Sri Lanka, April, 2003
things i can die knowing i've done this month:
- saw people dance to cure a man of Evil Pig Cooties.
- interviewed terrorists and diplomats.
- drove a motorcycle the length of sri lanka.
- met some mariah carey fans that live in a warzone.
- surfed warm, oily-smooth waves.
- walked around in a minefield.
- grew a beard.
- withered my morality.
after almost three months here i'm as happy as i've been in years. or maybe i'm just healthy. or maybe i'm more aware because this country is coated with a binary equation pain on the top-side and pleasure from the belly down.
the other day a 3m snake left its neck on the train tracks and got its head clipped off. this seemed an exceptional event to me. if i stand next to the railroad tracks when the train comes i have a hard time NOT running, much less draping myself over a steel rail (perhaps it was morning and Mr. Snake hadn't had his coffee yet). getting out of the way of oncoming trains is instinct, even for a snake-brain. but he was cut into it two parts, there, on the railroad track; his head and his body. then (the following day) there were two snakes having a little jiggy-jig within head's shot of where the other one had been killed. they were the same kind of snake and about the same monstrous size. they looked like they were fighting at first, but this is an easy thing to mistake; fucking for fighting. they were twisted up into each other, like a huge unravelling rope. again, i wanted to run. this was all a bit much. a little too much; death and insemination. cyclic, even. snakes eating their tales, and all of those festering reincarnation suspicions started confusing me again. sri lanka seems saturated with wet magic.
this morning i watched the sun rise on the island and the sky scorched pink. a woman stepped out of a shower, and shook death from her hair, and she smiled at me with her white teeth set inside of a face so angular and dark her skin seemed, i swear, blue. i kissed her on the forehead, and i felt my lips on her soft skin on her hidden skull protecting a cool brain, dim, away, and different from mine.
i think she was sri lanka.
this island is a beautiful woman, dripping wet and smiling with magic. pain seeping just under the tight black skin of her body. and we ants crawl over the arms and legs and feed on the life that drips from her.
this month i met with people who are so poor they can't afford a bus ride out of the war zone they live in. and the bus costs twenty cents. you have twenty cents, right? me too. i like my twenty cents a bit more than i did last month. in india, and sri lanka, for that matter, if you have a few bucks you can get whatever you want as long as you dont forget you want it: there's so much coming at you so fast that you have a hard time keeping pace with reality. one day i was offered a 15-year old girl, a rusted chinese-issue .45, and a boy-servant for the next three years... and other things, more dangerous... and all in one day and each for less than one thou$and. i didn't take any of these rather eccentric and dangerous items, but i had to, at the end of the day, write it all down so i could remember what the...
.. what the ... hell is going on.
how can the world contain so much in such a tiny space,
let alone the same heavenly little island,
so small and teardrop shaped?
and so i just keep my head turned down and my nose turned on and my eyes wide open and i walk through the days of ceylon. when the wind blows here i still smell cinnamon and coconut. the nights pass slow and hot and i sleep deep under the glimmering sky. i wake up with mosquito bites and blood rushing through my ears and a crowd of dreams evacuating the theatre of my skull. this place is a massive contradiction, a celestial puzzle, in which beauty of broad degree are slammed up against tight, toothy horrors and the collision between the two gives birth to a vivid kind of life that jars you awake again. exposed and raw, horrible and beautiful, and lives at that liminal zone on the borders of perception. sri lanka is beauty's own backyard.
so, yes, its a beautiful teardrop of an island and (back to) last night it rained like love. a huge crack of thunder announced the monsoon (as if "monsoon" were the word the thunder said). the sky split open and solid ceilings of water fell to earth. there was a puppy in the yard of the hotel that had lost its Way. i heard it hollering. so i brought it in and dried it off.
