The declaration of war by the government in January 2008 came not as a surprise. The government troops had been bombarding the Tamil homeland in the north for a month. It was no longer possible to call this a strategy of retaliation.
Because of the new outbreak of the war, all European countries had launched travel warnings. Charter flights were cancelled and the numbers of scheduled flights were decreased. Being under pressure, it was most likely that the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) would react with attacks in Colombo. It was not long, until this was proven as true.
Along with that, Michel`s 91 year old uncle was not doing well and we had cancelled our trip in the Spring. After several weeks in the hospital, he passed away in September and it took awhile until we made travel plans. There was a war going on and the travel warnings were still in effect, but it would not be our first trip under circumstances like that.
We started on October 25th in Zurich and looked forward to the warm weather, our friends, a lot of sleep and a relaxing holiday. When we had announced our visit, we immediately had three offers for the airport pick up. To not offend anyone, Victor our driver picked us up.
We changed our clothes, put the Sri Lankan simcard into our phone and it felt we had only been away for a couple of weeks, rather than the year it had been. There were not enough lunch times and dinner times to accept all the invitations, as the phone was ringing constantly. Later on, we solved the “problem” by inviting Humaid (our first contact in Sri Lanka and most favorite jeweler), Roy (a friend of Humaid and our contact in Hambantota) and Anura Sam (the Major we had pulled out of the pool) and their families for a weekend at our Hotel on the west coast. There were enough empty rooms and we had a marvelous time together.
Anura had made it a point to greet us at the hotel in Colombo right after our arrival. It was a big pleasure to meet him again. We chatted about this and that, until suddenly out of no where, he told us to imagine: what would have happened if we would not have been at the pool? “There would be no more Anura at all ……..”
I had thought of him and the incident many times, especially since it took almost three quarters of a year until my shoulder was back to normal. It is a very special feeling that somebody is on this earth because of you … without having given birth to him!
Anura invited us on another night to meet his family and we were quite surprised. They lived in a house close to the new Parliament and like in all Sri Lankan homes, family pictures were very important. Half of the very large living room was full of them and obviously, Anura could tell that we had not expected him in an environment like this.
He explained that the house had been his wife`s dowry and back at the time they had built it, the land in that area had been affordable. Iromi`s Father had been the Minister of Tourism of the southern province under the previous government.
So then, that was his father-in-law in the photograph shaking the President’s hand? No, his father had worked for the government as well. To find a lady in their wedding pictures, who got her name from the same man as the international airport in Colombo was not so surprising anymore!
Yes, well, she had been one of their witnesses.
And then, Anura beamed with pride, showing us the framed certificate that his seven year old son had gotten for outstanding discipline and performance at school. There were also some pictures of Anura in his gala military uniform. Michel was quite excited to get to have a close look at the officer’s sword Anura was keeping out of the reach of his three little sons.
At about 11 p.m. we were about to leave and all the lights went out. Power cuts are quite common in Sri Lanka. However, at the same time, Anura`s phone rang: they attacked Mannar! We knew right away that “they” were the Tamil Tigers but why was the electricity off in Colombo when a town more than 200 kms. further north was attacked? The answer came right from the headquarters, two minutes later: Colombo is under attack!
I have tried in an earlier report to describe how dark it gets in Sri Lanka at night, but to experience this in the capital of Colombo was quite spooky.
The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) had for some time four little airplanes which were able to carry bombs and had been attacking strategically important points. As the airplanes were really little and the Tigers had been very accurate in hitting their targets so far, we were not really worried. Anura agreed that it would be fine to drive back to the hotel.
It was quite a difficult journey. After only a few kilometers, a couple of heavily armed soldiers jumped on to the street, wildly gesturing and making it clear to us to stop and turn the headlights off. There had been a couple of other vehicles in front and in back of us and after all lights were turned off, we were not able to see them anymore. We could hear the other passengers whisper in the middle of the capital. As if whispering would have made any difference?
After a while there was another vehicle coming up and in those headlights, we could see that the soldiers were no where in site. As the car passed us and drove off, all the other cars followed and after only two kilometers the routine started all over again. In the meantime, there were searchlights up in the sky. We had made it close to the hotel in the downtown area
Thanks to Anura we always had the newest information: a power plant about 7 kilometers from our hotel was the target. And thanks to his army ID, we were able to pass a road block that hermetically sealed the downtown. We were not allowed to turn the headlights on and sneaked up to the hotel that was only lit by the emergency light. We asked Anura whether he would like to stay for a drink until the situation was back to normal again.
He told us that the attack was over and that he would make it home without problem, besides he was a soldier for 20 years! And suddenly, the big man became very emotional. He had to go home to his wife and his three little sons as they would rely on him. It was evident that his emotions did not have anything to do with little airplanes from the Tigers. It must also be a strange feeling to look at people other than your parents with the knowledge that you would not be around without them.
Half an hour later he called that he had made it home safe and sound.
The days in Colombo passed very fast and we went together with Victor to Hambantota.