Monday, 7 May 2012

Kandy to Jaffna by Bus.


Kandy bus stand at the “Good Shed”  is a mess.  If Kandy is to be beautified it has to start with the good shed bus stand. The buses jammed all over the place is a public danger.  The dark dirty  space behind the stationed buses is an eyesore.  It is dirty, smelly and completely disorganised. A place  where people constantly gather is without toilets. The toilet facilities in public places  in Sri Lanka are scandalous and is another story.

If some one at the Kandy good shed bus stand is in urgent need of a toilet one has to go all the way to the Kandy Railway Station, which has a semblance of a toilet which satisfies an urgent need but a shame for the main Railway Station of the great city that houses the most venerated relic of the Buddha.

At the Goodshed Bus Stand where buses ply to distant towns in Sri Lanka , there is no information stand . If the buses could be parked somewhere else and the bus stand is used to  pick up voyagers to different places the congestion could be avoided .  But that is for the “planners” to decide.  I came to the bus stand  that 25th April, 2012 to take a bus to Jaffna.  The, “  five thirty bus to Jaffna just left ” told  me a man waiting to take a  bus to Kekirawa.

“When is the next bus to Jaffna,” I went round asking men who looked like bus drivers.  I t was nearly  six in the morning and no one new about the “next  bus” to Jaffna.  I asked the driver who was seated on the driving seat of a bus which showed the direction to Vavunia.  He said the six fifteen bus to Jaffna has been cancelled (first time I heard), and  said  that I should take the bus to Vavunia and from Vavunia take a bus to Jaffna.  I accepted  the suggestion and boarded the bus to Vavunia. 

The bus could take about 64 seated passengers, and more standing passengers to short distances. The bus started off at around 6h 30 am.   We were taking the A9 to Jaffna the seats were comfortable for a long journey but the radio blaring  popular songs was more disturbing than entertaining.  

The bus was going past Akurana a drab uninteresting township along the A9 road with dirty broken down boutique fronts squeezed  against each other. Then through Alawatugoda with lot of shops of timber merchants, few unattractive restaurants , cultivated and uncultivated barren land, and  through  Warakapola to Matale.

I was wide awake and wanted to chat with some one, but my neighbours the passengers next to me were sleeping with their mouths open. At Dambulla the bus was  less crowded, I was uncomfortable in the bus which continued with short stops to drop passengers or to take new.  I was completely exhausted when the bus after four hours of non stop driving marked a brief stop for tea and toilets.  As usual toilets are the most unpleasant, and the construction of the most remarkable A9 road way should also provide clean toilet facilities to travellers that take the road.

The bus started off on its way to Vavuniya. My neighbour was a young soldier returning to camp after a short holiday. I asked him whether he was in the Army when the terrorists were eliminated.  He said that he was then  a soldier in  General Charlie Gallage’s platoon.  He was one of the 8 soldiers that tracked the terrorists.  The army was divided into small platoons with few soldiers in each. Some of his colleagues were killed in the battle.

It was no battle he said because they did not know from where a  bullet would come from, the last phase of the battle was the worst as they were stalking through trees and bushes with only a rifle in hand.  The terrorists were shooting at them with heavy artillery. They had to shoot more often  at  where the sound of shooting came without actually seeing the terrorists who were shooting at them.  

I had to put questions to him to make him talk as he would not relate that “episode of his life” on his own.  He told me that it was a period he is trying to forget as it was like a terrible nightmare.  He never thought he would  come out of it alive, his friends were getting killed and he could not do any thing to help them.

I asked him whether he helped to evacuate the civilians .  He said of course it was the worst  part.  The civilians escaping in such large numbers were  not expected. He had to leave the gun to help the people coming towards him while the terrorists were shooting from behind them.  There were men, women and children some of them were with gun shot wounds.  They were coming from all over.  He had to help them along with other soldiers making them take cover from artillery fire that seemed to be coming from every where, and  take them to safety and come back to stalk the terrorists.

There were the women soldiers helping the civilians running away from the terrorists.  They helped  carrying the children of the women who were  running away with their children in arm. It was terrible when they were all killed with the children in arms and some of the running away civilians when a suicide bomber among them detonated the suicide bomb.

I asked him whether he saw civilians being shot. He said that  some had died from artillery fire and one really cannot imagine what it was like he did not know who was shooting and who was dying, those memories he said, still haunt the nights making him sleepless. I asked whether he could have  shot at civilians mistaking them for  terrorists. 

The people were  running away from the terrorists  crying and calling for help.  They did not have guns and there was no reason to shoot at them, even the terrorists may not have shot at the civilians but any thing could have happened in cross fire, he said.

I knew that he was tired answering my questions.  I touched his arm tenderly and said, “ I promise  I will not ask you any more questions.”

Right along the way, there was construction work on A9.  They are  widening the road in some places  and there are mounds of  red earth  all along the sides of the  road which they spread along the roads and flatten them using heavy machinery which resulted in long delays  for buses and other vehicles on the highway. We were now in Vavuniya, I said goodbye to the young Soldier and went looking for a bus to Jaffna.

I boarded  a bus to Jaffna.  It was fairly  crowded.  Nevertheless I found a seat, sat comfortably on   it and spoke to the man  who was seated next to me.  He was a male nurse in the Army Hospital in Kilinochchi and he travels every day from Vavunia.  He said that though the hospital is for the Army personnel the hospital takes urgent cases of civilians.  In an emergency the Army sets up temporary hospitals, as many as possible as it happened during the recent tsunami warning.  The Army was ready for any eventuality. 

The Army he said  does not interfere into the  every day life of the people .  The army is confined to the camps with the security staff on duty within the camp site.  We did not see soldiers with guns  on the roadsides . The TNA speaks as if the Soldiers are seen every where making life difficult for the civilians.  It is not true. However, I have yet to see Jaffna where,  according to reports coming from anti government press, and the Udayam the worst of it in Jaffna, the Army soldiers are everywhere.

On the seats on the  other side of where I was seated  were two elderly gentlemen, seated one behind the other. They were talking to each other from that uncomfortable sitting positions

I smiled at one of them and asked him whether he was going to Jaffna.  Yes he said he is returning from Batticaloa where he attended the  funeral of a very old man a relative of his friend behind.  He asked me  where I was from. I  said I am from Kandy.  He asked me whether I was a Sinhala,  when I said yes, he said with my beard he took me for a Muslim.

After that he started talking to me in Sinhala. He had worked for the Education Department, and his friend was his Director.  They are both now retired.  He said his first wife was from Baticaloa.  She had died. His daughter is working in Colombo.  He is now married to a woman from Jaffna.  His name is Mahendran.  

Vavunia I thought is less congested.  There were large land space and  new houses are being built.  There is a military camp, which looked  discreet in that large space.  There is a mixed population of people in Vavunia.  It is springing back to life after the terrorist “war”.

We were now coming to Omanthai the male nurse seated  next to me showed me where the terrorists stopped the vehicles and checked.  There were lots of rooms and sheds.  I imagined how they may have boarded the buses and looked hard at the passengers and asked for their identity cards

Omanthai is now the only check point on A9. In fact that is the only check point in Jaffna.  A soldier boarded the bus and started checking the identity cards.  I gave him my passport. He said the passport has to be registered and asked me to get down and go to see the registering officers.  The conductor of the bus accompanied me.  The two Soldiers on duty were pleasant  young men.  One of them entered the details of the passport in a register and asked me to sign.  That was all.  I came back to the bus which  started off immediately.

The bus was passing through Puliyankulam, and at Mankulam the retired Director of Education left us.  A young man came to sit on the vacated seat.  I turned to Mahendran who was now speaking to me in Sinhala.  I was telling him that I would like to go to Nagadeepa and he immediately started telling me what bus to take and gave me direction. The Tamil place names were difficult for me to keep in my mind and the young man who is now occupying the seat behind Mahendran  took my note book and wrote the names in Sinhala.

I asked him where  he learnt to write Sinhala, he said he learnt it on his own.  He is a Railway Guard working in Trincomalee.  He joined us in the conversation .  His name is Haran.  Haran’s aunt had fallen and broken her knee cap, he was going to Jaffna to take her in an Ambulance he had hired, to a Private Clinic in Colombo.  He was a nice friendly young man still not married he said.

I told them that I am in fact from France and came to Sri Lanka to see my ailing brother.  Mahendran was keen in knowing how much one could earn for a month in France. I  said the difficulty in comparing income in different currencies.  The Euros converted into Sri Lanka Rupee may be a large amount of money but cost of living is very high and what seems a large sum of money in Sri Lanka Rupees, is not enough for a person living in France.

That was why the INGOs were very happy to live in the North of Sri Lanka as they lived a luxurious life which was impossible in their own countries.  And that was also why some of them who were asked to leave the North during the  Military Operations left Sri Lanka unwillingly, as the terrorists did not harm them. They organised the Human Rights Watch.

I asked Mahendran  how he learnt Sinhala and he said he had worked with Sinhala people while in Batticaloa and he learnt it speaking to them. He said after all if you begin to like people you would like to speak to them in their own language.  He said his  first wife was from Batticaloa and there is a difference in Batticaloa Tamil and Jaffna Tamil. Then he said with a broad smile, you see the language problem is not only with the Sinhala but also with the Batticaloa Tamils and the Jaffna Tamils.

Haran joined in to say that  like the spoken Sinhala is different among the Sinhala people in the South and those of  the hill country, there is a difference in the Tamil spoken by the Jaffna Tamils, Baticaloa Tamils and the Estate Tamils.  That may be why he said it is easy for the Tamil people to learn Sinhala.  There are many, he continued, in Jaffna who speak Sinhala, partly because many Jaffna Tamils were working as government servants or merchants in the south  and had contact  with the Sinhala people. It is the politicians who intervene to make language  a problem.

