Saturday, May 08, 2010

Jaffna after the war: Observations by a visitor

by Leela Issac - Large crowds rush to Jaffna every day. Some of them have never been there before. The 30 years war is over and thanks to president Rajapakse, (General Fonseka is already forgotten), they are now at last free to visit those territories the Tigers once claimed as theirs. They are eager to visit the many places of worship including a few recently discovered ones. They are genuinely happy to be there, moving from Nallur to Mavattapuram, Keerimalai, Nagadeepa, Dambakola Pattuna and Kandarodai.

Dambakola Pattuna in Madagal is where Theri Sangamitha is said to have landed with the sacred Bo sapling. A new dagoba has been built there and a statue of bikkuni Sangamitha has been installed in December 2009, by the first lady herself. Kandarodai where the mini dagobas are found has acquired a new Sinhala name. In all these places name boards and notices are found in Sinhala. Therefore the visitors from the South feel very homely and comfortable. The forces are every where giving them a sense of security. The Keerimalai tank which is now being used as a swimming pool is also heavily guarded because it falls within the High Security Zone. In fact there is a police post adjoining one of the kovils. In Nallur and Nagadeepa people are not only free to worship but also to do a little shopping. The vendors who have put up their stalls in the Kovil vicinity and Nagadeepa are mainly Sinhalese and those who are not, speak in Sinhala anyway, for the convenience of the buyers.

Accommodation is a problem. The three big hotels in Jaffna, we were told are being occupied by the army and the police, Smaller hotels like Pillaiyar Inn are booked for months ahead. The cheap guest houses and lodges are also brimming with guests. Every week nearly four lakhs of people visit Jaffna it is reported, while the whole population of Jaffna only amounts to five lakhs. Some popular restaurants like “Cosy” put up their shutters by 6 or 7 p.m., unable to cope with the demand for food. But the people of Jaffna are making every possible effort to make the visitors comfortable. Even private homes are offering the extra rooms they have for a nominal amount, like the KR Inn on Palaly Road, Thirunelvely. Even the old Jaffna railway station is made available to those who fail to find lodging. The old platform is used as an open kitchen and toilet arrangements have also been made. Communication too is not a serious problem. Just as the Tamils in the South have learnt Sinhala for their own survival; the Tamils in the North too are learning Sinhala, perhaps to do business among the visitors from the south.

But the question we should be asking is whether this large influx of visitors to Jaffna will help in promoting peace and national reconciliation in our war torn country. According to the G.A. Jaffna, this vast crowd visiting the North is something positive. The people of the North and south can at least meet freely and begin to trust each other, which could later lead to building bridges between the two communities. Building trust should begin with people interacting with one another. At the moment one doesn’t see this interaction taking place. One major barrier being, that though both parties know enough of each other’s language to order and serve food, to ask and give directions, it is not sufficient to share each other’s experiences, feelings, deep rooted fears, hopes and aspirations. That requires a deeper understanding and one can only hope that this will happen in the course of time.

There is also the question of different attitudes and respect for each other’s religious sentiments. Nallur Kandasamy Kovil for example is treated with great reverence by the people of Jaffna. Today vendors from the South have put up stalls in the vicinity of the Kovil to sell trinkets, kotta kilangu and hakuru. It creates hurt feelings among the Hindus who will not enter the kovil without properly cleansing themselves, to see hundreds of visitors coming there as sight seers. One cannot blame the first time visitors but better awareness and understanding of the feelings of the local people is necessary, if reconciliation is to take place.

The local people feel that suddenly too many Buddha statues and shrines are coming up close to Kovils, Churches and Mosques. Recently when attempts were made to build a shrine under a Bo tree next to another place of worship, the people had intervened and stopped it. One irate young woman told us “wherever they see a Bo tree, they want to build a shrine, I simply dislike these beautiful Bo trees now”. Creating this kind of resentment wouldn’t be conducive to peace building.

There has been a lot of senseless destruction. Apart from buildings and cemeteries that have been demolished, monuments of peace have also been wantonly broken like the one inside the Jaffna University premises. The statue of Thileepan has been destroyed very recently. (Thileepan was the LTTE political wing leader when the IPKF was in Jaffna. He started a fast and as his demands were not met, died fasting). These destructions do not help in healing and peace building.

Chatty beach is beautiful and no wonder visitors flock there. There‘s plenty of space for merry making. Busloads of picnickers from the South can be seen singing and dancing on the beach. Opposite the beach, on the other side of the road however, is a large cemetery that has been bulldozed. The broken tomb stones are found in heaps scattered over a large area. One sees life and death side by side. Those who make merry on the beach cannot be considered insensitive because they may not even be aware that they are facing a cemetery. A little awareness would help in understanding the feelings of the others.

A lot of building material (from China) has been unloaded on either side of the road between Murugandy and Mankulam. We stopped to ask one of the soldiers, whether there was a plan to build houses for the displaced. ‘No’ he said, it was China’s donation towards an army cantonment. The government plans to put up an army camp just like the one at Panagoda. One does feel sorry for the young, in fact very young soldiers living in small tents in those remote areas without the basic facilities. Their living conditions are no better than those of the returning IDPs in their makeshift homes. But the question is why are they being kept there after the war is over? There is no fear or danger of LTTE attacks now. So what is the need for this heavy military presence in the North? On the A9 road every hundred meters there is a bunker and every mile or so a major military base. It certainly does not promote peace and reconciliation.

While some people are happy with the army others are not. Those who are happy say “The solders are now friendly with us, they even speak Tamil”. Others say, “We are afraid of the army. They come and question our young boys and girls who have retuned from IDP camps. These young people are not admirers of the LTTE. They feared the LTTE would drag them away from their homes and make them fight. Today they are happy there is no LTTE. But the army suspects them and keeps harassing them. We spend sleepless nights because it is at night that they come.” Reconciliation cannot take place in this tense environment.

There is no enthusiasm among the people of the North about the general election. One senses a kind of apathy and indifference, but some feel people will still vote. A few of them told us “we voted for Gen. Sarath Fonseka because we wanted a change of government. But that did not happen, instead the man who won the war for the country is locked up in prison today. We are simply shocked and cannot help thinking – If this could happen to Sarath Fonseka, what’s going to be our fate? Is there any point in voting?”

If these people are to live with dignity and self esteem in the land of their birth there has to be power sharing at the periphery and at the centre. Today federalism and devolution of power have become dirty words. No political party in the South even talks about it. Building roads and army camps in the North is not the solution to the problems of the Jaffna people. The causes that led to the 30 years of war must be addressed at least now.

But as one newspaper columnist (MSM Ayub) points out “Though Perumal and most Tamil leaders still insist on the wider devolution of powers, it might take a long or infinite time for the Tamils and Sinhalese to arrive at a common point in the light of the present psychological division on ethnic lines”. It is possible for an enlightened democratic leadership to bring about this unity. But sadly after the Rajapakse regime introduces a new constitution we might have only a line of Sinhala Buddhist Kings, not democratic leaders who believe in a multi ethnic, multi religious society. Forces that support and control the present regime do not believe in a multi ethnic or multi religious Sri Lanka. What they envisage is a unitary Sinhala Buddhist state where the minorities should merge with the majority, forgetting and losing their identity.

Is that possible? Only time will tell.

© Groundviews

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