German Memories in Asia: Crossing the Elephant Pass!
The German tsunami relief convoy reached the Paranthan junction, which is the last northern point in the mainland of Indian Ocean's war-torn island, where people lived in the midst of the civil war in 1996.
I had been there for a brief period of time when I was working with CARE International. The Elephant Pass strategic military camp of Sri Lanka Army was stationed there. The camp was a major coveted target for LTTE since their failed attempt in 1991 along with heavy losses of cadres.
When I was staying in that vicinity in 1995, the vulnerability of that area was an every day presence. The artillery shells were pouring at times like thunderstorm. Some of the shells had fallen near my house and in one incident I narrowly escaped. But a known girl nearby died, of shock caused by the heavy explosion of an artillery shell. I was able to recall how her two sisters were crying when her body was being taken for cremation along the same high way on which I was traveling with the German intern students in the relief mission.
After that incident and continuous artillery shelling, the Area Director of CARE International in Kilinochchi asked me to get away from that area a number of times. But I was reluctant to leave as I was used to the artillery shelling and aerial bombings since my childhood in the war-torn northern Jaffna Peninsula. But for the Area Director, her upbringing in the New York City in a calm and quiet atmosphere made it hard for her to accept my explanation.
Finally I left that area for a while. But memories still came alive when I was looking at the demolished buildings and the surroundings on the way. Our five-vehicle convoy was now speedily hurrying through a one-time No-Man Zone.
The highway and the surroundings were once heavily mined areas. When we were passing the once strategic military camp and the destroyed tanks were telling signs of the war. The horrors of the war and the heat of the battle could be seen around the Elephant Pass Camp which was finally lost to the hands of LTTE in 1999.
Elephant Pass has come a long way from being a stretch of shallow waters that separated the Northern Jaffna Peninsula from the rest of the island in pre-colonial days and has now evolved into a military epicenter of the civil war.
The shallow waters through which elephants once carried goods into the Jaffna peninsula, giving it the name Elephant Pass, have been a silent witness to the ebbs and flow of the northern conflict. Elephant Pass, the terrestrial gateway to the Jaffna peninsula, is now under the control of the Tigers. The fall of Elephant Pass has changed the military course of the whole conflict. The Dutch colonialists first built a small fortress in 1776, which was converted in modern times into a rest house for tourists. After Independence a permanent garrison was set up there to check illicit immigration, smuggling and unlawful transport of timber.
As the intensity of the ethnic conflict escalated, the strategic importance of Elephant Pass also increased. The small camp gradually expanded into a sprawling complex. At one time, the Elephant Pass base and the satellite camps covered an area of about 23 km long and 8-10 km wide. While we were proceeding along in close proximity to Elephant Pass the Jaffna Lagoon on both sides of the high way triggered my thoughts back to many of the personal experiences in the Jaffna Lagoon. I had traveled a number of times crossing the lagoon from the mainland to the peninsula and vice versa as travel through Elephant Pass was prohibited in 1995.
The presence of the Sri Lankan military at the Elephant Pass made passage unsafe what with heavy land mines laid everywhere around the camp area.
Even traveling on the lagoon was unsafe as the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Navy were warring with each other with heavy casualties on both sides. The small boats used to start just before midnight, as the journey through the lagoon would be invisible. The three hours journey crossing the lagoon was enjoyable to me with lot of thrill and suspense until we reached the other end. LTTE monitored the lagoon passage as they controlled both coasts, the Kilali in the peninsula and the Nallur in the mainland.
Crossing the Elephant Pass was more than a crossing and going back into the past to me!
About the Author: Rajkumar Kanagasingam is author of a fascinating book on German memories in Asia and you can explore more about the book and the author at AGSEP