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"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 12: 
The Vanni 
 

Notes from the Field:  The Vanni

[A little self-censorship:  these “Notes” are about the beginning of my trip and the end of my trip.  Names are omitted.  “Whys” are omitted.  The middle is omitted.  Don't ask.]

The Journey
Just back from a close encounter with the Tigers.  We went to the Vanni, the LTTE stronghold.

Our team was reasonably safe; the Tigers have NEVER been inhospitable to their guests.  The trick is getting invited.  Our biggest threat is from the Sri Lanka Air Force, which is regularly bombing Tiger positions.

The Team: Astronauts for Peace

A trip to the Vanni is not as simple as planning for a camping trip, a couple of days of "rugged living".  American style, that would mean lots of packages of freeze-dried Cream of Something, Coleman stove, lantern, tents, sleeping bags, self-inflating cushion pads, mosquito repellent, maybe a battery-powered television.  All of that would be forbidden to take across the border by the Sri Lanka miltary.

What the Sri Lanka military DOES allow is a mystery.  Or, more like a guessing game.  ANYTHING can be declared an item that will aid and abet the Tigers, thus illegal.  At times, the military has denied returning farmers to take even bags of rice to their homes; the farmers are forced to either abandon a week's wages in rice, or not see their families.

In the guessing game of what to take, one thing seems clearly allowed: cookies.  The Sri Lanka military seems to think that cookies have no strategic significance in the war.  So, we may be eating a lot of cookies.

Another question: what to do with all of my electronic equipment?  I have my pocket computer (with keyboard), my digital camera, plus tape recorder.  All of this could be disallowed.  They might even forbid me to take my digital watch.  (They can have my Casio watch when they pry it from  my cold dead fingers...)

Vavuniya is our launch point; the furthest northern city in government hands.  We went through more army checkpoints than I can count.  Actually met the Brigadier Commander for this area; seems like a nice guy.  My informal (and subjective) analysis of the Sri Lanka military's psychological profile:

· 20% seem like nice guys trying to make the best of a bad situation,
· 30% are pencil-pushing bureaucrats with assault rifles and attitudes,
· 40% seem like some very, very intense guys who look really good in uniform,
· and a handful seem like homicidal fanatics who were born welded to an assault rifle.  They don't even need the assault rifle; they can kill you by drilling holes in your head with their eyes.

(I can't make a similar assessment of the Tigers psychological profile.  Yet.)

It is misleading for me to talk about "guys".  A large percentage of the government troops are women.  Mile after mile, there are young women, camouflage fatigues, hair drawn back in a bun, button earrings, looking absolutely adorable -- except for the assault rifle. They are facing away from the road, looking out into the impenetrable underbrush for signs of an imminent Tiger attack.

Other soldiers are slowly walking along the side of the road, holding their assault rifles in one hand, and a narrow wooden handled rake in the other.  The rake is their mine-sweeping gear; they are probing clumps of grass, cow dung, trash bags and other objects for Tiger sabotage.  (I'm not sure what the kill radius of a claymore mine is, but I wouldn't do mine-sweeping with a rake that had less than a 50 foot handle.)

THE PROCEDURE:

The amount of military red tape is staggering.  (Perhaps this is a function of all militaries, and that the Sri Lanka military is not an exception.  However, regardless of whether or not this is “normal” military bureaucracy doesn't matter to those of us who are caught in the middle of it.)  Paperwork gets checked, then re-checked, then checked again.  Body searches.  Vehicle searches.  More paperwork.

Although this is a real hassle for me, I have to remember that it is nothing compared to what the civilians have to go through.  As an NGO (non-governmental organization), Sarvodaya only has to wait 4 hours for processing.  (We can also get out of line, get cold drinks, take a snooze in the vehicle, chit-chat with the other NGOs, and otherwise pass the time.)  If we were in the civilian line, we would be STANDING all day, being processed from one area to another, having to walk one mile from the place the bus on the government side drops you off to the place on the LTTE side where the bus picks you up.

