Colombo Diary: Day 1

About three miles short of the tarmac on Bandranaike International Airport, the aircraft ploughed through a tiny air pocket, and I think almost everyone on board thought we were descending way too fast. The coconut palms that flank the descent tunnel were a blur. The Boeing bounced onto the ground, lifted a few feet and then began to roll. About 15 minutes earlier, I tried to look down upon the northern part of the island and thought – is Prabhakaran seriously still there?

While the aircraft taxied, I heard the roar of something that was obviously not an airliner. From the aerobridge, I saw two MiG-27s blast off, flame and all. Over to the right, I saw a courseline of black Army Huey choppers, glinting in some seriously marauding heat. As the sound of the two fighters dopplered away, I realized that the only thing I’ve read about Sri Lanka has been Anita Pratap’s book on the conflict. And despite the fact that the politics of Sri Lanka have been persistently central to the politics of the state that was my home for 18 years, I don’t have a nuanced view on the Sri Lankan civil war. Actually, let me correct that. I don’t have a view on the Sri Lankan civil war. I certainly don’t know enough about it, but in the next few days hopefully that will change.

Colombo is a startling appealing city. Seaside esplanade, gently gradiented roads, green as hell almost everywhere you look. We’re staying at a hotel called the Grand Orient in the high security zone, right next to the Colombo Port. The hotel is flanked by government offices on one side, a couple of services headquarters, the business district and a nice down-town with tall twin towers, and a big stretch of Galle Face beach (I initially thought it was "Golf Ace") on the other. Everything – and I do mean everything – is of course punctuated by lean troops with berets and black AKs.

First stop, the Foreign Ministry for a letter of recommendation, which I then ferried to the Department of Information some 10-km away to get the all-important foreign journalist press accreditation. It’s a musty little office where nobody does very much. In other words, it’s like the countless little-visited alcoves in South Block. There’s a woman teacher her son Tamil in one corner. A couple eating in another. There’s an absolute ton of bureaucracy everywhere you look, but everyone’s (at least so far) really nice about it. This is the system, they seem to be telling you. Might as well be cheerful about it, if there’s nothing else you can do. Nifty piece of luck was getting my press accreditation despite reaching a whole hour after the office was to shut. I’m told if you’re caught doing any “journalism” in Sri Lanka without the press-ID they issue, it’s a night in a slammer and then a one way flight back home, and in the bargain, you’re stripped of the possibility of ever setting foot on the country’s soil again without a Presidential pardon. Or something to that effect.

Provided an evening live chat to my station on the Prabhakaran endgame. They say he’s pinned down in a few square kilometers. In all land directions, Sri Lankan special forces advance slowly but confidently towards the spot he is understood to be holding out from. These include motorcycle-borne forces and infantrymen. The SL Navy has blockaded the sea route with fast attack craft and patrol vessels. UAVs buzz over the zone in shifts. Not for a minute is there no optronic payload gazing down at the fuzzy patch of jungle where the Tiger and his final few hold out.

Tomorrow, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and NSA MK Narayanan arrive. I’ve got a seriously early start. Will post again tomorrow.

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