Batticaloa: Where the rubber meets the road

Keithng photo

This is a severely abbreviated selection from a post about a trip to Batticaloa Sri Lanka while it was under siege in 1998.  The full version is available here.  It is Part 22 in a series.

The small city of Batticaloa sat on an island in a lagoon on the east coast of Sri Lanka. One bridge allowed access, protected by military installations featuring concrete pillboxes and machine guns. To enter Batti, the bus crossed the bridge and passed right alongside the pill box and its machine guns.

Batti town had no electricity, so I went to bed early. Up with the sun, I had breakfast at a local restaurant—without the benefit of a common language. Then I had an opportunity to look around the town.  Batticaloa was a city under siege, and there was a strong military presence in the streets. The feeling, though, was not of an army of liberation, but one of occupation. The soldiers didn’t speak the local language. And, though most Tamils and Muslims supported the government over the LTTE, the soldiers didn’t treat them that way. They seemed to suspect everyone. Communication was most often a gesture with a rifle barrel. It did not surprise me to learn that most people here didn’t care much for either side. They just wanted the war to be over so they could get on with their lives.

I’d arranged interviews with three people while I was in Batti. The first was Mr. Anthony Martin of ERO, an older man, a mild-mannered Tamil Christian who spoke English well. I liked him immediately, but was unprepared for what he told me. In 1989, law and order had broken down. “People were shot by the security forces at random,” he told me. “Bodies were heaped at the corners [of the streets] and burned. People didn’t know where to turn. Some of the citizens got together to form a peace committee. But we were unable to bring in responsible citizens because they feared for their lives.”

One of the projects ERO had gotten involved with was provision of artificial limbs to those injured by shelling, landmines, and booby traps—most often children. At this point, Mr. Martin introduced me to three young boys, all amputees. The first was a young teen who had picked up a booby-trapped flashlight and lost an arm and an eye. He showed off a primitve prosthetic arm with a rubber hand, but with training he would be able to lift small objects with it. The second boy was no more than ten years old. He had picked up a grenade to throw it out of the area. He lost a hand and an eye.

The third boy was about fourteen. He had been swimming in the sea when he reached for what he thought was a ball. It exploded, and the boy lost both hands. Mr. Martin asked him a question in Tamil. The boy smiled as he answered in Tamil. “He is training to be a tailor,” Martin told me. It was all I could do not to burst into tears the spot. Nothing in my life had prepared me for such an encounter. The image of that smiling boy with two rubber hands would haunt me for years afterward.

Later in the day I would meet Father Harry Miller, a charismatic priest from America who had been in Batticaloa for decades. I would also meet Amura Hapuarachchi, a Sinhalese Catholic woman who’d spent the past five years living in Batticaloa, counseling the families of detainees who were disappeared or tortured.

During my talk with Amura, a Tamil woman interrupted us seeking help for her son. He had been detained by the army and imprisoned for six months. The son claimed he had been tortured from the time he’d been arrested until his transfer to a hospital for treatment. He had not been charged with any crime. Amura told me it was likely that he’d be forced to sign a statement in Sinhala—which he couldn’t read—stating that he had not been mistreated.

The woman had a medical report from the doctor who had treated her son. She passed it to Amura, who passed it to me. It was written in English. According to the doctor’s report, the man had been beaten with objects, his genitals had been “squeezed,” and his eardrums had been ruptured. The report also stated that the doctor had ordered the officials to produce the man for a follow-up visit in five days, but that the man had not been produced.

Ever since I’d stepped out of the safety of the Sinhalese areas days before, a phrase had been repeating itself in my head: “This is where the rubber meets the road.” It took a while to understand what it meant.  On this trip to Batticaloa, I had finally stepped out of the safety zone and experienced reality. I had touched the rubber hand of a boy who mistook a grenade for a ball, sat next to young woman who was too tired to get off the bus even though a soldier brandished his weapon, and come to know people who lived with uncertainty every day. In the greater scheme of things, mine was a small action. The most courageous thing I did was to drink the water. But I’d taken a step out from the safety of the library and the office, and a step forward to understanding.

I felt as if I’d been building a car in the garage, and I’d finally taken it out for a test drive. No more bench testing. This was real life. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”  Now that I had looked these people in the eye, I had begun to understand what peace work was all about.

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