Cameos of Jaffna: a visit after three decades

Nan, from Sunday Island, 8 May 2011

Less palmyrah trees, more coconut palms; less typical leaf fences due to less houses; hotels sprung up while there were hardly any long ago; a distinct military presence similar to khaki-clads in Colombo roads and of course the high security zones and check points. Devastated houses, decrepit buildings, deserted homes with shelled walls. The most shocking – the yellow tape with black letters warning of mines – strung round certain areas and the deep, deep sadness making heavy the heart silently crying for all the lost youth both, Sinhalese and Tamil, Tamil Tigers and Tigresses, led completely astray with heedless nationalism to a state of their own. Tears unshed but very much present at a lost generation – lost in death or lost with 30 years war, fear and turmoil.

Pictures in June 2010 by Michael Roberts


People  — Sweet kids neatly dressed in white school uniforms and ties no less, walking or cycling to school. Women on bikes going about their business with set faces but graceful bodies. The girl who cleaned our hotel room was such a striking beauty. She was tall and held herself superbly; she had sharp features but they were set in place, no relaxing of lips and eyes in a smile. I met her going home after work one evening and then she returned my ‘Hello’ with a lovely smile. Again the heart strings pulled at the suffering this girl would have gone through. No conversation attempted since conversation with people met was not indulged in.

Our group wished to make our presence in the peninsular as unobtrusive as possible, just fellow human beings revisiting a place that had been a favourite holiday resort more than thirty years ago. In fact, though I lovedJaffna, had so many sincere Tamil friends and had enjoyed so many holidays inJaffnaand KKS, I for one did not want to go gawking when the A9 was opened and sightseers allowed up North. We bided our time and then when we heard that things were improved for the residents of the area; when people who had moved away were trickling in to their abandoned homes; when the displaced were very slowly resettled in small numbers; business was flourishing; we decided to go toJaffna.

There pervaded, along with the ghostly spirit of all that had happened, a sense of purposefulness, a distinct picking up and getting on. Some were cashing in on the influx of visitors and thus the hotels – large like Cosy Hotel and Green Grass and smaller ones scattered all over. Thus also the buses plying betweenColomboandJaffnaor fromKandy. Tip Top Tours has a fleet of 12 luxury buses that do the run fromColombodaily, starting off at 8.00 pm and arriving inJaffnaat dawn with just one stop en route. The bus returns the next night. Drivers – two to a bus – do it almost all through the week with the days spent sleeping inJaffna. Locals are freely allowed to visitJaffnaand areas that are not high security zones as long as they have their identity cards. Foreigners, whether total foreigners or visiting Sri Lankans domiciled abroad, have to get special permission from the MOD or army headquarters.

Religious harmony seems very real. This will last unless bigots and ultra nationalists and religious fanatics of the likes of the JHU’s diehards or foolish, short sighted politicians believing themselves to be patriots introduce disharmony by competitive promotion of Buddhism in the North. The Nallur Kovil, I am sure, respects and gives space to the Naga Vihara and the other Buddhist Vihara which claims to have been originally built to house the bo sapling brought to the Island by Sanghamitta Theri until King Devanampiyatissa came North to receive the holy sapling and convey it in procession toAnuradhapura. The sea trip to Nagadipa is facilitated by Tamils of Jaffna. Left to themselves, the present mixed population which surely will grow in numbers, will live in harmony. But why the chills climbing up the spine? Because a few Sinhalese, unfortunately with money or political clout, will take it upon themselves to build Buddha statues and temples to dot thePeninsula. I was told there were mosques because Muslims have gone back to their businesses if not their former homes. None of the religions should get competitive and the powers that be must do everything possible to maintain the religious tolerance, peace and balance that reigns at present. Strife will come in if politicians do not tread extremely careful and leave the religious dignitaries to live sensibly giving space to others, as they seem to be doing now.

