I knew something was wrong even before I got home. I was an hour late and the roads had been full of slowly moving vehicles. Drivers impatiently pressed on the vehicle horns. It had been a hot and dusty ride back home. My fears were confirmed when I saw the relief on my mother’s face as I entered our home. I walked to the TV where my uncle and grandmother were already seated. The TV screen read in big bold letters, “at least 15 dead. Many more injured.”
“Suicide bomb. Just a bit away from your school. We were so worried” I heard my mother say.
“I’m just so sick and tired of this stupid war” I said as I walked to my room.
I heard my uncle tell my mother that maybe I should change schools. Colombo wasn’t safe anymore, and a place close to home will be better. My mother said, “we’ll wait and see. These things have to end someday” and then they moved on to the veranda to have an ‘adult’ conversation on politics, the war and the government.
That evening as I walked to my grandmother’s room to read I found her seated on her bed with an open album.
“Athammee, whose photographs are these?” I asked.
“This is my grandmother, then these are some people from your Seeya’s side” she said, showing me various photographs. I pointed to one of a man, his hair parted to a side. He was wearing a suit and was smiling slightly. Clearly taken in a studio, it was of various shades of brown.
After a few seconds of silence, she said “that’s my friend David. He was David Phillip Anthony I think. We were pen pals…”
From my grandmother’s story I learnt that David and Athammma used to be close friends. He was from Jaffna, which is where the war started and where the real fighting was. They used to send each other letters at least twice a week and he had even come for my grandmother’s wedding. His gift had been a beautiful clock. Slowly though the letters became shorter and then stopped altogether as the duties and responsibilities of adulthood and marriage took over.
“Why don’t you write to him again? Do you have his address?” I was excited by her story.
“I still remember it very well. No. 10, Shady Grove Avenue, Point Pedro.”
“Okay so send him a letter. Or at least a card”
“No Duwa. Times are different now. For all I know, he must be dead and gone.”
It may have ended there. Maybe it should have but a few weeks later, I was standing outside the Panadura post office with my grandmother.
“Come we’ll post it. Then maybe he’ll reply and you two can be friends again”
“We’ll see. I haven’t still decided”
“There’s nothing to decide”
“It’s not a good time you know. He’s a Tamil and” her voice trailed off. I knew what she meant, but the war that had been going on for decades never started as a racial war. It shouldn’t be a deciding factor when it comes to finding long lost friends or talking to those of a different race. When I told my grandmother my thoughts, she asked me to sit down for a bit.
“Duwa, you may think you have been part of the war, or you have seen all there’s to see. We live here, we don’t see what’s happening in the North. People are killed or forced to kill others. Maybe after the war, I’ll post this letter. Now is not a good time. Little things like these can cause a lot of unnecessary problems. When I was your age, I had so many Tamil friends. And I know the war shouldn’t be about race. But it is. Tamils and Sinhalese are enemies for now, or that’s how things are seen. For me this letter is about finding a dear friend, for you, it might be an adventure of some sort. For others though it’s betrayal and maybe even for him too. Maybe David is one of those people who hate us.”
We slowly left the post office, the letter still with us. What my grandmother told me was true. I had always been able to befriend Tamils, I never hated them. They had never hated me too. But most of us hadn’t been victims of this dreadful war. We were still too young to hate, to fight, to understand. We were never really in danger, only the threat of danger was present.
The years 2008 and 2009 were unforgettable. Schools were closed on most days, more bombs and more blackouts. The war had slowly moved to Colombo. People started leaving the country, fleeing to Canada, Australia and many other places. Friends left, family members left. Prices increased drastically, and more time was spent indoors, always watching news on TV. More and more planes and helicopters flew above us. Then finally in May 2009 the president announced that the war had ended. We sat in our school hall, watching the speech live. It made us all cry, it made us all happy. Finally it was safe again.