STUPIDITY IN THE NAME OF SECURITY

It goes without question that the Sri Lanka military can and should restrict items of war from going into LTTE hands.  However, the list of items restricted by the military crosses the line from security into stupidity.  It's the only word that fits.

(On the other hand: it's not stupid if the goal is not a military but an economic embargo.  The Tigers have claimed all along that the Sri Lanka government is waging an economic war against the Tamils in the North and East.  Seen in that light, perhaps the following makes an unfortunate kind of sense:)

Signs of Stupidity
The Sri Lanka military restricts sugar, saying that, because sugar can burn, its possible to make bombs using it.  (LTTE uses the most sophisticated weaponry; they don't make sugar bombs.)

The Sri Lanka military will not allow AA batteries into the Vanni.  Any device we carry has to have the batteries removed.  (We remove the batteries, stick them right in our pockets, carry them across the Forward Defense Line, put them back in our radios and tape recorders, and keep going.  Also: AA batteries are for sale in the stores in the LTTE controlled areas.)

In the NGO vehicle ahead of us, there is an argument between the NGO director and the soldiers inspecting his vehicle.  They came across five music tapes for his Walkman, and won't allow them through. (The Walkman can go through, but not the tapes.) (A different soldier just finished checking my bags, and approved my tape recorder and extra tapes - once I had pocketed the batteries.)  The coordinator argues, “What is subversive about my music!  How is that going to help the Tigers win the war?”  After a few minutes, the officer relents.

They don't relent over my blood pressure cuff.  They don't even blink at my Hewlett-Packard Pocket Computer (which they think is a calculator), but my manually operated blood pressure cuff goes all the way up to the Brigadier, who says no.  I want to ask, “What conceivable military use is a blood pressure testing device?”  However, it is really hard to argue with bureaucrats holding assault rifles.

Our vehicle is inspected, thoroughly, inside and out.  The engine block numbers are checked, quarter panels thumped for hidden contraband, even the spare tire pulled out and its serial number recorded.  They open our personal bags, even squeeze my toothpaste tube to make sure I didn't hide any bullets.  Then, after a complete inspection, they allow us to leave the inspection area!  Not only are we free to walk around for 3 hours, we can even DRIVE away and come back, without being reinspected!  (Three hours is enough time to have the truck outfitted with surface to air missiles).

One of our team members leaves for a half-hour, coming back with lunch packets for us to eat on the road, plastic and newspaper wrapped parcels of rice and curry -- the Sri Lankan equivalent of a "Happy Meal".  As he handed them through the window to me, I did some rough mental calculations: if this was six pounds of plastic explosive instead of rice and veggies, how big a hole would we make in our convoy? The packets are never inspected.

CROSSING THE LINE
We are two hours late as we approach the Forward Defense Line; Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) is taking thousands of doses of penicillin across the border, and the Sri Lanka military insists on counting all of it by hand.

We are bouncing along a poorly paved road, passing one army camp after another, each ringed by razor wire, guardposts, defensive berms, perimeter lighting, firing platforms... all the war stuff you can think of, plus some you can't imagine.  My two team-mates have lapsed into Tamil, leaving me with my thoughts.  (They are probably saying to each other, "I wonder what he's thinking about?")

What I'm thinking about is how I got here, about to cross the line in one of the hottest conflicts on the planet.  It's a long way from Portland, Oregon.

After some time and some miles, we reach the staging area of the Forward Defense Line, the place where the civilians have been waiting all day for their chance to walk across the no man's land that separates the two sides, and into the LTTE zone.  From the place where the buses, cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles disgorge their passengers and their belongings, to the point where the vehicles on the Tiger side pick up their passengers appears to be about 3/4 of a mile.

