When the coconut trees hear voices, they will bear fruit

Remember the story of S?

After months of mine clearance this area was ready for the first families to start returning. The resettlement began at the tail end of 2010 and this week I went back to see how it was progressing. The change to the area is absolutely unbelievable…

After having a drive around I stopped and got out my car to take a closer look at a couple of guys forging through thick vegetation on the oldest looking tractor I have ever seen with a look of sheer determination on their faces!

As I stood there an old man on a bicycle approached me.

“Good morning madam” he addressed me in perfect English. “Good morning I replied”.

“What are you doing”, he asked – a perfectly reasonable question I suppose seen as how not many white women come up into these parts.

Momentarily taken aback by his fluency in English, I explained my job and that we had just done mine clearance in the area so I was coming back to check progress. He solemnly informed me that he was from this area and 20 years ago had been displaced during the fighting. He asked would I like to see his house.

“Absolutely”, I told him. I jumped in my car and tailed him a few hundred metres down the track.

Then he told me his story…

VK is 72 years old, married for more than 50 years he has 3 grown up children. Before the war they all lived together in this house built in 1931 by his grandfather.

They led a very comfortable life. His father was a successful businessman who travelled all over South Asia for his work. He often returned with exotic and exciting gifts from his travels and many times brought mango saplings back to plant in their garden.

Plentiful trees in your garden are particularly important out here, not only can the fruit be sold to generate an income but equally important is the shade the trees provide during the long hot summers.

Over the years VK’s father brought back more than 10 different varieties of mango tree and before long had negotiated to sell as many mangoes as they could grow, every year making $500 just from the fruit growing in their garden.

Over the years VK’s father died and his own family grew up in the house. VK opened a shop and the mango trees continued to flourish.

In 1990 the war intensified in this area and the entire family was hurriedly forced to grab what they could carry and flee their home. Leaving pretty much everything behind, VK locked one room in his house (the prayer room) and fled.

Having spent the next 20 years moving constantly and mostly living with relatives, last month VK was told he could return to his land.

VK’s overgrown house. Built in 1931 by his grandfather, the roof remains over just 2 of the rooms. In the background (far left) stands the last remaining mango.

Needless to say after 20 years the contents have all but gone, the roof remains over just 2 of the rooms and his shop is just a shell. But VK has hope and determination.

Each morning he takes the 1 hour bus ride north, collects his bicycle from a relative’s house close by and cycles up to his property. He has hired some labourers to help him cut through the thick vegetation and start repairing the house.

Keen to show me his house we pushed our way through the vegetation along a secret path he has created behind his shop – so the thieves can’t find their way in and steal from him he tells me – as we walked around the destroyed rooms as he pointed out what was the kitchen, the bedroom and the prayer room (amazingly still locked!)

.           The secret path…

He is too old now he told me to run his shop but he plans to rebuild their home and eventually the family will return. I asked him was he sad about the state of the house and he told me he expected after so long away that little would remain but the thing he was most saddened by was that all but 1 of his father’s mango trees had been cut down for firewood.

“What will we do for shade in the summer now?” he asked.

He pointed to the coconut trees telling me that right now there are no coconuts because all the people moved away. Thinking he meant because no-one had been looking after the trees he said no, it’s because they need to hear the people’s voices before they grow coconuts. I must have looked completely bemused as he smiled and just said…“you’ll see when the people return and the trees hear their voices, they will start to bear fruit once more”.

This was once a bedroom… There’s a lot of work to be done to restore this beautiful house to its former glory but VK is determined.

There is a lot of work to be done here, it will be expensive and VK is not exactly a young man! When I asked him why does he not simply remain in the new house they live in down in the south of Jaffna he told me he will come back because this was his father’s house and before that his grandfather’s house.

He wants to die here so his soul can rest here, just like his father and grandfather have done before him.

The long drive north

.                               Look at these beautiful eyebrows!!!

I’m just back from the big smoke capital…where they have normal life necessities like proper shampoo, restaurants and beauticians who will  pluck and twease eyebrows so I no longer look like I have been living in the wilderness for 6 months!

As Jaffna is still rather ‘developing’ we often buy equipment and the like down in the capital then drive it north. Normally the ‘drive north’ part is the job of our drivers, last week I decided I needed to escape the peninsula for a few days so offered to do one of the long drives north.

From start to finish it is quite the adventure!

First you have to go north to south. The quickest way to do that is by plane but as there is no domestic airline right now (and as we have a few friends in the military) the way we go is with the Sri Lankan Air Force!

