Mavilaru Today: The shadows of war
By Amantha Perera
It was a name-board that caught my eye. Hanging at the entrance, it read ‘Mavilaru Cafe’. The cafe was clean and the food was all right, but not really anything to write home about. Having lunch at the Mavilaru Cafe however, was quite something… for reasons other than the food.
The café is run by a middle-aged couple; the woman cooks, while the man does everything else – serving, cleaning and taking orders. “So is Mavilaru nearby?” someone asked.
“It is just over there,” the man said, pointing towards a house over a ridge of trees, as if to say it was just a short walk away. It wasn’t that close, someone who had gone there informed us. The man shrugged and went about his business.
It was surreal having lunch at the Mavilaru Cafe.
Here we are, enjoying fried fish and red rice at the same location where five years ago we were ducking artillery.
Back then, armoured trucks, troop carriers and other machinery were parked on the side of the road, the soldiers looked on nervously at passing vehicles and officers warned us not to take any photos. The head priest at the Somapura temple was the best person to go to, if one needed lodging for the night.
That was back in July-August 2006, when the Tigers closed the Mavilaru sluice gates and forced the hand of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government.
To get to Mavilaru, one takes the turn from Kantale from the main Dambulla-Trincomalee road. When I travelled on this road in 2006, there were hundreds of people streaming in the opposite direction. They moved on foot, in big open Canter trucks, three-wheelers and cycles.
The artillery exchanges had sent the villagers in Mavilaru scurrying. The Tamils, or at least most of them, moved deeper into areas held by the Tigers. The Sinhalese and the Muslims moved into areas where the Government was in full control.
As I reached the junction where Somapura Road leads to Kantale town, my first citing was a police officer checking the ID cards of occupants of a three-wheeler that had a white flag strung to its radio antenna. Those who were on the road that day looked weary; the women covered their heads with cotton cloth, as the heat beat down on all of us.
Kantale was bursting at the seams with the first wave of displaced people, as the conflict entered its final stage. People bathed in the channel that flowed past the road. I watched a young girl washing her face, using a small stream to wash her mouth. Only a couple of feet away, a large cow defecated into the stream. The young woman was obviously embarrassed, more so when she saw the camera slung across my shoulder. She quickly ran into her tent, which was among hundreds, pole-to-pole, dotting the flat landscape.
The only vehicles that appeared to be moving towards Somapura and Mavilaru were those used by the media, medical services, the military and the occasional villager. Back then, there were no restrictions – they came after Mavilaru, when the war moved into areas further south of the sluice gates.
As we came closer to Mavilaru, the road became deserted – except for the military presence. But at Somapura, we found that not all villagers had abandoned their homes and fields. Farmers had stayed behind, tending their fields that were dying because the LTTE had closed the sluice gates.
The biggest media stopover point was the small bridge over the Mavilaru stream, at Kalaru. It was parched dry and ideal for good images. One aspect that stood out in 2006 was the condition of the roads – they were pretty good. We could get to Somapura and even Muttur in about 90 minutes from Kantale.
The war may have ended more than 20 months ago, but early this year the roads were deplorable. Heavy rains, very heavy rains in fact (the region, including Mavilaru, received a year’s rainfall between December 2010 and February 2011), had washed the roads away.
There were large craters filled with three feet of water even two weeks after the rains had stopped.
And the Mahaweli River (it falls to the sea just north-east of Mavilaru) had flooded the plains. Abandoned military lookout posts stood in the middle of lakes. This was in areas that we could get to.
But some areas had been cut off completely. Verugal (it was once a major Tiger base) was cut off for five days in January and for over 10 days in February. Muttur (which is indelibly linked to alleged war atrocities, due to the unresolved massacre of the 17 local aid workers) had suffered a similar fate.
A new bridge was being built in Verugal, on the main Batticaloa-Muttur Road. The engineers had renovated the old bridge to ease travel. But the rains had washed both away, and the villagers were using old canoes to cross the river.
For those living in Verugal, life appeared to be most unfair. They had been caught in a bloody war that erupted again, jeopardising reconstruction that was taking place post-ceasefire… and worse, the post-tsunami work.
Their plight was worsened by the twin floods. Government officials in Verugal told me that expectations were for a solid harvest this year. In 2010, the rains had been good, they said. But no one expected the rains to come crashing down just two months before harvest time.
There are three main sources of income in these areas: farming, cattle and fishing. Two of them were badly hit by the floods. When the fields are nearing harvest, the cattle are usually moved to other areas, to prevent them from crashing into paddy land. When the rains came, most of Verugal’s cattle were roaming near the coast – and most of them got washed away.
Apart from suffering one tragedy after another, the Mavilaru-Verugal-Lankapatuna region is one of the most picturesque and least-travelled in the island. The Mavilaru Cafe is an anomaly on this road, trying to reap business from the few who travel on the road. There are dozens of Mavilaru cafe equivalents on the roadside between Medawachchiya and Vavuniya.
The Mavilaru Café’s owner told us that not many travel on the road. The occasional busload of pilgrims or curious local travellers is what he looks forward to. He has hardly seen any foreigners. I ask him whether any of the few who stop by want to visit the infamous sluice gates. He says some say they want to, but few do. Why?
Well, other than for the cafe which shares the name, no one seems to have hit on the idea of marketing Mavilaru. There are no arrows pointing to the sluice gates from the main road.
If we didn’t know it, we would have driven past Kalaru, which has changed completely and is lush green.
This is completely different from what one finds on the A9, where ‘war tourism’ is thriving.
Like the narrow jungle path that leads to the few metal sheets, that is what remains of the Yal Devi or the road to
Iranamadu, where parts of a helicopter lie on the side of the road.
Or in Valvettithurai, the home of the Tiger leader was razed to the ground in March last year when it became too much to handle – visitors didn’t stop at writing graffiti on the wall, they started taking pieces of the wall or sand from the garden.
But when the man’s mother fell ill, visitors from the south trooped to the hospital to have a look and take a peek at the underground operating facilities once used by the LTTE.
Mavilaru is not for the brash traveller… it is for the more subtle types – those who want to discover, rather than read guidebooks and take a tour. Mavilaru is a living example of what the war took away from us.
The cafe sits on the side of the road. You will not miss it. If you get there, have a cup of tea, ask the gentleman where Mavilaru is and take that walk – it is a fair walk. While you walk, you can muse over why the war didn’t achieve anything… it simply took away the hopes of a generation. ~ courtesy: LMD.lk ~