That's a long walk for the crossers, who are laden with everything they can possibly take across.  Their haul is pretty standard:
A 5 liter jug of cooking oil
A 5 liter jug of kerosene
One bicycle tire
6 plastic chairs

These crossers don't all need six plastic chairs or a bike tire; they are economic mules.  The time and cost consumed by attempting to cross the border is relieved by taking across items that they can try to sell on the other side.

Nothing on wheels is allowed across the border (except us and a few civilians who have waited six months for permission to  take over a bicycle -- about one out of every hundred.  The bicycles have to be walked across the line.)

 I watch as one woman, who cannot walk, struggles with her belongings; she pushes forward her cooking oil jug, then her kerosene jug, then one parcel, then another.  Then, with her hands, she pulls herself forward one step.  Then she repeats this process.  She has about a mile to go.  At one point she stops, looks up at me in my late model, air conditioned vehicle.  (One day, when I have more time and more detachment, I'll try to describe how I felt at that moment. And, no, we could NOT pick her up, although we had plenty of room; Army regulations were explicit on who could be in our vehicle.  If we had tried to pick her up, NONE of us would have crossed the border.)

We reach the FDL; a narrow, twisted notch cut into a military berm, wide enough for our vehicle and for a single-file trickle of the thousands of people who will cross the border that day.  This is a heavily fortified position; the combat troops here look like they are actually expecting to get shot at.  Steel helmets, flak jackets, extra banana clips of ammunition on their chests, a few hand grenades pinned to convenient locations...  if the war goes hot, they'll know it first.

Our papers are inspected again, I get stared at some more, then we are in the no man's land, following the lead vehicle up a dusty dirt road, raising clouds of red dirt for the stream of people walking toward the LTTE checkpoint.

Halfway across the neutral zone, we pass a checkpoint of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which monitors the border and helps work out any disagreements between the two sides.  The ICRC folks wear vests with big red crosses on the front and back.  If the border goes hot, those red crosses will keep them and their vehicles relatively safe -- everybody knows it is really tacky to target the ICRC.

The ICRC workers are not supposed to assist the travelers in carrying their parcels, but I notice a few of them carrying belongings for the elderly and infirm.

THE FACE OF THE TIGERS
In another half-mile, we reach the LTTE checkpoint.  The Tigers' border crossing checkpoint is the exact opposite of what we just left.  Instead of a military-style checkpoint, we see two guys (tastefully dressed in civilian short-sleeved shirts and slacks), sitting at two tables inside of a tiny, palm roofed cupola stuck in the middle of the road.  The caravan of NGO vehicles roars to a stop, the drivers get out and hand one of the guys their papers.  Mr. Tiger One goes through a stack of letters in a file folder; he hands the papers to Mr. Tiger Two, who stamps them, hands them back to the driver, who races back to his vehicle to try to be the lead vehicle in the dust cloud.

The difference between the two processing points is shocking.  No visible military presence.  No barbed wire, no guardposts, no signs of a war.  No intimidating searches of bodies or vehicles.   I walk around, trying to absorb the moment.  In my 360 degree walk around the little checkpoint, there is not a single weapon visible.  None.  I actually walk behind Mr. Tiger One, to look over his shoulder to see what he's doing.  He looks up and smiles.

So much for the bloodthirsty terrorist image.

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure that the place was heavily secured.  If we had not stopped at the checkpoint, I doubt that we could have gotten ten feet without being cut to ribbons by somebody.  It's just that you can't SEE them.  It feels a lot less heavy-handed.

We proceed on to the Tigers civilian processing station, on the outskirts of Madhu.  The civilians were picked up miles ago, in battered, kerosene burning trucks and cars so old they were obviously left by the British colonial administration.  It is a short walk to the processing station, then out the other side (unlike their counterparts in the Sri Lankan military, the Tigers take security quite seriously, not allowing uninspected people to mix with those who have been examined.)

Our processing takes some time; they don't get black Americans as visitors every day.  We get introduced to the Regional Leader, a slender, soft-spoken young man who looks at most 16 years old.  It takes me awhile to realize that this is our host; I was wondering why we were spending so much time talking to this kid.

