humanitarian community had become compromised in Sri Lanka.
Looking back, I think we would have been better off making a statement by leaving the island en masse, as a form of protest to the sanctioned violence that was taking place. I did the only thing I thought I could, I helped a Guardian of London reporter get an interview with somebody who had escaped the war zone. He was a Tamil high school math teacher that we had run into through our work, and he basically said he wanted peace, he wanted to see his family, and he wanted both sides to leave him alone.
My British contact published the interview online and accidentally included my name at the very end as a contributor. Twenty-four hours later I noticed the error and got the paper to take it down. A few weeks later, my name was on the front page of the local government newspaper, which said I had 72 hours to leave the country for violating my work visa. As an NGO worker, I was prohibited from doing any reporting. Case closed.
Many of my friends who lived and worked for NGOs in Sri Lanka during the last few years of the war have hangovers, like me. When we talk about our time there it often takes on the quality of a hallucination we are trying to sort out still. Part of it is due to the fact that we love the country– with its jungles, and beaches, and rolling hills covered in tea, it’s like no other place on earth. Part of it is the fact that what happened there, essentially the annihilation of thousands of civilians, and the fact that we were sipping lime sodas a few hundred kilometers away is still unsettling. It serves as a reminder that despite our good intentions, there are certain things we as civilians cannot accomplish, only governments and Security Councils can prevent that sort of nightmare, as they have tried to do in the case of Libya.
A wise United Nations fellow in a starched white shirt once said to me, “You’re expendable, just as we all are.” I didn’t want to believe him at the time, but he was right, I was expendable. Journalist and NGO worker, the two careers I’ve straddled in my lifetime, are expendable, despite what we may consider good intentions. We do not deserve special treatment, or considerations. We must go into difficult countries and situations with open eyes.
In all honesty, one of the reasons I really wanted to visit was to create a different ending. If you’ve never experienced trying to wrap up a life in 72 hours, it’s not easy. It was rushed, it was confusing, dispiriting, and it was awkward. My staff was worried about me, even though my situation was comparatively safe. I would be exiled to Bangkok. They would stay behind to face scrutiny from the government and police about their work and their relationship to me. My name and face had appeared in the newspaper, and they would be the ones who would have to deal with the aftermath of this unfortunate turn of events. I left with a combination of sadness and guilt. I would miss them, as they were my family. But I would also live in regret of the fact that I had brought the wrong kind of spotlight down on them.
As I sat there, at the Colombo airport, waiting out my eight hours of air conditioned detention before being sent on to Bangkok, I thought back to my last trip to this airport. I was standing in the security line with my beloved driver, all 5’4” of him. He was squeezing me desperately in a bear hug and sobbing uncontrollably in my arms. His beard, wet with tears, left a sponge-like imprint on my t-shirt. Farook Mohammed was 20 years my senior, but our shared experiences had enabled us to transcend this age difference. Our bond was forged on the most basic human level: He had guarded my life, and I had fought for his. We had bailed each other out of jail, we had argued and made up, handed out thousands of radios, tens of thousands of newspapers and even more handshakes and smiles to Sri Lanka’s displaced population.
Picking me up for what was my final drive on this damaged island, Farook had brought me a gift. He was always bringing me gifts, as part of a concerted effort to remain my “number one local,” a strange colonial throwback that made me deeply uncomfortable. I opened the small cardboard box and inside was a chocolate bar, a discounted holdover from the previous week’s Valentine’s Day celebration. The chocolate engraved words “I miss you” were melting in the night heat. To prove my appreciation I ate the treat right away and proclaimed it “delicious!” Farook mustered a halting smile.
This was not the departure I had imagined for myself — a satisfying farewell to an island and a people that changed my life forever. In my naiveté, I actually thought I could leave the country unscathed, on my terms. But looking back, I realize that my harried exit was inevitable, and that my days had been numbered from the moment I had set foot on the island.
I have tried to move on, but I also had to try and visit. And while my mission was not accomplished, it was not an empty experience. Sitting there, at the airport, waiting for deportation, I realized a few things. One, the fact that two years later my name is still on a blacklist does not say so much about me personally, but more the idea that there are people like me who want to know the secrets on this island, about the end of the war, about the post war government and society. For all I know my name appearing on that list is a clerical error at this point. But it’s the treatment I received, and the assumptions that were made about me at the airport, that tell me things haven’t changed much.
More importantly, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m both expendable and lucky. My dark realization came in the form of a one-way ticket to Bangkok. Countless civilians learned two years ago at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war that they were expendable too. Unlike me, they never lived to tell their stories.