Civil War Sites in northern Sri Lanka

  - darkometer rating: 7 -
Since the end of the Civil War in Sri Lanka, the areas in the north and east of the country, which previously had been too dangerous for tourism, have opened up. It is now quite safe to go and a tourism infrastructure is developing.
As far as war sites are concerned, there are still plenty of scars from the brutal final phases of that war – ruins, wrecks of tanks and ships, ghost towns, as well as several new war memorials celebrating the victory of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), i.e. the government side (with too much glorifying pomp, as usual). Less developed, obviously, but still to be found are relics from the defeated opponents, the Tamil Tigers or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to give it its full name. (Eelam, by the way, was the suggested name of the proposed independent Tamil state that the separatists fought for.)
In terms of internal tourism, a thriving "dark tourism" trade already developed not long after the end of the fighting – i.e. Sri Lankans flocking to these places to see them with their own eyes (mostly for the first time). It caused somewhat of a stir in the (Western) media – in the usual "moral panic" fashion (see here). The media tend to see any such development as "problematic", dismissing any genuine interest in such recent history as nothing but plain voyeurism (although that accusation is rarely justifiable in actual fact).
Admittedly, given the recentness of that history, it is a bit controversial to touristify these war sites so soon already (see ethical issues). But it is a reality. Furthermore, the nascent tourism developments also channel much needed funding into the region. So it is at least economically to be welcomed! Some also see it as dubious that the SLA itself is involved in setting up tourism accommodation, for instance. But then again, what are the alternatives? Now that the Army has finished its primary job up here and has nothing to do, isn't it better to see the soldiers engage in this rather than anything involving their weapons?
Foreigners going to the same places are still much rarer on the ground, but it is possible to go there. So if you can handle the slightly controversial aspects (I could!), then this promises to be a very exciting new territory for adventurous dark tourists. It may even be advisable to go sooner rather than later!
The company I co-operate with in this area – Experience Travel Group (sponsored page) – already have one package in their portfolio that includes options of this nature, and they can always tailor trips to fit in travellers' special interests even more.
Why go sooner rather than later? Well, there have already been changes and more have to be expected. In particular, there was the former HQ of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers (who was killed in 2009). This was a three-storey deep bunker of reinforced concrete, which had for a while become a highlight of dark tourism in the area. But it has since been blown up and wiped off the map. This was obviously out of concerns over it potentially becoming a propaganda shrine of sorts, possibly reigniting hostile feelings towards the government victors.
But plenty of other war-related dark attractions remain in place. However, more parts of what is described below (especially ruins and wrecks) may also disappear at some point or may already have been removed/demolished by now.
One of the most dramatic sights to behold in the area is that of a huge shipwreck, called the Farah III – a Jordanian vessel once hijacked by the Tamil Tigers and beached on the north-eastern coast to be stripped for scrap metal. The massive rusting hulk of the ship was still there when my contacts in Sri Lanka last visited.
Nearby, a couple of miles south in Mullaitivu there's an intriguing war museum displaying ingeniously adapted war machinery used by the Tamil Tigers including mini submarines and such like. Next to this one of those new kitschy war memorials was set up by the victorious side.
Further west inland in Pudukuduirippu (one of the last strongholds of the LTTE) many war ruins can still be seen. Also further north, in an isolated location not far from the Farah III wreck, the LTTE swimming pool that the Tamil Tiger leadership had set up for training naval operations has been discovered and could still be seen in its semi-ruined state a while ago. Whether that is still there, I do not know.
Moving further northwards along the main A9 highway, the town of Kilinochchi features another victors' war memorial – this one slightly less kitschy, but still a bit weird. It features a cracked concrete wall with a mock grenade shell embedded in it. A bit further north of this, a large toppled water tower lying on its side by the main road became a much-photographed war ruin (but whether it is still there or remains there for long is hard to say).
Another overly "grand" war memorial towers above the road where it becomes Elephant Pass – on the narrow isthmus that connects the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of Sri Lanka. Nearby, various rusting wrecks of tanks and other military vehicles could be spotted, as well as more ruins of houses. Even the palm trees suffered – and many stumps without crowns characterized the area at the end of the war. These are naturally ephemeral traces of the war that will gradually disappear as nature reclaims the former battlefields.
Finally the road leads to Jaffna, the regional capital and largest city of the north. Some war scars may still be found here too – but many others have been repaired or removed. Even a "martyrs' cemetery" of the LTTE has apparently been bulldozed over in a campaign to minimize any propagandistic legacy of the defeated enemy.
And last but not least, north-west of Jaffna on a small island near Sri Lanka's northernmost coast opposite the southern tip of India, an old Portuguese/Dutch fort from colonial times called Fort Hammenhiel has been turned into part of a tourist resort. That alone wouldn't be so spectacular as such, but what makes it noteworthy from a dark tourism perspective is the fact that this used to be a high-security prison run by the Navy! (Weird! – a bit like "turning Guantanamo Bay into a hotel", my contact from Experience Travel Group said ...).
All in all there's evidently plenty of potential for unusual dark tourism in the north of Sri Lanka – but the general advice is to hurry. Things will change and less and less authentic sites will survive. I'd go tomorrow if I could, but other plans currently have priority. But I hope I can go within the next couple of years ... watch this place for updates.
Locations: around the northern top quarter of Sri Lanka – specific locations are given below:
[9.314218,80.791603] – Farah III wreck
[9.321595,80.724845] – monument and war museum Mullaitivu
[9.30854,80.784787] – Pudukuduirippu war ruins (last LTTE stronghold)
[9.36059,80.687912] – LTTE swimming pool
[9.382862,80.408806] – war memorial in Kilinochchi
[9.394882,80.408634] – toppled water tower ruin in Kilinochchi
[9.523697,80.40703] – war memorial by Elephant Pass
[9.66,80.011] – Jaffna
[9.711616,79.848066] – Fort Hammenhiel north-west of Jaffna
All photos below taken by Tom Armstrong, courtesy of Experience Travel Group (sponsored page).  
  • northern Sri Lanka 1 - Farah III wrecknorthern Sri Lanka 1 - Farah III wreck
  • northern Sri Lanka 2 - rusty wrecknorthern Sri Lanka 2 - rusty wreck
  • northern Sri Lanka 3 - military vehicle wreckagenorthern Sri Lanka 3 - military vehicle wreckage
  • northern Sri Lanka 4 - war museum piecesnorthern Sri Lanka 4 - war museum pieces
  • northern Sri Lanka 5 - rusty old gunnorthern Sri Lanka 5 - rusty old gun
  • northern Sri Lanka 6 - some cages in the war museumnorthern Sri Lanka 6 - some cages in the war museum
  • northern Sri Lanka 7 - kitschy war memorialnorthern Sri Lanka 7 - kitschy war memorial
  • northern Sri Lanka 8 - slightly less kitschy war memorialnorthern Sri Lanka 8 - slightly less kitschy war memorial
  • northern Sri Lanka 9 - toppled water towernorthern Sri Lanka 9 - toppled water tower

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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