The Sri Lankan North: A Quiet Riot

It’s been nearly a year since I last went to Jaffna. And things have changed. A lot of things are happening all over the North beneath a veneer of stillness. The people progress doggedly, shouldering responsibilities, not waiting for freebees and generally making good for themselves. Military presence is ubiquitous, but toned down. Instead of standing around in uniform and with weapons, soldiers wear shorts and tank tops and tend to corner shops, and are mostly enclosed in their barracks when they’re not.

Railway lines are being built steadily, I hear. Though the pace has been incredibly slow, the track has been only extended up to Omanthai for as long as I can remember. A few months ago there was even a fundraiser and tickets for the inaugural train journey were sold in advance for a thousand rupees. Many people bought these as a symbol of a brighter future and a promise of better times to come. Right now however the most convenient way to commute to Jaffna is via the overnight bus. It is passable, but is prevented from being comfortable by very bad customer service.

Ancient automobiles like these are still a common sight. Having been cut off from the supply of durables during the war, new vehicles are just beginning to arrive in the peninsula.

And when I say bad, I mean bad. There’s loud Tamil music blasting the speakers all night long, without stop. The drivers are belligerent and rude. On my way back the bus was suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere for an hour, no explanation was given; the driver and conductor simply disappeared. The passengers were locked in the back with no way of getting out, the AC on full blast so that we were all freezing. If you ask me, the overnight bus service to Jaffna is simply itching for some creative destruction.

The roads are being built at a pace, perhaps not as fast as in the South, but since I came there last; an additional 80 kilometers or so of road has been freshly carpeted. Now there’s good road right until you pass Chavakaccheri, whilst previously it ended at Omanthai. Roads in and around Jaffna are also being built. Places like Nainathivu, Kayts, Nallur have vastly improved access.

Our driver Suda escaped abroad during the war in Jaffna to avoid getting drafted by the LTTE. Eleven of his classmates from Mullaitivu weren’t so lucky. They are all presumed dead. In the background: The vehicle graveyard stretching south from Puthukkudiyirippu enroute to Mullaitivu. Casualties of war piled in dead heaps for some unknown purpose.

There aren’t many opportunities for youth in Jaffna still. A lot of them will come to Colombo to look for work, or try to start their own businesses. Transport, agriculture and retail seem popular. The community is tight, but perhaps a little disturbingly there is a strong sense of racial segregation within Jaffna. The Tamils and Muslims generally work separately, that is not to say that they’re mutually hostile, just that they like to keep to their own.

The Muslims still remember horror stories from the early nineties. In Moor Street (actually refers to a whole quarter in the Jaffna town) people talk about how they had to leave everything they owned one fine day in the early nineties and walk to Killinocchi, one woman told me that it took them three days to get there. Many have now returned to their broken down homes and have begun rebuilding their lives. Still many others have preferred to stay in their new homes in Negombo, Puttlam and various other areas in the South.

Muslims are gradually returning to Moor Street and Jaffna. Though a lot of them are also changing their minds and selling their houses. Their long standing status as IDPs have complicated their lives sufficiently enough to render the act of coming back home after twenty years full of difficulties. 

These ‘old IDPs’ mainly consist of Muslims evicted in the exoduses of ‘91 from Jaffna and Mannar. They complain that aid has been slow in coming, if it comes at all. And that they have been largely left to fend for themselves. Livelihood opportunities in Jaffna aren’t easily available, and according to them, discrimination leaves them out of the more lucrative businesses. They don’t blame the Tamils alone; there is also huge dissatisfaction with the Muslim leadership both in the provincial council and above. The former is painted out to be self serving and inefficient, holding back the community.

Elsewhere in the North, war tourism is on the boom. We drove down to Puthukudiyiruppu, on the new Paranthan-Mulaitivu highway. When I say new I mean new, the road has just been cut out of the Vanni jungles, the dirt flat and dusty. Rollers and building crews are just beginning the rudiments of laying tar. All along this area, the devastation of the war is still naked and exposed. Houses are shot through with bullets, bombed out vehicles and rusted metal piled along the roadside for hundreds of meters.

The Puthukudiyirippu War Museum displays LTTE gun boats, ships and submarines. The Torpedoes, RPGs, pistols, rocket launchers and missiles are all home made, apparently reverse engineered. Members of the military function as guides.

Highlights of this wasteland include a new war museum in Puthukudiyirippu, featuring a large amount of LTTE arms, gunboats, submarines and other weaponry. The main attraction in the area is obviously the house of Prabhakaran. His pad is a five story monstrosity, with four of those stories underground. The whole place is left in the condition in which it has been found, more or less. Doors lie blasted open, debris scattered in certain places. A skylight at the bottom-most layer opens into a secret passage with a ladder leading out in case anyone got trapped. Significantly, none of the war tourism sites bothered with Tamil language signs. Signboards are only in English and Sinhala. To me, this oversight speaks ugly volumes.

Soosay’s house is also close by. An inscription above the entrance reads; “our enemies are our best teachers”. A nondescript bedroom inside has a nondescript wardrobe that opens up into a secret escape tunnel dug into the ground. Crowds flock through Soosay’s door reading his inscription and flock back out through his secret escape route. Soosay is dead, and now his enemies are learning from him.

Inside the Jaffna fort. Repairs are underway. But a lot of it is still in ruins. Visitors apparently have the run of the place. Crawl through broken walls and discover dank holes and passages, at your own risk.

Jaffna is just beginning to find its bearings when it comes to tourism. The many war monuments and simple curiosity attract the crowds, but Jaffna has little in the way of developed attractions. Casuarina beach is increasingly frequented by local tourists; Nallur Kovil, the Library and the Rio ice cream parlor are musts for any Jaffna visit. The famous Jaffna fort is being rebuilt. After enduring untold ravages during the war and seeing a lot of blood spilt beneath its walls, the huge gallows once again welcome visitors motivated only by leisurely pursuits.

Jaffna is a very friendly peninsula. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese soldiers alike all greet you with smiles. They are always eager for a chat. Some want news, some are nosy and some just want to share their lives. Walking around bumping into people and simply absorbing the atmosphere is a pleasure. The markets are colorful and people happy. Things are moving in Jaffna and they’re moving largely under the peoples’ own steam. People too busy to really worry about the patches of darkness that occasionally threaten to overwhelm their infant peace.

More pictures here

1 comment
  1. Lanka said:

    Sri Lanka is in the ocean of the Indian subcontinent. But it is an independent country with its own sovereignty. Tropical island is small, but has a diverse geography and climate. A person who can travel to Sri Lanka Driver to any area of ??hot or cold fast pace to move within only six hours by car.

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