A Former Army Officer describes his Visit to Jaffna and the North

Retd Major-General Lalin Fernando, courtesy of Asian Tribune, 8 May 2016, where the title isSplendor of a Revival -Jaffna”

The first time I visited Jaffna was in 1961 for Captain, (later Major General) George Thevanayagam’s marriage to Ms Sanders. He was in the Sinha Regiment like me. This January (2016), we went with a close relative from the USA and her friend in the crack Chinese ‘Blue’ express train to Jaffna. Its comfortable compartments are all air conditioned. The seats, which are all reserved, can be turned round to face each other. The lavatories were spotlessly clean. Bookings can be made on line or at given stations.

Lalin_Fernando_27The train leaves Mt Lavinia at 5.10 am with quick stops at Dehiwala, Wellawatte and Bambalapitiya to Colombo Fort from where departure is at 5.45 am .  It runs express to Anuradhapura (A’pura) to which the ticket costs Rs 1,000. Beyond A’pura it costs Rs 1,500 and from A’pura either way it costs Rs 500. There was a restaurant section but it was not much patronized as the commuters were well prepared with refreshments for the 7.5  hour journey. The train was nearly full. As it was silent, dark and comfortable most slept until about 7 am.

“And now this soldier, this Lankan soldier
Will wander far no more and soldier far no more…
He’s seen the glory, he’s told the story,
Of battle glorious and deeds victorious,
The bugles ceased now, He is at peace now
Far from those green hills of home”

(Remembering the men and women of the Armed Forces and the Police who sacrificed their lives to bring peace to Sri Lanka, and all others who died in the 26 year old conflict). With apologies to the author of ‘Green Hills of Tyrol /Scottish Soldier)

Many in the train were expat Tamils eagerly looking forward to seeing Jaffna after many years in self-exile. I spoke to a pleasant self-employed, IT qualified young Tamil from London. His thinking about SL was not about recrimination, blame games, cheap political stunts, gimmicks, demands and preference for diverse forms of government. He acknowledged the appalling cost of war was due to the evil of racial politics. He did not blame any side. All he wanted was the guarantee of equality in law. He had played cricket and was interested to know that rugby was also being introduced to schools there. Did he know that SL’s first rugby international was a Tamil who played for Scotland about 20 years ago?

After Anuradhapura the red tiled roofs of hundreds of newly built sturdy brick houses dotted the sprawling and verdant country side. There were huge ponds full of water. Hardy looking people were seen in the fields with women bustling around attending to household chores. Everything was green, pretty and pleasant – the benefits of peace.

All the Northern railway stations were shining new, spic and span. Banks and companies had donated many of the amenities. Arrival at Jaffna was greeted like a home coming with many relatives and friends to meet the travelers. The station was large, imposing, tidy and clean. The local people showed proprietary pride in it. Apparently it is the second biggest in SL, like the airport at Pallaly was, until Mattala came up.

We reached KKS spot on time, incredible for SL Railways. The warm reception organized by Thalsevena, the popular Army hotel about 100 yards away, began at the Kankasanthurai (KKS) station platform.

Everything to do with Thal Sevena was well planned, organized and managed. It has a beautiful vista taking in the KKS Light House, a calm blue ocean, a clean white sand beach and jogging track on the side. The rooms, some with 2 ACs were huge and comfortable. Being a Sunday the hotel was filled with groups of mod young folk from Jaffna town intent on having a good time and a grand lunch. The hotel served a splendid and for us unexpected Mongolian buffet for lunch. The table manners of some of the youngsters however caused the staff some sweat. Salt content in the Jaffna water meant that drinking water was all bottled stuff.

We had engaged a van using a Holy Family Convent Colombo ‘Old Girl’ network. The 46 year old, tall, lean driver knew all the roads very well and was well informed. He confided to the ladies that he had been a commandeered driver for the LTTE. We did not probe. His services were not cheap. Peace dividend for 4 Sinhalese and one Tamil.

We drove past the Jaffna Fort to the resurrected Jaffna library, arisen from its ashes. Memories of its burning in 1981 by Government goondas continues to haunt. It was always our first stop on recent trips to Jaffna. Donations were welcome. However, there was strict enforcement of a rule restricting most areas to members. In 2013 it was more relaxed and the receptionist understood English.

