Journey to Jaffna

By Rajan Philips | 2002-10-01 12:00:00

The September 11 tragedy prompted conflicting parties everywhere to stop fighting. In Sri Lanka, after nearly 20 years of fighting, the new government that was elected in December 2001, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) declared a ceasefire in December and signed a Memorandum of Understanding in February. On September 6 the government lifted its proscription of the LTTE, and ten days later the two parties began talks in Thailand with Norwegians as facilitators.

One benefit of these developments was the reopening of roads. Checkpoints had been choking Colombo, the capital city, for nearly a decade, while road and rail access to the Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces had been cut off. Residents of Jaffna, the capital of the Northern Province, had been traveling by land and sea to Colombo, spending three to four days on a journey that takes eight to ten hours by car. Now restored transport is allowing an influx of people to Jaffna. In August, about 400,000 religious pilgrims congregated and prayed for peace at the Church of Our Lady of Madhu, a historic Catholic shrine in the Tamil northern forests under LTTE control.

With the ceasefire I was able to visit Jaffna after 17 years with a group of Sri Lankan friends. My daughter, Menaka, a student at the University of British Columbia, was already in Colombo as a summer intern and joined me with more curiosity than nostalgia. Her last visit had been as a three-year-old to see her grandparents. I had been part of an earlier group of six who visited Jaffna in 1979, when it was under Emergency Rule and the army sent to "wipe out terrorism." The first night of terror belonged to the army, as six young activists were murdered. That marked the beginning of the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the militant Tamil groups. Twenty-three years later, three of us returned to witness the beginning of the end with an ethnically-mixed group of three women and eight men. On July 16, we left Kandy in a van for Jaffna.

After four hours, we reached Vavunia, the first Tamil town in the contested Tamil homeland. It is under the control of the Sri Lankan army and the district civil administration. Unarmed LTTE cadres have been allowed to open "political offices" in the town. Vavuniya carried no apparent scars of war.

A Missing Railway

The second half of the journey took twice as long. What was once a tree-lined roadway is now sun-baked dust and rubble. The first sign of devastation was the missing railroad, running parallel to the highway from Vavuniya to the northernmost point in Jaffna District. Every piece of iron and wood has been scraped away to build bunkers. Beside the road were stranded pylons, stripped of their electric cables. Road, railway, and electricity transmission -- the hardware of national unification -- lay in ruins, undone by the failure of political software.

There is nothing left in Pallai, formerly a small industrial and agricultural town. The chemical factory, one of only four state-run industries in the Tamil areas, has been obliterated. I had visited that factory a few times as a student and an engineer, but I could not find where it had stood. My sense of place was challenged again as we approached Elephant Pass, the narrow passage between the mainland and the Jaffna Peninsula. It used to have a beautiful rest house overlooking the lagoon. During the war, the Sri Lankan army took over the rest house and built itself a huge base, which the LTTE captured in April 2000. As our van crossed the causeway, all we could see was a burnt-out armored car of the Sri Lankan army, triumphantly hoisted by the LTTE on wooden and steel scaffolding.

The Jaffna Peninsula is a hot, flat land of over 1000 sq. km, with intersecting lagoons of 100 sq. km. The main source of water is a network of subterranean streams that are tapped through deep wells sunk in limestone. Conserving water, cultivating the soil, and even keeping a census of trees are all part of a very spartan culture. There is also a strong Hindu pedagogic tradition which in colonial times combined with munificent Christian missionaries to create an impressive school system. The mainstays of Jaffna society have been intensive agriculture, agro-based small industries, lagoon and ocean fishing, trading and commercial activities, and a school system that prepares students for the job market or the university. Industrial development has been limited to a sizable cement plant and a few ancillary industries.

The war has ravaged every one of these economic sectors. Vast coconut and palmyra plantations are now trunks with the top halves neatly sheared off to build bunkers. Ocean fishing was banned by the government for security reasons, and the fishing industry is virtually dead, while 5000 of the 10,000 households who depend on fishing for their income are now displaced and destitute. The schools, always the pride of Jaffna, have been bombed and are still occupied by the army.

In the 1980s, at the outbreak of the war, Jaffna's population was about 900,000. It is now stabilizing at around 500,000. We met people in Jaffna who told of the horrifying LTTE-led exodus of nearly 700,000 people on the eve of the occupation of Jaffna by the armed forces in 1995. A majority of them returned to Jaffna after one year, but many of them remain displaced, eking out a miserable existence in makeshift camps, while the homes they abandoned have been occupied and vandalized by the government's armed forces. The army has not spared even temples and schools, the Catholic Seminary, or the Jaffna YMCA, where the army had used doors and windows for firewood and taken away all the furniture while leaving.

The responsibility for the City Centre destruction lies primarily with the Sri Lankan government and its armed forces. In 1981, a bunch of drunken government policemen set fire to the grand public library. Faced with a barrage of criticism, the government rebuilt the library even as its army was shelling and air-bombing all the landmark buildings surrounding it and reducing the whole area to a moonscape. The majestic town hall, the imposing St. Peter's Church, the historic court buildings and the rest have all disappeared. In the midst of it all, the tall Clock Tower stands witness. The older part of St. Patrick's College, itself 150 years old, is in ruins.

Calm Kids in Camps

Visitors to Jaffna have expressed their horror about the plight of displaced people, cast in camps in their own homeland. Yet the calm people we met in Jaffna displayed no trace of hatred. We visited a refugee camp where displaced families from a once-prosperous fishing village have been living for ten years. The children were full of innocence and smiles; they had not seen any other life.

We were equally struck by the institutional resilience and efficiency at Jaffna University, the schools, the General Hospital, the Municipal Offices, and in public transport. The old "grand bazaar" is bustling back to life. There are also blessings in disguise. The drop in population has translated into less demand on the City's scarce resources, and there has been no rush into a unsustainable building boom as in Colombo. Roadblocks and a fuel embargo have saved Jaffna from the car mania and the emission pall. We found Jaffna neat and orderly, its air clean, and the climate pleasantly mild and not humid. Jaffna is a bicycle town. Grown-ups and school children in their white uniforms pedal along on virtually car-free roadways.

Low-Energy Soccer Players

Before the ceasefire Jaffna had been without electricity, adequate food, and medical supplies. The rector of St. Patrick's College recalled that when food was scarce, students playing soccer would tire out at the end of the first half. The new government, since the the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding, has restored the power supply and lifted the fuel embargo. Supplies can now reach Jaffna, but it will take some time before Jaffna can start sending its products out of the Peninsula.

The people of Jaffna have been the victims of politics without having any say in the matter. Now they want to be left alone to rebuild their lives. They welcome the ceasefire and hope that it will last forever, even if there are long delays in the resolution of issues that were the cause of the fighting and are now the subject of negotiation in Thailand. We heard from the head of the LTTE's Political Office in Jaffna, that "the LTTE hates war," and that they would do everything in their power to prevent its resumption. The new government in Colombo appears to be equally determined. The government and the LTTE are showing willingness to break with their sordid pasts. They need the watchful support of everyone familiar with Sri Lanka and interested in peace.

Rajan Philips is an engineer living in Waterloo, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002, page 20. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Rajan Philips here

Peace Magazine homepage