Of Paradise lost

“Only a crazy man would volunteer to walk through Wilpattu” wrote the late author Nihal De Silva in his Graetian Prize winning book, The Road From Elephant Pass.
De Silva never knew that his words would prove fatally prophetic nor that he himself, would one day become the ‘crazy man’ he wrote of. De Silva loved Wilpattu; the beautiful national park featured in every one of his three books; it was a place he knew like the back of his hand and one so close to his heart that it always found a place in his writing. In an ironic twist of fate, Nihal De Silva was to breathe his last in the park he loved so well. On May 28, a bright and beautiful Sunday, Nihal De Silva and several others met their end when a claymore mine exploded, blasting through the vehicle and killing them all instantly.
It is impossible to come to terms with what took place last Friday morning, without recalling De Silva’s words. Had Col. Jayantha Suraweera who led four of his men and four wildlife officials into Wilpattu on Friday, read De Silva’s novel, no doubt, he would have been pricked by the irony himself. Would it have prevented him from venturing forth anyway? Unlikely. Even though this was not strictly an assignment in the call of duty, it was one apparently that these men felt strongly about.
The Ikiriyagolla Tank inside the Wilpattu park had been in disrepair for some time and no repairs could be carried out on account of the security situation in the sanctuary. Col. Suraweera and his men went on Friday to find out whether repairs could be carried out on the tank. They never returned. Military and police search parties discovered their bodies later that night, uncannily in the same spot the local author and his party had been discovered following the mine explosion.
The reason for the fall of Col. Suraweera and his team remain a mystery. The military suspects an LTTE hand in the killings by means of an ambush, but even they, this time, have been hesitant to assign blame.
Wilpattu has long been a safe haven for all manner of miscreants; “a lawless region” De Silva’s novel calls it. Deep inside the jungles, army deserters, poachers and Tigers have set up camp, having found it the ideal place to hideout and evade the law. But much of this, it is believed was pre-2002.
In the ceasefire years, Wilpattu became a popular eco-tourism destination. The pristine park is a thick dry zone jungle, interspersed with villus, the flood plain lakes from which the park gets its name. It is a popular area for spotting the Sri Lankan leopard, a variety of birdlife and sloth bears. Being less tourism oriented than Yala and Udawalawe, Wilpattu has retained a flavour of adventure, calling unto itself true lovers of unchartered territories and less travelled paths.
But let us not forget that in the here and now, we are a country at war.
This is a time when a capital city has become a garrison in which a citizenry stands imprisoned. It is a time when civil liberties are severely compromised in the name of freedom, security and the promise of a better, terror-free tomorrow. It is a time when innocence is massacred, human life is at its least worthy and all other things must bow its head to the greater cause.
It is also a moment when this country’s most beautiful natural resources, the parks, the lagoons, the marshes and the ocean, have been transformed into killing fields and the landscapes that once made this a droplet of paradise in the mighty Indian Ocean have been bloodied and ravaged by a protracted conflict.
When we mourn for the Wilpattu tragedy, we grieve also for the bloody battles in beautiful and restive Eastern Province, where the lagoon sparkles and the prawns taste great despite the shadow of war. Our tears are also for the Palmyrah trees, grapes and immaculate beaches of Jaffna that have been lost to a whole generation of the ‘southern born’; the roads in Colombo that have been erased from memory because they have been declared high security zones and closed off for so long. These tears are for the legendary ‘sponge’ of the Western Province, the Muturajawela swamp which was recently turned into a gory dumping ground for the silently slain.
The fate of Col. Suraweera and Co. also brings the question ‘when will it all end?’ to the fore.
How long more will we toe the military path that brutalises everything that is beautiful and sacred?
How much longer before we can venture out into the sea, the jungle, the lagoon without the fear of being shot at?
How much more suffering can we take before we are rendered incapable of seeing anything but war in all our personal and national landscapes? How much more beauty, of a land and its people shall be sacrificed at the altar of a senseless war?
The Wilpattu tragedy confirms one thing – that we have lost paradise. Shall we hope to find it once more or shall we resign ourselves to shadow and conflict forever?