A tale of two Thanksgiving moments

By Stan Stalla | Dec 01, 2009
Photo by: Stan Stalla A father and his child wait for their chance to go home.

Thanksgiving moment number one

Earlier this week, a work friend, Andrea, and I entered the Vanni. An area of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, the Vanni had been occupied for more than two decades by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In May of this year, Sri Lankan forces were able to take the last bastion of LTTE military remnants, bringing an official end to fighting that had lasted more than 25 years.

When the guns stopped, there was a mass exodus of civilians from the last few square kilometers of fighting. They were about to trade weeks of daily bombardment and shelling for the beginning of an uncertain era of peace. What ensued was a different kind of suffering: worries about missing family members; three or four families living in tents meant for one; sick people standing in line for hours under the tropical sun, to get a token to see a doctor the next day -- someone who didn't speak their language; surprise, heavy rains in August that spread panic through a camp complex of more than 200,000 people; and worst of all - surrounded by barbed wire, with no freedom to come or go. As the months wore on, with each visit to the IDP camps of the North, the pleas of "I just want to go home" became louder and more frequent.

The hue and cry in Colombo from the international community became louder, too, but seemingly fell on deaf ears. "Safety and security" was the litany used by the government to explain the detention of these thousands of civilians.

The need to find and remove hundreds of thousands of landmines was a legitimate concern. And then, a couple of months back, the government started opening the floodgates. Over a span of several weeks, tens of thousands of people boarded buses and headed home. It was this returns process that Andrea and I wanted to see.

Once through the initial checkpoint, our access to one section of the Vanni was unimpeded. Unsure where the landmines were, we didn't stray from the designated route. We passed through long stretches of jungle and paddy fields abandoned during the most recent fighting. Here and there were signs of human activity.

Stacks of tin sheeting, donated by the government of India. lay in a depot to be distributed. In the countryside, we passed rudimentary structures of tin sheet roofs, supported by wooden poles around which plastic sheeting was wrapped to form four walls. At one unused school, 18 families had languished for two weeks, waiting for the Army to tell them that landmines had been removed from their village.

At another hamlet, we chatted with a 16-year-old boy who gingerly picked his way along a churned-up path. In fact, the land around his house looked like a ploughed field. He told us that one of the de-mining organizations had found 12 landmines buried around his house the week before last. The grassy area next door was off limits - separated by yellow tape and red signs with skull and crossbones warning "Danger Mines!" in English, Sinhalese and Tamil.

At one point, we stopped to talk to a family putting the finishing touches on a temporary shelter of tin, wooden poles and plastic. First, a grey-haired woman approached us, sharp knife in hand. Soon, she was joined by her pregnant daughter, Eventually, the child's father joined the conversation.

They told us that they had come home two weeks earlier, to find that their former home had been completely demolished during the fighting of more than one year ago. All their animals were gone. Although they had received an initial installment of Rupees 5,000 ($45) to begin reconstruction, they had already spent more than Rs. 1,000 to buy sugar and condiments to supplement the dry rations that they had received from the United Nations. In the distance, next to the shelter, I saw a steaming cooking pot set on large stones, fueled by branches hacked from the surrounding jungle. As she talked to us, the older woman used her knife to carefully peel a raw potato.

As we talked, I thought about this family's future: temporary shelter surrounded by jungle; dependent on U.N. rations; not much hope of rebuilding a home the way it used to be; missed planting season, which meant more than a year until they saw their first harvest; a sharp knife and hoe to brave the forces of nature. I wondered if I would have the willpower to keep on going, when faced with those odds. But then, we asked how they felt to be free of the barbed wire that had scarred their vista these past months. The old woman and her son-in-law smiled and said words to the effect that, "It's good to be home again."

Freedom. Home. That 10-minute exchange, in a jungle in Sri Lanka's North, was my first moment of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving moment number two

Andrea and I planned our trip so that we could be back in the capital city for Thanksgiving Day. We each had plans to celebrate this, my favorite of holidays, in our own special ways. Andrea looked forward to taking her friend -- visiting from India -- down south for a beach holiday. I had been invited to dinner by an American couple who had sent out invitations to people like me, whose loved ones were far from home.

Of my past 30 Thanksgivings, I'm sure at least 25 of them have been overseas. Often, a U.S. commissary flies in turkeys for the November and December holiday season. They also usually stock cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie mix. Sometimes, they even have boxes of Stove-Top stuffing and cans of Redi-whip. In our family postings of the 1980s and '90s - Jordan, Oman, Sri Lanka and Peru - we made sure to celebrate a traditional, American Thanksgiving.

Maureen became an expert at juggling the basting, broiling, chopping, filling, roasting, scraping and boiling. I became adept at pouring wine, replenishing serving dishes, and rolling up sleeves afterwards to take on a kitchen full of dirty dishes. One memorable Thanksgiving afternoon in Oman, we had at least eight different nationalities around our table of friends and family. Thanks to commissaries, stimulating conversationalists and a holiday that transcends religion and politics and cultural differences, Thanksgivings have helped light up decades of overseas living.

So it was, once again, today. At Val and Chip's house, all the fixings were spread out on a dining room table covered with a simple white cloth: two platters of sliced turkey, a serving bowl of stuffing with the right amount of crisp to the top and stickiness to the insides, cut-glass relish dishes of whole cranberries in a jellied sauce, miniature ladles for scooping gravy from soup bowls, strategically placed next to a tureen of mashed potatoes, pumpkin and apple pies (with whipped cream, was it Redi-Whip?), and those "other items" that I no longer feel obligated to squeeze onto my plate: a bean salad, green beans and dinner rolls in a basket.

The food was yummy - just like "home." But best were the people around the table. Over the next two hours, our conversational threads wove a rich international pattern: new baby grandson in the Philippines, teaching English in Japan, earthquakes in Peru, the Philippines, and California, an erupting volcano in the Philippines, a colleague from Dubai, where weekends start on Friday and local employees lack the spontaneity and generosity of our Sri Lankan co-workers, laughter about portable oxygen tanks for project field trips in the Peruvian Andes, an explanation of how tsunamis occur, the speeds they can generate (500 mph), and the perils of living on the U.S. East Coast, when a mostly submerged Canary Island sloughs to the bottom of the ocean, Minnesota high school classes participating in mock criminal trials on a nearby college campus.

I think of all those conversations over the years, and I'm truly thankful for my family, friends and the chance to have explored a bit of this fascinating world.

Those two hours, this afternoon, were my second moment of Thanksgiving. Food. Conversation. Good cheer and a feeling of home away from home.

I hope your Thanksgiving was equally bountiful, in your own special ways.

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