It had rained in Yala. The normally arid Park was lush, green, the water holes overflowing, and the trees budding with new life. The air was heavy, humid and the animals seemed to revel in the luxuriance that came with the rain. Large flocks of deer grazed in the open ignoring the dancing peacocks. Elephants frolicked in filled tanks and sambhur lapped at the water with quiet dignity,
Even as the jungle appeared to be awakening with the onset of the north-easterly monsoon, the Park was recovering from its recent bout of unsavoury incidents. Last Sunday, November 02, was the most successful day in a long time for the park, where visitors were concerned. 30 vehicles came into Yala that day and the gate collection was close to Rs.90,000.
Yala was closed to visitors for nearly six weeks. Annually the park closes for visitors around this time, when the drought is at its worst and Park renovations can be attended to. But this year, the re-opening of the Park was very much more significant. Just as the Park closed for renovations, three bungalows were torched by suspected terrorists and a van and a bungalow keeper hijacked. The van was later recovered and the bungalow keeper escaped and trekked to Kataragama. Just as the scars of this attack were healing, a similar group of terrorists attacked the Kataragama Bus Depot, killing one person and burning down 19 buses. These were the latest in a series of incidents that had disrupted the sanctuary of Yala ever since June last year.
As we approached the Palutupana Park office, two Army soldiers stopped the vehicle. Their questions were cursory, polite but searching. Satisfied with our explanations and having established our identities they let us proceed to the ticketing counter. All local visitors are cleared by the Army before entering the Yala National Park which is now under the Competent Authority of Brigadier Shiran Ranatunga. The security of the Park and the protection of its wildlife is all in his care. A number of small army camps and outposts are scattered around in the jungles and in the sites where certain bungalows were burnt down. The Park warden and his men, trackers, bungalow keepers operate under the instructions of Brig. Ranatunga We have searched the entire Park upto the Kumbukkan Oya, Brig. Ranatunga said. But we have yet to find anything. He said that the identity of the group has not yet been established but they are a group of terrorists, thats all I can say.
Visitors to the park are assured of heavy but not-so-conspicuous security. The tightened security and addition of troops patrolling the 453 square kilometre Park is reassuring not only to visitors but also to devotees who flock to the sacred city of Kataragama and migratory fishermen who put up camp at Patanangala on the coast off Yala.
The fishermen were also attacked by the group widely believed to be members of the LTTE. In July, some 75 fishermen camping in Patanangala for lobster fishing were surprised in the night by a group of armed cadre who had burnt 28 of their boats and torched the cadjan huts. No one was hurt but they immediately vacated the site. Now, again, there are nearly 150 fishermen camping at this site. They feel more secure in the presence of a Naval Surveillance Unit and an Army camp close by.
Jinadasa (55), one fisherman who had migrated here from Godallewela in Tangalle had an interesting story to tell. Last year, he with several other fishermen was camping at the Kumbukkan Oya estuary, fishing off the coast of Kumana. One morning just as they were about to launch their boats into the sea, a group of armed youth broke through the jungles and ran onto the beach shouting at them. We knew they were LTTE. Tigers use the Kumana park quite frequently. We got into the boats and fled. But they shot at us. One bullet tore through my shoulder, he said pointing at the scar. I had to be in bed for three months because of the injury.
One fisherman recalling the horror of the night when the LTTE attacked their boats and huts said, We were relaxing before having our evening meal when around thirty armed men came running into the camp. They gathered us all into one hut and one person said that they wont kill us but added we were not to run into the jungles or jump into the sea.
The men had then set fire to the boats and the other huts and disappeared into the night. Only a few weeks before the Army camp that had been set up at Pattanangala had been dismantled.
Now, once again the fishermen were returning. In a few days there will be around 250 fishermen here, Brig. Ranatunga said.
Also at the shore, the Yala Safari Hotel was enjoying a good weekend. On Sunday 42 of their 63 rooms were occupied and mostly by tourists. A large group of tourists hired safari jeeps to travel into the Park that afternoon enjoying the view of a large herd of elephants at the Wilapalawewa. Many sightings of leopard too were recorded by visitors to the park last weekend.
