Post-war Jaffna rising amidst reassuring consumerism

Going North – Two writers share their views
By Philip Fernando in Los Angeles

My recent visit to Jaffna was after three and half decades. What I saw was positively reassuring. The battlefront dynamics had receded irrefutably. From the air, it seemed a blanket of lush green had swept over the signature fertile red soil of Jaffna. Yes, Jaffna is rising. Her toiling farmers and fisherfolk seemed hoping to share the peace dividend.

The renowned Jaffna market provided a backdrop to what loomed ahead. As I traversed the length and breadth of the Peninsula, my fears of coming to face-to-face with a war-torn desolate place disappeared gradually.

It was in 1975 that I last flew to Jaffna twice, first to cover for the Daily News the visit of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Jaffna at the invitation of the Mayor Alfred Duraiappah who had organized a massive rally. A few weeks later on July 28th I was there again–this time to cover the brutal gunning down of Mayor Duraiappah.

A supermarket coming up in Jaffna town. Pix by Parameswaran Navaratnam

Almost four decades later, we now tread the same terrain--reconciliation, forgiveness and generosity were being articulated. A positive perception seemed unavoidable as I saw the rapidity with which the dexterous Jaffna man and woman had responded to post-war potentialities. It is safe to state that there is no going back. Jaffna rising is crystal clear—a sustainable work ethic striving to extract a return from the land, sea and the lagoon—Jaffna’s inexorable gift. I kept copious notes and what I gathered appeares below.

The imposing High Security Zone (HSZ) that witnessed the war in its intensity had been reduced to about 3X10 kilometre area. The taunting rawness of combat-readiness had diminished. There are two major schools in the HSZ which brought streams of cyclists to school early in the morning. Army posts dotted the Palaly-Jaffna road but normalcy was being reached as bristling civilian presence prevailed. In 1975 Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s motorcade traversed through swiftly as army sentries stood to attention every 200 yards. Now the Palaly-Jaffna road gave access to unhindered regular traffic.

Eye-catching all-purpose retail outlets set up by the military--used by both military and civilian population were noticeable in many places. Prices were generally lower in these well-stocked outlets –a boon for the average Jaffnaite. Consumerism as a weapon of outreach has replaced the no-quarters-asked and no-quarters-given mind set that characterised the scene only three years ago.

HSZ dynamics

The most noticeable tell-tale signs of the war were hundreds of bombed-out residences within the HSZ that retained a haunting effect of a vicious war. Demining is still going on constantly within this area. I needed a military guide to traverse through vast areas covered by lush over-grown shrubbery concealing the fatal hidden dangers. The army personnel were extremely courteous—my USA passport seemed not too bothersome nor the obvious probing I did speaking to the Jaffna folks most of whom had at least a modicum of Sinhala and a fair fluency in English. Several recent arrivals from Toronto spoke flawless English.

Some spoke to me of a possible compensation package to home owners affected by the war. I could not get a confirmation of that from official sources—seemed a weapon with the potential to win over those who carried the brunt of a long war.

Going North and then West from Palaly towards Chavakacheri, one cannot but see the granary of the Peninsula stretching across all sides. The green paddy fields and the mulplitcity of well-laden farm-grown crops were too numerous to mention. Pooneryn lies far away across the Jaffna lagoon—the high calibre guns from that point that shot across the Jaffna lagoon towards Palaly had reportedly reached the HSZ and a counter offensive was launched with guns to reach Pooneryn—people still ponder over the logistics of the war. Now the stretch towards the North-West is a veritable food basket of Jaffna—even corn, the staple diet of the Southerner in USA--is being tried--this is undoubtedly the most promising aspect of post-war Jaffna. The idea of a peace dividend engulfed many.

I also passed an extensive stretch of land close to Palaly with nearly 100 acres under the plough—some of the rehabilitated ex-LTTTE cadres were seen at work. That seemed to showcase the obvious reversal from war to peace signifying the conversion of a vast stretch of land that faced direct assault from Pooneryn's heavy calibre guns. It now lay docile and had been brought under the plough.

