Originally published on Perambara.
The heat in Vavuniya is incredible – oppressive and dry, as if it is trying to sap every last ounce of moisture from you and evaporate it into thin air. As I clambered out of my blissfully air conditioned van and into Vavuniya’s searing heat a few days ago, I felt immediately tired, even though I had only been sitting and sleeping for the past 7 hours since we left Colombo.
I mentioned this to the young woman I was with, who I had picked up from her family’s house just outside of Vavuniya town and she cheerfully agreed. “It seems to get worse every year, even my aunties agree”, in her thick European accent. Only in Sri Lanka for a very brief visit, she met me and my crew for a day’s worth of filming connected to her charity work at the Vavuniya hospital.
My first impression of the hospital was that it looked quite new – I supposed it was probably built up after the end of the war last year. The paint on the walls was still fresh and clean and so were the wide windows, if you ignored a light coating of dust, inescapable in these parts. Walking inside however, I saw that the place was a mess of tired patients and harried medical staff. Stray, mangy dogs skittered unnoticed in and out of the open doors and crowds of aimless looking people sat on the floor of the entrance to the hospital and all along its corridors.
My companion saw my doubtful stares in their direction and clarified: “IDPs”, she said simply. “They arrive in busloads early morning, but they cannot leave until they’ve all been seen. They are only allowed to go back to the camps late in the evening. So they wait”. I remember the two young girls I had seen when I first stepped out of our vehicle in the parking lot. They were sitting at the foot of a dusty red government bus, staring at nothing in particular. I supposed they were waiting to go home too. I felt sorry for them, sitting there with nothing to do and in this terrible heat. One of them looked at me, brow furrowed, when I pointed a camera in her direction but looked away again, disinterested.
This would be the first of many times during my brief time in Vavuniya that I wished I spoke Tamil. Being a virtual first-time visitor to the area is quite a strange experience. It looks and feels like Sri Lanka, but at the same time feels like a different country – a place where you can’t read the signs and can’t understand the language. I wonder if some Tamils feel the same when they come to the South, or what they think of our lazy inability to learn Tamil when they have been forced to learn Sinhala in order to be able to communicate. It’s moments like these when I can almost feel that disconnect between our two communities, along with a dogged sense of how impossible it seems to rectify past mistakes.
The soldiers stationed within the hospital – apparently to keep an eye on patients with affiliations to the LTTE – reinforced this feeling. They seemed glad to talk to me and my crew and chatted to us quite freely, although they were careful to warn us not to film first. We obediently left our cameras aside, pointing in the opposite direction. They told us that there was a game of sorts going on between them and the people: the Tamils know how to speak Sinhala; the soldiers know how to speak Tamil. But neither side lets on to each other about this knowledge because they feel it gives them an added advantage to pretend that they cannot communicate. The implications of this made my head spin, so I looked around at my surroundings instead, trying to put it out of my mind for the time being.
The soldiers lived in a shelter that was made up of a series of asbestos and cardboard sheets – an impossibly tiny living space for even one person, let alone the 3 that were actually resident there. I discreetly peered inside but it was too dark to make out much more than a raised mattress, thin and rather grubby, with a gun leaning against it. I found it a strange paradox: the power those guns gave the soldiers and the simultaneous indignity of having to live in such squalor.
Other parts of the hospital were quite picturesque. A series of small chalets – what I assumed to be staff quarters – stood almost hidden amidst foliage that was still green despite the heat. Parakeets the colour of emerald caught the sunlight on their wings as they flitted around the leafy canopy.
Towards the more populated corridors of the hospital, there were monkeys – everywhere. Hanging off piping on the walls; trying mischievously to pry windows open; sitting on the roofs with their babies hugging their stomachs; peeping at me over the edge of the air conditioner on which they had chosen to perch as I took a few hurried photographs. I wondered whether all this ‘wildlife’ was a threat to the hygiene of the hospital but had no one really to ask.
By the time we left the hospital there wasn’t much time for anything else – we had to get back to Colombo by at least midnight so we decided to grab some lunch, head to the markets we had seen on the way in for some quick filming and then head home.
