First stop Prabhakaran's bunker

Returning to Mullaitivu, where the last stage of the war was fought, Kavan Ratnatunga finds well preserved LTTE sites that draw about 3,000 visitors each day from both communities

So geographically close, but politically so far. A whole generation had grown up unable to visit the North and parts of the Eastern province of Lanka, during the 26 years of civil war. It is therefore not surprising that the region which was out of bounds, holds a special interest for all Lankans.

Visions of conquest: The metal gate of the funeral parlour outside Prabhakaran’s bunker bearing the Eelam map
The large map at the visitor information booth in Puthukkudiyiruppu

When a temporary truce opened up the North-East for about a year around 2002, I seized the chance to make my first visit to Jaffna in May 2003. From July 2006, Eelam War IV closed the North-East again till the final liberation of the region in May 2009.When the A9 opened in January 2010, there was a sudden rush from the south to Jaffna, which at that time hardly had the infrastructure to support any tourism. Access to many of the LTTE sites such as LTTE leader Prabhakaran's home in Velvettithurai and the Martyrs cemetery in Koppay, which I had visited in 2003, remained restricted. They were bulldozed in 2010 May, before a partial lifting of Emergency rule.

Their removal ensured that tourists focus on the many important ancient archaeological sites, they must visit in Jaffna. The region around Mullaitivu in the north-east of Lanka, where the last stage of the war was fought, remained out of bounds for everyone, except those able to get special permission and an Army escort.

I was lucky to make such a visit in June 2010. In March this year, I revisited Mullaitivu, curious to know what remained of what I had seen in 2010, considering what had been done in Jaffna. To my surprise the Sri Lanka Army had gone to great lengths to preserve for now, all that they had captured from the LTTE.

A large map in the visitor information booth in Puthukkudiyiruppu gave the "Important Locations of the Final Stage of the Humanitarian Operation" in English and Sinhala. Most of the sites have been open to the public since August 2011. No prior permission is required to visit. I was told there were on average about 3,000 visitors each day from both communities. The number of visitors increased greatly during the school holidays. One long weekend there had been 400 busloads.

Hawkers have set up stalls nearby with permission from the Army. They sell all manner of items from toys to local sweets, just like the stalls one finds outside most popular tourist destinations and religious sites in other parts of the country. The Army also has a canteen selling fast food, soft drinks and beer. I was glad I had visited in 2010, before they had become in-situ exhibitions. The camouflaged hideouts of the LTTE leaders were now exposed for all to gawk at.

First stop was Prabhakaran's bunker. The 4-level underground bunker with very thick walls and bullet proof doors was however empty. The toilets inside were marked with "Danger - Please do not use". The functional use of each room was painted on the wall in Sinhala. The Operations Room, still had the frame backing used for the maps. A fire escape led out from the back in case of emergency. Outside were the bulletproof sentry posts, a shooting range, an underground vehicle park, etc.

Most interestingly just outside the compound was a funeral parlour. An Army tour guide explained the design on the metal gate. There was the map of claimed Eelam and a burning candle within the rest of the island, for future conquest. This description had been given by Karuna Amman who had defected from the LTTE in 2004 March. I was told that furniture and other items I had seen in the media, were found at Prabhakaran's bunker at Visuvamadu (midway on the A35 between Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi).

Sea Tiger chief Soosai's Safe House
Ready for visitors: Stalls close to the LTTE sites

Next stop was Sea Tiger chief Soosai's Safe House. The sign over his front doorway read "Enemies are our best Teachers". He too had an escape tunnel from inside a closet to the outside, which was still usable. I managed to go through without a torch, which would have been useful.

Next was the swimming pool used to train Sea Tigers. Although only 83 feet in length, the 22 feet depth is 50% more than even an Olympic size pool. It has a glass observation port hole a few feet from the bottom and had been enclosed within a camouflaged shed but is now exposed. This site was next to the 68 division headquarters with open access to Cafe Sixty Eight.

We next looked at the 800 metre-long defensive Bund at Puthumathalan which was 4-5 metres in height. It was breached by the security forces about a month before the end of the war, to release the civilians trapped within.

An open-air War Museum displayed captured naval equipment from experimental submarines to human propelled suicide torpedoes. Many of these items have been on display at military exhibitions.

The War Memorial had been opened in December 2009. The Mark of Victory was inscribed in Sinhala, Tamil and English, on two very large granite slabs, which had stood at the entrance to the monument. They were now conspicuously missing reflecting the rift in the leadership that won the war. The two support bases was all that was left. A smaller slab with names of officers in only English remains behind the memorial .

The pool used to train Sea Tigers

The small strip of land around VellamullaVaikkal which saw the last days of the war, was still closed to public. A few piles of motorcycles, bicycles getting covered by foliage, and a few rusting vehicles stacked against each other were all that remained. The large junkyard of vehicles had been scrapped. Nature, including migrant birds were reclaiming the area.

At a distance we saw a red flag on a tall mast, which marks the spot where Prabhakaran's body was found, next to the Nandhikkadal lagoon.

The last stop was the rusting wreck of Farah-3, the Jordanian merchant ship captured by the Sea Tigers in December 2006. While we were visiting that region with an Army escort, I saw a busload arrive. With over one percent of the Lankan population still working for the Military Forces, almost everyone knows someone to let them in.

Mullaitivu is worth a visit and it takes about six hours to sight-see. After the probably short-term public curiosity dies out, a change in policy may have these sites bulldozed, as it has happened in Jaffna. They are clearly not protected archaeological sites.

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