Richard showers first. I sit in a wooden chair by the window and enjoy a soft breeze that blows in off the sea a few blocks away. The mosquitoes aren’t bad tonight; the wind keeps them at bay. The smell of the ocean is mixed with night jasmine blooming somewhere nearby. This, I reflect, is a very pleasant moment. I’ve haven’t been noticing as many pleasant moments lately, and I resolve to enjoy this one for as long as it lasts.
Ten minutes later, Richard returns from the bathroom wearing a sarong, his hair wet.
“It’s all yours,” he says. “But I didn’t leave you any hot water.”
“Jerk,” I reply.
The joke is old and worn. We don’t have hot water. All our showers are cold. After a long day during the hot season, I love a cold shower. But on a cooler evening after the rain, I shiver at the thought.
I first arrived in Sri Lanka on December 6, 1993. In honor of International Human Rights Day, Sarvodaya headquarters displayed a collection of children’s art . The graphic images drawn by young children shocked me. I had never before visited a place in which such gross human rights violations were a part of daily life.
My first stay took me through the uncertainty and fear of Chandrika’s death-defying election in 1994, the hope for peace that followed once the outgoing government agreed to step down without violence, the assassination by the LTTE of Chandrika’s opposing presidential candidate, and the collapse of the cease-fire in early 1995. These events were dramatic, frightening, and impacting, but did not threaten me in any direct way.
In 1998, I returned to interview peace workers across the island. On this trip, I traveled by bus to the eastern city of Batticaloa, which according to government sources was safely in government hands. In reality, the government held most of the city, and they controlled the main roads in and out during daylight hours. The rest was controlled by the LTTE rebels. I saw things on that trip that would haunt me for years. Soldiers herded Tamil travelers at gunpoint. A pre-teen boy had lost both hands to a booby trap. A woman showed me a medical report, in English, graphically detailing her husband’s torture at the hands of the government. A brave Sinhalese woman talked of risking her life in her efforts to support Tamil families who were caught between the two fighting forces.
I came back from that trip changed, acutely aware of the fragility of security.
The following year, I sat in the dark as a battle raged outside a compound near Padaviya in the northeast. Artillery shells landed not far away, and I realized that people were dying out there and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
That’s when the nightmares started. I returned home unable to work and afraid of social situations. I exhibited all the classic symptoms of PTSD.
As the bus revs its engine and departs town, there’s a sinking feeling in my chest, an inexplicable sense of loss. Soon we are in the countryside, and I see why they keep the bus so well-maintained. There’s nothing out here. On either side of the one-lane paved highway, I see only empty grassland. Kebithigollewa really is the frontier. You wouldn’t want a bus to break down on this road.
Occasionally there are stretches of jungle, and even less occasionally abandoned homes. Each home has white Sinhalese letters hand-painted on its front.
“What do they say?” I ask Richard.
“Budu saranay,” he reads from the first one.
We’ve both been here long enough to know that it means “Blessings of the Buddha.” I consider that for a moment, and realize, just as I see from his change of expression that Richard too has realized, that these are homes where someone has been killed.
I continued to work for peace in Sri Lanka for another eight years, and I sought help from therapists from time to time.
Ten years after the Padaviya trip, one therapist had me write about my experiences. This helped so much, I wrote a story that sought to express what I saw and felt. I showed it to a friend of mine, and he encouraged me to publish it. He even designed the first cover for it. That’s how This Thing of Darkness came into being.
Reader commentary of the first version convinced me that the story wasn’t finished. It was a raw look at the emotional struggle of an unprepared man caught in a war, but the story and character development were weak. Earlier this year, I rewrote the story and republished it. It’s a much better story now.
This Thing of Darkness is a work of fiction based loosely on that 1999 trip to Padaviya. Its goal is to convey the emotions I felt during my work there, from culture shock and fascination to horror and fear. I hope it also conveys some understanding of what war looks like now that we no longer have two or more nations battling each other. But above all, I sought to make this a good story, and I hope you enjoy it.
“I admire your courage, kid,” the priest says, as my tears begin to run dry. “You’ve got chutzpah, coming out to a place like this. You cry as much as you need to. Then we’ll go back to the others, and you can keep your dignity. You did okay.”
I nod. Then, in a shaky voice, I ask, “Chutzpah?”
“One of the hazards of working with a rabbi,” he says, “is that I’ve picked up a little Yiddish.”