Synopsis: The long-fought, horrific Sri Lankan Civil War ended less than a decade ago. In this episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown, Bourdain travels to Sri Lanka’s capital and the historic home of the nation’s Tamils, Jaffna, in an attempt to understand how people there reckon with the legacy of the conflagrations that pitted the government against Tamil fighters. He bears witness to how memories of carnage have infused the nation’s arts and cuisine. From the bustling streets of Colombo, on a long trek to the north, Bourdain ends up at the starkly populated site of much of the enormous bloodshed and suffering that struck fear into Sri Lankan hearts for more than two decades.

Reckoning with a legacy of bloodshed

“For the last two decades of the war, Sri Lanka’s north was all but cut off from the rest of the world.”

  • “The war is over. At the old hotel the 50-caliber in the guard tower next door is gone, replaced by one sleepy guard. The main enemy today is not the soldiers, guerrillas, fighters, and suicide bombers of the LTTE, but the black crows who hover ominously over the breakfast buffet on the veranda. A man with a slingshot patrols the lawn, driving them away with an occasional shot.”
  • “Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. Unlike the last time that I came here, it doesn’t feel like it’s on lockdown. There are no longer the military checkpoints and heavy equipment, sandbags, or barbed wire in between the airport and the center of town. There’s a new democratically elected government, voted in by a coalition of former adversaries. Everywhere you look, construction, expansion, new hotels, foreign money. Something that looks a lot like hope. Hundreds of thousands of dead and missing later, the country is at peace, and we can go where we want. Hopefully, people will talk about their lives. Last time, they didn’t.”
  • “It’s important to remember that this was a brutal war, with atrocities on both sides. The Tamils, unable to match the government forces and military might, fought their war by other means—every means they deemed necessary. Acts of terrorism, suicide bombings, political assassinations brought retaliation and collective punishment of an equally terrible kind and enormous in scale. There were massive bombardments of civilian areas. Hundreds of thousands ended up in refugee camps. By the time it was over, war crimes had been committed on both sides, civilians paying the ultimate toll.”

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A cuisine that ‘built empires’

“Ask anyone in Sri Lanka where to find the best food and they’ll say nobody cooks as well as “aunty.” And it’s true—trust me. Often possessing the strength of 10 men, Sri Lankan aunties are a force to be reckoned with.”

  • “Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was once the crown jewel of the spice trade. Its cloves, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cinnamon, chilies, and curry—the envy of the world. These spices built empires.”
  • “Jaffna crab curry might be—for me, anyway—the holy grail of Sri Lankan cuisine. Spicy, fiery—in a cuisine known for being spicy and fiery. During the war years, it was hard to get crabs like this, and it still is today, the majority being exported to other parts of the country and abroad.”
  • “On any given day, down by the coast, Jaffna’s fish market buzzes. … Fresh product comes in, deals are made, money changes hands. Life goes on.”

Tough transitions

  • “Like many former colonies, the British left Sri Lanka in a state of disarray. The Buddhist Sinhalese majority both excluded and repressed the mostly Hindu Tamil minority, who, it was felt, were overrepresented in government employment.”
  • “This president seems to be very pro-business. There seems to be a fair amount of development going on.”
  • “After decades of cultural suppression, Tamils take great pride in their religious festivals and traditions—and these are old traditions.”

“I came here nine years ago. Jaffna looked like—to outsiders, anyway—a place where it would always be dangerous, but what’s happening is not that. I mean, it is back to business, right?”

  • “Most of the world, when you’ve been through a struggle like this, so painful and so vicious—usually, at the end of the day, people cannot say, ‘Look, I’m exhausted. Nobody wins here.’”

Real talk/musings

  • “Harsh question: Why should Americans watching this—why should we give a shit? Why should people care about Sri Lanka?”
  • “With the war over, Sri Lankans can now travel freely across their country, all the way north, to Jaffna. Last time we couldn’t go there; today we will.”
  • “Early morning, Colombo station. The platforms bustle with a mix of commuters, long-distance travelers, and the occasional tourist. Breaking free from Colombo’s gravitational pull, the land opens up. Speeding past shimmering rice paddies and mountain vistas, second- and third-class compartments host a mix of people, smells, and slices of life. Roving food vendors sell snacks to hungry travelers. Commuters get on at one station, off at another. Others like me are in it for the long haul: 10 hours from Colombo to Jaffna.”

“Jaffna is about as far north as you can go without hitting India. This is the homeland of Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority, and for 30 years of civil war the base of the LTTE—the Tamil Tigers. Remnants of the war are everywhere.”

  • “As the train approaches Jaffna, the landscape is drier, more arid. Weary passengers wake up.”
  • “The islands off Jaffna’s coast were holdouts during the Tamil resistance and saw heavy fighting. The people who remained, like the landscape itself, bear heavy scars. This was a conflict that left more than 80,000 women widowed.”
  • “In Tamil society, as in much of the world, women have few rights. Women whose husbands are drunk or abusive, or even women who’ve lost their husbands to war, often find themselves in a nowhere zone without social status and no official or traditional system to look after or support them.”
  • [On Jaffna] “It should be paradise. I mean, look. Look out the window!”