The White Bird

A ceasefire ends, and a humanitarian aid worker finds herself in a war zone

The flak jackets are in a heap by the door, torn and useless. Last week, Jeeva ripped out the protective plates so he could put the jackets in the washing machine. They were dirty, he said, from sitting in the warehouse for so many years, ever since the start of the ceasefire. I thought Sal would kill him. There’s no hope of getting more jackets from headquarters, and anyway, we’d never get them past the checkpoint. But, I told Sal, it doesn’t really matter. Flak jackets won’t protect you in an airstrike. 

The conference room is stuffy and dark. Sal shut the blinds to keep out the hot sun. Overhead, the fan spins slowly, sending tendrils of warm air to flutter the leaves of the dusty plant in the corner. The breeze ruffles Ula’s black hair as she takes the minutes in her careful script. On the floor beside our uncomfortable plastic chairs, our handheld radios occasionally spit and hiss at each other.  

We sit rigid, with our blue and white notepads open in front of us. The linoleum floor is tagged here and there with dry mud tracked in from the refugee camps, where we were handing out school supplies for the new term this morning—a ludicrous activity, as soon there will be no more school. I watch strips of golden light spill across the floor and fill the dusty linoleum with a thousand tiny sparkles. I long to be outside. It’s not safe in this room, here on the office’s second floor, so far from the sandbag bunker out back, the one that would supposedly protect us in an airstrike. 

Sal tosses her pen on the conference table in front of her and presses her palms to her eyes. She looks tired. We all look tired. The faces around the conference table are gray with exhaustion. Sometimes my mouth goes slack, and I have to force it closed to keep from drooling. I have never gone this long without a proper night’s sleep. Together, we watch our boss pressing her eyes, waiting in silence for her to say something. 

We, the twelve staff members of the United Nations field office for Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, are holding an emergency meeting. After six years of relative peace, the ceasefire between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army is over. The first jet took me by surprise, and when the bomb hit at the other end of town, I was the last one to reach the bunker. I’ll have to be faster next time. 

The local staff knew exactly what would happen. They’d been through it all before.  Many of them remember how the Tamil Tigers began fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka in the 1980s. They lived through the bombings, the forced disappearances, and the assassinations of the 1980s and 1990s. They existed in a state of suspended animation through the ceasefire in the early 2000s, with the country divided into two halves. And then they watched as the ceasefire fell apart, as Karuna defected in 2004 and the east fell to the government in 2006. Now, in January 2008, all eyes are on the last Tamil Tiger stronghold, the north, where a tiny patch of rice paddy fields and thatched villages is all the Tigers have left.  

This is only my second posting with the UN and my first war zone. I have arrived just in time to witness the beginning of the government’s “bloodless liberation” of the Tamil people, its final attempt to stamp out the Tigers forever and reclaim the north. (One year from now, almost everyone at this meeting will have evacuated Kilinochchi. The town will fall to the government, the Tamil Tigers will herd 200,000 civilians, including one of our staff members and her family, into a tiny area to the east of the town, where up to 40,000 civilians will perish in a desperate last stand, and I will leave both Sri Lanka and the UN. But we can’t know any of this now.)  

War has transformed rice fields into trenches, thatched shops into holes in the ground, and girls in school uniforms into Tamil Tiger cadres with braided hair and dead eyes, carrying guns, crawling through the jungles. I see them sometimes at night, crossing the road. The Sri Lankan government’s jets started bombing Kilinochchi, the tiny town of thatched huts, the Tamil Tiger’s capital, even before the ceasefire was officially over. It began a few weeks ago, with the bombing of the radio station during Prabhakaran’s annual “hero’s speech” commemorating the Tamil Tiger martyrs who had blown themselves up the previous year. The building is now a hole in the ground, and the shrapnel almost killed the head of the World Food Program, whose office is next door. We aid workers were supposed to be overseeing northern Sri Lanka’s transition to peace; overnight, we found ourselves in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. 

At last, Sal sighs and picks up her pen. Despite the humidity, her black hair is sleeked into a chic bob, and she has found the time to apply just the right shade of red lipstick to complement her tanned skin. Sal must be in her fifties, but she looks much younger. She took over command of this office only a few months ago, straight from a mission in Angola. Now, she takes another look at the meeting agenda on the table in front of her. For the past three hours, we’ve done nothing but discuss problems and lists, and make lists of problems: problems with security, with refugee movements, with humanitarian supplies, with military checkpoints, with a thousand other pressing matters, each equally important and each equally impossible to solve. The arguing began, and the recriminations, followed by stern words from Sal, and now this exhausted pause as we wait for her to address the next agenda item. 

“Sitan,” she says, turning toward the portly logistics officer with the silvered hair, “do we have government permission to bring more gasoline through the checkpoint?” 