It’s all terribly exciting as you are piled onto a bus (in the old war-stricken days they used to take your mobile phone off you and make you close curtains over the bus windows!). Then you are driven across the tarmac to your waiting military plane – one of these two bad boys…a Ukrainian transporter or a Chinese twin engine 15 seater….!

I prefer the big one – the seats are low benches running down either side of this big ‘ole beast and it has a huge ramp back door which (just like in the movies) does indeed start to open when you come in to land…before you hit the tarmac!

It’s always full of soldiers, sailors and pilots all looking very smart in their uniforms and there are no windows so it feels rather daunting as this big gun metal bird hurtles down a bumpy runway to take to the skies.

Actually it feels like it will never make it off the ground!

The baby brother plane is a whole different experience…you are handed huge headphones when you squeeze in through the back door because it’s so darn noisy sitting literally on top of the engines. You spend the flight in isolation from your fellow passengers with big black ‘cans’ on your ears!

You certainly keep your fingers crossed on this plane if there is even the slightest breeze in the air – this wee thing bumps and bounces through even the smallest of clouds!

This time round we got the little plane, safely made it down south then it was straight to the office to collect my car only to be told someone had crashed it the day before so there was no driver side mirror, oh and by the way the boot doesn’t shut so it’s kept from flying open with some string. Talk about a Blue Peter effort of a car, this was going to be an interesting journey.

After a unexpectedly luxurious night in a hotel (a last minute booking meant I was upgraded to a suite!) I gorged on the hotel breakfast the next morning as I have been reliably informed by my brother-in-law on many an occasion that calories don’t count when it’s a hotel breakfast!  Then it was time to hit the road.

Now bearing in mind this drive was a fairly last minute plan and also bearing in mind that I don’t actually live in the capital city I figured a helpful (local) soul in the hotel could tell me how to actually get out of the city.

It would appear I had figured wrong.

After much um-ing and ah-ing and several times being asked ‘Was I SURE I was driving all the way to Jaffna’ and ‘Was I really driving there on my own’ I established that in fact no-one could give me directions! They handed me a tourist map and I knew I had a compass in the car – I figured how hard can it be. Set the compass to north and off you go…

This was my map. Not exactly a Tom-Tom is it!

Off I set. After a while my compass arrow was pointing decidedly north EAST rather than north. I stopped at a local petrol station and asked if I was heading to Jaffna. Again much um-ing, ah-ing and questionning and then several shakes of several heads. Apparently I was on the road to Kandy – definitely NOT the right road for Jaffna.

A swift u-turn and following their vague instructions to “turn right after 100m up a dirt track, turn left when the road ends and you will eventually join up with the Jaffna road”, lo and behold with a wing and a prayer it worked and before too long I was happily popping out of a slightly dodgy looking neighbourhood onto the Jaffna road.

Now this is a long old journey to do solo so I had decided some i-pod action was in order.

Pops – you will be pleased to know my choice of travel audio was in fact the omnibus Archers from last Sunday. Along with a spot of Weekend Wogan and some Desert Island Discs I was set.

I now am fully up to speed with what the British deputy-Prime Minister would take to a desert island as his luxury item!

After a full day on the road I got to Jaffna at sunset and was led home by the light of a very big and very bright full moon! Beautiful.

Free at last

So one day a month I get a day off (work-life balance…what’s that?).

It’s always the last Sunday of the month when operations is on its monthly break and the office staff who work Monday to Saturday are also off. Us expats shut up shop and attempt with all our might to trick our body clocks into sleeping through our usual daily wake up time of dawn. Just for the record…gin helps!

Last Sunday two of us decided we just had not seen enough off the wee peninsula we are living on so we jumped in the ‘Landy’ and went to be tourists for the day.

After a quick bite to eat from the local bakery and with burning mouths from the HOT sambol you get with your roti (basically just raw crushed chillis…divine!) we decided to visit the local library.  Now I had seen this impressive building from the outside which had been burned down during the war and had been rebuilt and apparently restocked.

When you arrive you are greeted by a terribly friendly guard who asks you to turn off your mobile phone and take off your shoes!

I have to admit rather cynically as we went in I was expecting a beautiful but slightly empty shell of a building so I was absolutely shocked  when far from seeing empty shelves I was confronted with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books.

Rows of encyclopedias, books on religion, politics, history, geography, even an entire section of cookery books! It felt slightly surreal being barefoot in a library but nonetheless we padded around for ages having a giggle at some of our slightly more obscure findings…

Just off the coast line there are several small islands and to get there you drive over a causeway. It’s a bit of an adventure because the causeway is literally a few feet above the water level and not really wide enough for cars to pass one another.

Needless to say it was absolutely pelting down with rain the day we decided to cross so the water was high and practically lapping the tyres of the car plus there was some kind of temple festival just finishing so we met head on the busloads of pilgims coming back over to the mainland…

Anyhow after some slightly hairy edging slowly past one another we eventually crossed safely and went for a drive. The islands are a slightly odd place because the ‘islanders’ who live there are from Jaffna but have a definite ‘island mentality’ of being just slightly different to the folk on the mainland. The folk on the mainland, when asked about the islanders, simply shrug and with a sly wink dismiss them as ‘not quite as civilised as the mainlanders’.

I guess not so dissimilar to any island / mainland divide the world over!

As we explored the islands we kept driving past shacks on the side of the road selling what looked like pink popcorn. Not being able to resist investigating we pulled over. An old gnarly fisherman, who has one of those faces which just screams ‘I’ve got a story to tell’, stepped out from behind his stall and in unbelievably crystal clear English said “Good morning, how do you do?”.

Amusingly that was about the limit of his English but through a bit of sign language and my Pops’ way of speaking the local lingo (English but just v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y and VERY LOUD!) we were reliably informed that far from being popcorn it was sea water boiled shrimps!

Now I know the rules ok…wash it, cook it, peel it or don’t eat it….prawns left outside + hot climate = food poisoning….etc etc. So let’s face it this basket of shrimp had dodgy belly written ALL over it. But I reckon sometimes you’ve just got to take your chances and get down with the locals!

With there not being a dickybird chance of this lovely but slightly grubby stall holder having a nice antibacterial handwash in his pocket I did (briefly) think twice as he peeled one of the big prawns and handed it to me….yes, I ate it!

My friend by this point was being given a handful of the salty shrimp…yes, he ate them!

From the look on his face I couldn’t resist and tried one. They were absolutely delicious, SO moorish and totally addictive. We decided to throw caution to the wind and promptly bought half a kilo.

Heading back over the causeway we stopped at the local ‘beer shop’ and bought some of the local brew then back to the house for a Sunday afternoon movie and movie snacks of beer and salty shrimp.

After a day away from the office I think it’s called ”relaxing”, that evening (with total sodium overload from gorging on my shrimps) as I set my alarm for dawn I might even possibly have had what people with slightly more normal lives call ‘the Sunday night blues’??!!

p.s we lived to tell the tale post-shrimps…all those family camping holidays have obviously set me up with a strong constitution!

One day your life will flash before your eyes…

….make sure it’s worth watching! (Gerard Way)

A long attention span is not a way I would describe my character!

The frustration I had working in the ‘sustainable development’ side of ‘international development’ a few years ago was the amount of time it took to see the fruits of your labour. Not great if you have a short attention span!

Now I work in the ‘aid work’ side of international development which suits me because it’s so tangible.

This is a job where I sit down at the end of the day and can see exactly what we achieved that day. That we cleared X metres of ground, metres of ground now safe for the local population to walk on without worrying if they will step on a landmine. We destroyed X number of landmines, landmines which are no longer a danger to the people of Sri Lanka.

A deminer clears land next to a temple. The woman to his left has been collecting water from the community well in front of the temple

Yesterday as I took my Director round my minefields it hit me that my time here in Sri Lanka is enabling me to be part of history in the making.

Jaffna has been at war for 26 years, in 2009 the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the LTTE (‘Tamil Tigers’). Whether you empathised with the Tamils or simply disagree with war, it is impossible to be indifferent to the simple fact that a direct effect of this long war is that hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict.

Now that there is peace these people want to go home.

A bombed out building, a pile of ammunition and a burned shell of a bus…remnants of front line fighting

This is where we get involved….before the refugees can go home we need to clear the land of dangerous remnants of war and landmines. In some cases areas littered with literally 1000’s landmines.

I am here at a time when Jaffna is at the hub of the resettlement process and my demining teams are laboriously demining huge swathes of land in preparation of the returnees. But the pressure for land is great as is the desire to return home as soon as possible.

Just yesterday I visited one of our minefields which we are due to finish clearance of next month. It is a vast former military camp which was used as a mortar firing base during the fighting. So far we have found more than 5000 landmines – and we’ve not finished yet!

Each yellow stick denotes where we have removed a landmine. The density of mines on this minefield is shocking.

On one side of the camp a man on a tractor was starting to plough through our boundary marking sticks and into the now-cleared land in preparation for planting coconut trees. This army camp had been constructed in his back garden. He had been forced to flee with his family and now he was back, desperate but determined to be able to provide for his family and return to some semblance of a normal life.

Sadly his story is not unusual but it is exactly why I am seeing history in the making.

