How “Dark Tourism” Warps Our Understanding of History
Hasanthika Sirisena on the Commodification of War
Civil War battle site tourism, tourism to visit World War I and World War II battlefields, visits to Auschwitz all fall under the category of war tourism. In other words, visitors who never lived through the war—or most likely any war—pay money to go to a site and be accompanied by a tour guide—if at all possible a survivor able to provide a firsthand account. War tourism has a long history. Scholars John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, in a work published in 2000, accorded this type of tourism a more sinister appellation—dark tourism. Dark tourism is a broader category that includes tours to former sites of any type of catastrophe, natural or man-mad. In The Darker Side of Travel, Richard Sharpley and Philip R. Stone define dark tourism this way: “the act of travel to sites associated with death, suffering, and the seeming macabre.”
War tourists don’t limit their travels to places in which conflict is a thing of the past. A destination tour website in the UK happily touts that tourism to Afghanistan has increased 100 percent and tourism to Iraqi Kurdistan, it appears, has increased by 70 percent.
The question is what attracts visitors to such sites. Sharpley and Stone offer a few reasons. Visitors may be drawn by “a simple morbid curiosity, through schadenfreude, by a collective sense of identity or survival ‘in the face of violent disruptions of collective life routines.’” Novelty, the desire to participate in your own adventure narrative, and nostalgia are also posited as potential reasons. A voyeuristic impulse is a motivator. Grief plays a role.
It’s true that there’s a huge divide between visiting Antietam on a Saturday afternoon and paying thousands of dollars to travel to Aleppo. But, according to Sharpley and Stone, what characterizes all war tourism is an emphasis on extreme otherness. The contrivances of Disney World and Las Vegas are designed for the tourist’s comfort and enjoyment, but the dark tourist site promises an “authentic” brush with death, grief, mayhem, murder. And the experience promises to be transformative: the dark tourist goes from passive bystander and mere consumer of history to witness, with all the uniqueness and privilege that being a witness affords in this culture.
Expertly curated sites such as Auschwitz and Gettysburg National Military Park exist on the same continuum as the war tours conducted in the former Yugoslavia or in Sri Lanka. The dictum “Never Again” coexists uneasily with a thirst for the morbid. Perhaps the only true measure of how tasteful a war tourism site is, then, is the amount of time that has passed since the main event. Any tourist who trespasses that line too soon risks being haunted by a sense of their own rapaciousness. As Alfred Ely, one of the original Civil War dark tourists writes in his memoir, “Among other things, I found that to visit battlefields as a mere pastime, or with the view of gratifying a panting curiosity, or for the sake of listening to the roar of shotted artillery, and the shrill music of flying shells (which motives however were not exactly mine) is neither a safe thing in itself, nor a justifiable use of the passion which Americans are said to possess for public spectacle.”
My cousin and my friends have spent their entire lives in the middle of a war. They are either divorced or unmarried and none of them have children. In fact, of the whole group of friends only a handful is married. This gives them a lot of freedom to travel—they’ve traveled all over the world—and a great deal of disposable income. In the 90s, the government claimed that Sri Lanka’s universities—many of them of very high quality and well-respected throughout the world—were hotbeds of political agitation and shut them down. Many college-aged students left the country to attend university overseas and, because of the political situation, never returned.
It seems to me that men were more able to leave than women since women were expected to shoulder the burden of caring for their parents. These women who remained have done well—become bankers, lawyers, journalists, politicians. My cousin and my friends are successful, but you can hear in the way they speak a sense of loss, a sense of something important being missed, and occasionally of bitterness.The sites that the soldiers escorted us to were caught in some halfway stage between what they had once been and a stop in an almost theme-park-like series of attractions.
For most of the journey to the North of Sri Lanka the A9 was paved, but as we drew closer we hit rough patches—places where the road was heavily pitted or even parts that had never been properly paved. The government had recently committed itself to repairing the A9 as part of a massive development project in the North and had received most of its funding from China. Part of the conditions of the funding—or so the newspapers reported—was that the government use Chinese workers. As we drove we saw tents shielding helmeted Chinese road workers from the sun as they sipped at teacups. Every thirty miles or so, we were stopped at a checkpoint or passed an army regiment bivouacked at a point in the distance. Any sense that the LTTE had ever patrolled the A9 had disappeared.
