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Armed Conflicts

War Tourism Skips Reality

Tourists from southern Sri Lanka walk past the gutted remains of the Jordanian cargo vessel Farah III, which was commandeered by the LTTE. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

MULLAITIVU, Sri Lanka, Nov 24 2012 (IPS) - The tour guide’s voice echoes around the dark, musty room, three stories underground. Fifty visitors – among them mothers holding infants, youths snapping pictures on mobile phones and grandparents leaning against the walls – are crammed into the narrow stairwell that leads down into the chamber, listening attentively to his every word.

The tourists have travelled hundreds of kilometres to see this underground bunker, once home to the most feared man in Sri Lanka: the leader of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Located a short drive south of the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, a former LTTE operations hub in the northern Mullaitivu District, some 330 kilometres from the capital Colombo, the bunker complex is nestled deep within the jungle.

The massive compound boasts a firing range, a semi-underground garage, a jogging path, a film hall and a small funeral parlor where the Tiger leader paid his final respects to fallen cadres.

“This is out of this world, how did they ever build something like this?” a woman who gave her name as Ranjini asked while walking down the narrow stairs.

Other attractions on the tour of former rebel-held areas include the shipyard where the Tigers experimented with building submersibles, complete with a dry dock and the skeletal remains of the Farah III, a Jordanian cargo vessel that was commandeered by the LTTE.

What is sidelined, however, are details of the beleaguered Tamil population that lived in this region throughout 30 years of civil war, and is now struggling to survive.

Beneath war attractions, suffering continues

The Sri Lankan military came across the bunker complex after the Tigers were defeated in May 2009, signaling the end of a three-decade-long civil war in which the LTTE fought the Sri Lankan government for control over the north and east of the island in order to establish a separate state for the minority Tamil population.

Puthukkudiyiruppu and Mullaitivu, once the central command headquarters of a massive guerilla operation, now play host to thousands of visitors, mostly from the majority-Sinhalese southern regions of the country.

But while these guided tours offer locals a rare glance into the inner workings of the Tigers’ de facto state and the extent of its former military capacity, rights activists fear that many tourists are missing the “bigger picture” – the horrors of the aftermath of the war and the suffering that has become an everyday experience for tens of thousands who were displaced during the last bouts of fighting.

“I feel the (tourists) don’t have sense of what really happened here, or they don’t want to know,” Ruki Fernando, a rights activist who formerly headed the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the national rights body, the Law and Society Trust, told IPS.

The facts surrounding the final stages of the war have been hotly contested in and outside the country: local rights groups, international humanitarian observers and aid workers claim at least 40,000 were killed, while the government insists that figure is closer to 7,000.

An internal review of the United Nations’ actions in Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war, released in early November, has reignited the furor over what happened here during the first half of 2009 and who was responsible.

The government has maintained a firm line that the Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire of the conclusive battle were “rescued” in a humanitarian operation and moved to safety in government “welfare camps”, while U.N. officials and aid workers classified this process as mass incarceration of Tamil civilian survivors in open-air detention centres, in violation of international law.

These unresolved questions are now being sidelined as the tourists arrive in droves, intent on one thing only – seeing as many of the war relics as possible, according to Saroja Sivachandaran, head of the Centre for Women and Development, a gender-based rights group in northern Jaffna.

“They fail to see that they are travelling through an area of absolute destruction where thousands still live in makeshift shelters,” she told IPS.

Some 450,000 displaced people, including around 236,000 who were rendered homeless during the last months of the war, are only now returning to their home villages in the north, even though basic amenities are still scarce in the region.

So far, just 21,000 permanent houses have been constructed for the roughly 170,000 still in search of homes.

The latest U.N. situation reports warn of serious funding shortfalls for rehabilitation work, a bleak forecast for the displaced.

Prashan de Visser, president of the national youth movement ‘Sri Lanka Unites’, told IPS that the gulf between visitors and those living in the former war zone stems from language barriers and a long history of cultural and social.

Sri Lanka Unites has engaged its island-wide base of 10,000 members to breach the ethnic divides, but there is still a long way to go since misconceptions are deeply “ingrained in the (social) system”, de Visser told IPS.

Sri Lanka Unites organises field tours and conferences for youth from all over the island, and for members of the vast Sri Lankan diaspora. Its main annual event, the Future Leaders’ Conference, was held in Jaffna this year, brining over 10,000 youth together for a week of activities.

During these intimate interactions, de Visser said, youth from different ethnic groups begin to see through the cultural and social barriers that have held them apart for so long.

This year, a group of youth leaders from the southern-most district of Hambantota pledged to raise 300,000 rupees (about 2,300 dollars) for work in the north after taking a field tour of the war-affected areas.

But most of the visitors flocking to the region are unlikely to make similar pledges.

Fernando warned that ‘gawking tourists’ will only reinforce ethnic divides instead of bridging them.

“This is still a massive curiosity park for the visitors, they really don’t want to see beyond the (thrills) offered by attractions like the bunker,” said Mahendran Sivakumar, a 61-year-old retired government education official who lived in the war zone throughout the entire conflict.


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  • billy the billy

    its about time that tamils come out of their ghetto mentality and reintegrate with the rest of the society ..u cant blame other for the consequences of their own tribal and racist terrorism war..ask for equal rights and not exclusive rights only for tamils..

  • Raigamaya Raigama

    Ruki Fernando where were you when suicide bombers were killing thousands of people in south? you are worried about Tamils thanks to LTTE never ending coffer and NGO money. UN report itself clearly state LTTE does not agree for a cease fire. then what is the role of the government, as you NGO bosses expected, give it to terror? that good for you then because you will continue getting business long time to come. now you are against the government because no more terrorism in the country, war is over that means your US dollar mine had to be close down. your sad not becuse of war dead, other wise why you never cared when Sinhalese and Muslims killed by LTTE never bother to open your mouth against it? is it because no one will fund you to do that ? how many times LTTE broke the cease fire with every government ruled this country for last 35 years? have you ever raised voice then? your version and vision of peace is giving it to terrorism? is it what western democracies doing today in middle east? shame on you, you are cheaper and bloodier than LTTE it self. you are the enemy with in.

  • Ranjith

    All have conveniently forgotten that the brutal killer Prabha & his team are more responsible for the misery of ordinary Tamil Civilians and now at least they breath the frsh air of freedom. They have suffered at the hands of LTTE more than anything.LTTE had taken them to the stone age with the never realizing dream of Tamil Eelam. Wait and see for sometime & they will live like the others in this country sooner than later.Don’t expect miracles after 3 decades of brutality of LTTE from which all Sri Lankans sufferred whether they were in the Nort or South..

  • Joseph

    Ruki Fernando & the NGO clan who depend on foreign funds are the people who obstruct the reconciliation by putting all the germs to the Tamil civilians mind. Human Rights and all these stories are required for their dependence & survival.They do not realize the harm they do by obstructing the reconciliation among two ethnic groups for their own survival.Ordinary Tamil civilians have begun to understand this phenomenon and it will not be far that they will chase these NGO masters out of their sight so that they will have a peaceful life.

  • Nelum

    This article is one-sided. The war tourism brings in money to the region. You conveniently forget to tell the infrastructure development taking place in the region with roads and other facilities so that war tourism can take place.

    Where were these NGOs so concerned about the people’s plight when Prabha was suicide bombing and attacking the south left and right killing without any discrimination? Does anyone remember how they bombed a bus in Buttala and shot the fleeing survivors? Did any of those leaders in the North and the supporters in the Western countries condemn or said a word about those?

    I say it is important to keep those memories alive with war tourism like holocaust so people down generations would know what we in the south went through.

  • krishan

    fresh air of freedom? What’s that I smell!! BULLSHIT

  • ASA

    You Bulshit

  • anusha

    fresh air of freedom? For some it may be BULLSHIT, but for a mentally balanced person it means

    1.end of the war,

    2.end of tamil nazi-tribalist ideology,

    3.freedom for all the citizens to go anywhere without fear more bus bombings

    5. no more children with guns, but all in schools with pens and books and much more…

    but most of all END OF DIVIDE AND RULE

  • True Singhalese

    Singhalese didn’t bother when our leaders massacred Tamils before LTTE , during LTTE , and after LTTE. Comparing what Tamils suffered during war , Singalese part of soufrance is even not 1%. Tamils had the equivalent of 100 suicide bombing everyday in Wanni. The cause of war is the lack of humanity of Singalese who even massacred their own people jvp.

  • nalin

    People like Ruki should study the beginning of the conflict. How T/Tigers brutally killing not only Sinhalees but also their own people like A. Amirthalingam.

    I think Its time for Sinhalees to be united and stand against international Tiger terrorism.

  • Simonatha Gajendran

    The like of Ruki Fernando NGOs who thrive on human misery are really parasites. They will do anything as long as they can keep the needed human misery to be in fame and profit. And this is a case in point. It is common sense that Sri Lanka’s “national reconciliation” and “national integration” cannot happen without all communities going about all over the country as free-citizens, especially after that horrific separatist-terrorist war that largely kept them apart for 30 years! Of course, the tamil racist separatist-terrorist forces would not like this and this is exactly what these NGOs also don’t like – as they too would rather see communal disharmony and the resulting human-misery in SL continue.

    As for‘gawking tourists,’ of course there will be many. As there are many Sri Lankans who want to see the former nesting places (the luxurious ones at that!) of the monstrous leader of the Tamil tiger separatist-terrorist group LTTE who carried out bus, train, supermarket, office buildings, etc. horrific bombings in Sri Lanka and killed, en-mass at that, their kith and kin once.

  • Simonatha Gajendran

    If you are smelling BULLSHIT, it must be because you ate a Hamburger while on hunger-strike and defecated in your tent! hahahahaha!

  • Simonatha Gajendran

    “True Singhales” ? More like a “True Kotiya” to me! LOL Anyway, I myself wonder about the humanity of Singhalese as I keep asking myself what army in the world would keep alive 10,000 captured/surrendering former TERRORISTS, rehabilitate them, including with vocational training, at a colossal expense to the nation and then releasing them back into the society!? We all know what the LTTE terrorist killers did to every captured Sri Lankan army solder ah? So “True Kotiya” I think you should take it easy…have a spicy wadai and think of how best to solve your “Paris problem” before you think of what happened or is happening in Sri Lanka! (If you must know, I am a SL born Keralite of 3rd generation and I am a
    real proud “True Sri Lankan” – and am a proud to be Sri Lankan not only when I
    watch SL Cricket Lions in action 🙂

  • Lanka matha

    NGOs, So called international media personal or Human rights champions no need to show us the deep pictures of war or affected areas. It is a joke if you still trying to do so as we Sinhalese have seen many brutal pictures than you ever seen. The difference is, you are searching deep war pictures after ending the war, but we have seen many during the brutal war. We are the most affected people by the hands of most ruthless terrorists in the world. We were not able to breath freely without fear of suicide bombers, We didn’t have access to northern part of our own country while Tamils were living healthy and wealthy in capital Colombo. No human rights organisation were their to utter a word against brutal killings by the LTTE.

    People like Ruki fernando lost their bread and butter after ending the war. Now money from west doesn’t flow to their pocket easily as it was. So they need to show more and more dramas if they want to continue their business. This is nothing more than a part of their struggle to find bread and butter

  • krishan

    yakoo from the watta, I am no LTTE supporter in any shape of kind, but dont take about freedom, If the sri lankan tamils were free there would never have been a war, BC pact would have been implimented, daaaaaaaaaaa


    As we all want the peace and better life for our future Generations, we must not forget that “suffering and terra” victimized thousands of our own…..That was a creation of set of idiots (for Dollars and Euros)….so give a true value for the Rupee that we Earn and Spend locally. invest on “Love and Friendship” which Lot easy re than Killing each other,,, This may look like a foolish thing for some,,,, but Remember WE ALL ARE Set of creatures,,not immortal