Big match fever in Jaffna
Jaffna's flicker of hope
By Amantha Perera in Jaffna
The yellow banners hanging from each and every lamp post
in Jaffna town were full of irony. Light shines in darkness,
they read in Tamil. There was a picture of a flickering flame
The insurance company that had set them up would
probably not have thought too much about the wording
when it entered as the sponsor of the 100th annual
encounter between St John's and Jaffna Central. Whether it
meant it or otherwise, light was flickering in the darkness in
Two months ago Jaffna was a killing field with claymore
mines going off at random. Last week it was business as
usual, inclusive of a big match that came complete with
boisterous fans dancing in the streets to papare bands.
When violence engulfed the peninsula in December, a
friend living in Jaffna said the best way to get a feel of how
the town was reacting was to see how long people stayed on
in the streets in the evening. Then every thing shut down by
6 p.m. Now, they stay open for a while, though it's still hard
to find a trishaw driver to take a swing around the town at 8
Soldiers are all over; they patrol the streets armed, stay
stationed at important junctions and look nervously at
anyone remotely suspicious - cameras are still taboo near
security establishments. Security is still tight when entering
and leaving government areas. Otherwise, Jaffna is quite
literally getting on.
"Now it's okay, but if the war is back, then who knows?"
Nagarasa Subramaniam, a 43-year-old fisherman from
Manalkadhu said. He is living in a makeshift shelter with 210
other families left destitute by the tsunami.
While anywhere else in the country the accusing finger is
directed at the slow moving housing reconstruction effort,
Subramaniam and a lot of others in the camp have other
devils to fear.
The village lies right on the fault line that separates
government-controlled areas and those under Tiger rule on
the eastern side of the peninsula. The military has
strengthened the camps and bunker lines. The fear is that
the Tigers could use the beach to launch attacks.
"It is only the sea that separates their line at Muhamalai;
they can just come in, so we have to be extra careful," a
Manalkadhu means sand forest in Tamil and the village is
the main supplier of sand for construction in the peninsula.
Now, however, even the lorries that transport the sand are
thoroughly checked. They line up to enter and exit. The
entire beach stretch has been declared a High Security
The crescendo set by the blaring of an ice-cream van at
Manalkadhu was suddenly disturbed by the tat-tat staccato
of distant firing of automatic weapons. The camp dwellers
seemed to take it on the run; it was part of the daily routine.
Soldiers at the nearby camp were engaged in firing practice.
The tsunami-affected and armed soldiers go together here.
It is common to see heavily armed soldiers patrolling
through the makeshift houses built by UNHCR while children
play marbles on the roadside.
The latest reports on the reconstruction effort indicate that
the war and the natural tragedy have combined to create a
unique situation in the north.
"In areas of the north and east, people believe that the
already existing gaps in infrastructure and communication
facilities in the war-affected areas further impedes the
delivery of the recovery. Also in the north and east, there is
some sentiment that the armed conflict and the minority
status of those affected makes them more vulnerable and
less empowered to make demands of the local and national
governments. They also perceive that the media bias has
led to an influx of aid to the southern communities and not
so to the north and east," a report titled People's
Consultations On Post Tsunami Relief, Reconstruction and
Rehabilitation In Sri Lanka, a joint project of the UNDP,
Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Community
Extension Centre of the Colombo University, said.
Caught in the middle
In Manalkadhu, the tsunami victims are wiling to wait for the
houses, but they know how hard it can hit if both sides start
shooting at each other. The civilians, as it has been
throughout the two decades of ethnic bloodshed, get caught
in the middle with nowhere to run.
Luth Aruldass fled to the Wanni when the violence spiraled
out of control. He had good reason for being a member of a
mahaveera family - a family which has lost a member
fighting among LTTE ranks. In fact Aruldass confidently
says that his family has lost two.
The army suspects that the bulk of the 16,000 that fled
government areas, especially in Jaffna and Trincomalee,
were active LTTE sympathisers. Once in the Wanni,
Aruldass said that the situation was even more helpless,
despite the safety.
The refugees were housed in schools and other community
centres and looked after by the Tigers. However there was
no hope of any sort of improvement. The young man had a
very clear choice; he decided that the UNHCR camp next to
the army detachment was better than the safety offered
among the Tigers.
Aruldass returned to the Manalkadhu tin-house two weeks
back. "A lot of people went, they took what they could. Some
have come back, but things can change very fast,"
Anthonypillai Joseph, a 66-year-old fisherman said.
While the Manalkadhu temporary housing camp lies well
inside the beach areas leaving the army to secure the
beach easily, houses are to be built much closer to the
beach, making them more vulnerable if all out hostilities
It was a matter of days when Jaffna went back to the war
town it was in the late 1990s soon after soldiers and
policemen became targets late last year.
The attacks were claimed by the Tamil Resurgence Force,
which said that it was made up of civilians. It is quiet now,
but like Joseph, fear can rear up anywhere in the north east.
The army suspects that it was a mere front for LTTE
Aruldass said the Tigers imparted basic military training to
youth in the Wanni. A youth who was part of such a batch
and was suspected to have leaked details to the security
forces had been mercilessly assaulted on the beach.
The Tigers may have shifted their presence to the other
side of the Muhamalai barrier, but the confrontations
between them and detractors still take place. On some
alleyways and by roads in Jaffna town, half torn posters
blamed the Tigers for pushing the students to the front of
the firing line. Some in Jaffna say that it was the work of the
EPDP, but no one confirms it.
There were also ramblings at the Jaffna University, a
catalyst for protestors and violence in December and
January. When it opened for sessions on March 15, an
effigy of the new Vice Chancellor, Jeevan Hoole hung on the
Students had warned earlier that they would not allow Hoole
to take up the post and threatened violence.
Here too there is tacit LTTE support for the opposition to the
new appointment. Soon after meeting with Norwegian
Ambassador Hans Brattskar last week, Tamilselvan told the
media that the appointment was a hostile act and went
against goodwill building measures.
No wonder undergraduates in Jaffna said that they would
rather burn the university down than welcome the new
appointment. Such attitude leaves little room for ordinary
people in Jaffna to feel safe, despite the papare band
Business which was booming soon after the truce took hold
is now floundering. The Pilliyar Inn, one of the few guest
houses in Jaffna, was doing such brisk business that it
employed a cook all the way from India and paid the cook a
five figure salary. There were four room boys and a month's
advance was needed to get a room. That was before the
Business just dove-tailed and the Indian was sent back
home along with three of the room boys. Now the guest
house mainly survives on daily walk-in visitors.
Even some amongst the Muslims who returned to Jaffna
after an absence of more than a decade after the 2002
truce left when things became volatile. But others stayed on.
That is the contradiction in Jaffna.
Muslims feel uneasy when the Tigers assert themselves, but
want to stay on because there is so much promise.
Businesses are hard done when violence gets out of hand,
but owners do not want to close shop because Jaffna in
peace time could be a goldmine.
Youth were dancing to the papare and swinging on chairs
tipsy as ever, with not a care on their heads. But two months
back, the agitations were led by young undergraduates and
other activists who taunted nervous soldiers.
Like the lamp on the poster, the flame of hope was flickering
in Jaffna last week, while on the horizon there was distant
thunder and ramblings that a storm could once again be
heading its way.
Only the papare was drowning the sound of distant thunder.