The landscape of northern Sri Lanka is very different from that of the southern region. Most of Sri Lanka is verdant, green, lush with jungle vegetation. But Jaffna appears vast and flat—all hard clay and limestone dotted by the tree that is the symbol of the region, the Palmyra, a tall palm with a thin trunk topped by a crest of palm fronds that make it look a little like a giant green and brown Q-tip. The houses are often painted bold shades—blue, pink, apricot, as if to defy the monotone earth tones of the surrounding terrain. Candy-striped stucco walls mark a Hindu shrine or temple.
Sri Lankans in the South can be dismissive of the Jaffna landscape, refer to it as ugly. Whereas the landscapes of the South are jammed-packed with people, cars, animals, and billboards, the landscapes of the North emanate the rugged, off putting barrenness we associate with deserts. Leonard Woolf served as an administrator in Jaffna for several years. He wrote of Jaffna in his memoir Growing: “Here again is one of those featureless plains the beauty of which is only revealed to you after you have lived with it long enough to be absorbed into its melancholy solitude and immensity.”
As we drew closer to Kilinochchi, once the seat of the LTTE, the yellow caution tape marked in English, Sinhala, and Tamil with the word MINE became ubiquitous. We passed at another point female villagers—deminers—decked out in white helmets and visors kneeling hunched forward so they could examine the ground. (The CEO of one of the NGOs involved in demining operations in the North and Northeast informed me that the NGOs who recruit these women are very careful to ensure their safety. She was very proud of the fact that up to the point I spoke to her, no civilian deminer had been killed.)
The mood in the van shifted. We listened to ABBA and Eagles on the way, and we didn’t stop the music, but my friends began to share their memories of the war. One friend recounted how during the university shutdowns she’d lied to her parents and snuck into movie theaters during the day. “I’d sit there and feel terrible,” she admitted. “I thought, what if the theater was bombed and I was killed. My parents would know I had been going with boys.”
When we arrived at our first stop, an army jeep drew up next to us, and soldiers hopped out. What I hadn’t expected, and what makes the war tour I participated in Sri Lanka unusual, was that our tour was almost entirely coordinated by the Sri Lanka Army Security Forces headquartered in the area. Essentially, soldiers became our tour guides. Most were officers, though a few were infantrymen. My cousin and my friends decided that I shouldn’t speak much—we didn’t want to invite any inquiries into where I was from or have them ask for my papers and that I shouldn’t take notes, at least not during the tour itself. I resolved not to draw attention to myself. I can’t say I wasn’t frightened—we were dealing with soldiers after all— but it did seem to me that the soldiers were cowed by the presence of six affluent, well-dressed, women from Colombo. They were many of them garrulous, effusive with information, and shared at every moment possible insights into their lives during the war.
The sites that the soldiers escorted us to were caught in some halfway stage between what they had once been and a stop in an almost theme-park-like series of attractions. The army had, I was very surprised to see, erected signs in both English and Sinhala (but not Tamil). The signs were not written in the well-researched, semi-academic prose that you associate with markers at most historic sites. Instead the signs touted carefully worded propaganda meant to exalt the military and to remind the viewers—the Sri Lanka Armed Forces clearly expected the viewers to be mostly foreigners and Sinhalese—of the terrible deeds the LTTE committed.
At a swimming pool used to train LTTE divers, the signage read: “While the nation was swarming with pools of blood with the spate of LTTE’s heinous crimes elsewhere, the terrorist had constructed this huge swimming pool in 2001 for exclusive use of the cream of terrorists.” Over two days, the Security Forces escorted us to bunkers used by LTTE leaders, a makeshift war museum exhibiting LTTE weaponry, an LTTE village, an LTTE junkyard, even restricted areas of Mullaitivu including Puthumathalan, which was the site of some of the heaviest fighting in the final days of the war.
At an LTTE prison, the soldiers led us to the empty prison cells. They told us this secret prison in the middle of the jungle was where the Tigers had held Sri Lanka Armed Forces soldiers and Tamils whom the Tigers considered traitors. The steel doors of most of the cells had been removed and the doorways, all placed at regular intervals, stood empty, six long slivers of darkness, stark against the egg-carton-gray prison walls. A large margosa tree arced over the building on one side. Behind the prison, a stretch of red clay dirt bloomed where the grass had begun to die away. A miasma of clay dust, kicked up by our van and the army jeeps that escorted us to the prison, hung in the air. The landscape shimmered behind it, slightly distorted, like objects viewed through a scrim. It was early afternoon, and the sun had begun to bear down, searing the skin on the back of my neck. Between the two buildings was a long trench now overgrown with grass. The soldiers told us that during heavy shelling the LTTE made the prisoners shelter inside the trenches.