LUNCH AT THE TIGER CANTEEN

Plastic seats are fetched for us, we are offered food and water.  When we mention that we brought our own lunch packets, Mr. Leader offers the use of their canteen for our meal.

Pretty cool.  Better than trying to eat on a piece of newspaper in the truck.  The canteen itself is "Sri Lanka Rural Standard", nothing really to speak of. The food being fried out back smells good.

I make a trip to the toilet, again, "Rural Standard" (a cement lavatory with a squat-type facility).  From the toilet window, I'm looking at the back of the civilian processing facility. I notice palm branches covering something.  When I look closer, I can see coils of razor wire, coiled concertina style, waiting for deployment.

This was the basic difference between the two sides -- the Sri Lanka military throws its culture of violence in your face; the Tigers take pains to hide it.

[middle part omitted:]

THE RETURN: ICRC TO THE RESCUE
I am standing on what is arguably the most heavily landmined place on Earth.  I am on the narrow road, ½ mile from the Sri Lanka military's Forward Defense Line. I want to cross the border into the South.  They won't let me.  The border closes in ten minutes.  Because we have been processed out by the Tigers, we face the incredibly unpleasant prospect of spending the night in a minefield.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is working the problem.  We wait at their processing point halfway between the Tiger and Sri Lanka military checkpoints -- the center of the no man's land.  With their walkie-talkies, ICRC is talking to the Army field commanders, the Brigadier at Army headquarters, the Tigers, ICRC district offices, our district offices -- in five minutes, they are in contact with EVERYBODY.

I stare out over the no man's land.  In a similar zone to the north, the Tigers land mine removal teams pulled out 5,000 land mines from an area the size of a football field.  This area is much bigger, and probably has more mines per square foot.  I'm tempted to toss a rock 20 feet in and see what happens.

Five minutes before border closing.  I can hear the ICRC walkie-talkies chattering away, giving updates on their negotiations for our passage.  I'm trying not to listen -- they're either going to let us cross or they won't.  We have enough food and water with us, and I've slept in a vehicle before: it won't kill us (sleeping under the trees will).

It's 5:00.  I turn to the ICRC guy to ask him to contact the Tigers for permission to re-enter their territory, when the walkie-talkies crackle to life.  "The team is to proceed to the Forward Defense Line immediately".  Does that mean they'll let us through?  "Yes, the Army HQ in Vavuniya approved it."

I start shaking hands and thanking the ICRC folks; Mr. Walkie-Talkie says, "No!  Go now!  Now!  The Field Commander can still close the border!"

We pile into the truck and take off, covering the ½ mile in what seems like slow motion.  At the FDL, we are subjected to another vehicle search and papers check.  While we are being checked out, the Field Commander comes up to me and says, "We are not the problem; the Tigers are the problem." He stops and waits for me to confirm his observation.

In Commonway's Catalyst training, I teach techniques on how to hold a communication with someone without actually agreeing with them.  In order to do this, one has to be centered.  After contemplating a minefield as our night's accommodations, I am anything but centered.  When not centered, I teach that one should walk away from any kind of communication.

I smile at the Field Commander and walk to the back of the truck, where a soldier is examining the contents of my toiletry bag.  The Field Commander follows, tapping me on the shoulder.  "The enemy is hurting the Tamil people; we are helping them."  I look past him at the few stragglers making it through the checkpoint; as soon as we leave, the border will be closed and anyone not able to make it through will have spent all day long for nothing.

I put on  my most inclusive face, look at him and say, "War causes problems all around."  He seems satisfied by this.  He smiles and is about to say something else when I am rescued for a second time by ICRC -- their person on the border says something to me that allows me to turn away from the Field Commander.  I thank Mr. ICRC and his co-workers profusely, but he brushes it off with a wave of his hand and a smile.  In a heavy French accent, he says, "all in a day's work."

Peace,

Sharif
 
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