We learned that it was too late to visit the Nallur Kovil as it is not open after 6 pm except on festival days. We walked the streets which were full of conservatively dressed and polite people. No one banged into you as you walked by. The road traffic manners could improve but were nowhere near the recklessness of the South. The shops were full and the streets well lit. We toyed with the idea of having a Jaffna crab curry dinner but a call to the master chef at ‘Thalsevena’ made us postpone that delight for one of his.

The next morning we set off for Mullativu via Killinochchi after an early breakfast. It was pleasantly dry and cool. We saw the ubiquitous Jaffna girls on their bicycles riding abreast to school as in the ages past. It was a reminder of a unique right of way, Jaffna tradition that will not change yet.

We stepped into Fits Margosa in Chunakam, a renovated ancestral bungalow now fitted with AC, and a well run holiday home. The obliging manager, an old girl of Chundikuli Girls School, showed us around. The bungalow is set in a garden with an expanse of green lawn lined with tall trees. Many other such houses were advertised to meet a rising expat and local tourist demand. Bungalows cost about Rs 20,000 a day.

We did not notice many people or traffic on the streets and the main roads. In any case Northerners do not loiter and gossip on the roads. We maintained a steady 70 clicks on the A9. Road manners were good. We stopped at Elephant Pass to stand a moment in silence at the monument to the troops who died in the many battles there and saw the damaged LTTE ‘armoured’ bull dozer that Rifleman Gemunu (Hasalaka) Kularatne PWV climbed onto and blew up with grenades before being killed.

At Kilinochchi the remains of the huge water tank that was blown up is a stark reminder of the wanton destruction caused by the LTTE. We were provided with a liaison officer from the Army to guide us. Iranamadu tank with a tree line in the background, held us in awe with its breathtaking vastness and the sheer liquid beauty. It holds the key to Engineer Armugam’s still ignored ‘Water for Jaffna’ plan, given in minute and exhaustive detail in his over 500-page book. Armugam’s plan was to channel the flood waters that spill over the Iranamadu and other tanks every 4-5 years to Jaffna via Elephant Pass. Killinochchi still awaits the promised Mahaveli waters.

We quenched our thirst with delicious kurumba at an army camp close by and proceeded. The itinerary covered the Sea Tigers training swimming pool, the LTTE boat yard with its incomplete submarines among other boats, the now depleted weapons museum and the disappearing and stark remains of the LTTE hijacked merchant ship SS Farah. It is being professionally and illegally stripped for its metal.

Prabakaran (VP)’s 4 floor underground bunker is no longer available for public viewing. A hero cult and God status was being cultivated and sponsored by some Northerners. The Air conditioning was disconnected about 3 years ago. The place is now dank and smells horrid. However, we were allowed to view it. The vestiges of the protective 3 layer perimeter defence fence system, each manned for security reasons by cadres from different villages, could be seen. The viewing room for VP to pay his final respects to selected dead ‘hero’ cadres remains but tenuously. These exhibits could be double edged and therefore may soon disappear.

Breakfast was at Vishvamadu army camp and lunch in a novel tree top dining facility in an Officers’ Mess at Puthukudirippu. The food was delicious. The interior roads that had been just bullock cart paths earlier had been converted to gravel tracks by 2013.They were all now, smooth black top. It made the journey effortless.

This time around it was not possible to see Sea Tiger chief Soosai’s house. We were told this was because his wife was now in occupation. HR high priests should note that it is the SL forces that make sure that her privacy, despite being the murderous Soosai’s wife, is respected and protected. Were al Qaida’s Bin Laden’s surviving wives treated as well?We then went to Nandikadal lagoon where the Victory Monument and the Memorial to the troops who died in the final battles are located. It is a stark reminder of the cost of war, the sacrifices made and the hope it never happens again. There was no marker now to show where exactly VP died.

Our next stop was Mullativu. I remember my first visit in 1950 with my father who was the circuit district judge from Anuradhapura and my brother and I climbing the Light House. The army had cleared large areas of mines, made super roads and built good houses in well planned projects. It had earned the affection of the people. Sadly however, Mullativu has far too many ill educated and unemployed people living in dire poverty. Politicians apparently appear from time to time to make rousing speeches and disappear, to live to deceive again.

