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LIFE AFTER LIFE

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.

TIGERS - part 3
11 February 2013 @ 18:54

To give credit where it is due, the driver had always been aware of the danger we were in. Throwing the jeep into gear, he quickly reversed in a tight arc, then accelerated away.  The jeep bucked like a wild thing as we raced across the bumpy terrain. I quickly became aware of another danger, that of falling out of the jeep. I clung on like grim death. So intent was I on holding on, I didn’t even look over my shoulder. All I knew was that the elephant was very close behind and, sitting in the rear seats, I would be the first to feel the weight of its trunk.  

  After what seemed an age, the driver slowed. I looked behind and saw that the elephant had stopped a couple of hundred yards away. There would be no further pursuit. Perhaps it was the unexpected adrenalin rush, but, suddenly, I just couldn’t help myself.  I laughed and laughed. So much so that Raja looked at me quite concerned, then managed a weak smile in return. I continued to burst into fits of giggles all the way back to the main gate. As they dropped me off at the Tissawewa they must have thought that I was quite mad.

  Having now established my tourist credentials, I felt that I could venture into nearby  Anuradhapura town and make some enquiries. A tuk-tuk, the local, three-wheeled motorized taxi, dropped me off at the central square. The obvious people to ask were the taxi drivers, gathered around their tuk-tuks. However, taxi drivers in all cultures invariably work hand in hand with the police. I would have to be careful what I said. 

  I stressed the fact that I was interested in the Catholic church at Madhu Road. All the drivers threw up their hands in despair. Muttering darkly about ‘Tigers’, several made imaginary shooting movements with imaginary guns. Clearly, none of them would take me. However, I did manage to elicit the information that a bus went from Anuradhapua to Vavuniya. Another bus would take me from here, along the Mannar Road, to within a few miles of Madhu Road and the Catholic church.

  From my research, I knew that Vavuniya was a large, garrison town and massively out of bounds to anyone who didn’t have a good reason to go there. The next part of the journey would be fraught with risk. All the international aid agencies had accused the Government of human right’s abuses at one time or another. I had read plentiful accounts of Tamil civilians being murdered out of hand. I did have my press card as a last resort, but in a war zone that would be no guarantee of safety. I wouldn’t be the first journalist to be taken round a corner and shot in similar situations. And in this instance, no doubt the Government would blame it on the Tigers.  

  At nine the next morning I was on the bus to Vavuniya. Twenty-seven dusky fellow passengers cast sly, suspicious looks at the only European on board. I thought of Gordon at Khartoum and felt my stiff upper-lip quiver.

  Travelling quite slowly, we slalomed through several road-blocks without stopping. About ten miles from Vavuniya the roadside bunkers started to appear, with armed soldiers posted every hundred yards. There was no turning back now.  

  As befits a garrison town, Vavuniya was absolutely swarming with troops. Hundreds of them, dressed in various uniforms, strolled about in groups. I slipped unobtrusively off the bus and into the nearest café. 

  As soon as I was confident that my arrival hadn’t sparked a hue and cry, I emerged to locate the Madhu Road bus. The central bus station was easy enough to find. I bought a return ticket to Madhu Road and sat in the back of the darkened bus, waiting for its departure.

  Time passed, and more and more people got on the bus. When we left, there were 46 passengers crammed around the 28 seats. I wasn’t complaining, they were good cover for me. I hunkered down and tried to hide myself in the crush. 

  The earth-work forts and bunkers began immediately we left Vavuniya. Spaced every hundred yards along the road, each was manned by scores of heavily-armed soldiers. Suddenly we stopped at the first road-block. 

  The success of any journalistic venture depends a large part on luck, or, in my case perhaps, on stupidity. As every living soul except myself made to get off the bus I remember thinking how curious it was that everyone was going only to the first stop. If I realised it was a road-block, I certainly didn’t realise that one was required to get off and show one’s papers. If I had, then perhaps that would have been the end of it. I sat at the back of the bus, waiting patiently for the journey to continue. 

  Accompanied by the ‘clumping’ sound of heavy boots, two very large military policemen climbed into the bus and made their way to me. I did have the presence of mind to pull out my passport and hold it out towards them. They stopped, took it off me with care, almost reverently, it was clearly a British passport, examined it, then handed it back. No one word had been spoken. Whatever they had assumed, it was enough for them. All the rest of the passengers climbed back onto the bus and we continued our journey. Only this time they were looking at me with a mixture of reverence and fear.

  The view from the bus was one of preparations for war. Tanks stood cheek by jowl with gun emplacements, as jeeps bristling with armed men raced between them. Military-tented villages were dotted here and there. If this wasn’t actually the front line, then we were very close.  

  Three more times we stopped at road-blocks and exactly the same procedure was followed. The fourth pair of military police at least had the initiative to ask me where I was going. “The Catholic church at Madhu Road”, I said confidently, as if I had been going there all my life.

  I alighted at the Madhu Road stop with a growing feeling of euphoria. If this indeed was Madhu Road, then surely it was just a question of nipping into the church, making the brief acquaintance of the priest, then nipping out the back door into the arms of my new friends, the Tigers. In my dreams!

  I had been sitting on the left hand side of the bus and had got off on that side too. As the bus moved off it revealed the other side of the road to me. I took in a great mass of civilians squatted at the side of the road. I noticed the barbed wire boundaries and guessed it must be some kind of transit camp. But transit to where? Surely they weren’t all going to the Catholic church too?

  Then I noticed the soldiers, at about the same instant as they noticed me. Twenty highly excited soldiers, some waving automatic weapons in the air, ran across the road and surrounded me. There was some confusion, what with the fact that they were all trying to speak to me at once, but the burning question was, “What the f--- was I doing here?” This was a highly restricted area and I didn’t have the necessary papers. 

  “How did you get here?”, demanded a young, senior officer.

  “On the bus”, I replied, thinking that it was a very obvious answer.

  “Yes, but how did you get past the checkpoints?”, continued the officer, shouting now.

  “I just showed them my passport”, I said quite calmly and pulled said passport from my pocket and waved it at the officer.

  The officer examined it quickly, then handed it back. Turning to one of the group of soldiers that had surrounded me he said, “Get him out of here before a senior officer sees him and we’re really in trouble. Stop a lorry, anything that’s going back to Vavuniya, and put him on it.” 

  “So how do I get permission to come to this area then?” I shouted over my shoulder as I was led away.

  “There’s an office in Vavuniya”, shouted back the officer. 

  My escort of soldiers stopped a large dumper truck on the other side of the road. The driver and his mate were told to take me straight back to Vavuniya. We set off, but within five minutes we were halted by a stationary line of traffic in front of us. A few minutes passed and we could hear the wailing of sirens getting closer. 

  Suddenly, on the other side of the road, going in the direction we had just been, was a large United Nations convoy. Several armoured personnel carriers were painted in the UN colours and carried the legend ‘UN’. Between them were two buses full of people, also with the ‘UN’ logo. Clearly, this was some kind of UN-supervised personnel exchange between the two sides. I couldn’t help but reflect that if it took the UN and armoured vehicles to cross the cease-fire line, then I had been quite naïve in thinking that I could do it on my own.

  Back in Vavuniya I managed to find the office the officer had told me about. It was full of civil servants processing travel application forms. I managed to get an interview with someone quite senior. He looked at me quizzically when I mentioned that I had just been turned back from Madhu Road and laughed when I asked how I could get permission to go there. He said that it was completely out of the question....

 
 
to be continued


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