WITNESS: A fleeting glimpse of Sri Lanka's hidden war zone

Fri May 1, 2009 11:19am EDT
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David Gray is an Australian photographer who has covered everything from earthquakes, to wars, to major sports events across the Asia-Pacific region. He won Australia's top press photography award last year with his portfolio of 10 images from the Sichuan earthquake in China, the Olympic Games, Tibet and daily life in China. Based in Beijing, he has been on assignment in Sri Lanka for the past few weeks.

By David Gray

PUTUMATTALAN, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Getting to the frontline of the Sri Lankan army's war with the Tamil Tigers entailed a hair-rising helicopter trip over the jungle and a bone-jarring ride past scorched homes to the war zone.

Foreign journalists and aid groups have generally been kept away from the area where government troops have battled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for months.

On those rare occasions when the government permits a trip to the front, the hazardous journey there and back takes just one day. Yet, as I found out, it could be a world away.

I was among a small group of journalists that took a pre-dawn military flight from Colombo to an airbase near the battle zone where we transferred to helicopters.

To avoid any ground fire, the choppers flew at maximum speed just above the height of the tallest trees, and when I say JUST, I mean scraping the tops of coconut palms.

This fast and furious ride lasted just 30 minutes to the town of Kilinochchi, the Tigers' one-time de facto capital.

From there we traveled in a clunky armored personnel carrier along pot-holed roads that bore testament to the 25-year civil war that has torn apart this Indian Ocean island.   Continued...

<p>A Sri Lankan government soldier looks across to a trail of smoke coming from inside the 'No Fire Zone' near the town of Putumatalan located in northern Sri Lanka in this April 24, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/David Gray/Files</p>