The Digital Journalist
In Sri Lanka

by Norman Ng

September 2006

My mobile phone rings, dancing across the table in the dim light of my hotel room. The caller ID flashes the name of Gemunu Amarasinghe – a Colombo-based Associated Press photographer. I press the green button.

"Come now, there's a bomb that went off at Kolpity junction," says Gemunu on the other end.

I have been in Sri Lanka for less than 12 hours, and after a night of exhausting travel I am still drunk from lack of sleep. Nonetheless, I unpack my cameras and sling them over my shoulders. Out in the streets, I flag down a ubiquitous tuk-tuk with a wave of the hand. A quick negotiation, and we are off. The tuk-tuk weaves effortlessly past the Colombo afternoon traffic with horns blaring.

"Where you from, sir?" asked the driver – a standard question asked by almost all tuk-tuk drivers from whom I have hired a ride.

"Singapore," I answered nonchalantly, my mind distracted.

"Singapore very nice, no?" he said. Then almost reading my mind, he said, "Colombo always bomb. Too many Tiger cells here."

Blood stains the shattered windshield of an army jeep that was hit by a claymore mine blast in the Kollupitiya district of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Mon., August 14, 2006. The blast was intended to assassinate Col. Bashir Wali Mohamed, the Pakistani High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, who escaped unharmed. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) has been blamed for the attack.

Norman Ng/Polaris
The Tigers he is referring to are the Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in official nomenclature. Terrorists to some, freedom fighters to others, the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a state independent of Sri Lanka for more than two decades, in one of the longest ongoing civil wars in the world. Beginning as an armed guerilla movement in the 1970s by the Tamil minority against the policy of official discrimination by the Singhalese majority, the Tamil Tigers have grown in strength and sophistication to engage in set piece battles with the Sri Lankan Army (SLA). Both sides declared a cease-fire in 2002 and the optimistic see that as a step towards a more permanent peace. In the last weeks, however, those hopes were shattered when a dispute over an irrigation waterway escalated into armed clashes. The cease-fire now exists only in memory as both sides are embroiled in what is essentially a full-scale war.

A steady downpour has begun adding to the misery of the afternoon heat. The wet monsoon season is not yet over. We arrive promptly at Kolpity junction to find that a solid wall of curious bystanders has formed at the site – each clutching umbrellas that together form a kaleidoscope of colors. A line of khaki-uniformed police officers with raincoats and assault rifles keeps them at bay.

I squeeze past the mass of humanity and enter the bomb site. An army jeep had crashed completely through a wall; splatters of blood coagulate on the upholstery and shattered windshield, its sides and back peppered with massive shrapnel damage. It looks like it has been blasted with a giant shotgun because the shrapnel pattern is almost neat – evidence that a claymore mine has been used. This was clearly an ambush.

A car lies shattered and burned next to a wall with shrapnel damage at the site of a claymore mine blast in the Kollupitiya district of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Mon., August 14. The blast was intended to assassinate Col. Bashir Wali Mohamed, the Pakistani High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, who escaped unharmed, but four army personnel and three civilians died in the attack.

Norman Ng/Polaris
Because it is triggered remotely above ground, a claymore mine is of a different order from others. It was first used in large numbers during the Vietnam War, primarily in a defensive or ambush role. About the size of a paperback book, the claymore has two sets of legs to set the mine in place with the business end towards the enemy. Upon detonation, 700 steel ball bearings are projected towards the enemy in a shotgun effect to devastating effect.

The claymore mine was hidden in a parked tuk-tuk, and the trap was sprung when an army convoy escorting a Pakistani diplomat entered the kill zone. The diplomat escaped the assassination but four soldiers in the escorting jeep perished. The force of the explosion had wrapped some metal parts around an adjacent wrought iron gate. Across the road is the familiar spread pattern of claymore shrapnel splattered against a high wall; a nearby car also lies shattered and torched. A legion of police officers and forensics scientists swarm the now mangled tuk-tuk looking for clues.

A 4-year-old girl cries from burns received during an artillery shelling of her hometown of Muttur on Fri., August 18, 2006. She is now a refugee at Kantale, Sri Lanka. Tamil Tigers and government forces are engaged in combat in the north and east of the country. UNHCR estimates that there are now more than 150,000 people in Sri Lanka displaced by the fighting.

Norman Ng/Polaris
Although the LTTE is suspected, they have not claimed responsibility for the attack. It is widely believed that the Pakistani diplomat is targeted because of his country's involvement in the sale of arms to the Sri Lankan government, and because another major arms transaction is about to take place. The majority of heavy fighting takes place far from the capital, but the LTTE always finds a way to bring the war to the capital.

The rain shows no sign of letting up. I hail another tuk-tuk taxi and return to the hotel to prepare for a trip to Trincomalee on the other side of the island. The city is only a few miles from the front lines and heavy fighting in the area has displaced tens of thousands of people. Surrounding towns have been turned into makeshift refugee camps; their numbers swell daily.

My mobile phone beeps with a text message; it is from my good friend and fellow journalist Jason Gutierrez from AFP – Norm, heavy artillery reported in Trinco. Keep head down, bud.

© Norman Ng

Norman Ng stumbled across photojournalism as a senior at the University of Michigan and since then he has worked for major metropolitan daily newspapers like the Charlotte Observer and the Kansas City Star. His work has taken him to cover the tsunami aftermath in Aceh, sulphur mining in Java and Hurricane Katrina devastation in New Orleans. On January 2006, Norman moved to Asia in order to cover stories closer to home and his heart. Norman Ng is currently based out of sunny Singapore and is available for assignments. His work is represented by OnAsia Images and World Picture News. Write to Norman Ng at e-mail: Phone: +65 9675-8459.

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