The land cruisers have a second gas tank, but the government gave the UN offices a quota of one tank per vehicle per week. We could fill up both tanks when we send the cars to Vavuniya for supplies. Vavuniya is only two hours to the south, in the government-controlled area, but it takes more than three hours to get through the Omanthai checkpoint at the Forward Defense Lines on a good day. I start to doze, my eyes watering. I blink to keep them open. Sal asks a question, and several people answer at once. It may be dangerous to smuggle in extra gasoline; what if the government finds out? Sal tells us not to use the word smuggling. Sitan’s face swims in front of me, and my eyelids come down heavy like buckets of water. 

I remember so clearly the day last summer when we went bike riding in McLaren Park, swooping across the empty, rutted tennis courts with grass growing between the broken pavement. It was right before I left for Sri Lanka, and things were already bad between us. The day was windy and cold, and his red windbreaker billowed out behind him like a sail. He turned to look back at me, to make sure I was still there. He was always so careful with me, as though worried I would disappear. I wonder if he ever thinks about me now. No one at home knows what’s going on here. Censorship keeps it out of the news, and we sanitize our emails: Thanks for sending me those DVDs. Things are good.  

I wake with a jolt and realize the room is silent. Even Sal is quiet. Everyone’s faces are creased with the effort of listening. At first, all I hear is the squeak of the fan and a low blast of static from the radios. Then I can hear it, too: a rumble in the distance. It starts like thunder far away on the horizon, but gets louder and louder very fast, filling the quiet until it becomes the unmistakable roar of an engine. I feel sweat run down my back. Several people leap to their feet, their chairs screeching. Someone gasps like a sneeze, and Sal drops her pen, which rolls off the table and clatters to the floor.  

The engine sound is now unmistakably that of a jet plane, or more precisely, an Israeli made Kfir bomber, one of a handful owned by the government and bought, I am told by my Tamil colleagues, with U.S. funds. It gets louder and louder, closer and closer. For an instant, there is nothing but terror and the great screaming noise, and I get ready to run, but the noise tapers off and fades away. There is a dull thud far in the distance and a vibration through the ground that makes my teeth ache. Tension drains from the room. The bomb must have been dropped on the remote jungle, where the Tigers have their secret bases. I let out my breath in a long whoosh and unclench my fists. My nails leave behind red crescents in the soft skin of my palms. Sitan wipes his forehead with a handkerchief, and Sal bends over to pick up her pen. The people standing retake their seats. Sal looks at the agenda. 

“Sitan,” she says, “thank you for your input. I think we can go ahead and screw the quota and make use of the second tank. We might as well get as much gas in here as possible. Now, what about the warehouse inventory? Where’s the list?” 

During the day, the airstrikes have become almost routine. But at night, things seem different. In bed, under the mosquito net, I have too much time to think about possibilities. What if I miss the warning on the radio? What if I can’t get to the bunker in time? So I try not to sleep. But how long can I go without sleeping? And I have other questions to keep me awake. What am I doing here? If I stay, what will happen to me? If I go, will it be worse for everyone else? It doesn’t say “human shield” in my job description. Up until a few weeks ago, we used to do things like build houses and dig wells, but now we just live here, a handful of foreigners whom the government, I hope, would be too embarrassed to kill. 

“We have one more thing to discuss,” Sal says, her warm Spanish lilt flattened by weariness. She rubs her eyes again. Behind her, the light filtering through the blinds has turned the same shade of crimson as her lipstick, and my head aches from tension and dehydration. I’m not sure I can listen to another agenda item. It’s January and warm; it’s probably cold and raining in San Francisco. 

“Yesterday, I received this envelope from New York.” Sal holds up an envelope. It’s large, square, and official-looking. What top-secret correspondence from headquarters is this? Maybe we’re evacuating! 

I look around the table at my coworkers. Some, like Sitan, come from the capital in the south and are as much strangers here as I am. But many of them are local people, with families, like Ula. She stares at her hands folded neatly between the bright waves of her sari. She was born here and has lived here all her life. If we evacuate, I have only to grab my stuff and jump in the land cruiser. But Ula and her family won’t be allowed to leave. The Tigers will never let them go. If we take Ula and her family to the checkpoint, they will probably be forced out of the car at gunpoint. Sal told me in private she is ready to leave them behind. 

The mystery envelope contains a square white card. Even in the dim light, I can see it’s a certificate, embossed with blue letters and bearing an official seal. The embossed lettering seems oddly formal for an evacuation order. The card reads, Ten Years of Service to the United Nations, and underneath, Human Rights, Development, Peace. The words make no sense to me. I can’t understand what evacuating has to do with human rights, development, or peace. 

