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.
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.
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.