We visited the not so well known Vattapillai Amman Kovil at Mullativu. It was barely recognizable as extensive renovations were being done. About 500,000 devotees, many of them from India, gather here for the annual festival in May. Apparently VP was not welcome here. The high caste Poosari had then apparently vanished.

We were warmly welcomed by the Security Force Commander to a splendid high tea in his imposing residence. He said the Army had built 1,000 houses for the people but quite a few were reluctant to come into residence. This had raised questions at high levels. He had probed into it and found out that the intractable issue of caste was the main reason. High castes did not want others living in the same complex with them. Another was that the 40 perches given to all was not acceptable to some who had owned bigger plots of land previously. He was sorting it all out but it would take time in a deeply conservative community.

We left as night fell. It was a very fast run, skirting the very long Nandikadal lagoon and then skimming along on the broad, superbly carpeted main road back to the A9 at Paranthan. In 2013 the ground work to convert a rutty clay track into what it was now was being done by men working very hard against the clock with machines in sweltering conditions.

We noticed that between Killinochchi and Jaffna on the A9 only about a dozen vehicles went past us. It appears from what we also saw in the morning that there is little need in the foreseeable future for widening the A9. The introduction of a couple more ‘Blue trains’ would be wiser.

We got to Thal Sevena for a novel dinner. It was in a disused but well kept railway carriage overlooking the sea. Our ‘first class railway tickets’ were checked by a ‘conductor’. Recorded sounds of the engine starting up, its whistle blowing, severe shaking of the carriage and platform announcements reached a crescendo making conversation impossible when the noise suddenly abated. A super fish dinner was served. The waiters were dressed as restaurant car attendants of yore. There was a bar with wine too.

The next day we visited Nagadipa (Nainativu) 50 kms away. We travelled fast along miles of vastly improved smooth surfaced causeways connecting Jaffna and Kayts island to Punkudutivu. Fish traps, unattended but in no danger from man, could be seen in many places. We took the public ferry from Kurikaduwan.
Wearing life jackets was mandatory and strictly but inoffensively monitored. We visited the temple, the kovil and even a church. The island was very clean. The behavior of the devotees and visitors was exemplary. We returned at speed in a Jet boat courtesy of the Naval Officer on duty there.

On the road back we stopped at a church identified on our way out. Except for two non barking dogs there was no one around although the vicarage was co located. We went inside. The two Catholics offered prayers. It was one of many dotting the landscape, very old, fairly big and impressive as Catholic churches always are. On a hot day it was very cool inside. The entire premises appeared not to have suffered any damage during the conflict.

We then got to the Green Grass hotel in downtown Jaffna for the authentic Jaffna crab curry lunch we had promised ourselves before leaving Colombo. There were many diners there but the numbers were nowhere close to the throng at Thal Sevena on Sunday. Later we went walk about in the Jaffna market. At the Palmyrah Board outlet we bought locally woven baskets and mats and ‘thal hakuru’.

We then finally made it to the magnificent and massive Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil (Temple) built in 1749. It too was undergoing renovation. Few outside Jaffna knew that it had not suffered any damage during the conflict. It had been a refuge for the people whenever shooting and bombing took place. Only the IPKF had attempted to violate that tradition. There were very many Tamil expats speaking in many Western accents and some foreigners there. A Canadian expat related the temple rituals in detail. The history of the original kovil dates back to 948 AD. Like most Jaffna expats, he was a professional who had done very well abroad. They were all unequivocally impressed at the speed of rehabilitation and were enjoying their stay. They felt there was an embracing air of reconciliation.

We were sad to hear that many of the youth of Jaffna having had limited education and few job opportunities, relied on remittances from relatives living abroad, and indulged in booze, drugs and crime.

We returned via the venerable and stately Jaffna College Vadukoddai, the 1871 successor to the oldest seminary in South Asia if not the region. It was begun in 1823 before Colombo’s oldest school, Christian College Kotte (1827). Huge shade trees shielded us from the heat as proud staff extolled its virtues. I had been there with late Captain Malik Deen, Sinha Regt, in 1981 to attend Major VG George’s memorial service. Maj George had held the British Empire’s schools age group (under 16?) long jump record at one time. The next visit had been a family visit in 2013.