Beach front bonanza

The Northern beach front from Point Pedro facing the Palk Strait along Velvetithurai—birth place of Prabhakaran-now wiped out without a trace and reduced to a sandy plot-—Westerly past Iddakadu, KKS to Poonalai was a veritable tourist haven awaiting explosion at the hands of investors. Thalsevana built by the forces as their holiday spot area is precious beach front—a bonanza that would eventually become a magnet for development—that place is generally booked most of the time. In 1975 I took a dip in the warm sea waters. It would beat any holiday location in any country now.

I spent considerable time at the Jaffna market and the general outlook seemed that the slow pace of transportation carrying goods and services to and from Jaffna to the South had to be overcome—the volume of trade had more than quadrupled during the past two years. Things have improved quite well but the Jaffna folks are asking for more.

The market was chock-a block as vendors had plenty to offer. Grapes from the interior region close to Velvetithurai, rice, onions, chili, vegetables and fruits ranging from the perennial favourites like kankun, snake gourd, cucumber, spinach, papaw, and the famous Jaffna mangoes were selling fast. Jaffna prawns were the most sought-after dish in many hotels—crabs were also consumed aplenty. One block away from the market is a three star hotel with excellent services offering appetising hors d'oeuvres at cocktail hour.

Jaffna folks were longing for Yal Devi to be back—“we need the train because it is the best form of transportation,” said several of the market vendors. North-South trade is shaping up very well but like Oliver Twist, they ask for more. Shoes, textiles, furniture, loads of infra-structure equipment and building materials will reach Jaffna while the farming and fishing goods would reach Colombo. Alas! I could not find the signature Jaffna cigar. North-South commerce seemed flourishing ready to peak within a few years.

Next week: Core issues and collaboration amidst changing terrain.

A journey back in time to a place where peace seems surreal

By Premini Amerasinghe

We leave Anuradhapura and the old city, with its atmosphere of sanctity -- balm to a city dweller like myself -- and arrive at Medawachchiya, a little known town until a few years back, when it gained a dubious notoriety, due to the high prevalence of incurable renal disease there.

It does not take long to get to Vavuniya, the southernmost point of the ancient Tamil kingdom of Sangili.
From now on the sign boards are in Tamil. On to Kilinochchi, where we stop for tea at an inviting little restaurant where a brisk trade is being done. A young boy, eager to talk in English engages us in conversation; he has come from Mullaitivu for a workshop on gender-related violence.

On to an almost dry Iranamaduwa tank, and a considerable army presence. In the building near by, is a picture gallery, including one of Anton Balasingham alighting from the seaplane, for the peace talks, at the peace secretariat (now, no more).

From now on we are a part of another Sinhala invasion. A majority of tourists are from rural areas, eager to share the truimphalism of their friends and relatives in the army who fought -- and died -- to liberate the north.

The next stop is Thamil Chelvam’s bunker and house. To reach it, we pass through peaceful rural countryside, a narrow sandy road flanked by coconut trees. On to Puliyankulam, and Mankulam, now devoid of kulams (lakes).

An army checkpoint close to a religious site

A disquieting feature from Vavuniya onwards, is the massive army, navy, air force, and STF camps, situated a little away from the road. Ostentatious gates, more fitting for luxurious mansions, lead to the camps, which are flanked by small buildings. There are not many troops to be seen. Each town, however small, has one camp.

The landscape changes to open terrain, with patches of scrub jungle. It crosses my mind that it is a hazardous area for ground troops. Palmyrah trees, synonymous with the Jaffna peninsula, are everywhere. It is easy to identify areas of heavy fighting such as Muhamalai. The trees here are decapitated and charred -- black ghostly reminders of a savage war.

We arrive at Elephant Pass (thus named due to the elephants trekking this way to savour the ripe palmyrah fruit). A stark pale treeless landscape with salt pans bordering the lagoon. We find memorials to our heroes here, the charred and battered tank in which 'Hasalaka Gamini' charged the enemy, on the left. On the right, in the centre of a landscaped area, is a striking memorial to the fallen, Sri Lanka, held aloft by strong arms. At the tip of the island is an incongruous nelum mala on a drooping stalk.
Here, we encounter our first checkpoint.

Onwards to Omanthai, the main checkpoint, its buildings deserted now-- evoking memories of desperate refugees who flooded the area not long ago. Along the way, we encountered small pockets of destruction, and new housing schemes.

A word of thanks to the authorities, for the near miraculous reconstruction of the A9 highway (an on going exercise), which gave us a smooth run to Jaffna and back. Passing through Chavakachcheri we enter Jaffna, just three metres above sea level. We are back in the ’50s, caught in a time warp, bungalows, with the typical design of the ’30s to ’50s, evoking a sense of nostalgia. Many of them locked up, and obviously deserted, the owners, most probably abroad. They show no signs of war damage. The gardens too date back to that period with colourful croton hedges.

There are pockets of destruction in the urban areas and along the coast. We are taken to the old jetty from where gunfire was directed towards the fort by the LTTE, when a battle for its re-capture was raging in the early ’90s. Tragically, this unique star shaped fort was almost completely destroyed, along with the historic buildings within it. Fortunately, restoration is proceeding apace.

The historic Nallur temple with its striking architecture lies in the heart of Jaffna. Sadly, there is an army presence within its compound. The reconstructed library, a magnificent building, surrounded by a beautifully laid out garden created a positive impact.

As would be expected, in a population noted for its intelligentsia, and thirst for knowledge, there is a comprehensive, still burgeoning collection of books. There was also a striking collection of old maps. It was good to see facilities for children, including a computer room.

The several so-called “heroes’ cemeteries” have been completely obliterated. There is an impressive army camp at the site of one of them in Kopay. Certainly, preserving these memorials would in the long run be detrimental to the Jaffna psyche. Equally the rapidity with which they vanished may have a negative impact. The boys and girls who lay here had parents and families. Those graves would have helped to assuage their anguish.

Even in the populated areas, the roads were devoid of pedestrians. The traffic we saw comprised cyclists and motorcyclists going about their business. The vintage models of cars, said to be popular in Jaffna, were scarcely seen.

I was struck by the number of churches, kovils, and schools even in rural areas--under normal circumstances this would be indicative of a thriving, contented society. One hopes that the population will soon be back on its feet. Unfortunately, the presence of army camps situated at frequent intervals is counter-productive in this respect. Young soldiers stood along the roads at regular intervals, although barricades had been dispensed with. The several army camps were, for the most part, unobtrusively situated in old houses.

Two years after the war, Jaffna continues to have the appearance of being an occupied city.The resentment of the town folk due to this was surely compounded by the tourist invasion from the south.
In the town centre, there was a reassuring degree of “business as usual”, with the sale of local products, pomegranate, grape and nelli juices, palmyrah jaggery and fresh grapes.

We continue with the tourist route, passing the fertile area of Chunnakam, with its wells, vegetable plots and upturned fertile red soil, awaiting cultivation. This area was famous from the time of the Dutch occupation, when the main crop was tobacco.We take in the Buddhist pilgrimage sites, the most famous being on the island of Nagadhipa, a fairly modern temple complex. The heat, the crowds and the long wait for the boat made this a most exhausting trip.

The site of Sanghamitta’s landing at Thambakola Patuna, bears evidence of a recently constructed vihara complex, situated in a beautifully landscaped area. The ancient site of Kandurogada Vihara, with its several small dome shaped dagobas, has a peace and tranquillity, reminiscent of Mihintale.

All these religious sites have a heavy troop presence. Our tour continues through Keerimalai, with its curative waters, and inevitably ends at Point Pedro. Again, the army presence is everywhere.
The landscape presents the contradictions of tranquillity and beauty with its large swathes of green stretching to far horizons, its shallow clear waters, on either side of the road passing through the motorable islands, with its water birds; the immensity of the lagoon, the beautiful casuarina beach, leading to a placid sea, and the ugly scars of war, extensive destruction along the coast. In certain towns such as Thellipalai, there is hasty re-building, with new bright red tiled roofs, atop dilapidated structures.

One wonders whether the raging flames of discontent have been successfully doused. Peace continues to have a surreal air about it.

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