Glowing skin – the island
Adapted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas B. Ranasinghe
Thilo and his friend Guido Baumann often spend weekends in Thenadi Bay, leaving Colombo on Friday evenings and returning to the office on time on Monday morning. During the evening and early morning hours, they managed 178 miles (about 300 km) across the island in Thilo’s Peugeot 504 in four hours despite the bad roads.
At times when Mahaweli was in water, the road to Manambitiya Bridge was flooded and the journey would take 12 hours or more. The railroad runs through this area, unlike the road, on rock well above flood level. On several occasions, the night was spent on a platform at Kaduruwela railway station, and in the morning their carriage was loaded onto a cart (flatcar) from the train for the pleasant journey to Valaichchenai.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was also possible to travel to Batticaloa via Uhana, near Ampara, in an Air Ceylon DC3 (Dakota) and later Avro turboprop. Thilo did this when the workers were at the bungalow site, and a car was available to pick him up from Batticaloa airport and later bring him back to him.
He remembers two episodes there. The first was on the return trip. When all the passengers had boarded, the plane was full to blast, possibly overloaded. It sped up and rolled with increasing speed in a northerly direction to the other end of the runway. But it wasn’t fast enough to take off. The pilot aborted the attempt, turned the aircraft around, returned to the starting point, and tried again. The result was the same. Only on the third attempt did he manage to take off. If only Thilo hadn’t asked to come down!
Once again Thilo and his friend arrive late at the airport. The plane was still on the tarmac, the door open, the stairs in place. The airport manager told the two passengers to wait a short distance from the plane, entered, and after a few minutes exited. No sooner had he set foot on the ground than the door closed and the plane took off. Obviously, the pilot wanted to teach the two passengers a lesson and left them stranded, Thilo says. They had no alternative but to take the Night Mail, the most uncomfortable train ride Thilo had ever witnessed. He lay awake on a sticky plastic covered “sleeper”. At each station, the wagons were unnervingly moved and goods loaded, and it took nearly 12 hours to reach Colombo.
The serenity and charm of Thenadi Bay was spoiled when in later years lime kiln makers from the south began to expand their operations in the area. Coral reefs were mercilessly exploited and split with crowbars, and trees, even coconut palms, were felled for firing in furnaces. The use of dynamite has become commonplace, and the aquarium fish trade has descended on coral reefs to continue its destructive and depleting activities. Tourists are starting to arrive.
Thilo attempted to stem the tide, with varying degrees of success. The LTTE has proven to be the most environmentally conscious. They strictly forbade breaking corals and, of course, they were immediately obeyed, unlike the government.
The house and property in Thenadi Bay survived conflict in the east until 1992, during the IPKF (Indian Peacekeeping Force), LTTE occupation, when they used it as a training camp. Then, encouraged by the tigers before they left, the complex was ransacked by the villagers, who removed everything that could be broken or shredded, including well rings. The house and facilities, which easily withstood the November 1978 hurricane, even though it was right in its path, were no match for human greed and destruction. Later Thilo noticed the bricks, roofing shingles, reapers, rafters and rafters in many new houses in Cankerni and beyond.
Recalling the uncharted ruins of ancient vegetation along the east coast seen during previous visits (at the Easter Seaton Estate, for example), he buries a heavy slab of granite—weighing more than 100kg—into the floor of a brick-paved bungalow. bore the inscription:
This house has been built before
Even this disappeared. But the stark white walls withstood the elements for another ten years, until a December 2004 tsunami pushed the vulnerable front side of the rectangle. The forest, trees, palms, and shrubs were cut down for firewood, after which the land was cleared for cultivation. The region became more like a desert, with all vegetation destroyed, and was kept that way by the armed forces, who had set up camp nearby. This was destroyed by a tsunami. Only after that did the vegetation begin to recover.
Thilo regularly visited the place and Alagiah, mentioned in a later chapter, again took care of him. Thilo recently gifted the property to Nicholas Bowman, son of Guido. It is his wish that this land remain in the private and personal possession of Nicholas as his legacy as well as in memory of his late wife.
Throughout the course of the armed conflict Thilo has had many encounters with the LTTE, he has traveled in parts of the eastern and northern provinces he occupied in connection with his Kayankerni holdings, the annual census of waterfowl (see Chapter VIII) – for example in the coastal stretch north of Trinco , in Marichchukkaddi, in Mannar and the Jaffna Peninsula – and also simply out of interest of Jaffna, Delft and Mullaitivu.