Now the bus was speeding  through Kilinochchi, which the terrorists wanted to make it their capital city. I saw the beautiful monument for the heroic Soldiers who died in battle .  I thought of numerous  terrorist friendly Ambassadors like Robert O Blake  and Japanese envoy Yashoushi Akashi flying direct to   Kilinochchi to meet Thamilselvam.  Now in Killinochchi of that past only a few broken  houses gape on to the  road. The new Kilinochchi is developing fast and new buildings are coming up and the now carpeted A9 is like  a grey ribbon stretched beautifully in a lush green landscape.

There is much to be done but what has already been done is heartening.  There are road side shops and restaurants. The vegetable stalls are full of numerous varieties of vegetables and fruits.   The bus came to a stop at a way side restaurant.  The male nurse said good by and left.

Haran led me to a toilet, it is the same old filth and lack of proper toilet facilities that angers me.  The buses are taken by locals and if there were to be foreign tourist there would have at least been a few tolerable  wayside toilets, as it is the locals that take buses they cannot expect such  luxury and had to jump over animal and human faecal remains to stand some where to ease one self.  It must be terrible for women.  Besides the beautiful roads and buildings that is coming up some one has to be conscious of  providing proper sanitary conditions.

The people in Kilinochci were kind and ready to serve.  They were dressed  well and looked healthy.  The red earth is fertile, there is much land available for cultivation.  There is room for every one I thought, the vast space of land would be ideal for  multi ethnic settlements.  There should be more Sinhala in the North which would facilitate a more meaningful reconciliation. Because the Tamil people I have so far met are not anti Sinhala as the TNA  goons make them out to be.  When it comes to voting, they vote TNA as National political parties are absent.

There is the potential for the growth of new ties to bind the Communities.  For that the Government should have the courage to ban the TNA and remove the 13 A , so that we will be a real Sovereign State with out  having to do things at the dictate of India, America or others, who are strangers to our cultural ties. 

The Udayam news paper is anti Sinhala and they propagate  falsehood to put Tamils against the Sinhala. There was recently a report, “..With Sri Lanka dropping five places in the World Press Freedom Index from 158 in 2010 to 163 in 2011, the country’s press freedom today lies suppressed with the parliament not passing legislation for a Right to Information Act, not granting justice for the disappearances, assault and murders of journalists as well as economic pressures.”

This is shameful on the part of the World Press , to say that the “…’s press freedom today lies suppressed with Parliament not passing legislation for a Right to Information…” without verifying the falsehood reported in the Papers like Udayam or even Thirikural to separate Communities and spread rumours as “news”  , which the government has not banned. In reality in the interest of the country and in order to facilitate reconciliation of Communities, Udayam, Thirikural, Daily Mirror, TamilNet, Transcurrent, Groundview, etc.should be banned.

I asked Mahendran what he thinks of the Army being there in Jaffna.  It is a nuisance isn’t it, he pu the question back to me.  Then I told him the Army would be useful to discourage another attempt at terrorism.  It will not happen again he said.

Who knows ?  It is better to be prepared I told him.

There were army camps barbed wired, but very neat and orderly.  There were no soldiers  out side .  The camps have been  set up without making them look harsh encroachments, but as environment friendly space. The camps were not among the villages and cannot say they disturb the lives of  the people.   I expected more  army camps but they were few and far apart.

After Kilinochchi we reached the Elephant pass.  Here the roads are still  under construction.  Elephant pass is the link between the Jaffna Peninsula and  the mainland. We saw the salterns at a distant. The road was passing through vast stretches of almost barren swampy land on either side and then the  shallow  seas.

We were going past Chavakachcheri where  the palm trees stand like sentinels watching over land.  Green trees lush with heavy foliage  reminded me  of a Sothern landscape.  There were mango trees in abundance.  The coconut tree is another common sight.  There were new and old houses, with gardens  of  trees with green foliage. The margosa (kohombo) tree is common and so are the  murunga trees with  “fruits” the drumsticks, hanging from the  branches.  There were also bo-trees (banyan trees) growing wild.

We finally arrived  in Jaffna a busy city with people , cars, buses and women on bicycles. The city is cleaner than what it was in Kandy.  It has not been  affected by terrorism.
We entered the bus stand which was a bit crowded  but much more cleaner than what it was at the Kandy good shed bus stand.  I had told Mahendran I had booked a room at the Thinakural Lodge. Haran was late  for his appointment with the Ambulance that was to take his aunt to Colombo.
He took leave of us not forgetting to give me his telephone number and asking me to come and see him if I happen to come to Trincomalee.  “If you come I will arrange a Railway Bungalow for you to stay”,  he said and waved good bye.  Afterwards when I tried to phone him I found the telephone number I had taken down was wrong.  I am so sad I am unable to call him.
Mahendran said he will arrange a three wheeler for me.  He said, “ as you are a stranger they will charge you too much”.  He took me to a three wheeler and arranged with him to take me to the hotel for Rs.250.  Mahendran told me that  it is reasonable and left asking me several times not to forget to telephone him.
They were so nice people .  They accepted me as a friend and helped me to put me at ease with them.  It is Sampanthan and his TNA that spoils building relationships with the people in the North.

No comments: