Classic cars from Lanka in use in the east of Elephant Rock – The Island
Excerpt from the Authorized Biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas B. Ranasinghe
Thilo and his friend Guido Baumann often spent weekends in Thenaddi Bay, leaving Colombo on Friday evening and returning punctually on Monday morning to be back in the office. In the evening and early morning hours, despite poor roads, they covered the 178 miles (approx. 300 km) across the island in Thilos Peugeot 504 in four hours without a break.
At times when the Mahaweli was flooded, the approach road to the Manampitiya Bridge was flooded and the journey took 12 hours or more. The railway through this area, unlike the road, runs on an embankment well above high water level. On several occasions, the night was spent on a platform at Kaduruwela Station, and in the morning their vehicle was loaded onto a bogie (flat car) of the train for a leisurely ride to Valaichchenai.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was also possible to fly with an Air Ceylon DC3 (Dakota) and later an Avro Turboprop via Uhana near Ampara to Batticaloa. Thilo did this when workers were at the bungalow site and a vehicle was available to take him from Batticaloa Airfield and take him back there later.
He remembers two episodes there. The first was on a return flight. By the time all passengers had boarded, the plane was packed, probably overloaded. It turned up and, with increasing speed, rolled in a northerly direction to the far end of the runway. But it wasn’t fast enough to take off. The pilot aborted the attempt, turned the aircraft over, taxied back to the takeoff point and tried again. The result was the same. Only on the third attempt did he just manage to get airborne. If he hadn’t done that, Thilo would have asked to get off!
Another time, Thilo and a friend arrived late at the airport. The plane was still on the runway, the door open and the steps in place. The airport manager told the two passengers to wait a short distance from the plane, then went in and came out a few minutes later. As soon as he stepped onto the ground, the door was closed and the plane took off. The pilot, says Thilo, apparently wanted to teach the two passengers a lesson and left them sitting. They had no choice but to take the night mail, the most uncomfortable train ride Thilo had experienced. He lay awake on a sticky, plastic-covered “Sleeperette.” Cars were shunted and goods noisily loaded at all stations, and it took almost 12 hours to get to Colombo.
The tranquility and charm of Thenaddi Bay was shattered when, in later years, lime kiln mudalalis from the south began to expand their operations into the area. The reefs were ruthlessly exploited and crowbared open, and trees, even coconut palms, were felled to fuel the furnaces. Dynamiting became common, and the ornamental fish trade descended on the reefs to continue their destructive and exhausting activities. Tourists began to arrive.
Thilo tried to stem the tide with varying degrees of success. The LTTE proved to be the most environmentally conscious. They strictly forbade the breaking off of corals and, unlike the government, were of course promptly complied with.
The house and grounds at Thenaddi Bay survived the conflict in the East until 1992 during the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) and LTTE occupation, when it was used by them as a training camp. Then, encouraged by the Tigers before they left, the complex was ransacked by villagers who carted away anything that could be broken or torn down, including the well rings. The home and outbuildings, which had easily withstood the cyclone of November 1978 despite standing directly in its path, were no match for human greed and destructiveness. Later Thilo noticed his bricks, roof panels, reapers and rafters and beams in many new houses in Kankerni and beyond.
He recalled the unidentified ruins of old planter bungalows along the east coast he had seen on previous visits (for example to the Easter Seaton Estate) and had a very heavy granite tablet – over 100 kg – set in the paved floor of his own bungalow buried. It bore the inscription:
This house was built by
This also disappeared. But the gleaming white walls withstood the elements for a dozen more years, until the December 2004 tsunami crushed the rectangle’s weakened front. The jungle, trees, palms and shrubs were cut down for firewood and later the land was cleared for cultivation. The area became a desert with all vegetation destroyed and was kept that way by the forces that had set up camp nearby. This was destroyed by the tsunami. Only then did the vegetation begin to recover.
Thilo used to visit the place regularly and Alagiah, mentioned in a later chapter, took care of him again. Thilo recently gave the property to Nicholas Baumann, Guido’s son. It is his wish that this land remains in the private and personal possession of Nicholas as a legacy from him and also in memory of his late wife.
AMONG THE TIGERS
Throughout the period of armed conflict, Thilo had many encounters with the LTTE. He traveled to the parts of the eastern and northern provinces occupied by them in connection with his holdings in Kayankerni, the annual waterfowl census (see Chapter VIII) – e.g. on the coastal stretch north of Trinco, at Marichchukkaddi, in Mannar and on the Jaffna Peninsula – and also just out of interest to Jaffna, Delft and Mullaitivu.