Conversations —I spoke at length with just three people of Jaffna – three employees of the hotel we stayed in. One was the housekeeper, a young Sinhalese man from Gampola, who had worked at Mahaweli Reach Hotel. He had been employed by the Jaffna hotel three months ago and said he was very happy. He felt no fear, no feeling of isolation, of being different from others he worked with. Thus the obvious amity between the Tamils and Sinhalese, at least in their work places. He said he felt comfortable walking about even at night. He commented that Jaffna definitely was growing in its economy. Asked whether he could express an opinion of the obvious military presence and maintaining of high security zones, his reply was that both were beneficial.

A waiter spoken with also said he was happy working inJaffnasince there was amity among all workers of the hotel with no distinctive feelings of Tamilness or being Sinhalese. He complained however about low salaries and heavy work. To him there were the ‘good Tamils’ and the less good. His categorization is based on the religion of the Tamil: if Hindu, very good; if Christian not so good.

The Tamil hotel employee at managerial level was more forthright. When asked how he works with Sinhalese above him and below him, he said that was a funny question since they did not divide themselves racially but worked together, comfortable with each other. He had a very succinct comment to make and when I asked him whether I could quote him, he said “Go ahead.” “We can manage to get our lives and businesses going; we can improve conditions ourselves and bring Jaffna back to its peaceful state of three decades ago, which of course I did not know but have heard of. I was born in 1980 and during the peace accord stage I left forEurope. I returned toJaffnaand my home in 2009. I definitely feel if left to ourselves with of course financial input and administrative guidance, we will improve. We can satisfy the people. But this will never be if the government interferes in our affairs.”

He said his father was shot at when returning home from work in the cement factory. The firing was from a helicopter. Injured, the man could not go to work. Worse was to come since in his depressed state he got cancer and died. “That is when I felt I had to come back since my mother needed a man in the family. I am the only son with three girls; one is married and of the other two, one stays home while the third is still in school. I have a girl friend and will marry soon, but after my second sister is given in marriage.” He said the dowry system prevails but education is insisted upon and many girls are employed. Asked about working with Sinhalese, he was puzzled since race mattered not a jot. Of a total of 36 employees in the hotel three were Sinhalese – housekeeper, room boy and waiter. He admitted to feeling pressure, not from the fact of the army presence but from anything to do with the government, like jobs being available to only loyalists of the party in power. Also, he did not enjoy 100 percent freedom or the feeling of being free.

A monstrous travesty

ElephantPassis a unique spot inSri Lanka. The water stretching on both sides of the narrow road that joins theJaffnaPeninsulato the rest of theIslandwith the silhouette of palmyrah palms in view as you enter north is unforgettable and etched in memory. Just as the sight of the spire of Ruvanweliseya rising from the trees inspires and imbues the traveler entering the ancient capital with national pride and a sense of peace, the sight ofElephantPassindicates you are entering a very different part ofSri Lanka. Now two huge billboards obliterate and annoy the discerning and obtrude into the view of the water and land ahead. It’s not the view but this Dialog billboard and a paint company advertisement that hit the traveler’s eye. They are monstrous in size and monstrous in intrusion into the beauty and calm of the place. Whoever allowed these two billboards? The money given the Municipality or whatever would have permitted this travesty. They should be torn down immediately; and, needless to say, no advertiser allowed permission to stick boards in the water.

Another eye sore – a memorial to the soldiers who lost their lives. This is at the end of the causeway and just as you enter the Peninsular. It’s in the shape ofSri Lankawith a clumsy lotus and bud sprouting from a spot that would mark Point Pedro, buttressed by four lions. I am sure to be labeled a traitor but I repeat this memorial is completely lacking in aesthetic beauty and is sited in the wrong place indicating conquer and defeat. A memorial in the shape of a cracked wall with a bullet piercing through which one sees in Kilinochchi is fine. Thrusting the fact of defeat by the hugely insensitive and provocative act of erasing the cemetery of the LTTE is another very regrettable act. After all those who were interred were also Sri Lankans though they fought against the armed forces.

We came away sad yet glad there is regeneration and rebuilding and the hope that Sinhalaness will not be thrust down the throats of the Tamils who, using their hardiness, skills and persistence, are rebuilding their lives.

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Filed under island economy, LTTE, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

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