Sri Lankans living in constant fear of LTTE backlash

AFTER filing my Khaleej Times weekly column around noon last Monday, I set about the usual chores. I picked up my seven-year-old daughter from school and went to a fuel station for some petrol.

By Ameen Izzadeen

Published: Tue 22 Aug 2006, 9:31 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:38 PM

was hungry and I decided to take her to a shopping mall in the heart of Colombo. We had some snacks and ice-cream. I also bought her a packet of flavoured milk and came out of the mall to smoke a cigarette.

About 200 metres from where we were, the convoy carrying Pakistan High Commissioner Bashir Wali Mohammed was whizzing down the very road which I took to come to the mall, about ten minutes ago. Then suddenly we were shaken by an explosion.

"A bomb", screamed the people waiting outside the mall. They, like many Sri Lankans, knew how to decipher the decibels and say whether it was a firecracker or a bomb. I could see the flames and the thick black smoke billowing from several vehicles caught up in the blast. My first task was to console my daughter who continued to sip the milk regardless of the blast, though she was shaken and her facial expression showed that she also knew it was a bomb. "Don’t worry darling, it was a bomb," I told her as she gripped my hand. While we walked towards the bomb site to have a clearer view, my journalistic instincts made me to go for my mobile phone and inform the news desk of the incident. But I could not get through due to network congestion. Then there was gunfire. Policemen, who arrived in a flash to the scene, were shooting in the air to keep the crowd at bay.

My daughter then started crying. "I don’t want to be a journalist like you," she said, "The Tigers or some people who may not like what you write will use a bomb like this to kill you."

"We have to learn to live with bombs. This is the reality of our country today. But we have a responsibility to work for peace," I tried to philosophise in a language she understood. We then walked towards the car to go to school, this time to pick my elder daughter. The school was in the vicinity, though a safe distance from the bomb site. The scene outside was chaotic, with fear-struck parents who rushed to collect their daughters, pushing aside the lone security officer who stood helpless, unable to control them or implement the new security measures the school recently adopted to face crisis situations.

By this time, the phones were working. I started to get calls from those who knew my Monday programme. "Thank God, I was ten minutes or 200 metres away from possible death," I told them with a macabre sense of excitement.

The government was shaken by the bomb blast. It was a chilling reminder that the LTTE could do — and is capable of doing — anything to anybody. It was the first time in the 23-year ethnic conflict that the rebels had attacked a diplomatic target. Barely six hours before the Colombo blast, the Air Force bombed a site in a rebel-held Mullaitivu in the north. More than 40 teenage girls were killed. The government claimed they were LTTE trainees, but the rebels insisted that they were schoolchildren who had come for a workshop on first-aid training. If the rebels could target the Pakistan High Commissioner, apparently to punish his country for its military aid to Sri Lanka, they could also target schools to avenge the deaths of the girls. That was apparently the thinking of people in charge of our security.

That evening we were told that the authorities have decided to close schools for second term vacation with immediate effect. If this is a security measure, it offers only a temporary assurance. We cannot keep schools closed forever in a bid to prevent a rebel attack. Life has to go on, schools have to be opened.

Another measure the authorities adopted in the aftermath of the August 14 bomb blast was to declare all main roads in Colombo and roads frequently used by VIPs, military officials and diplomats as no-parking zones, because it was on a parked three-wheeler that the terrorists had planted the bomb. True, it causes much inconvenience to some people in this developing country with a 20 million population. The country has about 1.2 million vehicles with 50 per cent of them being motorcycles and three-wheelers. We stomach such measures although certain steps the security forces take provoke anger.

For instance, last Saturday turned out to be a hell of a day for motorists entering the city from its northern entry points. Defence authorities, acting on a tip-off that a vehicle laden with explosives was coming to Colombo, decided to check every vehicle entering the city. The result: more than 15 kilometers long traffic jams on two main highways. I was also caught up in the traffic jam, but managed to take several side roads to come to the city. A colleague told me it took him more than four hours to travel a distance of ten kilometres.

In the end, the bomb vehicle was not detected. It would have taken a side road and parked somewhere, or turned back and gone.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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