When I first visited Sri Lanka back in 2006 I was solemnly informed by people in the south of the country that the north would never be at peace, no ceasefire would ever be agreed, no peace agreement would ever be reached. Never say never!

After more than 2 decades of a country at war, peace has returned and with that peace the people return. men who have not seen their own children in 15 years, families previously divided by a military front line, homes bombed out beyond recognition. But slowly slowly they return, rebuilding their homes, replanting their farms.

A deminer clears round a well while his colleague clears round the house in this family’s back garden

And as they do we try with all our might to stay one step ahead, in their gardens, around their wells, in their paddy fields…clearing the ground ahead of them.

It is a unique place I find myself in watching this unfold.

So when my life flashes before my eyes I think I’m in for a pretty good show!

Oh my ears and whiskers, how late it’s getting!

So…..I’m now living in Jaffna! Which for the ‘geographically challenged’ is the northwest corner of the island which is just off the south coast of India!

It’s not my first time in Sri Lanka – I worked out here back in 2006 – but it is my first time in Jaffna. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last 2 years you will no doubt heard of the Tamil Tigers. The peninsula I’m living on is part of the chunk of Sri Lanka the Tamil Sri Lankans were fighting for.

Now there is peace and the clean-up has begun. There are battle sites dotted around all over the place which have mortar bombs, grenades and all sorts of ammunition left lying around them. As for the minefields, the  density of mines here is shocking. 5 mines every square metre is not an unusual thing to see (in the picture below the rows of little stakes I am walking through are where we have removed mines).

I have more people to manage this time round (including several female demining teams which is very good to see!)

and the demining here is not with detectors but is 100% excavation – which basically means a deminer on their hands and knees with a scraping tool inch by inch scraping away the ground in front of them.

Its slow, hot, tedious work, the temperature here easily hits high 30’s and the humidity is making me melt.

I take my hat off to each and every one of them.

Plus we have lots of mechanical clearance here which i need to get my head around. I have been on a steep learning curve trying to understand about steering boxes, hydraulic pumps and bearing pins…!!

There is a still a very visible and active military presence here and we’re not allowed to keep explosives so mines have to be dug out of the ground then burned. Burning mines still makes them go ‘BANG’ so I have to write lots of letters to important army & navy commanders to let them know what we’re up to (letters are REALLY loved here…and everyone has a company stamp which they use in earnest!)

I am learning rather quickly that titles and correct addressing of military top dogs is incredibly important and during the numerous sessions of polite tea drinking with these guys I end up studying the pips on their shoulders desperately trying to figure out whether they are an Admiral, a General or a mere Captain…I have been addressing most as ‘Sir’ just to be on the safe side.

So basically I have my work cut out for me!

On the home life side of things I have ended up in a totally awesome house. Having just finished reading a book about 17th century Iran, my house is exactly how i imagine the Persian styled houses described in the book to be like – lots of dark wooden beams and ornate carvings – with all the rooms facing into an open courtyard.

Its a welcome world away from my Mozambique salmon shack and there has been a fair amount of late night star gazing up through my open roofed courtyard.

I have inherited a bike which the locals find absolutely hilarious and are really quite open about laughing at me as i wobble down the road. However tonight I came out of my office to find my bike positively gleaming and purposely parked directly in front of my office door…one of the guards has totally bought into my love of cycling home after work and he had polished it and ceremoniously placed it ready for me to jump on to.

My guys here are all very lovely and this is just one of the small but very thoughtful gestures which I have experienced since I arrived here.

I got a bit stuck in the mud this evening coming out of my compound gate and one of the guards gave me a very enthusiastic push…straight into the main road…bearing in mind there is a very clear pecking order on the roads here (bikes are 2nd bottom only above pedestrians!) I take my life in my hands a bit on each and every bike ride.

However I am persevering, in fact I rather enjoy my little home-time routine; my bike ride home to shouts of ‘hello lady’ from the bolder of the school children I pass, me grinning rather apologetically as I cycle the wrong way down the main road (I’d rather play chicken with the other cyclists rather than cross the flow of cars, motorbikes and rickshaws!!). A cheery ‘good evening ma’am’ from my slightly barmy but terribly sweet house guard Rex as I lean my bike against the wall and opening my front door with my ridiculously big key to be welcomed by my equally slightly barmy but terribly nice housekeeper Baba!

This whole place has got a very surreal feel about it, low roofed archways you have to bend double to get through, oversized door keys, seemingly slightly mad but oh so lovely people and tea parties to attend – it feels like I am living in Alice’s wonderland…I honestly expect to see a waistcoated white rabbit racing down the road my way to work each morning!

All in all jolly good fun!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers