TamilWeek Feb 19, 2006
Building bridges between the North and
the South: Journalists journey to Jaffna

by Manique Mendis

We finished a delicious dinner of piping hot naan
accompanied by spicy chicken curry, tender mutton and
bean curd. Suddenly, we remembered that our trishaw driver
had promised to wait for us outside the gate. We had long
overstayed our intended time, carried away by the
interesting conversation, the hospitality of our host and the
enchanting environment of the roof garden where dinner was
served.

"It is dangerous for the trishaw driver to be out at this time,"
said our worried host. "Everyone remains behind closed
doors after 6 pm. In the stillness of the night, if we hear dogs
barking and the thud-thud of boots, we know that something
dreadful has happened."

We made a hurried exit to check on the trishaw driver. We
had commissioned him for the short journey from our
guesthouse to the home of our host. Suddenly, the barking
of dogs and loud footsteps shattered the calm of the night.
Eerie shadows emerged near the gate.

We were gripped by fear. We hastened our pace towards the
gate. The trishaw driver was still there. His wife and two
relatives had arrived on bicycles, venturing out into the
isolated night in search of him. Behind them followed a troop
of eight military men.

We introduced ourselves and explained the situation to the
military personnel. They were cordial and instructed the
trishaw driver and his relatives to return to their homes
immediately.

The trishaw driver told us that he lived about one kilometre
from our guesthouse. Concerned about his safety, we
escorted him home and walked back to our lodgings.

The time was 9.30 pm. The day, Sunday 5 February 2006.
The place - Jaffna.

I had accepted the invitation to dinner from friends, outside
of our official programme in Jaffna. My colleagues from the
Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies were Dilshan, a
former radio journalist, Nirma, who is also a freelance
journalist, and award winning photojournalist, Ashoka Peiris,
who now runs his own web page at
www.isnasrilanka.com.

We were with a delegation of twenty-five journalists from
Colombo who visited Jaffna from 4 to 6 February. They were
from print and electronic media while two of them also
reported to the foreign press. The members of the
delegation represented five leading associations: the Sri
Lanka Working Journalists Association, Federation of media
Employees, Free Media Movement, Muslim Media Forum and
Tamil Media Alliance. These unions recently signed a charter
to cooperate towards common objectives related to
journalistic professionalism in the country.

We wanted to examine the ground realities and life of
ordinary people and to communicate this to those outside
Jaffna. The tour was geared, too, as a confidence and
goodwill-building activity.

We discovered during this short trip that the inhabitants of
Jaffna were vocal about privations arising from the tense
ground situation but hesitated or refused to answer
questions that implicated the LTTE – such as queries about
Claymore mine attacks on government troops stationed in
the north and east.

Jaffna has always held a special attraction for me. The warm
hospitality and sincere kindness of the people to Sinhalese
visitors has often touched me. I last went to Jaffna in early
December 2005. The city I visited a few days ago was a
drastically changed place. A blanket of fear has been cast.
Ordinary people do not live ordinary lives any more. People
are afraid of the increased military presence. They are afraid
of many other things. They talk of "paramilitary" operations.
They talk of attacks, abductions, disappearances, rapes and
killings.

"We are frightened to go out of our homes. We do not know
whether we would return alive. We are frightened when we
are inside our homes at night. We do not know whether our
homes will be invaded by unidentified persons and our
children abducted," exclaimed a senior professor at the
Jaffna University.

As part of the agenda, journalists met their northern
counterparts at the Media Research and Training Institute of
the Jaffna University. Their discussions focused on threats to
media freedom, security concerns of journalists and
constraints to development of professional journalism. The
journalists from Jaffna were riddled with myriad problems.
The journalists from Colombo were able to empathize.

"It is not right to label us as terrorists. We are only engaging
in our profession as journalists in an area where there is a
struggle for the liberation of the Tamil people. We want
freedom to engage in our profession. We want freedom to
live without fear for our lives," said Mr. Kathiragamanthamby,
President of the North Sri Lanka Journalists Association.

Journalists from both sides reaffirmed their commitment to
support one another. They pledged to report news from one
another’s areas in a balanced and accurate manner within
the limitations of the policies of the media groups wherein
they were employed.

"Peace can be stabilized through the media. There is a huge
gap between the media in the north and the south," said Mr.
Paramanathan, president of the Jaffna branch of the
Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies.

Civil society representatives said there were many ceasefire
violations. They spoke of problems related to high security
zones, paramilitary activities, human rights violations and
issues relating to movement on the seas. They stressed that
normalcy has not been restored. Thousands of families have
fled the north, fearing for their lives.

Mr Panchalingam, senior assistant secretary of the Ceylon
Tamil Teachers’ Union, complained that the current
atmosphere was not conducive to education. Children did
not have peace of mind to study due to the cordon-and-
search operations and other security measures.

He described the serious problems faced by schools
including shortage of staff, mistakes in translation of books
translated to Tamil, lack of facilities and equipment such as
computers. He also referred to problems of schools located
in High Security Zones.

Civil society leaders stressed the need for confidence-
building measures and interaction between the people of the
north and south. They also wanted dialogue between civil
society and the military, saying it was important to improve
relations.

The Jaffna University, usually a hub of activity on weekdays,
was strangely quiet when we went there for a meeting with
representatives of the academic staff and students.

"I am sad as I should now be in my class teaching. However,
education has stopped and the university has been at
standstill for the past month," said Prof Shanmugalingam,
head of the Department of Sociology and Political Science.

"We are citizens of this country. Why should we be treated
like criminals? We are uncertain whether our lives are our
own today," said Prof S Sathiselvan, who heads the
Department of History.

Prof P Balasundarapillai, senior professor at the Department
of Geography, said that, although Buddhism was within the
broader framework of Hinduism, even some of southern
clergy were unconcerned about the sufferings of the Tamil
people.

Nandakumar and Mohankumar, both medical students
representing the student union, spoke of unresolved issues
relating to university admissions to the faculties of medicine
and engineering.

We visited the Karainagar fishing jetty. At a meeting with
members of the Ambar Fisheries Co-operative Society, the
fishermen talked of sufferings inflicted by the tsunami and
problems arising from security measures. They spoke about
a recent attack on five of their members while out night
fishing in the deep sea.

At Ilavali village, we met two mothers whose sons had been
abducted. We also met a woman, seven months pregnant,
whose young husband had been abducted on January 10.
They alleged that unidentified men dressed in black and
wearing black masks had stormed their homes after midnight
and abducted the boys in white vans. From that day, these
woman have been weeping with grief and unable to eat.
They said that they had brought the abduction to the
attention of relevant authorities in Jaffna but had received no
information.

Rohitha Priyadharshana, a young Sinhalese lawyer is the
regional co-ordinator in Jaffna to the Human rights
Commission. Rohitha, who speaks fluent Tamil, does a
round-the-clock job with his team of five, taking and following
up on complaints.

"During the period December 1 to January 27, we received
100 complaints of disappearances. Thirty-nine have been
traced," he said. A constraint to investigations is that
eyewitnesses to abductions are often afraid to give evidence.

In Jaffna town, there was an obvious drop in commercial
activity and the movement of ordinary people. Shops were
shut and streets virtually deserted after 6 pm. Jaffna hospital
has severe staff and facility shortfalls. Many patients sat on
benches or lay on mats on the floor.

Returning to Colombo on the A9 road, we stopped at
Kilinochchi. A prior request for the journalists to meet the
LTTE Political leaders was turned down. They did not want to
speak with journalists in the context of the sensitivity of the
forthcoming talks in Geneva. A request to meet service
chiefs in Jaffna had been refused on the same grounds.

Lunch in Kilinochchi was at the LTTE-managed Pandian
Restaurant – a delicious meal of fried rice, followed by
special Pandian ice cream.

We visited the Kilinochchi Central College refugee camp,
one out of five that accommodates people who had fled from
Jaffna. Families lived in tiny tents. Polythene ground sheets
were spread inside. We could see meagre bedding and
scant belongings.

We gained insight into the problems and fears of the
northern people due to an escalation of violence. We were
also made conscious of the realities faced by military
personnel from the south who had been posted in Jaffna. We
were struck by the manner in which they patiently and
courageously stood alert at their posts, often in the
scorching sunshine — not knowing when or from where they
may be attacked. Due to military regulations, they could not
be interviewed by the journalists. However, they broke into
smiles and exchanged pleasantries with the journalists when
they met each other on the roads.

When questioned many of the people in Jaffna about the
recent attacks on military personnel, the devastation caused
by deadly Claymore mines and the spate of violent acts
resulting in tragic loss of these men, the responses we got
were restrained and shadowed by fear. Some attributed the
attacks to "elements" that were trying to sabotage the peace
process. Others said they didn’t know who was responsible
for these attacks. They were too frightened to discuss the
issue further.

Despite this reluctance to comment on these attacks, two
things were clear. Ordinary people were longing for peace.
They were happy that peace talks were being resumed.

As we headed towards Colombo, my mind flashed back to an
incident in Jaffna. Ashoka and I had gone to the deserted
railway at dawn where we spoke with a small boy.

"I have heard this was one of the best railway stations in Sri
Lanka, long before I was born. I come here often but I have
never seen a real train in all my life," he told us.

We saw the sun rising through the clouds over the station.
We saw the sun in all its glory and majesty casting rays of
light and brightening the dark sky. Ashoka and I watched
mesmerized as it lit up the city of Jaffna.

Our silent hope and prayer was that, like the scene we had
witnessed, the forthcoming talks in Geneva will herald the
return of light to the lives of our brothers and sisters in the
north and the east.

For more photographs of the Southern journalists visit to
Jaffna, log onto Ashoka’s web page.
[Island]
Photos Courtesy
of TamilNet