I Met Rosa Parks on the Bus
I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2007. It was a nation at war, which pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL). The LTTE claimed it wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil people. In reality, it just wanted to control the Tamils. The GOSL claimed it wanted to make peace with the Tamil people. In reality, they mostly just wished the Tamils would go away.
Tamils, especially those in the east which had many cultural differences from the LTTE strongholds in the north, were caught in the middle with no one to turn to.
Fighting was fierce in the East for many years. In 1998, the government announced it had taken control of Batticaloa District, and I decided to make a trip to this city that had never been safe before.
As it turns out, it wasn’t safe in 1998, either. The government lied about the extent of its control. In fact, it controlled three quarters of the city, and it controlled the major roads during daylight hours. The countryside was still firmly in the grip of LTTE control. But I didn’t know that until I got there.
My first challenge was to figure out how to get there. No one knew. Few in the Sinhalese parts of the country had any interest in going.
I took a bus from the Pettah market in Colombo to Mahiyangana, about two-thirds of the distance. The Mahiyangana bus was late, and I missed the connection to Ampara and had to spend the night. Mahiyangana looked like a cowboy town, South Asian style. The streets were dusty, and the buildings were made of wood and not very sturdy. Police, troops, and others not in uniform roamed the streets with guns. And, despite the strong Muslim and Tamil (Hindu) presence, a Buddhist temple at the center of town blasted Buddhist chants through a loudspeaker at an ear-splitting volume.
I caught the morning bus, which left two hours late. But I had no idea the journey I was in for. As we approached the Eastern Province, we started passing through checkpoints. At each checkpoint, everyone on the bus had to get off, pass through security, answer questions, and reboard the bus. Meanwhile, soldiers with AK-47 machine guns searched the bus for anything suspicious. We passed through a total of ten checkpoints. There were no stops between most of the checkpoints, so no one had gotten off or on since the last one. The same people got interviewed and the same luggage got searched ten times! Lucky for me, because I was a foreigner, after the third stop they told me I didn’t have to get off the bus at the checkpoints anymore.
Most Tamils do not speak Sinhalese, and most Sinhalese, including the soldiers, do not speak Tamil. All communication occurred through the bus conductor, a Tamil who also spoke Sinhalese. I never learned Tamil, but I could follow his Sinhalese explanations.
Two seats in front of me sat a young Tamil woman, probably in her late twenties. The soldiers payed her extra attention, perhaps because she was good looking. I had learned from their questioning that the woman was a nurse at the government hospital in Batticaloa who had been to Colombo for training and was now returning home.
At the sixth checkpoint, something happened. I stayed behind as the passengers got off the bus. So did the nurse.
The soldiers with their AK-47s boarded the bus to search the luggage for the sixth time. They looked at me and nodded. Then they looked at the nurse.
“Why is she not getting down off the bus?” one asked the conductor.
The conductor translated the question for the nurse, and then translated her answer for the soldiers.
“She says she’s tired,” he said, “and she’s done getting down off the bus.”
I held my breath. Here was a Tamil woman defying two armed soldiers at a security checkpoint in a country where people, especially Tamils, disappear regularly.
The one soldier looked at the other. They paused. Then they shrugged and began searching the luggage.
I could not believe what I had just witnessed. The nurse had defied authority and won.
She didn’t get off the bus at any of the remaining checkpoints.
I continued on to Batticaloa. The city is located on an island, and in those days only one bridge was open for access. We passed under a concrete emplacement bristling with weapons as we crossed it. I found my hosts and spent the next three days meeting people. I met a Sinhalese woman who had left her family and learned Tamil so she could counsel families of the missing and disappeared. I sat with her as a Tamil woman brought in a medical report on her husband, who had been severely tortured while in custody. I met a man who had been kidnapped by the LTTE and held for ransom. I met an American priest who had spent decades in the area, and who served the people fearlessly ignoring both combatant parties. And I met kids who had lost legs, arms, and eyes from grenades, landmines, and booby traps. One, a fourteen-year-old boy, had two primitive rubber hands. When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he smiled a huge smile and told me, “I’m training to become a tailor!”
My trip to Batticaloa left indelible images in my mind. But one of the most poignant is of a young woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired.