A man returns to South Asia after decades of civil war and finds that when the nostalgia wears off, he needs to ask questions
Poppies and a poster of a soldier adorn a war memorial in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Last year, I spent a few weeks in Sri Lanka acting like a reporter, although I'm not a reporter and have never been one. This was unplanned, moreover—I'd planned to be a tourist—but before I knew it I was arranging clandestine meetings with senior bureaucrats to talk, off the record, about their impressions of the country.
Sri Lanka recently emerged from a 27-year civil war. Machine-gun nests still sit idle on street corners, anti-aircraft guns poke up between bullet-pocked palms, and—disturbingly—journalists critical of the government continue to vanish. But I didn't go to Sri Lanka to think about politics or human rights. I went to reconnect with my childhood.
You see, I was there for the beginning of the war, too. When I was seven, my family moved to Sri Lanka, arriving in June 1983. Two weeks later, the day before we were to leave for a vacation in Scotland, my brother and I awoke to the sound of distant explosions. We gazed out our bedroom window at houses burning across the city. In the morning, driving to the airport, we passed a smoldering houses and cars; we encountered bodies strewn on the sidewalks.
We returned to Sri Lanka, a month later. The war was in its infancy then, and we did not witness any other atrocities. Still, it persisted in the background—like when teargas wafted over the wall of the swimming club and the tennis tournament had to be postponed, or when we had to flee Nuwara Eliya once while on vacation, or when the father of one of my classmates had the tip of his nose shot off by a jumpy soldier. After we left, the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization fighting for a separate Tamil state (these are the people who enthusiastically pioneered the use of the suicide bomb), stepped up their attacks, and the largely Singhalese government they were fighting marked an increasingly brutal path toward resolution.
Now, after 23 years away, I had returned, leaving my wife—then considerably pregnant with our first child—behind. I arrived in a country still traumatized by its war and the 2005 tsunami (ghostly, partially smashed fishing boats remain parked half a kilometer inland). In Colombo, I expected a barrage of wartime memories, but instead got the minor details that had caught my childhood eyes. I recalled the small brass emblem that glinted beside the gate to the Prime Minister's residence opposite the swimming club. I remembered, immediately, the difference between a well-made egg hopper and an overly spongy one.
For the first few days, I met friends of friends and, at first, everything was predictable: bursts of nostalgia, debilitating jet lag. I applied sunscreen, took photos of the Indian Ocean.
Then something changed.
People kept being evasive about politics. In the course of chatting, I'd ask someone for his impressions of the election, and he'd hesitate, say that we shouldn't discuss it on the phone. A kind of sickly and cold dread started mixing with my warm reminiscences. The cagier people acted, the more this dread sharpened. Maybe I could have played carefree, pretended nothing was askew, but it was hard to ignore. So I asked more questions. I started taking notes. Then I set up interviews with people I didn't know, but who might have valuable insights.
For weeks, I interviewed dozens of people—reporters, business leaders, aid workers. Abandoning my plans to hike Adam's Peak, I worked the phone in my hotel. And nobody, least of all me, seemed perplexed by the fact that I was suddenly carrying on like a journalist on assignment, instead of a man returning to his childhood home.
Eventually, one of the reporters told me to be careful. Fake journalist or not, I was starting to look like the real thing, and Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for journalists. I began listening on the line for clicking or other signs of eavesdroppers; in taxis, I kept an eye out for cars that might be trailing me.
On my final day in Colombo, while eating at another hotel, I convinced myself that I was being followed by two mustachioed men who looked like clichés of secret agents, so I fled the hotel in a tuk-tuk. I ended up at the airport several hours early, dizzy and sweating, impatient to leave. I still don't know if I was just being paranoid or not.
Back in Seattle, I wrote a short op-ed about the experience for The Seattle Times, in which I said that the lack of free speech was indefensible, especially since the war was over. I talked about the disappearing journalists.
That seemed like the end of the experience, but before I could move on, it was resurrected. First, a popular opposition website in Sri Lanka republished my op-ed. Then it appeared in the leading opposition weekly, whose editor had recently been assassinated. Before long, it was reappearing on numerous anti-government websites. I started to get inundated with emails—some encouraging, many hateful—from people on opposing sides of the war. Someone posted a comment, which was promptly taken down, suggesting that my head be removed from my body.
I was out mowing my lawn one day not long after I'd returned to Seattle. My neighbor came home, shooed his daughters inside, and approached. Squinting at me dubiously, he asked after my wife. I said she was fine; the morning sickness had passed.
He nodded, squinted some more, and told me that he'd read my piece, as well as the comments.
I apologized, flustered, and assured him that no one would be coming to our wooded street to set fire to my house.
Still, I sat on the sofa all night, my face lit by the computer screen, reading and re-reading the comments. I barely slept that night. I marveled at the commenters and how their hatred seethed. They didn't even know me, but their emotions were raw, blistering—almost as if I'd been there, too, suffering. And so I had.
Images: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters