Tragic Ghosts and Surfing Sri Lanka

The south of Sri Lanka is known for perfect and playful sand-bottomed peelers. There’s even a few reefs which pick up the swell generated by the Indian Ocean weather systems. Hikkaduwa, Kabalana, Mirissa, Okanda, and Arugam Bay are just a small number of surfing locales. The main swell producer is the SW monsoon. I love the footage of surfing in Sri Lanka in the film, Sprout (2004) directed by Thomas Campbell.

Of course, since Sri Lanka has been on the well-traveled surf route for sometime now “surf tour/resort” operators are thick on the ground, and extensively advertise on the Internet.

Yet, this nation state is not simply about palm trees, massages, a “laid-back” atmosphere, playful waves, and cocktails at sunset. There are some events which are not in the surf travel brochures and on the surf travel guide websites, of course.

I recently saw the BBC’s Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.

The documentary is about the final stages of a long-running civil war (which began around 1983) between the seperatist LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, and the Sri Lankan government. Both groups terrorised each other and forced people to be human shields during the war.

While the civil war was focused on the North it did spill into the south at times, but also it is an important part of the histories of all of Sri Lanka and shaped many policies and lives.

This war which ended about two years ago. The final battles taking place on a sand spit between ocean and lagoon at the very edges of the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government, militarily supplied by Israel and China, didn’t show any mercy as they “finished off” the LTTE.

The BBC documentary draws on eyewitness accounts of survivors and witnesses during the final stages of the conflict. It also disseminates footage filmed within the civilian camps and hospitals, and finally and most graphically, on the “trophy images” on the mobile phone videos of Sri Lankan soldiers.

These images are of heaped bodies of dead civilians in “no-fire zones” and in hospitals that have been heavily shelled and fired upon by small arms, and indiscriminate executions of LTTE soldiers. One mobile video shows a soldier being encouraged to shoot prisoners. A voice off camera yells, “Show some balls.” There are the images of dozens of bodies of naked young women, bloodied and bruised around their thighs, being thrown onto the back of a truck. A man wearing a government uniform says, “If no one was looking, I’d cut her tits off.”

This UN Report found “credible allegations of war crimes” by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.

The documentary was a stark reminder to me that the places we surf are not simply “holiday destinations” and sometimes have tragic and horrific histories, as hard as it is to think about when all you want to do is simply surf the perfect playful sand-bottom peelers. When we book/travel with “surf tour” operators do you tend to find that these histories tend to be hidden from us and conveniently “forgotten”? When travelling otherwise and staying with local populations these histories invariably emerge during discussions during lunch, dinner, over a cup of tea or glass of beer. The local population know that the histories of their homeland, however difficult and tragic, are integral to experiencing their home that we are visiting. Perhaps we do a disservice to the locals if we don’t at least pay attention and give some thought to such uncomfortable realities during our visit. I don’t think it lessens our surfing experiences, rather it grounds them by reminding us of just how privileged we are and that while surfing can be understood as an “escape” sometimes tragic ghosts hover just over our shoulders.

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