"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 2: 
Into the War Zone 


INTO THE WAR ZONE:  Sri Lanka Journal # 2

Sarvodaya’s senior leadership, in consultation with the District Coordinators for the northern districts, has determined that the shooting has subsided enough for us to visit the war zone.  We leave this coming weekend.

We leave the relative safety of the West and South on Friday evening, spend the night at Anuradhapura in the North Central Province.  Saturday morning, we go to Amarivayal, the northernmost village in government hands.  We will be about a kilometer from the most recent fighting, and will be able to literally walk into Tamil Tiger country.  We will spend the night in the province, since the roads are in Tiger hands at night.

Vietnam Revisited

During the day, the government controls the roads, and about fifty feet on either side of the road.  The Tamil Tigers control everything else. The government controls the cities, towns and villages during the day; the Tigers run them at night, with the government troops bunkered down into their perimeters.  Although the government claims to hold a “line” that the Tigers recently pushed ten miles southward in their assault, the reality is that the Tigers operate freely hundreds of miles south of the government “line”.

The “Hearts and Minds” of the Villagers

As I have stated before, neither the government nor the Tigers have clean hands in this dirty ethnic/civil conflict.  Both sides use the villagers as pawns in their campaign against the other.  One of many examples:  the Tigers force the Tamil villagers at gunpoint to pay “taxes” to the Tigers.  The government troops then come along and imprison the same villagers for “aiding and abetting” the Tigers.

Another example:  the government will appropriate a farmer’s land, set up a base, ring it with land mines, then move to another base -- leaving the mines behind.

Both the government and the Tigers seem to be in a race to see who can lose the “hearts and minds” of the villagers and destroy their own credibility.

Rice paddy and water buffalo (and land mines??)

Conflict Resolution -- Up Close and Personal

As many of you know, I do not hold any university degrees in conflict resolution.  My only experience is in actually resolving conflict, not studying it.  Commonway’s “theory” of conflict resolution is definitely evolving as we are actually engaged in the process of resolving conflict.  (This could be another way of saying that we make up this shit as we go along, but I would never say anything like that.)

I say this because I definitely had ideas about what would “work” in Sri Lanka while sitting in my office in Portland, Oregon.  Now, sitting in Sri Lanka, still hundreds of miles from the War Zone, I know that my idea about having American “peace witnesses” carrying webcams would never work in Sri Lanka, for dozens of reasons, logistical, psychological, practical and otherwise.  And, some things that would have never come to me in Portland are being readied for testing here.

In short, conflict resolution can be studied only after you have resolved a conflict.  Peace-making and peace-talking are two very different things.

We are going where no other Westerners are venturing.  All Western aid groups have ordered their personnel out of the area.  There is a censorship blanket over the northern part of the territory, so no news crews will be filming footage in the areas.  (And, as we unfortunately know, Sri Lanka is one of the 70+ wars that the American-dominated news media pays scant attention to.)

The only reason that we will be able to go is the high esteem enjoyed by Sarvodaya on both sides of the conflict.  Sarvodaya vehicles are not searched at military checkpoints.  Sarvodaya workers are allowed into areas where others are turned back.  And, most importantly, Sarvodaya’s local Coordinators, who will accompany us on our trek, are well known to both sides of the conflict.

As supporters of an organization pledged to Gandhian principles, it would be bad publicity for either side to kill us.  Our biggest danger is from the weapons that are indiscriminate -- stray bullets in a firefight and the ubiquitous land mine.

Our entire trip will take five days.  We are not taking computers with us, not the least because there are no phone lines that work in the North.   I will check back in immediately upon my return to Sarvodaya, to let you know that I’m in one piece.


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