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The Rediff Special/Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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Dateline Jaffna

Here there is no dulcet greeting with Ayobowan or Vanakkam, or the mime over safety belts. In fact, on the Antonov 32 flight from Colombo airport to Palaly airbase off Jaffna -- Yazhpanam, as the locals insist on calling it -- there is hardly anything to write home about. Seated sideways after boarding through the maws of the aircraft, hunting around for the greasy seatbelts under the plastic benches that pass off for seats, the flight does nothing to one's eardrums or buttocks.

But then, this is the only official way to reach Jaffna from Colombo, as testified by the number of locals clamouring for the extra seats that are still unoccupied on the AN32, after the media team has spread its wares -- from Betacams to boom mikes, laptops to haversacks -- around. The fare, discreet inquiries reveal, comes to about Sri Lankan Rs 1,500, and there is enough coming and going between the two cities to warrant more than one flight a day.

Major General Balagalla, in charge of the army's 5 Div in Jaffna district, is a picture of confidence, and not without reason. For long the symbol of Tamil resistance on the peninsula, Jaffna's capture by the Sri Lankan army, after years of desperate struggle, in April 1996, was the turning point in the island-nation's history.

But that there is an enormous groundswell of sympathy for the Tigers, who were running a parallel administration in Jaffna till they were pushed back, is evident. On the Palaly-Jaffna road, a dusty, two-lane affair that passes off a highway, Subbaiah, a farm-labourer, misses the 'boys' for the simple reason "there is no real freedom now". There is a curfew after 9 pm, and we can't move about freely at night, he points out. Otherwise, life is slightly better now, he admits. At least there is no bombing of houses, and peace seems to be gaining ground.

Another farm-hand points out that with air transport being the main link to Colombo, the vegetables they grow in Jaffna have no real market. Some of it is sold here, fine, but large portions rot, because there is no transport, he rues.

The Lankan army seems to have learnt its lessons well, this time round. The soldiers have been instructed to win hearts, and not behave as an occupation force as it is wont to. The army is being put through a 21-day crash course in Tamil, so that barriers can be bridged, life can go on.

It sure has been, in the last two years. The city's telephone system, badly damaged in the war between the Tigers and the armed forces, is being slowly reinstalled, complete with ISD facilities.

Life maybe limping back to normal in Jaffna, but the insurgency has left it in a time-warp. The landscape is littered with bombed out buildings, standing mute testimony to the intensity of the struggle to possess it. The destruction remains a sore point with the locals, since the promised compensation to rebuild homes has not materialised so far.

There is a feeling of unreality as one drives through Jaffna town. Barring the high-powered vehicles that ferry military personnel, the civilian population still makes its way around mostly on bicycles, and the slightly well-to-do ones on two-wheelers. Through the day I spent there, I encountered maybe three four-wheelers, Morris Minors and of similar vintage.

It is still estimated that around two-thirds of the original population of 750,000 is yet to return. The LTTE, it is said, evacuated the town when the 40,000-strong army laid siege to the city. Even the destruction of the city is laid at the Tigers' door by the army, as part of its scorched earth policy. But locals insist to the contrary.

"Why would the Tigers destroy their own city, all this was done by the army when they pushed back the LTTE," says Nathan, an employee of Srilanka Telecom.

Jaffna University, which has the distinction of not shutting down for a day, even at the height of the war for the city, today is a picture of calm, and near-normalcy. "We were displaced in 1995, but still managed to complete our syllabus," says Shanmukhadas, acting vice chancellor of the university.

Today, the 24-year-old university boasts of 3,000 students, in four faculties. The medium of education is Tamil, though English was introduced recently. And like his counterparts from across the Palk Straits, the Jaffna Tamil is fluent in English as well. Shanmukhadas insists that there has been no change in syllabus from what was when the city was in the control of the Tigers, notably in history. "The events you are referring to are too recent to be included in the history syllabus, it is for the future to decide on its nature," he says.

What is of interest is that there is an association called the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) that releases regular pamphlets on the conditions in the hapless city. Not only is it obviously anti-Tigers, its latest report, Countdown in the Vanni, Looking beyond the Tigers, was handed over to the media by the army! Questioned about its presence on the university campus, Shanmukhadas says the UTHR-J has no presence there anymore, having shifted its base elsewhere.