“Even when we are in the middle of an emergency,” Sal says to the confused faces before her, “it is important to take time to recognize the commitment of staff. Sitan,” she says, “apparently you have just completed your tenth year of employment with the United Nations. Congratulations. This award is in recognition of your service.” 

Sitan takes the white and blue card, his face at first shocked, then pleased. He’s been part of this office longer than anyone. Every day, he reports to work in jeans and a freshly ironed T-shirt, white with the blue UN crest on the pocket. He does his work with precision and a certain majesty. Sitan lives alone in a small house on the outskirts of town, where he carefully tends a large garden of banana and other palm trees. A hobby, he once told me, to occupy his free time. Above the entrance to the garden is a wrought iron sign that reads, Sitan’s Garden. There’s always a row of freshly washed, white T-shirts on a laundry line behind the house The other staff members respect him, not only because of his seniority, but also for his air of quiet competence.  

“Sitan,” Sal continues, “on behalf of everyone in this office, and UN staff the world over, we thank you for your contribution and hard work.” 

She shakes Sitan’s hand. The rest of the staff gather around, offering their congratulations. Sitan keeps looking at the certificate, his eyes moist. Ten years is a long time to work here, surrounded by sadness and war, away from family. It’s a thankless job, but for once, it seems as if someone is saying thank you. 


The next day is bright and sunny, and the land cruiser is filled with the scent of rich loam from the rice paddy fields. Jeeva and I are on our way back from the camps, where we have been distributing tarps and kerosene. He plows the car through deep mud puddles and around huddles of grazing cows. This far from town, the countryside is empty except for a few huts. White birds stand in coins of still water reflecting the sky, which stretches above us like a giant dome of light. Beyond the rice paddies mass the dark jungles. I stare into the trees, looking for Tamil Tiger cadres, young women with feral eyes, carrying Kalashnikovs, but I see nothing but tangled leaves. 

Listening for airplanes, I didn’t sleep at all last night, and we were in the bunker again this morning, driven out of bed by yet another round of bombing. I yawn, my jaw stretching open until it feels as if it’s going to snap. I press my cheek against the cool glass of the window. It  warms under my skin, and despite the freezing air conditioning and the hiss and sputter of the radio, I begin to doze. 

I am wandering through the Mission District at night, looking for my straw hat. I left it behind in the taqueria, and now I’m running back, hoping no one has stolen it. The night is cold and misty, and small droplets of moisture cling to my hair. But now I’m holding something heavy in my arms, a stack of papers. They are certificates for ten years of good service. No, they are stock certificates in the Tamil homeland. But they are worthless, and I begin looking for somewhere to put them down. I don’t want to carry these certificates any farther, but the streets are empty and all the bars and restaurants are closed. I think about dropping the certificates on the ground, but I can’t bring myself to leave them behind, so I keep walking, clutching the pile to my chest. I snap awake at the frantic shouts of the UN radio operator. 

“Get to your safe place! Everyone get to your safe place! Flights are in the sky!” 

I jerk up in my seat. Jeeva loses control of the wheel for a second, and we hydroplane across some puddles before he brings us to a jerky stop just short of a ditch. I have never heard the radio operator so hysterical. The drop point must be close to town. I feel relief at being far away, far away from danger, but then I feel guilty, remembering my coworkers huddled in the bunker and the townspeople running for any available ditch.  

Jeeva presses his forehead to the steering wheel, breathing heavily. All we can do is wait for the “all clear” and for people to call in over the radio, telling us they are safe. As we wait, I watch one of the majestic birds land only a few feet away, its feathers perfectly white against the green rice fronds. It stabs its regal head into the water and brings up a glinting fish. The bird’s neck shudders, and the fish disappears. I think of how, only moments ago, the fish was swimming through the murky water, encased in a mysterious world of dark green glints and luminous flashes. The end is swift and unexpected. It must be a good way to go.  

The bird launches into the air, flying low over the water on giant white wings, its black eyes searching for the next fish. As it flies away, the radio operator cries out once more. 

“All UN personnel stay in your safe place! They are coming back around now! I repeat: they are coming back around!” 

How many bombs will they drop? I shiver and hear the whisper of blood in my veins. In the distance, the white bird circles toward the horizon. We are alive, but others may not be so lucky. I feel the weight of my life lying heavily on me, while other lives seem weightless, like the humid haze over the green fields. 

When we finally get back to the office at the edge of town, there is no sign of damage to the building, though the drop site wasn’t far. Everything is quiet and deserted. I suppose the local staff have gone home to check on their families. I tell Jeeva he can go home, too, and then I wander through the empty rooms, calling for Sal. There is a layer of dust over everything, and the dark, empty rooms seem like the chambers of a burial tomb from thousands of years ago. Here is a laptop from the late twentieth century. Here is an inkjet printer. In those ancient days, people still used paperclips. 

