“They’re not letting us leave the hotel,” I heard a man say as I made my way to the lobby. This was the first I knew that anything was amiss.
It was July 24, 2001. My wife, our then 4-year-old daughter and I had been in Sri Lanka less than 36 hours. Before sunrise that morning, a platoon of Tamil Tiger suicide bombers had struck the country’s only international airport, just 18 miles away. The center of Colombo, the capital, had been sealed off while the army attempted to put down the raid. By noon, the Tigers had reduced eight military aircraft and three brand new Airbuses to char. Having caused over $600 million in damage, the attack was considered the most costly in history. Until September 11.
Weeks before, my wife suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t go to Sri Lanka at all. Rioting had broken out after President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga suspended parliament rather than face a vote of no confidence. Yet I wanted to go. I’d been traveling intermittently to Sri Lanka since 1984, a year after long-simmering hostilities between the country’s Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority erupted into what became a civil war that lasted more than 25 years. I love the country, its stunning green hills, fine beaches, great hotels and cuisine. And I’ve always enjoyed the people, certainly some of the most gracious and handsome to be found anywhere. I had been hired by CARE to consult on a development project I had helped inaugurate two years earlier. I wanted to make the trip.
I assured my wife that we’d be in no more jeopardy than in the San Francisco neighborhood in which we were then living, an areajust off the heavily touristed track yet where murders were far from unknown. Even though 65,000 Sri Lankans had been killed in the first two decades of increasingly brutal fighting, only two foreigners had been killed. We decided to go.
By noon on the day of the attack, Colombo was humming along as usual. Commuter trains were jammed with latecomers hanging outside and others sitting on the roof. Drivers of the motorized rickshaws that belch smoke all over Colombo called out for fares. Young girls went off to sew for a dollar a day in textile factories that send 30 percent of their production to the United States. And hundreds of thousands of people went to work in the tea estates for which Sri Lanka has long been famed. I left my wife and daughter at the hotel pool and made my way to the office to begin work. Yet just a few hours earlier, the country’s national airline had lost half its fleet and the air force a good portion of its planes. In war-weary Sri Lanka, it was as if nothing had happened at all.
Particularly chilling was the announcement that came a few weeks after the “incident,” as it became known. The leader of the Tamil Tigers, the group that had been fighting for an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka, declared the airport attack a failure. Why? Because he had ordered his men to commandeer the planes and then use them to assault Colombo, which they had failed to do.
Later, after the events of September 11, each time some expert announced that no one had ever imagined such a cataclysm, I wondered if those pundits even knew where Sri Lanka was. Or if they had studied the Tigers, who were long regarded as the one of the world’s most deadly forces and leaders in suicide-bomb technology.
After I finished my assignment with CARE, my family and I traveled around Sri Lanka, using our white skin as a carte blanche to visit contested areas where locals feared to tread. We made our way to Nilaweli, a deserted beach north of the historic port of Trincomalee. The roads we traveled had been cleared of brush for a hundred yards on either side. From makeshift sentry towers, government soldiers, stupefied by the heat, watched for suspicious movement. During the day, they nominally controlled the area. At night, the Tigers came out.
Each morning we woke early to watch itinerant fishermen haul in miles and miles of nets, hand over hand. Half a mile in the other direction, soldiers were sweeping the road for mines. On either side of the Nilaweli Beach Hotel, brush had overtaken the ruined shells of two luxury resorts destroyed 15 years early, shortly after the fighting had begun in earnest. Regulars at the hotel asked if we had heard about “the entertainment,” those times when tracers screamed through the night like fireworks as the Tigers and the navy conducted ship-to-shore battles. If he had been alive, Graham Greene would surely have been found at the Nilaweli, sipping a drink on the veranda while meticulously documenting the alchemy of evil generated by irreconcilable political forces.
In some ways our visit to Sri Lanka proved propitious. Whether we were visiting sacred Buddhist temples or skyscrapers, soldiers frisked us over and over again, our daughter Allegra included. The vehicles we traveled in were stopped and searched repeatedly. After September 11, we wouldn’t have to explain guns and terrorists and checkpoints to Allegra. She’d already had her primer on what it’s like to live in a place where terror is part of everyday life. We’d already had to explain what can happen when “bad people” get hold of airplanes.
The night before we left Sri Lanka, we had dinner with a close friend who comes from an elite crowd that prospered when Sri Lanka was Ceylon and a British colony. He couldn’t get over where we had gone and the risks he perceived we had taken. “Still, you Americans wouldn’t put up with the nonsense we’ve been dealing with all these years,” Ranjit said as he railed about his country’s years of ineptitude in dealing with terrorists. “Your FBI, your CIA, they would never stand for it,” he stated categorically. Our skepticism dissuaded him not a bit. He would emigrate to the United States, to live in peace, in a place where he could raise his young family without having to worry about what might happen if he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was the fourth of September. A week later American life would change. Forever.
A version of this story originally appeared as An Email from Sri Lanka in the January/February 2002 issue of Stanford magazine.