Some of the tigers were friendly, others were threatening and obstructive, and sometimes there were risky situations. Forced checkpoints on both sides, where vehicles and people were meticulously searched, made travel dangerous, slow, and tedious. Its incursions into LTTE held areas have been fairly frequent during two periods. The first was during the IPKF’s fight against the Tigers, between October 1987 and March 1990. At that time there were also paramilitary groups and camps in various places, to the east of EPRLF and ENDLF and to the north in addition of PLOTE, Telo, Eros. After the Indian forces left, they were all liquidated by the LTTE.
Once at a checkpoint near Karainagar, and after explaining the waterfowl count as the reason for his stay, he had a long chat with a captain in the Indian Army about the situation on the peninsula. At one point the Captain asked the rhetorical question, “Can’t you talk some sense into these fellows to at least take a stand together?” He referred to the various Tamil factions that were at each other’s throats.
In Jaffna and the islands, Mannar area, Vanni and east, the Indian troops erected many small shrines (mostly dedicated to the Hindu deity Ganesha) and plaques emphasizing their peaceful intentions. These were set up along highways, at intersections and bridges. Today there is no trace of them: all were subsequently destroyed by the tigers. Even then there were many decaying and crumbling houses and mansions, not because of damage in the conflict, but because their owners were forced to flee the areas and abandon their homes.
By May 1990, two months after the IPKF left Sri Lanka, the LTTE was in complete control of the northern and eastern provinces with the exception of Trincomalee. When Thilo visited his estate in Thenaddi Bay, it was like stepping in and out of a foreign country. The tigers manning the checkpoints looked menacing.
At the end of the month, Thilo left Renaddi Bay for Jaffna in his Peugeot car, together with Geepal Fernando and Siva, his cook. He went to Trincomalee, via the six ferries and then through Nilaveli and Kuchchaveli. At the next ferry they entered Tigerland again. Here they noticed the movement of rebel fighters. They visited Tiriyai, which was in prime condition, and proceeded to Pulmoddai, then inland to Kebitigollewa and Vavuniya. They were late and by nightfall they had just crossed Elephant Pass onto the peninsula.
They noticed a brand new Mitsubishi Pajero jeep following them at high speed. They were overtaken near Pallai and told to stop. Luckily Siva spoke Tamil. After some questions and answers, without the jeep boss in sight, the operator ordered all three to get out. They were dumped at the curb with their luggage, which included binoculars and several cans of petrol. Both vehicles then drove away.
On the other side of the Bund here, next to the road – which had once been the railway line – was a property owned by an elderly Tamil couple. They took in the “refugees”. An attempt was made to hire a taxi to go to Jaffna where Baurs had a branch, but no driver dared to go against the Tigers’ wishes. Early the next morning their host traveled to Jaffna by bus and brought with him the branch manager, Mr. N. Rajathevan who drove Thilo and the others to Jaffna in his old Volkswagen.
There, Thilo tried to complain to the LTTE military commander, but to no avail. He was busy with the visit of Government Minister ACS Hameed, who was due for negotiations that evening. Desperate, they went to the LTTE Political Headquarters in Kondavil, where they met Anton Balasingham. The situation was quite embarrassing for him. She was created by the military commander of the Pallai Sector. He wanted to secure a car. There was a special reason. When asked why, the PR officer at the LTTE’s Jaffna Military Headquarters replied, “Because there will be a war.” During their stay, the travelers noticed intensive war preparations with new bunkers and troop movements.
Thilo and the manager patiently spent three days at the political headquarters, meeting with Anton Balasingham, his wife Adele (and their white dog), as well as Daya Master and other Tigers. (Almost 15 years later, after the tsunami, the fact that Daya Master remembered Thilo facilitated a visit to Mullaitivu). Then, on the evening of the third day, the white Peugeot was brought in, hardly damaged. The next day they left Jaffna. Two weeks later, a massive Tiger offensive defeated the army on the peninsula and beyond. It was the beginning of the “Eelam War II”.
Ranjan Wijeratne, then deputy defense minister, was a personal friend of Thilo. Thilo says: “At the time, I actually thought of meeting him and telling him what we saw and heard, but then I thought it was presumptuous, since as a military officer he would certainly know about the situation east and north.” Unfortunately I was wrong about that. They were completely taken by surprise and I still feel pretty guilty to this day.”
The second period when Thilo often traveled to tiger-held areas was during the 2002-2006 ceasefire. All of these trips are recorded, some in great detail, in Thilo’s numerous notebooks, which will be described later.