In mid-March I traveled the 314 km (198 miles) road to the eastern district of Batticaloa. The trip took over 9 hours by car and while bumpy and long passed through some of the most beautiful areas of Sri Lanka I have ever seen. Lush jungle, sweeping plains, soaked marshes, and jagged mountains rolled by as we traversed from west to east coast. Through a stretch of national park peacocks ran unashamed along the side of the road, foxes scurried for cover as we approached, and an elephant stood uncompromising beside a rural store.

In 2007 the Sri Lankan government militarily liberated sections of Batticaloa (and the rest of the East) that used to be controlled by the LTTE (the Tigers). The resulting mass displacement of people fleeing the constant mortar attacks and heavy ground fighting created a wave of internally displaced persons (IDP) throughout Batticaloa. Over 300,000 people fled their homes with about half having been recently returned to demolished homes and destroyed livelihoods.

Once you leave the confines of the “safe” areas of Sri Lanka the military presence becomes even more apparent. Living in Colombo I thought I was used to a highly militarized way of life, but the people of Batticaloa face many more intrusions into their daily lives. The road south into Batticaloa is lined with check point after check point, framed by beautiful landscape, desperate IDP camps and watch towers and militia encampments constantly on the lookout for LTTE infiltrations.

Burned out Hindu temple along the road side

Many areas even along the side of the road have yet to be de-mined, let alone the more rural areas where many people have been returned to

At each checkpoint you are interviewed. Asked where you are going, who you are, and what your business is. 100 meters later you are subjected to the same scrutiny even through no new roads connected to the main road in between check points. Five minutes later the same routine unfolds. Compared to those traveling on public buses we had it easy. A few responses, ID verification and we were on our way. Others on the bus are forced to leave the bus and are search individually before being allowed to proceed. With over 20 checkpoint in just one hour of driving you can imagine how long it can take to get anywhere.

Soldier at a check point

Batticaloa town itself is beautifully set on a expansive lagoon that opens to the ocean. Thousands of birds fly in and out of the lagoon searching for food along side local fishermen in small wooden boats. After recent local elections (the first in over 10 years) a sense of normalcy is returning to the area. However, Batticaloa’s future is still uncertain. Barb wire winds itself around and through the town, IDP camps dot the area, and the government supported local militia (a break away faction of the LTTE) is still reportedly recruiting child soldiers into its ranks.

Many people have been forced from their homes by the military and the police without receiving any from of compensation or recourse. Their homes have become bases and barracks.

Provincial elections are slated for May 10th. With various ethnic and religious groups vying for power, and with an increasingly politically untenable central government trying to keep its political coalition from falling apart, the future of the East is quite uncertain.

With no answers to give, all I can hope is that the next time I visit security will mean increased economic opportunities, a roof over everyones heads, and plenty of food on the table; not barbwire, strings of checkpoints, and an increased military and militia presence.

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