Silence in the Killing Zone

By Steve Coll
Sunday, January 16, 1994

Of all the bonehead mistakes I ever made, arguably the most boneheaded was the decision to drive away at sunset from the Madhu bishop's compound. War was on again in Sri Lanka and we had been driving around in it all day. For reasons no longer retained, it seemed important to record what we had seen in a brief news story. The difficulty was that we were stuck in the jungle and the light was going. The bishop of Madhu had offered to put us up for the night at his cool, whitewashed compound, a battlefield sanctuary where thousands of civilian refugees sought shelter from the soldiers, guerrillas and paramilitary death squads roaming around their villages. To get back to the land of international telephone lines from the bishop's place, we would have to drive along narrow dirt roads through checkpoints manned by Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese security forces.

Of course, I was not planning to do any actual driving; I would leave that to Ron, the cherubic Sri Lankan madman who had developed a highly lucrative, monopoly-by-default business driving journalists around his island's several wars. Ron's advantage, aside from nerve, was his divided ethnic lineage -- half Sinhalese, half Tamil -- which conveniently allowed him to claim that he was a partisan of whatever side of Sri Lankan ethnic conflicts he happened to be on at any given moment. This kept him alive and kept his passengers moving through the checkpoints. Ron once drove for the Colombo Hilton but was discharged after returning his polished Toyota with .50-caliber machine gun bullet holes in the roof and sides. One of these bullets, fired from a helicopter tracking him from overhead, had passed between his parted legs and through the driver's seat. The car company seemed indifferent about the near-miss but was terribly upset about the Swiss-cheese ventilation. So now Ron worked out of his home near the airport and drove scavenged cars on which he erected great white banners proclaiming neutrality in several languages. He was unfailingly cheerful and game for anything, even bonehead ideas like the drive from Madhu.

For 30 minutes we raced along abandoned narrow tracks through elephant grass and groves of palm. We had the windows down and the tape deck on at high volume. We passed a couple of checkpoints with ease and thought we were nearing the edge of the fighting zone. Darkness fell quickly and the passing palms faded to black.

Suddenly Ron slammed on the brakes. He killed the headlights and the tape deck and the motor.

Somebody was shouting at us in Sinhalese from a distance. Ron interpreted under his breath. Put your hands up. Open the car doors slowly. Step with your hands in the air to the front of the car. Get down on your knees. Move forward down the road on your knees with your hands still up.

Flashlights glanced across us as we followed these instructions. Gun bolts clicked. We couldn't see a thing. Ron began a dialogue in Sinhalese with somebody in the shadows. I could not understand a word, but it did not sound as if it was going very well. We moved 20 yards down the road, shuffling humbly in the dirt. Ron, still talking like a Gatling gun, finally rose to his feet and walked forward, telling me under his breath to stay still. I knelt like this, reaching to the sky, physically and emotionally frozen, until I heard Ron begin to chuckle. Then he began to laugh. Now three or four people were laughing.

"It's all right," Ron said. "Come ahead." An army captain in fatigues and a T-shirt stood near a barbed-wire bunker. He had a pistol in his hand. Soldiers with assault rifles and shoulder-fired grenade launchers joined the group. They were chattering in rapid Sinhalese and still laughing. Ron, now in full salesman's mode, had his arm on the captain's shoulder to express collegial intimacy.

"The captain says this is our lucky day -- really our lucky day," Ron said jovially. "He thought we were the enemy. He was this close" -- Ron squeezed his thumb and forefinger together -- "to ordering his men to open fire. Then I heard him shouting and stopped the car. They had machine guns and grenades trained on our headlights. He was about to yell 'fire' when we stopped. He says this is really our lucky day."

Ron was gritting his teeth but laughing nonetheless. The captain now felt a need to explain six or seven times what a lucky day this was for us, since he had not killed us. He even digressed into the field of astrology to describe the scale of our good fortune.

By now I was feeling annoyed. I said to Ron, "Tell him that this is certainly our lucky day, but it is also his lucky day, because killing an American reporter, even by innocent mistake, would not be a good thing for a fine officer like himself."

Ron passed this thought along, and the captain seemed puzzled by it. He answered in Sinhalese. "He says," Ron explained, "that this is Sri Lanka. If they had killed us, they would have just burned the bodies. Nobody would have ever known."

Right. I had forgotten about that.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 1994 The Washington Post Company