More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 98

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

I visited the east with Nanda Godage and we were joined by an Indian journalist, P K Balachandran of The Hindustan Times. ‘P.K.’ was an old Sri Lanka hand who had been in the country several years. Affable and incisive as he was, I was never really sure why he was to join us. I knew why I was there – as a sounding post, with my intelligence background, for Godage.

The visit to the east convinced me more than ever that the LTTE were up to no good. In Pottuvil (March 12), the fears of the Muslim community were clearly expressed in a series of meetings at the appropriately-named Hideaway Hotel. We visited a place by the sea called Kumari and I was moved by the plight of a woman whose son had been taken by the LTTE. Ordinary people clearly feared the stranglehold the LTTE was imposing under the guise of peace. In Ampara (March 14), I was impressed by the men of the Special Task Force (STF).

In Batticaloa, the security forces seemed under no illusion as to what was going down. What they could not understand was what Colombo was up to. On March 16, we crossed into LTTE territory in the company of the local MP, Krishnapillai. The most interesting thing about the meeting was the appearance of his wife. She soon broke down into tears. The price of LTTE support for her husband’s election to parliament had been their eldest son. They had handed him over to the LTTE for military training.

As Nanda spoke with the Peace Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s office on a Sunday morning (March 17) from Trincomalee, the sound of cannon fire broke the still. I assumed they were practice rounds but the firing went on for a quarter of an hour or so and I could see puffs of smoke in China Bay. LTTE gunboats were probing the harbour defences.

In Muttur on March 19, the local Sinhala community revealed they had met and voted to a man, and a woman, for that matter, to leave if the security forces were to withdraw their protection.