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Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

05 February 2013 @ 23:07

For quite a while I had been intending to do a piece on the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Having spent so long without liberty myself I seemed to have a natural affinity and sympathy for liberation movements. These invariably suffered from a poor press, with the international media usually supporting the status quo. I felt that my piece would serve a good cause, as well as cocking a snook at the powers that be.
  From my research I knew that Sri Lanka was ostensibly a paradise island, the size of Ireland, that lies off the southern tip of India. It’s major selling point in the holiday brochures are the beautiful beaches in the south. Except for the occasional bomb outrage, the average tourist would hardly know that a virtual civil war is raging in the north. 
  This situation, like so many others of its ilk, had been largely created by us. As the former colonial masters when Sri Lanka was Ceylon, we had handed over power after independence to the Sinhalese-dominated civil service. The Sinhalese are Buddhists and make up about 76% of the population. The Hindu, Tamil minority make up about 15% of the population and are heavily concentrated in the north. There was also a much smaller minority of Muslims.
  Needless to say, the Sinhalese who we had handed over to were reluctant to share power with anyone outside their immediate community. The Tamils strived for representation and equal rights, but were rewarded only with Government-inspired race riots during which many Tamils were massacred. This resulted in the Tamils demanding their own state in the north, called Tamil Eelam, and the creation a force committed to fight for it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tigers for short. This war had been raging, at different intensities, for over 25 years.
  Despite overwhelming international support from countries as diverse as the USA, India, China and Russia, the Sinhalese had never managed to defeat their out-gunned but better motivated enemy. On the contrary, in. fact. Displaying a commitment and fanaticism that the Government couldn’t match, the Tigers had won a string of victories culminating in the near taking of Jaffna, the major city of the north. This would have been a crushing military and political blow to the Government.
 Certainly not unique to third world liberation movements, Tamil women had played a leading role in the fighting. This had arisen out of necessity, as so many of their men-folk had been killed. Ironically, the women’s brigades had won a reputation for being amongst the fiercest fighters. Many of them had formed into suicide squads, throwing themselves in waves against entrenched positions. The Government troops especially feared them.
  I found this to be particularly fascinating, occurring in a Tamil culture that was largely non-violent. I hoped to interview some of the women’s brigades as part of my story. The other interesting facet was that the Tigers had virtually introduced the suicide bomber as a weapon of urban warfare. Again this was deeply ironic, occurring in a largely non-violent culture. 
  I also knew that, unlike in Colombia, the Government denied the Tigers any concessions at all. There was a tight, news blackout on the war, with journalists, even local ones, refused access to the front in the north. Increasingly losing the military war, the Government seemed intent on winning the propaganda war through strict news management and censorship.
  Quite obviously, I felt that didn’t include me. However, I wasn’t so naïve as to think that I could go waltzing into a completely strange country without any help. There were two sides to this dispute, I would need the assistance of one of them.
  As luck would have it, the headquarters of the expatriate Tamil community in England was situated in Eelam House, over in Borough, South East London. A phone call elicited a request for me to put my application in writing. Similar to letters I had written to other liberation movements, I mentioned that I was a freelance journalist and a member of the National Union of Journalists. I pointed out that the magazine I wrote for (‘Front’ in this instance) was a lifestyle magazine with a readership in the hundreds of thousands. Further, that by writing my articles in an ‘adventurous’ fashion, I could reach an audience of young professionals who normally, perhaps, might not read a ‘political’ article. I concluded by saying, “I am aware that this is an important time for the Tamil Eelam movement. I followed with interest the recent assault by the Tigers that nearly caused the fall of Jaffna. I would like to meet with you in the first instance, but I would also like to go to Tiger-held territory north of Jaffna to write my article.”    
  Liberation movements are just as much in the business of propaganda as the Governments they oppose. They need all the publicity they can get, especially if it is sympathetic to their cause. I wasn’t at all surprised when I got a phone call inviting me to a meeting.    
  I duly presented myself at Eelam House, a rather unimposing two-storied, office-block- type building, surrounded by a wire fence. Inside though was altogether more impressive, being done out like a Hindu temple. I was required to remove my shoes and was ushered upstairs to an office. Behind a large desk sat a short, plumpish middle-aged man with a round, pleasant face. He smiled broadly as he stood to shake my hand and introduced himself as Kumar.
  I never determined whether this was his first or second name, so I erred on the side of caution by calling him Mr Kumar. Mr Kumar was politeness personified. He explained that he had been a journalist himself back in Sri Lanka, so he knew something about the profession. He went on to say that the situation in the Tamil-held north was very volatile at the moment and the Government wasn’t allowing any journalists up to the front line. I told him that I knew this, but was determined to find a way through. 
  He fixed me with a long, studied look, as if weighing me up. I recognized the signs and realised that the situation called for openness on my part. I told him that I had recently spent over 24 years in British prisons so I wasn’t a particularly ardent supported of the Government line. My article would be factual and unbiased.
  The smile was once again on Mr Kumar’s face. He wished me well with my trip, but added that to give me the contact details of Tamil activists in the north would put their lives in danger should the details be found on me. However, he did write down an English mobile number for me. He said that I should try to reach a place called Madhu Road in the north. If I got there okay, I should call this number. I left feeling that I had made a very positive contact.
  I didn’t have any problem in pitching the story to ‘Front’. By now, they had every confidence that I would complete every assignment I set out on. This was all very well,  but I was aware that, in magazine journalism, you are only as successful as your last story. It wouldn’t do to take an international flight to Sri Lanka costing several hundred pounds, just to be stopped at customs and sent right back again. Clearly I would have to have a cover story.
  I could always be a tourist, of course, but that would only work if I stayed in the south, where the tourist resorts were. Once I went north, especially if a search revealed my journalist’s card, I would have some explaining to do. 
  I scoured the internet for details about northern Sri Lanka, particularly the area around Madhu Road. I noticed on several maps a small icon right on Madhu Road. When I checked the reference at the side of the map I found it represented a Catholic Church. 
  So that was it, then. In a country full of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, where religious pilgrimage was almost a way of life, I would be a pilgrim. Only a Catholic one. I wouldn’t need the permission of the Pope, and the Rabai didn’t have to be told. However, I did borrow a small cross and some rosary beads off a friend, just in case.
  I landed at the capital, Colombo, and had minor misgivings as I approached customs. I needn’t have worried though. Tourists were so thin on the ground right now that any foreign face was welcome. Further, even though we had been the colonial power, many Sri Lankans still seemed to be involved in a love affair with England and the English.
  Outside, I was surrounded by a baying mob of taxi drivers all vying for my attention. I was trying to be as low profile as possible, so attention was just what I wanted to avoid. I jumped into the nearest taxi and told the driver to take me to the railway station…..
next part coming shortly..

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