Sri Lanka was a place I always wanted to visit, but a long, dirty war in the north, between the Government forces and the Tamil Tigers, which often flared into life just as I was planning my winter, meant I always went elsewhere. The other showstopper was the Tsunami of 2004, which killed tens of thousands and wrecked much of the southern coasts. However, with that war finally crushed, and reports that much of the tsunami damage had been repaired I finally went a couple of years ago.
Eventually I settled into a little village on the south coast and rented a house for two months. The place was magnificent; a perfect beach, free of hawkers with a very passable surf break, which I was soon floating on. The family and friends of the fisherman I rented off, made me very welcome, although I noticed a lot of families were fatherless because of the tsunami; so the bars and restaurants seemed to be controlled by young men, sons perhaps or younger brothers, possibly too young to go out to sea on that fateful day. Another curious thing I observed were notices stuck to trees, which often showed an older face. I had no idea what these were until after a restaurant guy was killed crossing the lethal main road and a few days later his image started to appear on many of the trees and on the bus stop; they were some kind of obituary notice. Unlike in the west, where the deceased are often disposed of quietly and without fuss – it seemed that here they gave everyone the chance to see the image of a loved one, until either the termites, sun or rain helped it fade away.
The other thing you could not help noticing, was the omnipresent face of a man, who often sported a Cheshire cat smile; it was Mahinda Rajapaksa the President. It seemed there was nothing too lowly that his image, usually between the smaller less elevated photo’s of local dignitaries, would not be attached to: a new sewage works, a temple revamp I even found him beaming down at me from a mildewed sign at some long abandoned farming project in the middle of the jungle. There were few places you could escape that paternal grin, so ubiquitous, you could almost think you were actually on holiday with him. A magnificent piece of state sponsored marketing of a man you assumed people respected and never tired of seeing. He had, after all, ruthlessly crushed the Tamils and oversaw the tsunami reconstruction. However, as time went by I learnt that even among the Sinhalese, his dominant ethnic group, which makes up most of the population, he was not as universally admired as his supporters would have us believe.
I noticed the cracks in his myth during a picnic at a friend’s house, a typical fisherman’s shack that was almost on the beach. It seemed undamaged so I was surprised we could only gain access through a broken fence panel because the gate was locked. It was confiscated in 2005, which forced his family to move to a rather crowded estate of prefabricated houses about a kilometre from the coast, which obviously had a poster of the President looking down benevolently, and a sign in English, telling us all the houses were built with money donated after the tsunami. I had heard of the government confiscation of any lands with direct access to the sea for between 100 and 200 metres inland. However, what I did not realise was that some of this confiscated land was quietly being allocated with development permits. When I asked who was benefiting, my host and his brother both said in unison “The Rajapaksas.” They explained that not only where most of the consortia accumulating these prime beachfront lands linked to the Presidents family, or his cronies, but that the people authorising such a thing on the Government side were, essentially his family too.
“They are stealing it from under our noses but not a single Government minister objects,” the brother told me.
“That Tsunami was nothing but a cash cow for his family.” I didn’t really understand Island politics but accepted another beer and listened as they warmed to a theme.
“They take our land, build new houses we don’t even want then make us pay finance, for our new boats, while his family make a fortune selling our land or lands they bought cheap after 2004 around Rajapaksa’s home town of Hambantota, which despite being in the middle of nowhere, was allocated to the Chinese to build of a new mega-port and an international airport, nobody needs.” A small woman with a child appeared like a ghost at the gap in the fence, and our voices drop to hushed tones, while one of the boys gives the homeless Tamil woman some fish curry.
“I suppose the one good thing that came out of that tsunami was the end of the war.” Again, I didn’t understand so pressed him to speak once the woman and child had gone.
“So much money came into this country that they just couldn’t resist it.”
“It was no secret that our endless war had dragged on because we just didn’t have enough soldiers and equipment to finish the Tigers off.”
“What? I said, ‘are you trying to say they used Tsunami relief money to win that war?”
“Used, I am not sure, but borrowed certainly; who would ever know – do you know where your donation really went?” he said, as we watched the woman and child melt into the sunset.
It had not been the first time I had heard such a rumour, but it was the first time I had wondered if my donation had somehow been used to fund a potential war crime; that indiscriminate shelling and murder of up to 40,000 civilians during the last days of that war, which Sri Lanka still stubbornly refuses to investigate.
That thought didn’t sit easy as I walked the dirt track back to my little house, where I came upon a thick palm, lit by moonlight, where the pasted image of that boy crushed by a bus, made me wonder, just for a moment, if the same thing happened in the north, after the war; 40,000 faces on 40,000 trees is a lot of obituary trees – although I doubted even the islands capital, Colombo, would have enough trees in the city for all those lost faces.