Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Peace Corps Assignment in Sri Lanka (Part I)

(In light of Sri Lanka's high profile these past few weeks, and the end of the 26-year-old war between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, I submit this multi-part entry on my assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998).

When the Peace Corps pulled its volunteers out of Sri Lanka in 1998, I didn't want to go. That year marked the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka's independence from England and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an organized group of militants who'd fought for a Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country since 1983, had broadened its operations beyond the capital of Colombo to other parts of the country. The Tigers had long been known for their public relations and fundraising successes and 1998, an important symbolic year, provided the chance to grab national and international headlines once again.

As an English language instructor working with the majority Sinhalese in Kandy, I felt reasonably safe. The city had not been targeted in the past nor had the central, western and southern parts of the country, which usually were left in peace. Naturally, these were the areas where Peace Corps stationed its volunteers.

Then came February 1998. By February, I'd been in-country nine months, spoke the Sinhalese language well enough and could travel with relative ease. I was also due for a vacation. Most of the other volunteers were in distant parts of the country, so I couldn't effectively make plans with them (for lack of access to phones), and, anyway, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my time or where I wanted to go; consequently I made no effort to reach out, not even to my friend Kevin in Beliatta, to find out if anyone wanted to travel.

I ended up, unsurprisingly, in Unawatuna, a sadly unheralded beach resort of great splendor in southern Sri Lanka, not far from Galle, where I intended to do little more than read, eat, swim, wander the beach and practice my Sinhalese with the waiters for several days. Despite my rare visits here, the wait staff knew me. Any foreigner who can speak the local language is not easily forgotten. It was on my second or third morning in Unawatuna when I was sitting on the patio of the Happy Banana Restaurant and Hotel, near the Indian Ocean. A hazy heat dulled my senses--though I'd just woken up, I still felt groggy--and, gazing out at the waves, flickering fairies of bouncing sunlight seared my brain, urging me to turn away. I was slow with my eggs and coffee; my mind was a million miles away and when the waiter came by with a plate of sliced bananas, I had to ask him to repeat what he'd just said.

He said it again and this time when I asked him to repeat himself, it wasn't because I hadn't heard his words but because I wasn't sure I'd understood them correctly. With infinite patience, the waiter explained yet again that a suicide bomber had driven a truckload of explosives into the Dalada Maligawa, the world-famous Buddhist temple, in the heart of Kandy, less than two miles from my home. Nearly 20 people had been killed. I had visited the temple recently; the truck had exploded in an place I'd been less than two weeks before.

My first reaction, right there, should have been to call the Peace Corps office in Colombo, tell them I was not in Kandy and that I was all right. But a fairly emotional 25-year-old doesn't always think practically. In a somewhat confused state, I instead left Unawatuna for Galle and caught a bus back to Kandy. I had no real plan or any idea what I was doing or why I was going back. It truly was a rather stupid thing to do. Throughout the journey, I tried feeling out the locals around me--how many of them had heard the news? Did they seem quieter than usual? Did they seem shocked? It was hard to tell; the Sinhalese tend to be a stoical people by nature, and it wasn't until hours later, after I'd switched buses in Colombo and we arrived at the first sentry post on the way into the hill country that I had my first inclination that the impact of the bombing was already rippling through the country.

Sentry points are a daily reality in a war-torn nation such as Sri Lanka; I'd learned to take them in stride. In fact, my experiences only left me only with a sense of entitlement. As a foreigner who could speak Sinhalese, I was obviously not to be toyed with. The guards who had no problems jostling around the locals and irreverently probing through their belongings, treated me like royalty, offering me drinks of water, patting me good-naturedly on the back, and acting as though my comfort was a top priority for them. Well...not today, however. On the afternoon that the Kandy bomb exploded, the sentries who stopped our bus in the foothills of the hill country showed no trace of the good humor I'd become used to. They grabbed and rifled through my bag in the same perfunctory manner which with they investigated everyone else's baggage, made no effort at eye contact and showed no trace of a smile.

I made it through the checkpoint, as did everyone else. But as everyone boarded again and the bus churned up endless switchbacks into the deep green jungle, higher into the hill country and got closer to Kandy, I began to doubt, for the first time, the wisdom of my return. I had an indescribable sense of silence, of absence, of being among people whose lives were no longer there in the bus with me, or among conversation, or social interaction, or of looking through the windows or at the lone foreigner on the bus. Eyes were cast every which way; really, it made no difference. But the one consistency, I thought, was in my ability to sense deep, violent thinking on the part of my bus companions. It was obvious they knew what had happened; if they'd been simply shocked before the sentry point, the visible anger of the guards had, it seemed, given these Sinhalese citizens the permission they needed to tap into their own well of bitterness and fury at the Tamils who had attacked the most precious cultural relic in the country. It was one thing to attack banks and hotels in the capital, symbols of economic wealth, as the Tigers were wont to do. It was another thing to attack the soul of the Sinhalese identity.

During the first few hours of the trip, most people on the bus had sat quietly, unmoving, dwelling more than expressing. But I began to notice some odd twitches now, especially among the men, as though an emotional foundation for action was being laid. I didn't know what this meant. I didn't know if or how the Sinhalese had yet responded to the strike against the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. But it did seem as though I were entering a place where the breaking of a single, psychical string could potentially unleash some really dreadful events.

(Part II to come soon.)

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