A local tour guide at Yala Safari Hotel was optimistic of the tourist interest in Yala. They did admit, however, that most of the groups coming to visit the Park had scant idea of the troubles that brewed in its jungles. Most guests come as part of a round trip and only spend one or two nights in Yala. We have brought tourists into the Park at worse times. When the JVP was at its height and bodies were burning by the roadside we managed to bring tour groups to Yala, he said.
For visitors who wish to stay within the Park, the Ondaatje bungalow, situated on the Situlpahuwa road, is available for bookings from Colombo. Two campsites are also open. The Heenwewa and Palutupana bungalows are soon to be available. We have got estimates for the damaged bungalows of Buttuwa and Mahaseelawa. In a few months they will be repaired and ready, Brig. Ranatunga said.
While the Armys presence in the Park is largely disguised and tourists not taken to the camp locations, at the Pattanangala beach where tourists were allowed to get off the vehicles and enjoy the sea view, groups of soldiers mingled with the visitors. Trackers were guarded about commenting on the Army presence. They said it was certainly reassuring to have military presence but were cynical about the incidents that occurred despite it. How can the Army say there is nothing in the jungles ? one tracker said. Its impossible to search every tree and bush in the entire Park.
Situlpahuwa, the ancient temple and monastery complex also crawls with police and army presence. Armed commandos patrol the jungle clad rocks that surround the 2300 year old temple located inside the National Park and frequented by Buddhists from all over the country.
In nearby Kataragama, a scare story spread around on Tuesday morning that some armed people were sighted in the jungles of the Wedasitikanada, another place of worship on the borders of the Yala National Park. The police, investigated the incident and declared that it was all a rumour.
There were other dark stories, of two villagers who were killed inside the park and whose bodies could not be retrieved, of the grocery store in Gothamipura which supplies rations to the armed gang and rampant poaching despite the presence of the Army.
But through it all, the forest stood still- its vastness concealing many more secrets.
The budding trees and lush grass provided good food for the large herds of deer that we saw roaming the roadside glades. Wild boar too was aplenty. A mother with at least 15 piglets were feeding on a grassy overspill.
Due to the enhanced military presence even the poachers have been discouraged but not completely. Visitors staying over at Yala claim to hear gun shots quite often in the Park at night. Venison and Wild boar meat is still freely sold in guesthouses and even small kades in Tissa and Kataragama. On Monday the Department of WildLife Conservation Office in Kataragama made a breakthrough and arrested two people for possessing some 200 kg of venison. This would amount to the meat of seven deer, officials said.
Brig. Ranatunga is quite confident of the safety of the Park. We are waiting for them to come again. This time it will be impossible for this group to escape. Then we can identify them, he said.
He also said discipline among the ranks of the Army had been tightened. Earlier there were reports of soldiers hunting animals, now these complaints have lessened.
But how permanent is this situation going to be ? Brig. Ranatunga shrugs Thats a million dollar question. We will just have to wait and see, he said.
R.A. Mahinda lost his foot to a land mine inside the jungles of Yala. Mahinda was one in a crowd of about 40 people who went into the jungles off Kataragama to bring back bodies of two villagers, Cyril Attanayake and Podi Aiya who were killed inside the Park while collecting bee hives. When the two people went missing, some others reported seeing the bodies hung from trees with their hands tied behind in a distant location. It was a place called Mayagala about 25 miles into the jungle, Mahinda said. We asked the Army and the Police to help us to retrieve the bodies but the Army said they cannot go beyond a certain point and the Police asked for Army guard.
Then Mahinda and a group of others had decided to travel into the Park and bring the bodies back. All we wanted to do was give them a decent burial.
But they could not proceed very far. Mahinda was caught in a land mine and had to be rushed to hospital, where we met him. The group turned back fearing that more mines would be buried ahead.
Mahinda said that some cows from the villages wandering into the jungles have also lost legs in landmine explosions. Villagers believe that the mines were laid by the LTTE cadre when fleeing after an attack.
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