Some of the tigers were friendly, some were menacing and obstructive, and sometimes there were precarious situations. Checkpoints by armed forces on both sides, where vehicles and people are meticulously searched, made travel perilous, slow and cumbersome, and his incursions into LTTE-held areas were very frequent during two periods. The first was during KPA forces fighting the Tigers, between October 1987 and March 1990. At that time there were also paramilitary groups and camps in various locations, in the east of the EPRLF and ENDLF, and in the north of PLOTE also, Telo, Eros. After the Indian forces left, all of these were eliminated by the LTTE.
Once he reached a checkpoint near Karainagar, and after explaining the population of waterfowl as his reason for being there, he had a long conversation with a captain in the Indian Army about the situation on the peninsula. At some point, the captain asked the rhetorical question: “Can’t you put some logic into the heads of these fellows to take at least a common position?” He pointed out the various Tamil factions that were at each other’s throats.
In Jaffna and the islands, in the Mannar region, the Vanni and the east, Indian troops erected many small shrines (most of them dedicated to the Hindu god Ganesha) and memorial tablets confirming their peaceful intentions. These were placed along highways, at intersections and bridges. Today there is no trace left of it: it was all destroyed by tigers. At that time, there were already many dilapidated and dilapidated houses and mansions, not because of the damage caused by the conflict, but because the owners had to flee the areas and leave their homes.
In May 1990, two months after the IPKF left Sri Lanka, the LTTE had full control of the northern and eastern provinces with the exception of Trincomalee. When Thilo visited his estate in Thenadi Bay, it was like stepping in and out of a foreign country. The tigers guarding the checkpoints looked menacing.
At the end of that month, Thilo sets out in his Peugeot from Renaddi Bay to Jaffna, with his cook Geepal Fernando and Siva. He drove to Trincomalee, via the six ferries, then via Nilaveli and Kochaveli. On the next ferry they are back in tiger land. Here they noticed the movement of the rebel fighters. They visited Tiriya, which was in good condition, and continued on to Pulmodai, then inland to Kipitiguliwa and Vavuniya. They were late, and when night began to fall they had just crossed the Elephant Pass into the peninsula.
They notice a brand new Mitsubishi Pajero, a jeep following them at high speed. Near Pallai they were overtaken and ordered to stop. Fortunately, Siva spoke Tamil. After some questions and answers, with the jeep chief never seen, the medium ordered the three to descend. They were dumped on the side of the road along with their luggage, which included binoculars and several cans of petrol. Then both cars drove off.
Across the dam here beside the road – which was the old railway track – was a compound owned by an elderly Tamil couple. They received the “refugees”. Attempts were made to hire a taxi for the journey to Jaffna where the Bors had a branch, but no driver dared go against the wishes of the Tigers. Early the next morning, their host traveled to Jaffna by bus and brought the branch manager, Mr. N.
There Thilo tried to complain to the LTTE military commander but to no avail. He was preoccupied with ACS government minister Hamid’s expected visit that evening for negotiations. In desperation, they went to the LTTE’s political headquarters in Kundavel, where they met Anton Balasingham. It was somewhat embarrassed by the situation, it was set up by the military commander of Pallai’s sector. He wanted to secure a car for himself. There was a certain reason. When asked why, the public relations officer at the LTTE military headquarters in Jaffna replied, “Because a war will break out.” During their stay travelers noted extensive preparations for war, with new bunkers and troop movements.
Thilo and the Director patiently spend three days at the political headquarters, where they meet Anton Balasingham, his wife Adele (and their white dog), as well as the Daya Master and other tigers. (Almost 15 years later, after the tsunami, the fact that the Daya Master remembered Thilo facilitated Mullaitivu’s visit). Then on the evening of the third day a white Peugeot was brought in, only a little worse for wear. The next day they left Jaffna. Two weeks later, the massive Tiger attack defeated the army on the peninsula and beyond. It was the beginning of the “Second Elam War”.
Ranjan Wijeratne, the then deputy minister in charge of defence, was a personal friend of Thilo’s. Thilo says, “I actually thought of meeting him at the time and telling him what we had seen and heard, but then I felt it would be presumptuous because he, in charge of the army, would undoubtedly be aware of the situation in the east and north. In that I was sadly mistaken. They were surprised.” Absolutely, and I have a rather bad conscience about it to this day.”
The second period during which Thilo traveled extensively in tiger-dominated areas was during the ceasefire from 2002 to 2006. All of these trips are recorded, some in great detail, in Thilo’s many notebooks, which are described later.