We next stopped a startled toddy tapper cycling along to deliver fresh tapped Palmyrah toddy to a ‘licensed’ tavern, so he said. He was incredulous when 3 ladies asked to buy some. We tasted it with a little trepidation and being satisfied and thirsty, drank some on the road side. We also filled a water bottle with a little more to quench our thirst on the way. Some locals ‘passing’ by could hardly recover from the sight of 3 elderly ‘society’ ladies sipping toddy on the road side albeit with their male escort. They advanced slowly to get a better look at the adventurers. Hepatitis thankfully did not strike us down.

We went across to view Dambakola patuna where it is said Theri Sanghamiththa landed in SL from India in the 3rd century with Emperor Asoka’s gift of the historic bo sapling. We also saw the Keeramalai hot wells which were undergoing renovations. Renovations appeared to be going on all over at a hectic pace, probably funded generously by the home sick Diaspora.

As it was getting dark we decided not to go to Point Pedro via Thonadamannaru and VP’s birth place Velvetithurai to view the northern most point of SL. We had earlier skipped going to Casuarina beach due to pressing time and space constraints. This is where the bolder of young Jaffna ladies in the pre conflict days would plunge into the waters dressed in sarees while the young bucks would perform to impress them with their swimming skills. After all Jaffna had produced Navaratnaswami the first man ever to swim the 33 mile Palk strait between SL and India (1954).

We did not also cross the 288 m long, 2 lane Sangipuddy steel bridge that in 2011 replaced the ancient ferry built in 1937 off the causeway over the placid Jaffna lagoon, connecting Karaitivu with Pooneryn. It is the second bridge from the mainland to Jaffna and shortens the journey from the South to Jaffna via the newly carpeted A32 from Mannar by 110 kms or 3 hours. The Pooneryn Paranthan road had been carpeted too making the East West journey that was a roller coaster spine shatterer in 2013, a great relief and delight now. The area’s entire road network had been transformed by men of tremendous vision from the pathetic apology that existed without much concern or hope before.

The next day we strolled along the beach before having a late breakfast. There was one Navy man making a serious effort to keep fit on the jogging track. An army mobile canteen set up shop too for early visitors. After an early lunch we boarded the ‘Blue Train’ which has just turned around, for the return journey.

At Jaffna station there was a furious melee. Elders with proprietary interest climbed onto the train accompanying long lost expat relatives. They helped with the luggage of seasoned travelers and messed about with the seating which in any case was reserved. They were exceedingly noisy. The train, now almost full, started off. It would appear this was virtually with the permission of the elders who had dismounted. The snappily dressed station master would have been a credit even to the uniform conscious Deutsche Bahn (German Railways).

The scene that unfolded far exceeded what we had observed on the A9 or noticed while dozing on the way in. Everything was luscious rolling green with paddy on either side as far as an eye could see. Not even the rice bowl of the Eastern Province offers such sweeping vistas. It looked like a miniature of the wheat fields of the Punjab and the Isle d France. It was inspiring, stirring and stunningly beautiful. Nature had combined with enduring peace to bring manifold and bountiful benefits to the Northerners. That had been the wish of the ordinary Southerners.

We knew we had left the revived splendour of Jaffna when we saw the ramshackle railway stations from Vavuniya southwards. Each was an eye sore. The sight of the soaring and lovely Ruwanvelisaya restored our shattered morale as even the Anuradhapura station depressed. We then sped and rocked back to Colombo, again dead on time. A really crack train.

Jaffna is looking brilliant. It needs Diaspora in addition to Government and private sector help to set up industries and develop agriculture, fishing and build homesteads. Its youth need to be better educated, learn English and be trained to find good jobs. Engineer Armugam’s ‘Water for Jaffna project’ should be given priority if Jaffna is not to suffer a calamity sooner than later as its ground water sources dry up. Southerners will continue to top tourist arrivals in Jaffna. No one hopefully still wants to divide SL but suspicion is rife given the statements of mavericks.

Who then had craftily place a gun in the hands of Sinnathamby from the North and Ariyadasa from the South who had no quarrel to blow each other’s brains out the moment they saw each other from afar for the first time? Are they the same hypocrites who talk blithely of reconciliation now?

‘For you take the A9 and I’ll take the Blue Train
And I’ll get to Yalpalam before you
But you and I must never ever
Adi podu podu in the Wanni again.’

(With apologies to Loch Lomond )

– Asian Tribune –






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