I wonder if Sal was here during the bombing or in town, in the car. I didn’t hear her voice on the radio. Not knowing what else to do, I sit down at my desk to write an email to headquarters. I write, “Today at 2 pm, an air strike occurred near the Oxfam office near the center of town.” 

I want to write, Why don’t you evacuate us? No, what I really want to write is, I don’t belong here. This isn’t even my country. Instead, I turn off the computer and wander outside. Sitan is coming through the gate to the compound, his steps frantic. He is carrying a pile of white fabric, and his face is wet, glazed in sweat.  

“Heather!” he cries. “Heather, my house is gone! It is gone!” 

After the cool darkness of the office, the yard seems too large and bright. I wish I were near a chair so I could sit down. I notice that Sitan’s clothes are torn and covered in mud and that his face is wet not with sweat, but with tears. He is clutching the pile of white fabric to his chest as though it is vitally precious to him. 

“Sitan,” I say, my voice sounding high and distant, “what are you talking about?” 

“They have blown up my house!” he wails. “The entire street—it is all gone!” 

And then he begins to sob. Above us, a cloud slides gracefully across the sky, releasing the sun. It’s very hot on my bare head. I notice that the garage is still empty, and I picture Sal trapped under the twisted, smoking remains of the land cruiser. 

“I’m sorry, Sitan,” I hear myself saying. “Why don’t you sleep here tonight? Tomorrow, well, we’ll figure something out.” 

I know this is a stupid thing to say, but it’s the best I can come up with. For emphasis, I place my hand lightly on his shaking shoulder but then remove it, remembering that such gestures are improper here. I can’t look at the tears on his face so instead I look at the pile of white fabric in his arms. 

“What are those?” I ask. 

Sitan looks up at me. At once, his face is terrible with anger, and his eyes are black. He sucks the sobs back inside himself, forcing composure to the surface. Slowly, with one hand, he draws out a piece of the fabric and holds it in front of me. It’s a UN T-shirt, like the one he’s wearing, like he wears every day. But this shirt is covered in small holes edged in brown ash. It’s as though the shirt has been tortured to death by a hundred cigarettes. I touch one of the holes with my finger, amazed. A tiny bit of singed fabric falls away into dust. 

“What happened to it?” I ask.  

“Shrapnel!” he says, the word a spitted hiss. “Their shrapnel burned holes in all my work T-shirts hanging on the line! They are all ruined! I ask you, who is going to reimburse me for these? Who will replace my T-shirts?” 

Sitan shakes the shirt at me. The other shirts slide unnoticed to the ground. Each is tattered by hundreds of shrapnel holes. It amazes me that flying metal could burn its way through a T-shirt hanging on a laundry line. 

“Who is going to pay for this?” Sitan howls at me. “Who? I am asking you!” 

The brightness of the yard burns my eyes. I look up again. The sun nears the horizon, blazing like a huge jet engine and tinging the banana trees with red. I know I must get Sitan to calm down. 

“Please don’t shout,” I say. “I understand you’re upset. Why don’t you go lie down?”  

His breathing is ragged and heavy, and he continues to stare at me. 

“Sitan,” I say again, “please go lie down. You’ve had a terrible shock.” 

And as though I’ve said a magic spell, the rage drains from his body, and he passes the shirt he’s holding across his forehead like an over-sized handkerchief. “Sorry, Heather, you are right.” He bows his head, an exhausted man, spattered in mud, holding a ruined T-shirt. 

“Tomorrow,” I say gently, aware of the foolishness of making plans so far in advance, “we can take the truck and see if there’s anything else we can salvage from your house. Right now, I think you should rest.” 

He sighs again and grimaces with something like wry humor. “There is not much left. Only a big hole in the ground. But you are right: it does not change anything to be angry. Nothing in this place can be changed.” 

And he turns and walks away, leaving me alone in the courtyard. 

It’s getting dark. Again, I check the sky, which has turned a deep blue, hard and clear like glass, fading to pale gold in the west, and mercifully empty. Around me, the dark gathers in the corners of the courtyard. The mango tree is full of whispering night insects. On the road, an old man rides past on a rickety bicycle, springs squeaking rhythmically. There are more white birds in the rice paddy field across the street. They glow mysteriously in the dusk like ghosts. 

At my feet is the pile of ruined UN T-shirts. Each one is dirty and wrinkled and burned with hundreds of holes. I know I should collect the shirts, pick them up, and carry them somewhere, but instead I walk away, back toward the office, to type out an email that I have already written in my head a thousand times. 

About the Author

Heather Alexander

Heather Alexander is a refugee lawyer previously with the United Nations.

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