Then came the accusations from other countries, the legal issues, the photographs and movies. Jaffna also became a place we could go to, like Galle or Kandy. Busloads of people would go, visit these war torn areas and talk about the battlefields and the ruined city.
I had finished school by now, buses and trains were safer and the number of check points had reduced. Death was now not caused by war and it was truly part of the past. Then I got the opportunity to go to Jaffna with my mother and a few people we know. Finally, I thought, I get to see this unknown area of Sri Lanka.
To say Jaffna took me by surprise is an understatement. The town itself was being rebuilt, and already looked like Colombo. Shops had been re-opened; houses had been built, just three years after a war of three decades. Then there were the polka dotted houses, bullet holes a reminder of the war. Hints of buildings that once stood high. The threat of war was still present in Jaffna, soldiers were everywhere and a sense of uneasiness had taken over the area. Also the area affected shocked me. Jaffna, the city was a small area, but Jaffna, the North was a vast area, miles and miles of bare and dry land. The plants that bordered the road and surrounded the red sings that said “Mines!” were powdered with red dust. It wasn’t the city with the hospitals and restaurants that people really needed to see, these were the areas that really shook that little bomb inside me, that little bomb that released love and pride for this nation in my heart.
While we were walking around Jaffna town, buying palm oil and bee’s honey, I suddenly remembered David Anthony, my grandmother’s pen pal.
“Amma, can we please find Athamma’s friend? Please,” I begged her.
“How do we even find him?”
“We’ll just find the house. I remember the address. And hope for the best”
“Duwa, we don’t even know this area”
My mother gave in though, and we took a three wheeler to Shady Grove Avenue. The sea breeze and palm trees made the ‘Takaran’ house filled street look almost beautiful. Some of the houses were quite big, newly built and painted in bright colors. Others though, like the house that once belonged to David, were small and had fences made of metal sheets or takaran. We knocked on the hot gate and waited for someone to come out of the house. Just as my hope began to slip away, a somewhat old man in a sarong came out.
I spoke to him in Sinhala and asked if a David Phillip Anthony lives here. A smile covered his face when I mentioned David’s name.
“Miss, he was a very good friend. He told me his address and once the war ended I came to live here. We met at a camp, two months before the war ended” a faraway look clouded his eyes, and he slowly told us the rest of the story.
“I somehow lived down the 3rd lane, just close by even though those weren’t good times. I never understood politics and I never took sides. Then one night, our street was also bombed and for hours I was under all the debris. I found my wife and two children dead. Their bodies were crushed. It broke my heart, miss. Then an Army truck took all of us who survived, another five people and I, to a camp. There we were given small meals and dirty clothes. There was never enough water for a bath, until the war ended four months later we lived under tents, in the burning hot sun. There I met this David fellow, such a good man. We started talking and that’s how we became friends. How do you know him, miss?”
My mother told him how David had been my grandmother’s pen pal and that we were interested in finding him.
“Yes yes. I remember him telling me how he had this friend. He wrote to her, and he said that he wished they were still friend. It came about when I said I had relatives in Kaluthara, from Panadura, noh?” he asked us. I nodded my head, and asked him where David was now.
“Don’t know, miss. He left the camp before I did, and I never saw him again.” We all had tears in our eyes by now; Samuel, old and frail as he remembered his friend who shared the pain and horrors of a refugee camp with him, like a brother would, my mother because the story just shook her and I, well I had expected a perfect ending but only ended up with so many unanswered questions.
We spoke with Samuel for some more time, we sipped the hot plain tea he served us, and we listened to his stories about the war. When we left Shady Grove Avenue that evening, I realized we may never come back, no more letters would be sent to this address. We left Jaffna two days later and as I sat in the bus, looking at the blue sky and trees and people, I felt sad. I had seen everything I wanted to, I had enough memories to last a life time, but I only had a story with no ending for my grandmother. Maybe I would keep on looking for David or maybe he will fade away from my mind as he may have from this world.