Another interesting aspect of Jaffna life is the significant number of Roman Catholics. The RC bishop -- as opposed to his Protestant counterpart -- is more actively identified with the establishment, and has in fact held a few meetings with the LTTE in Vanni, where the latter is now massed, to find a via-media.

Fr Selvaraja, who has been present right through the army action in the church, refusing to evacuate even under extreme distress, is hopeful a way will be found. "The situation is now steadily improving, even if there is an amount of tension among the people," he states. The people of Jaffna are conditioned to privations by now, he argues, having faced the worst of both situations. "They are in a delicate situation, they don't want to be seen taking sides."

The war itself, he recalls, was a nightmare to live through, with bombs exploding all around the church, and even inside. "But we refused to move out, some people had taken refuge here too, and we continued to be here, till the army walked in." Liberation also saw the People's Council for Peace and Goodwill being formed, with the church playing an active part in it. NGO Paramanatha, who has been actively involved in its activities, says they have been pursuing the matter of mass graves found in Chemmani, near Jaffna, and have expressed themselves against the army probe that the government has ordered. "What we want is an independent investigation," he says.

The army action has driven the LTTE, and the locals, into Vanni, out of the Jaffna district. Emboldened by its recent successes, the army today aims to clear the 30-odd km stretch of the Kandy-Jaffna highway, so that overland transport could start once again. Some of the army's claims are laughable: that there are only 100 LTTE activists left -- surely, it wouldn't need 40,000 troops to clear this small number!

One overt sign of the army presence, or the war that is still being waged, is press censorship. War news are actively screened, even though Vithiyatharan, associate editor of Uthayan, Jaffna's Tamil daily claims that freedom of the press is more pronounced in his city than in Colombo. The editor, Kaanamayilnathan, asserts that his paper does not give anyone special treatment, and yes, the Tigers do once in a while send out releases.

Openly critical of the army presence, Kaanamayilnathan believes that the government has not paid heed to the Tamils' genuine demands, now or before. The time for talking is long gone, the Tamils have wasted too much time in dialogue, he asserts.

Life sure has changed under the army, he admits, even if Jaffna continues to remain backward. Compare it with Colombo to know the difference.

The Tigers have little difficulty getting their point of view across, despite the censorship, thanks to their radio station which is keenly tuned into, both the civilian population as well as the defence forces in Jaffna. Years of living under the gun, either friendly or inimical, has also taught the locals to infer the truth to be somewhere between the army's and the Tigers' claims.

Wherever the uniform has been in control, friction has been unavoidable with the civil administration and Jaffna is no different. There is a mayor, Ponnudurai Sivapalan, in charge of the city's affairs, but that the men in army fatigues have no time for niceties was evident when we walked into the municipal office -- which is functioning from a marriage hall since its own structure has been bombed out.

The mayor, on getting to know that a press party was coming down, naturally expected that the first port of call will be his office, since as City Father it was his prerogative. Alas, the defence authorities in charge of our visit had no inkling of this, and casually brought us to the mayor at 2.30 pm. Sivapalan, naturally, was irked no end, but considering that his continuance in office -- his predecessor Sarojini Yogeswaran was gunned down, apparently by the Tigers -- depended on the men in uniform -- he was rather muted in his criticism.

While the mayor is from the Tamil United Liberation Front, others in his council are from the other Tamil groups like Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front, People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam and the Eelam People's Democratic Party. The LTTE, by far the most powerful organisation in the region, has steadfastly refused to take part in the democratic process, and has made known its intentions to disrupt it whenever it could.

The civic administration has taken up the time-consuming task of reconstructing the city, literally brick by brick, and is hampered by the insecurity of its leaders. One thing that unites the civic leadership is their belief that India should once again re-involve itself in the island's affairs. This view, in fact, runs through the Jaffna township, regardless of political affiliations. It is India alone, the people believe, that can assure them of justice and fairplay from Colombo. Also, since there is an umbilical cord linking them to India, the latter cannot wash its hands of their plight.

Life, in the meantime, trudges along in the city. There is a public transport of sorts, a bus service utilising vehicles that must have been condemned in other Asian cities a generation ago. The main thoroughfare resembles a village main road. There are stores open, hawking provisions. But what one doesn't encounter is the vitality, the zing that makes or mars cities. This is a city waiting for deliverance. Either from the government, or the Tigers.

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