The journey from Colombo up to Chettikulam was quick due to a vastly reduced number of vehicles on the road. We were stopped at a military checkpoint near a mosque before reaching Chettikulam. Our van was checked thoroughly after our bags were examined while we stood by the wayside.
The process took nearly half an hour. We explained to the military personnel that we were travelling to Mannar at the invitation of the Mannar District Secretary for a reconciliation programme, which did not impress them. This was the beginning of our experience and we were informed that more checking would be conducted on our way to Mannar. We were checked a further three times, which delayed our arrival by at least an hour and a half.
On the return journey we were stopped at the earlier checkpoints on Mannar island, Murunkan and Medawachchiya/Vavuniya/Mannar crossroads and Chettikulam town but we were able to explain the purpose of our visit to Mannar and were cleared to move on. What we did not expect was the extra delay at the first point where we were stopped on our way to Mannar the previous evening. We were asked to alight from the vehicle and move forward and wait till the vehicle and bags were checked thoroughly. Here, the process took nearly 45 minutes.
It transpired that our driver had displeased the officer who was checking us, and he had ordered his men to go through each of our clothes as part of the search. Before we were cleared to travel we were also warned that we will face similar checking at the next point and they will pass a message to that checkpoint.
I have experience of travel to the North and East during the height of the armed conflict but I had never experienced such sustained checking at so many checkpoints in close proximity to one another. I wonder what would have happened to us if there had been a Muslim member in our team. I only hope that the situation will return to normalcy swiftly and people can proceed with their lives unhindered as experienced by us.
At another checkpoint, after we had been cleared to proceed, a soldier discovered a small bottle of arrack (250 ML) in the cubbyhole on the side door by the driver. The driver who had been assigned for the trip stated that he did not check the vehicle before he took charge of it. As a result of the discovery of the small bottle of arrack, the officer manning the checkpoint stated that he had lost trust in us and proceeded to search the vehicle again.
At another checkpoint one soldier said that they were hungry but refused to accept a packet of biscuits, saying that his senior officers would not condone this.
We spoke to a traffic police officer who informed us that the military personnel spend nearly 30 hours at a stretch at these checkpoints. This could perhaps explain their frustrations to some degree.
Dr Joe William
Executive Director Centre for Communications Training