The last time I had been to Vavuniya was to Menik Farm in about November, to spend a few hours playing constructively with a group of small children. I didn’t see anything of the town and barely anything of the camps either. I only saw the controversial tents in the distance and the little children up close in all their disarming, dusty, sweetness.
Even then, what struck me most about Vavuniya was the dust. It got everywhere – into the folds of your shirt and into your hair. It coated your skin like a powder and stuck there, your sweat working like an adhesive. As we drove through the town this time too, the dust was actually visible – swirling heatedly with the wind that followed fast-moving vehicles on the road.
At first glance – which is pretty much all I got – Vavuniya is clearly a developing town. Some buildings are crumbling and decrepit while others look brand new, like the Courts complex. There was a lot of road-work going on and signs of construction were everywhere. Promisingly though, the town was bustling – shops were open, roads were busy and people were milling about on the streets. “It’s alive”, my companion murmured almost to herself as she peered out the window, possibly remembering a time when it wasn’t.
Almost everywhere we went, the roadsides were lined with bicycles – one of the main modes of transport in these areas –hundreds of them, shining in the harsh sunlight as their owners and parked and went about their business on foot. I wonder whether the use of bicycles will eventually die out as the town gets more developed and its people more prosperous. I hope not. In a way the bicycles seem to have become as idiosyncratic to these parts as the Palmyrah trees that dot the landscape the further North one travels.
We decided to do our last spot of filming on a streetside, where the markets were in full form. I love markets – the bustle, the colour, the beckoning vendors whose calls are universal no matter what language they’re in. As my cameraman hoisted his camera on his shoulder and started shooting, my companion and I whipped out our cameras – hers an SLR, mine a point-and-shoot – and started making the most of our last few minutes in the area.
The street was overflowing with goods for sale – clothes, food, pots, pans, you name it. Some of them were sold in actual shops, others in carts holding trinkets and toys, and yet others on mats on the ground, laid out for passers-by to peruse at leisure.
People watched us amusedly as we crouched by the roadside taking photographs of the vendors at work. The vendors themselves were quite thrilled to be the object of our attention. They spoke to me excitedly in Tamil, pointing to their neighbours, urging me to photograph them as well. I smiled and obliged. Their faces are irresistible – sunburned, lined with age and hardship but smiling despite it all at the distraction my friend and I presented.
When I visit places like this, that have literally been war zones in the very recent past, I marvel at how quickly humans can find it in themselves to recover and move on. These were all people who had the sounds of shelling ringing in their ears; who had seen destruction I could never even imagine – yet here they were, out on a Friday afternoon, doing their marketing, buying toys for their youngsters and making a living for their families.
One woman I tried to photograph had her face in the shadow of her umbrella. When she noticed my camera, she pulled the umbrella closer, hiding herself away from my lens. I wished I could have communicated to her that she needn’t – that she could have made a beautiful picture. Although probably not in the same words, her companions urged her to move the umbrella away and after a little bit of cajoling, she flung it aside and let sunlight flood her face. And I was right. She did make a beautiful picture.
As we walked away, my companion – now my firm friend – whispered in my ear – “watch this” and then turned around to let out a stream of fluent Tamil at the friendly vendors we had just been photographing. They gasped delightedly at the unexpected surprise and called out goodbyes to us as we moved on.
We did all our filming on that one street. There was so much to photograph and document, so much colour and life. I commented on this to my friend – who, despite having been born and bred in the West, yearned for her frequent visits to Vavuniya, where she would stay with her relatives in their tiny village houses, sleep with friendly frogs and play with her young cousins near the paddy fields by their property.
“I usually cry for a whole day when I leave” she said to me sadly as we settled back in our seats – finally away from the dust and heat – getting comfortable for the long ride ahead. We would be stopping at the airport on the way to drop her off so that she would be able catch her flight home. I gave a quick sympathetic hug. “The last time I was here,” she said, “I flew back home but missed it so much that I came back after three days for another week!” I laughed at this story a little incredulously. “Are you serious?” I asked and she nodded, adding simply, by way of explanation, “I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I never am”.
Her words have stuck in my head ever since, making the task of bridging our communities suddenly seem slightly less daunting. Why? Because it reminds me that, complex political divides aside, love for our country is something we all have in common. And something which also, strangely enough, puts us every single one of us on the same side.