i warmed his little body up and then, after a few minutes, noticed that i had fleas. the little bugger was covered from ear to nail with parasite. so we took a few baths, he and i (in that order), and his mother came up to my balcony this morning, around 4, to fetch him, after he woke me up hollering cause he was cold or lonely or hungry or feasted upon or whatever tiny hell infants dwell in. so i handed him off to Mom and watched, as i said, the sun rise. (i've never heard a dog meow, but this Mom did. she looked right at me and meowed. i about screamed and ran but then realized the desperation of her situation, and her articulation of it, and she seemed embarrassed to have left her child in the rain. tomorrow someone, i'm told, will come take the dog away. he'll die. he's about 3 weeks old.)
let's see, a friend named Krishan found a surfboard the other day at Ahangama beach and so we spent some time fixing it up. he doesnt have enough cash to buy the resin, so i figured i'd give him 40 cents and make his month. i didn't get a chance to because a local had some that he gave to me. i find it odd and exhilarating, giving people things they like but disturbing receiving from someone poor. which doesnt make any sense unless money is what its all about. so i got over that. if you're in the US you're richer than i thought. i found out last week that the US makes up 5% of the world's population but generates 43% of the world's wealth. if i wasn't taking it sitting down, that ratio would make me fall over. i feel thankful. the US has graced me. seriously.(by the way the french didn't invent french fries - that was a misnomer that the americans invented. the belgians invented "frites" or "pommes frites" as they're called in both europe and french (though the brits callem "chips"). now note that the belgians also speak french as the irony of americans mixing up french and belgians should be noted. end politics, thanks.)
in three days i leave for kuwait. i have to say that i'm a bit concerned about the idea. my girlfriend went off to bali. i think she did it to prove that she's smarter. though it was already clear to all parties concerned.
rather than blogger on, i'll post some material from the book i'm working on in lieu of rewriting much of it here. it's being edited this week.
in order of appearance below:
a gas station exploding, krishan on the bike. prabath (l) and krishan (r). food that is eaten with fingers (if you're eating with the locals, that is. forks are obsolete here). friend, driving. an old mortar shell from a man's back yard in kilinochchi. a family that lives down the way (the woman in the center redefined my idea of WOMAN, her hands are stong, her shoulders are proud; and damn can she make babies. two sets of 3, as i understand it, first 3 girls, then 3 boys. stand back she might take over the neighborhood). some local doods on the tracks. a lamp-post that had an on-off switch. 'bites'. 'bites' again. night's steps. my route through the country on the motorcycle. a tamil woman and her family (kilinochchi). holding the sky while standing on the water. flying.
actually, before i post some of the book there's another thing i'd like to put here...
the devil dance first had an afternoon session in which a man breathed smoke through a strange mouthpiece, put on black makeup, ran through town (with all 60 or so of us running after him), and fell in grass, only to look dazed and lost when he got up. during the evening session there was a rapt audience and the determined.intense drummers. apparently the guy that was the "patient" (and purchaser) of the show had shot a wild pig and eaten it. he has had pains in his chest and stomach ever since. he has bad spirits in two locations in his body, as if they were cooties of a transparent, multi-mouthed sort. but the man (in white, with his back to the wall on the right) seemed utterly uninterested in any of it. he just wanted to go to sleep. but damn was he getting bombarded. sumite and krishan showing me how the gunpowder works, The Devil did his final dance, eating the cooties off the man. finally, to end the show they did a laurel and hardy routine about buddhism and money. i went to bed at 5 and heard the drums around sunrise.
the thing to remember is that this is a 18-hour party. note the expressions of the locals - rapt, or laughing. only one woman that i can see has a look of even mild revulsion. i wondered about this for a long time. it was classic theater + magic. as of a few days after the "Patient" no longer had pains. so it seems these things Work. .. and these are four of about 40 recordings i got..the last being their comedy act.. it still, somehow, despite the insanely thick language barrier, makes sense. its all in the timing, as they say. me, i wonder what "wadino" is.
"The United States State Department report on Global Terrorism released by the office of the coordinator of Counter Terrorism on Wednesday states that... historically the LTTE has been one of the world's deadliest terror groups and it pioneered the use of suicide vests and committed far more suicide bomb attacks than any other terrorist organization."
i'm working on a book on this stuff (but that was a quote from a newspaper).
so i drove from the southern ass-end of sri lanka to the northern, terrified end, and interviewed some people along the way. some of them had lived furtive lives and i was surprised to talk with them. stories like being held at gunpoint by 30 CIA agents in the San Francisco airport, being trained in PLO camps in lebanon, being responsible for killing hundreds of people, and other forms of dinner time conversation. the US calls them terrorists, they call themselves freedom fighters, the Sri Lankan government calls them politicians.
what follows two or three excerpts from about 220 pages i wrote this month.
if you're interested in seeing the manuscript, mail me.
Monday, October 22, 1984, 05:04am. Most of Colombo, the capitol of Sri Lanka, was dark. Birds announced the dawn, and a few vehicles, headlights lit, began puttering through the streets. In an ear-tearing roar the nightmare woke up the city. A corner of a church was lifted from the ground and sagged onto the street, instantly burying a passing Tamil man underneath the rubble. Cement shards and pieces of glass rained down for almost a full minute afterward. The explosion was heard over ten kilometers away. Since the country was in the teeth of a civil war this wasn't as much of a surprise as if it had happened in, say, Oklahoma City, but, just to be safe, security forces were sent to the location along with medical personnel and a bomb squad. They expected that mop-up would be necessary. Multiple ambulances were deployed, and the Sri Lankan Army was put on alert. As soon as these teams pulled up to the front of the smoldering church another bomb ripped apart a bus station on the south end of the city. Phonelines started to jam, police and security forces were stationed at the edges of town, and the Sri Lankan Army picked up their weapons to head over to the bus station since this was now clearly not some accident. By the time this second emergency team arrived at the scene of the crime a third bomb was reported from the west end of town, where a television transmission station owned by the state-run SLBC had been blown apart into ribbons of twisted steel. Only several minutes later an office building in the downtown business district of Colombo erupted. The roof fell in, the majority of the multi-level building slowly collapsed, and the four more people stopped their lives. In a suburb outside of town two people opened a box they found lying on the sidewalk. Seconds later their limbs were more than 10m away from an enormous smoking wound in the middle of the road. Meanwhile, 5 km down the road, at Fort Railway Station, an unexploded bomb was found by the police. While the Sri Lankan Army was diffusing that one a second detonated nearby, injuring dozens of people. A traincar blew over like a matchbox in a sulfur breeze. Several minutes followed before a blast was reported near the ministry office. It was too much; buildings were collapsing, people were dying, city workers and rescue teams were panicking and the civic fabric was being torn where it wasn’t stretched thin. There were no more emergency workers available and SLBC, from a remaining broadcast tower it had left, pleaded that people stay indoors, remain calm, and wait for authorities to unwire a city that had been turned into a bomb. The work week in Sri Lanka had begun. But it wasn't over; five more explosions were yet to come in the next two hours. And since that morning in 1984 more than 70,000 people have died unnatural deaths in Sri Lanka as a result of something between “Freedom Fighting” and “Terrorism.” It’s difficult, sometimes, to tell the difference so I decided to go ask the guy that set the bombs. I wondered why he placed the bombs where he did, what he wanted to get from doing it. And I figured I’d ask him what he thought of the United States, while I was at it.
I was supposed to meet Shankar Rajee, in front of the kovil in Colombo, at 10:30. I took a 3-wheel taxi (a “tuk-tuk” as they’re called around here) and told my driver I’d be back in 90 minutes - wait for me here. Given Shankar’s pedigree I didn’t think we’d have long to talk. Since Mr. Rajee was one of (if not The) responsible parties of the Colombo bombings of Oct 22, 1984 I wanted to ask him about how he did it and why. I wanted to understand the context of what had happened and how it was someone as well educated as he could tell themselves that it was a thing worth doing. I wanted to meet someone that had helped train the Tamil Tigers in their early days, and I wanted to meet a non-Palestinian militant trained by the PLO. He was the “terrorist” specimen I’d been searching for. But not really. He was too smart. When I got to the temple a doughy guy in a white buttoned shirt glided up and started politely shaking my hand. I thought it might have been Rajee’s driver and stumbled over my first few words as I oriented that this small pudgy balding man in front of me had lived his life high on Most Wanted lists for a number of years. He quickly loaded me into a different tuk-tuk. It didn’t seem suspicious. I wondered where we were going. Meeting Rajee, in fact, was a visual disappointment; I was expecting a hardened war criminal, some sort of Indian version of a Clint Eastwood of a man. But Rajee was soft spoken, and slow moving. He had chubby hands and he used them to wipe his chin often, as if he were drooling. He has a wife and children who he didn’t talk about. He is an extremely articulate man. When we met he spoke slowly and carefully considering his words before speaking. EROS might be considered the unnatural coupling of London intellectuals and PLO-trained munitions consultants. In January of 1975 a group of Tamils living in London formed EROS and eventually set root in the native soils of Sri Lanka. EROS worked as a liaison between the PLO/PFLP and other Tamil militant organizations in Sri Lanka, and not always without friction and confusion. Not that there was a shortage of this sort of Palestinian-Tamil interaction. The Tamil Times reported in June of 1984 that there were almost 60 of Israel’s Mossad living in Sri Lanka, so the PLO was happy to lend a helping hand. The EROS has consistently remained a group that holds a high value on its ideals. They refrained from robbing banks, and suffered financially as a result. EROS has generally worked to glue together different factions of the Tamil militants, save for a few specific acts they undertook on their own. These days Shankar continues to work for the Tamil cause, though with far fewer bombs.
PLOT (“People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam”), along with LTTE and EROS has been one of the main “agitators” in the “ethnic conflicts” of sri lanka. militant approaches were fast adopted and by the mid 70s and 80s they were becoming a legitimate hassle to the government. the ideological start of the group devolved into gruesome betrayals, bloodshed, thievery, torture, and now, these days, a role in politics.
On May 31, 1981: Several members of PLOT opened fire on a public meeting, killing two Sinhalese policemen. This triggered the anti-Tamil riots that shook Sri Lanka the following days. Their 1983 membership was somewhere around 9,000 members, most of who were in southern India training for battle. These training camps followed standard contemporary Indian training regimens with a few twists added in such as fire walking, and execution (if you decided you had someplace better to be) (and were caught).
PLOT was a little short for change in 1984 so they robbed the Kilinochchi’s main bank, carting off 27.5 million rupees (~ US$275,000) which they mostly used for training and propaganda. By the end of the year there were at least a dozen PLOT training camps in Southern India.
Given the chain of events for the following year it seems they mostly needed money for weapons for troops and more weapons for more money. On the 21st of October, (the Sunday before the bombs went off in Colombo), a magistrate's court in Kilinochchi was invaded by several PLOT members armed with shotguns. The court guards, unarmed, were locked in a room and listened with their ears at the door while the assailants hauled their booty to the car waiting in the street. When they finally got out of the closet they found that the invaders had taken 72 shotguns, several .303 rifles, uniforms, and had raided the drawers of legal documents.
That following spring, on April 2, 1985, a large-capacity shipping container marked “Used Periodicals” was searched by Indian customs in Madras Harbor. The container, nearly the size of a train car, contained over 1,500 Chinese-made rifles from the 1950s, 300 sten handguns, and several radio sets from Japan. The materiel was purchased for US$300,000 from a black market arms dealer in Taiwan. The Madras authorities, knowing the situation was a bit tenuous, asked Prime Minister Gandhi if the PLOT had reported it previously to the customs agents who found it. The response was No and so India simply kept the weapons. PLOT still had a lot of anxious soldiers that were ready to fight, but no guns to do it with. So they were forced back to their idea of an honest day’s work.
Three weeks later, on April 25, PLOT raided a police station, shot a policeman and carried off 24 shotguns, 12 rifles, and a submachine gun. They took the keys to the bank and promptly went over to help themselves to a withdrawal of 6 million rupees. Then, just for shits and grins, they set fire to a petrol station and disappeared into the night-time jungle.
This solved some of their problems, but with 10,000 troops you need more weapons than a few dozen rifles lifted from the court, so a few months later another US$300,000 went to a Palestinian that was supposed to secure a new load of weaponry. The Palestinian disappeared with the cash. It was a final, crippling blow to the organization.
PLOT had a strong propaganda machine and ran a Tamil and Sinhalese radio station out of India for several years. Their leader for the early portion of the group’s lifespan was a gripe of a man named Uma Maheshwaran - who started his tarnished career as a Marxist idealist, then moved onto the higher call of drug smuggling. Maheshwaran caused deep contentions in the group. More than 38 members of the group were killed by him or his lackeys. Killings were done by telling victims to dig their own graves, commanding them to lie down in it, and then shooting them. “We have liquidated some individuals who betrayed our cause. Such things are inevitable in politics.” He said in 1986 during an interview. Six of their victims were found with large cuts over their bodies, their skin peeled back, and their genitals slashed. With politics like that who needs terrorism?
We have invented a million slow suicides. Sometimes we kill ourselves to escape our own lives, to dodge our impending deaths, or simply as a solvent for the insoluble. Civil war is one of these suicides, and a large one. Sometimes it is only death that allows identity. If you can kill yourself at least you know you’re not under someone else’s thumb anymore. If a country starts to kill itself in a civil war then borders appear. I have a friend who’s brother hung himself with a dog leash in the garage last year. He did it not only as a statement to his friends and his family, but a statement to himself as well. It was a statement if individuation. Here in Sri Lanka the suicides of the north allow these people to worship their past, and draw out the lines of their future. Maybe all ethnic wars are just a suicide, like a litmus test, that allows the borders to resolve themselves, like mythical lines that were just buried under too much living.
As the Brigadier had suggested I kept an eye out for the factory bulldozer that the Tamil Tigers had ripped off. I found it when I stopped looking. It was grim and settled into a ditch off the side of the road, being slowly eaten by the hungry jungle. I pulled over and turned off the bike to take a few pictures. I slowly circled it, through the scrub. It was wrapped in a square chicken wire to keep people from climbing on it. So I climbed up on it and stared down in through the top of the cab, wondering about the last moment of life in that metal tank, sitting next to a grenade that was about to detonate. And I wanted to see if there was a corpse, I suppose. It had been dark green and rusted empty for a good decade. So I climbed down, dropped to the safe earth and started walking around taking photos, kicking through the weeds and thick leaves, picking my way over the rubble of an old building, taking more pictures, walking around the front, snapping photos and wondering about Gameni Kularatne, who threw the fatal bomb into the cab.
I don’t know what made me think about it then. I realized I was standing in a minefield.
Fortunately, my legs were still attached to my hips, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I took a breath, not really moving, and scanned the ground for where I had last stepped. My left eye vibrated. The ground seemed inclined to betray me and I imagined red warning lights flashing under the jungle leaves. Once I found my last footprint I looked carefully to see if there was any metal disk nearby. I gingerly set a foot down, toe to heel, and gradually put my weight on it. As if gingerly or gradually would have done any good, there was no explosion. It was normal dirt. I stood there, like a stupid bird, on one leg, with my camera in my hand. I looked for the next footprint. It was impossible to find and anyway I had been looking at the tank, not the ground, as I walked out into this idiotic situation. I figured chances were good enough that the place had been cleared. But I was hanging just by this thin hope and fat luck. After three or four succesful steps I hopped up onto the chipped foundation of one of the old army buildings and traced my path back along that. Eventually I got back to the bike and, even then, carefully picked my way through the gravel until I was back on safe paved road. Needless to say I didn’t make the mistake a second time. The asphalt became my trusted friend, my long black greasy life preserver that would keep me away from being blown to red shreds by my own stupidity. I looked again at the tractor, and it seemed geriatric and useless. I thought an office job might be a good idea.
Elephant Pass slimmed out and I traced the final few tendons of land up between still, brackish lagoons. Lines of sand sliced through the water, turning the place into a salted labyrinth of mines and infested water. The only buildings I saw - perhaps 4 or 5 in as many kilometers - were bombed and cracked. Bombs, saltwater, and the nuclear sun. Even the mud, protracted and dried,was in a state of remission in front of that white solar gaze.
I came across a small shack with three young men in front. There were three men selling fish at Elephant Pass; a tall one, a big one, and a boy in a striped shirt. “Where are you from?” I asked, beating them to the predicted question. “Here.” “Is .. That your home?” I pointed to the house. “Yes.” “You swim,” I pointed to the lagoon, “…here?” “No.” “Why No?” “Sick.” This didn’t make sense to me; “Why?” “Sick day next. No swim.” “What do you do?” “We are fishers!” he exclaimed, like a child, and he waved one hand above his head and the other behind him toward the building. That response made sense, but I still didn’t get the Sick part. It was only 8am and the world around me slowly bent and seemed about to smoke. I looked at my forearm. Sweat beads were appearing. “Let’s go see,” I told them. The counter where they sold their fish was a beachcomb. It was made of sunbleached wood slabs from a thousand different houses, boats, warehouses, trees, whatever they found on the beach. The boards were different sizes, taped together, wound with coconut twine and coat hangers, and wisened to a mean grey from the salt and sun. On top of these were hundreds of dried sardines aligned in rows that almost seemed organized, though I thought it odd that they all had their mouths open. I couldn’t remember if sardines died with their mouths open or not. If the water was sick; were the sardines? Why did the sardines have open mouths? A fish body’s last death breath, trying to find some final air? They were on newspapers that I couldn’t read. They smelled good, like disco music, or a leather jacket. Flies were busy with their frenetic duties. They each had different faces, these little armless, silver people. I think I must have stood there staring for a while. The skinny guy (that didn’t say much) waved the flies away. The gesture was pointless. Things weren’t making sense. A small breeze carried over something that smelled like a firecracker; sulfur. Inside the shack was another small found-wood table with a metal ammunition lockbox sitting on it. It was closed. And there was a wrinkled poster of Mariah Carey on the wall, from before she had her nervous breakdown. The other image there was of a woman in front of a waterfall. She was dressed in a fancy blue Thai outfit. It was a roundfaced japanese woman in front of a neon waterfall. The calendar was a jewelry advertisement. The bottom half of it was stained, since it had been in a puddle for a while. I saw no other people. Just these men, living here, selling fish. The beach provided for them. Everything in their lives they found on the beach. I turned around, squinting. “You like Mariah Carey?” I asked the big one. “Yes! Come,” and I thought, from the way he said it, that he might introduce me to Mariah as soon as we got back outside. Three more people were walking up from the beach. A young boy and two men wearing sarongs. One of the men was short, with a beard. They were carrying plastic sacks. Out of these they took fish (the same kind, it seemed), arranged them on the table, in their rows, with their mouths open, and stood back to admire the work. “Fishing!” I shouted, feeling like a retard but wanting more information. “Yes!” the big one answered and I could see how proud they were and that they believed in what they did. “But no swimming!” I asked, still pushing for the solution, looking at the men that came back with wet fish and dry clothes, deciding that they must have a boat hidden somewhere. Or else they were collecting dead fish from the beach, that washed up in the night. I noticed that some of the fish were dry and hard. The boy started giggling and I smiled at him. They took me from their shop over to an old tank of some sort. It was a junked out old war vehicle that had sat there for many moons, a big, metal, severed head. One boy started climbing on it while the other threw a rock at it. The rock bounced off the side. Tangk. I wondered how they knew where the mines were and I was glad to have my legs.
by the time i got back from it all i was ready for a swim in tropical waters.
so i did. and i borrowed a friend's camera.