The soldiers urged us to take pictures. One soldier gestured to me to follow him, and I did. He led me to a cell and demanded I step inside. The cell was narrow, barely four feet in width, and there was just enough room for me and another friend who had joined me when the soldier began to lead me away.
The soldier waited outside the cell as my friend and I entered. He yelled to us that most of the Tamils kept in the prison were Christian. This was only our first day of our war tour, but I already felt depressed, scared by the presence of so many soldiers, and overwhelmed. The cell was dark, except for a small window on the far end covered with bars. The outline of some sort of ledge was barely visible underneath. I didn’t try to explore it. I was sorry to be standing there at all.
On the wall spread a chalk drawing of an enormous tree, the branches and leaves curving and intertwining together to form an intricate network of abstract shapes. There was also writing in Tamil that none of us, my friend, the soldier, or me, could read, and a series of numbers. My friend asked the soldier what the numbers meant. He shrugged because he either didn’t know or didn’t care. “It’s a calendar,” I replied.
The Sri Lanka Army’s motives, at the time we arrived, might not have been entirely triumphal. General Sarath Fonseka, one of the architects of the campaign that had ended the civil war, had been arrested a few months before on charges of corruption. The feeling among the army was that the arrest was unjust and politically motivated—Sarath Fonseka had attempted to run against the president in 2009. Many of the officers and soldiers must have also been aware of some of the war crimes allegations being leveled against them by the Western press, Tamil journalists and politicians, and even some members of the Colombo elite. These war crimes allegations included bombings of civilian targets and genocidal rape.
One of the many stops on our war tour was the former LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s bunker. The soldiers ushered us into the first level—a spare room with a cot to one side. The mattress had been stripped bare and the fabric was stained brown with sweat and age. Over the bed hung a framed portrait of Prabhakaran in camouflage standing next to the LTTE flag. On a far wall rested a garment rack; a neatly pressed and folded combat uniform hung from one of the rungs. In the corner, on a cushioned bench, sat a large, stuffed toy cheetah. The walls had been painted a light blue, paint chips peeling from the wall. The room was lit with a single light bulb. The air tasted heavy on the tongue and faintly bitter.
Whoever had designed this room had reconstituted it to resemble one of those “this-is-how-they-lived” displays you find in museums, with only the velvet rope barrier missing. But there existed a sparse—haphazard—feel to the whole creation that put me off a bit, as if a child had pieced it all together. My cousins and my friends walked around snapping pictures.
After we had spent ten minutes in what appeared to be Prabhakaran’s bedroom the soldier led us down a rickety staircase to a bottom level. According to the soldiers, the entire bunker was multiple stories and included secret passageways that would provide Prabhakaran escape if necessary. The one level we were shown was dark, lit by a faint bulb strung from the ceiling. I couldn’t see much of anything except that there appeared to be a lot of wood and metal on the ground. The concrete walls secreted an intestinal ooze that glistened in the half light. By then I could barely follow the soldier’s Sinhala and couldn’t make out my cousin or any of my friends in the dark. A military engineer—a good friend of one of the women on the tour with me—had joined us, and he offered a few facts in English—dimensions and information of what the room had been used for originally. He called it a war room.
When we came back up, I noticed an object sitting on what I assumed was once Prabhakaran’s bedside table. It was metal, the dimensions of a crock-pot. I asked my friend to ask a soldier what it was. He shook his head at her question. My friend offered that perhaps it was for developing film canisters, though that didn’t seem right to me. I had studied photography in art school. I did know enough to recognize it was mostly likely some sort of centrifuge. In the van, I drew up a quick sketch of the object. When I returned to Colombo I determined, through some research on the Internet, what it really was—a centrifuge used for plasma separation. Prabhakaran, a diabetic, would have needed to be able to get accurate medical results if he spent a long time in the bunker. I don’t know why but the centrifuge stays with me.
Dark Tourist: Essays by Hasanthika Sirisena is available via Mad Creek Books.