Arriving in Sri Lanka end of January this year, it struck me that over the past one and a half years, this was the third country with a really dreadful past that I was travelling.
Visiting a country and learning about its history can lead you to quite dark places.
I’m not talking ’bout Stalingrad and WWII. No, here, dreadful past has been so recent that I do remember it being present, watching the news as a child.
How is that even possible? Am I subconsciously searching for terror and horror? Am I a dark tourist? Or is the world, sadly, just a quite somber place?
So between November 2017 and February 2019, I’ve been i. a. in Cambodia, Croatia, and now Sri Lanka. Albeit all three are beautiful countries with a rich cultural heritage, breathtaking sceneries, and very friendly people, I knew about them mainly from the news. Bad news. Civil wars. People slaughtering each other. Ethnic cleansing. Unspeakable things.
And actually, at least in the blogging community, I seem to be one of the very few travel writers mentioning these things – and explaining backgrounds in the measure they are explainable.
I wonder why that is. Isn’t also a somber side of a country still a side of that place? It certainly has an impact on the locals – I mean, I’m talking about conflicts that took place in the 1970s and even more recently.
The other day, a woman got defensive in a travel group on facebook: That specific page wouldn’t be about politics. How can a travel group possibly not be about politics? Even if you are an airhead who doesn’t really care on which beach you’re hanging out – already that is a political statement; and a very bold one.
When you go to Dubrovnik, you actually don’t need to take a Game of Thrones tour to get goosebumps: In 1991 and 1992, the city has been under siege for more than seven months – this is far more spine-tingling than any fiction.
The Graves of Croatian soldiers who died in the Croatian war between 1991 and 1994 shows that there has been more violence than GoT shows.
Although I was born in Czechoslovakia, I do have a German passport and I’m based in Germany; in a country that initiated two world wars and left a bloody trace throughout the European continent. Albeit WWII ended 74 years ago, Germany is packed with memorials and these Stolpersteine*, tripping stones, located in front of houses where Jewish people used to live – Germany seems to be in a neverending process of coming to terms with its past.
The “Stolpersteine” – tripping stones – remembering German painter Felix Nussbaum and his parents in front of their erstwhile villa at the Schlosstrasse 11 in Osnabrück. All three of them were murdered at the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
Maybe that’s the reason why I was so shocked that other countries like the former Yugoslavian people where ethnic cleansing took place, too, villages including their inhabitants were basically erased, people were put in camps….crimes very similar to those that German soldiers committed….they seem to have moved on so quickly and easily; and visitors seem to be totally unconcerned by this recent history.
In Sri Lanka, where the civil war ended only ten years ago so that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, must be around, you don’t notice anything if you don’t want to. You basically have to search for traces and scars – in books, in the media like for instance the award-winning documentary called Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, produced by the British TV station Channel 4. Before I opened this link on YouTube, I was asked twice if I wanted to continue due to the more than disturbing images this documentary contains.
This film shows events that happened where now package tourist groups are enjoying their vacation.
Judging from these placards, picking tea is not the fanciest trade; a job mostly done by the Tamil minority.
What to me is far more irritating, though, is the fact that even individual travellers, backpackers, flashpacker – my peers – don’t seem to be aware – let alone care.
However, it’s a bit different in Viet Nam. You must be living under a gigantic rock if you haven’t heard about the Viet Nam war – respectively the American war, as the Vietnamese call it. And probably that’s exactly the point: This war has been covered by the media also because the United States were involved.
Irritatingly, the Cu Chi memorial is a bit Disney Land-ish: Viet Cong dummies at your disposal. You can buy some of their attire at the gift shop.
In Viet Nam’s neighboring country Cambodia, things are a bit different: No trip to Phnom Penh is complete without a visit to the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields. It’s good that here, the horrific genocide against the own people is documented – however, I found it more than disturbing that it is referred to as an attraction.
Yes, there are still bones. And there are rags that the people were wearing when they were murdered.
When you advertise for an infamous place like this as if it was just another tourist attraction, you cannot be surprised that people treat it that way: Everyone takes pictures of the victims’ skulls that are stacked in a stupa.
While I understand that in a Buddhist country it has a meaning storing these remains in a stupa, I presume that no one needs to see a picture to understand that these people were killed. When you visit and you see the mass graves and the tree they smashed the babies and you listen to the audio guide, you really don’t need a picture of a tower of skulls.
I don’t like the idea that the remains of these poor victims are being used to get the creeps.
Whatever happened to R.I.P.?
Most people take pictures of the skulls that are on display at the Choeung Ek Pagoda as a memorial for those who were murdered there. To me, these pictures have something almost voyeuristic to it. Everybody knows that we have skulls and what they look like. I find that a sign that stops you from trampling on mass graves underlines the horror in a much deeper way.
Whether Viet Nam, Cambodia, or Sri Lanka, the internal differences that lead to conflicts and eventually to wars were seeded by colonialism: The Portuguese came, exploited, imposed their language and religion and what not on the people until the Dutch took over and later the Britons.
Agreed, colonial architecture – like this wall around the Galle Fort in Sri Lanka, built by the Dutch – is pretty. But the historical and political background is much less so.
Actually, there was little tension among Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups. The conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils was fueled by the British Governors of what used to be their crown colony Ceylon: They filled governmental positions with Tamil officials and a Tamil, Ponnambalam Arunachalam, was even appointed a representative in the national legislative council of both – the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. Naturally, this lead to a counterblow by the Sinhalese who began to discriminate against the Tamils who then intended to establish an independent state on Sri Lankan grounds, Tamil Eelam. Point is, if the British didn’t mess things up in the first place, the mutual adversity wouldn’t have been there or at least not to the point of a civil war.
French colonial landmark Notre Dame cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City, once called Saigon. that besides the name has nothing in common with the Parisian relative: instead of Gothic, this one is built in a neo-roman style from stones imported from Marseille.
Same goes for Indochine, i.e. what now is Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos: The French settled down, introduced what for them was the savoir vivre, brought their culture including Catholicism which divided the people. Some wanted to become some sort of an Asian version of Europe, others wanted to preserve local culture and heritage. Together with first European and later US-American economic and mostly political interests, it was an – literally – explosive mix.
Unfortunately, Europeans didn’t have the wish to explore, they felt the urge to conquer – and many Asian, African, and Latin American countries are still suffering from the ramifications.
Monuments like this one in Belem heroize the brave men who set out to crusades but never mention how they behaved at their final destination. What happens in the colony stays in the colony. Sad.
I do not want to botch things up for anybody and of course, nobody is obliged to dig in the past. It’s just that to me, every aspect of a country I’m visiting is relevant because I’m convinced that it has an impact on the locals – the locals I’m dealing with so obliquely also on me. And since I’m a travel blogger and do want to inform people as good as I can, these information are also part of my guides.
There are still voices claiming Leopold’s great deeds for Brussels. That’s a bit like when people are praising Adolf Hitler for construction of the Autobahn. Merits that are drowning in the blood of the people aren’t merits at all.
Being a traveller, I am responsible for where I’m going and how I travel.
Being a travel blogger takes this responsibility to a whole different level.
But do you know what’s nice?
In the countries I’m referring to in this post, the terror and the wars and the bloodshed are over.
Some of them could still work a bit on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but now, in 2019, we can pay them touristy visits –
and that’s a silver lining on my personal horizon**.
* You can learn more about the historic, political art project Stolpersteine on this site.
** I’m very sad that by the time this post has been written, a terrible terrorist attack overshadowed the positive development on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. I feel very deeply for all these wonderful people that I met on my recent trip.
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