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]