Out of Sri Lanka: Journey to a land without toilet paper

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The Independent Online
JAFFNA - Lavatory paper is the Sri Lankan army's secret weapon. I could not understand why it was against the law to traffick toilet rolls up to the north of the island, which is controlled by Tamil Tiger guerrillas. I inquired about this at the Ministry of Defence in Colombo. The response was panic. In the corridors, officers eluded me as though, in a later inquiry into Who Leaked the Toilet Paper Secret to the Foreign Journalist, terrible retribution might fall on them.

I decided to journey up to the Jaffna Peninsula, where 800,000 Tamils live, stranded without toilet paper, to see for myself if this cruel privation was in fact bringing the guerrillas to their knees. The peninsula is under military siege and there are two ways to reach Jaffna. The first is by road and then across a long lagoon at night in a fishing boat. The drawback to this is that it is dangerous: the ferry is often strafed by government machine-gunners on the shore. It is also extremely uncomfortable: the boats are packed with Tamil merchants bringing in bales of contraband toilet paper, along with condoms, raincoats and notepads, items which are also nonsensically banned.

The other way, which I chose, is to travel by military cargo plane to the Pilalya base, then transfer to a freighter flying the International Red Cross flag, which carries essential supplies to and from the Tiger-held zone. Sometimes, though, crazy-eyed Tiger suicide soldiers would attack the army base. It was a question of who did I prefer getting shot at by: the Sri Lankan army or the guerrillas? The Tigers were better marksmen, but the Sri Lankan army had bigger guns, so I went with them. It wasn't long before I thought I'd made a big mistake.

The morning started early and badly. At 5:15am I called to pick up my travelling companion, another journalist. I expected to find her in camouflage and sturdy boots, not a nightgown. She told me she had a premonition that something terrible was going to happen on the trip and refused to come. I stumbled out of her flat, with just the slightest shiver of What If She's Right . . .?

It stayed with me, this shiver, throughout the trip. I felt it when my military plane descended low enough to be in range of the Tiger's anti-aircraft guns. I felt it again in Jaffna when artillery shells, fired at random by the Sri Lankan soliders, fell so close to the hotel that I could hear the whistle of the incoming projectiles and was rattled by the gut-wrenching impact.

But I felt this shiver most strongly when, as a result of a series of bureaucratic blunders by the Sri Lankan army and navy, I was obliged to make three journeys at night in a Jeep along a jungle road often ambushed by the Tigers. My driver kept stalling in the road's moon-like craters, and it seemed inevitable that a boy-soldier would step out of the jungle, take slow, careful aim and pop us. I began swearing at the driver for being a fool. I realised it was a lot easier getting angry at the soldier than having to face the queasy notion that I, and nobody else, was to blame for risking my life on a story about a place that few people would bother to read beyond the first paragraph.

As it turned out the most harrowing time I had was not under enemy fire. Some kind naval officers gave me several shots of arak and lime and then sent me off, around midnight, on a launch to rendezvous with the Red Cross cargo ship. While the sea heaved I had to leap across to a rope ladder hung over the freighter's side. I jumped and stuck to the ladder like a fly on a strip of flypaper. Hungry and safe on board the ship I ransacked my rucksack for goodies. In the rush that morning, I had left the best edibles in the fridge. In my bag was nothing but soda biscuits, detergent and, yes, plenty of toilet paper.

Despite the economic blockade of Jaffna food was never a problem. They had lobsters the size of cats. Potatoes cost pounds 1.35 a kilo and lobsters only 95p a kilo. I was prepared to sacrifice the luxury of potatoes.

The Jaffna Tamils display remarkable ingenuity in beating the Sri Lankan blockade. Petrol is embargoed, yet the Tamils have succeeded in making their auto-rickshaws and lorries run on a mixture of kerosene and coconut oil. The rickshaws puff clouds of white exhaust that smell like frying. Shops brim with most supplies. Both the Tigers and the army profit from the war. A bribe at an army checkpoint on the roads to Jaffna will insure the safe passage of far more sensitive goods than loo paper. The Tigers collect a 10,000 rupee (pounds 140) exit fee for Tamils leaving the city.

The Sri Lankan government's position is quizzical. It sends aircraft over to bomb the city, yet it continues to pay the salaries of doctors and civil servants. It sends bicycles for postmen, even though letters seldom arrive in Jaffna now. The chief government agent's office has been bombed twice, accidentally, by the Sri Lankan air force. 'I have to deal with two governments, Colombo and the Tigers,' said Mr Manickawasagar. 'I should really be a diplomat. Yes, an ambassador in some place far away.' With his luck he would probably end up in Mogadishu.