Rising from the ruins

Print edition : November 16, 2012

Three years after the war, reconciliation remains a distant dream as the government and the Tamil National Alliance engage in political posturing. Meanwhile, ordinary Tamils struggle to rebuild their lives, culture and identity, battling the fatigue of 30 years of conflict and neglect.

in Northern Province, Sri Lanka

A school in Puthukudiyiruppu. Most schools in the area were subject to shelling by both the Army and the LTTE. Some of the schools started functioning as soon as civilians were allowed back in. Typically, a small portion is repaired, a few benches provided and the classes begin. It is also a reflection of the amazing hope that people have for the future of their children. Tamil students have traditionally been high achievers though previously their hopes for higher education in Sri Lanka were dashed by the standardisation policy of the government.-PHOTOGRAPHS BY R.K. RADHAKRISHNAN

THE JOURNEY FROM MULLAITHIVU TO PUTHUKUDIYIRUPPU in northern Sri Lanka must inevitably turn into war tourism, or a lesson in military tactics, or a lament for the fate of the Tamils. Depends who you are travelling with. But in all three cases, the landmarks would be identical: here, the beach where the Sri Lanka Army divisions linked up, cornering the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; there, the causeway from which the Army rescued thousands of civilians as they tried to escape the crossfire between the military and the LTTE; here, the sandy scrubland, with its tall palms, across which the LTTE retreated, taking the civilians with it; there, the lagoon where the LTTE leaders body was found.

SRI LANKAN SOLDIERS carry the body of Velupillai Prabakaran in Mullaithivu district on May 19, 2009.-AP

Three years after the Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE in an operation in which its leader Velupillai Prabakaran was also killed, there are enough remnants of that operation strewn around in that 40 square kilometre patch of land to underline the moment in Sri Lankas history that marked the end of three decades of Tamil militancy. With the LTTE out of the way, it should have also been the beginning of a new chapter of reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, and the even smaller minority of Muslims.

THE SRI LANKA ARMY CELEBRATES its victory, near Mullaithivu on May 20, 2009.-REUTERS

That chapter has proved difficult for all sides to begin scripting. In Puthukudiyiruppu lies one explanation for the difficulties in the path of reconciliation. PTK, as it is called, saw all the action during the last three months of the war. Here it was that the district hospital was reportedly bombed and the people sheltered there were killed. A documentary on the British Channel 4 and other reports have claimed that thousands of civilians were killed as the Army and the LTTE shelled each others positions relentlessly, regardless of a no fire zone where non-combatants had huddled for safety.

THE NANDIKADAL LAGOON where units of the Sri Lanka Army linked up to surround the LTTE fighters.-

Rising out of the ground at PTK is a massive Victory Memorial built by the Sri Lankan military: from a base of large granite rocks, the bust of a jubilant soldier, holding in one hand a gun, with a pigeon hovering over it, and in the other the Sri Lankan national flag. A sculpted stone lion, Sri Lankas national animal, stands at each corner of the square base.

WAR AS SPECTACLE: A Sri Lankan soldier taking Sinhalese visitors from the south on a guided tour of the War Museum in Puthukudiyiruppu.-

Every day, Sinhalese tourists pour in from southern Sri Lanka to view the memorial and to visit the war museum next door, the newly carpeted A9 highway to the North making the journey easier. Army-run welfare canteens sell drinks and snacks along the way.

REMAINS OF THE WAR. The entrance to the War Museum.-

On display at the museum are a collection of LTTE arms and armamentsartillery guns, shells, rocket launchers, mortars, machine guns, assault rifles, grenades and anti-aircraft guns; the deadly suicide boats used by the Sea Tigers, some no bigger than large toys, painted with the teeth and eyes of sharks; and other boats used by them, no different from medium-sized fishing vessels. A soldier guides visitors around the exhibits, loudly explaining the story behind each in Sinhalese.

But this is not all. Also to see are an LTTE prison; a swimming pool where Sea Tigers trained, and several other stops on this trail with one or another LTTE exhibit: an experimental submarine, an armoured vehicle, and even the Jordanian boat that the Tigers captured in 2006. There are signboards to each. A legend about the exhibit greets visitors at each site. The military police at the PTK junction are helpful with directions.

Of course, the one must-see item on the circuit, 3.5 km from the PTK junction, is the terrorist underground bunker in a clearing in the forest off Oddusudan Road. None less than Prabakaran himself is said to have used the bunker. The underground parking has space for only one vehicle. Solar cells now power the dim white CFL lights at the hideout, casting a depressing pallor over the blue-and-green walls. The bunker goes four levels deep, each damper than the one before, the last one opening into an escape shaft, requiring good climbing skills. On level 3, one room is marked as Operation Room and bears signs of soundproofing. Visitors have left their names on the walls. Outside, in better light, people pose for pictures against the concrete slab that provides a full map of the bunker complex, which included an improbably named summer hut. Two soldiers lounge on plastic chairs, feeding a dog, and chatting with those who want to know more.

Too much rush on weekends, says one soldier. There is even an Army brochure listing out and explaining the importance of all the sites that visitors should see on this circuit. For the Sinhalese making this journey all the way from southern Sri Lanka, this is almost a pilgrimage. The LTTE was a larger-than-life enemy that had destroyed the peace of the island with its terrorist attacks that killed peaceful civilians. It was a frighteningly capable military adversary whose offensives had killed as many as a thousand soldiers at a time, of the entirely Sinhalese Sri Lanka Army. For some of the visitors, it would also be a personal journey to grieve for a loved one lost in the war.

WHAT WAS ONCE A SUBMARINE of the Sea Tigers.-

But those who care to venture deeper into the circuit cannot but help notice the distressing signs of a fleeing population that remain scattered more than three years after the war: abandoned pots and pans, bundles of clothes, a red sari in the sand, a pink shirt jumbled up with a black pair of trousers, plastic household items. And the heaps of abandoned, rusted bicycles, and other vehiclescars, buses, vans, jeeps, the bigger ones definitely amassed by the LTTE. Prospectors have stripped the area of the most valuable bits of metal scrap, leaving behind only the junk.

With military camps on both sides of the newly done-up road from Paranthan to Mullaithivu, it may not be far off the mark to say there are more soldiers in the area than Tamil civilians, who have only recently begun to return to their homes. Some are in the process of repairing and rebuilding their homes. Deminers are still scouring the area for unexploded mines and other ordnance.

ROCKET LAUNCHERS and mortar shells of the LTTE.-

As much as a fully settled civilian population, however, what is missing in PTK is a more inclusive memorial where both Sinhalese and Tamils could have together remembered their dead. Predictably, few Tamils frequent this war tourism circuit.

A HOTELIER IN JAFFNA

About 60 km north is Jaffna peninsula where the soldiers are not as visible as they are in Puthukudiyiruppu and Mullaithivu. Compared with the Vanni, Jaffna bustles with civilian energy. Since the war ended, property prices in Jaffna have been spiralling. One parapu of land (a local measure, 16 parapus equal an acre) in Jaffna town is worth Sri Lankan Rs.10 lakh these days. Everywhere, people with meanswhich in Jaffna refers to those with relatives abroad who send them moneyare repairing property that was damaged or abandoned or fell into disuse during the years of conflict.

A thick cloud of white dust hangs everywhere from the frenetic construction of houses, shopping malls and other commercial buildings. Then there is all the road building activity. Armed with money from Chinas Exim Bank, which is paid back to Chinese contractors (who in turn subcontract to Sri Lankan companies), the governments Northern Road Rehabilitation Project has launched into laying carpet roads from Jaffna to Point Pedro, Palaly and Kankesanthurai.

A DEADLY SUICIDE BOAT used by the Sea Tigers.-

Near Duraiappa Stadium, where once skeletons of 22 unidentified people were found, arranged in neat heaps are gravel and other road construction materials. Earth movers and trucks ferrying them rumble across Jaffna.

Jaffna Teaching Hospital, the site of a bloody stand-off between LTTE fighters who had taken position inside and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which was inducted after the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987, seems to have put that past behind it decisively, with a new multi-storeyed extension built with Japanese assistance. And then, there is a hotel called Tilko, named after its owners, Tilak Thiagarajah and his wife, Kokila, among the handful of diaspora Tamils who think post-war Jaffna holds enough promise to sink in large amounts of money. The hotel is the symbol of their hope that Jaffna will some day recover its lost glory.

The four-storeyed LTTE bunker: The entrance to the bunker in Puthukudiyiruppu, which was apparently used only by Prabakaran.-

Tilak actually came in 2002, months after the Norway-mediated ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military. The last time Jaffna saw any fighting was in 2000, when Sri Lanka Armed Forces battled to regain control over the peninsula from which they had ousted the Tigers back in 1995-96. Nevertheless, it was hardly insulated from what was happening in the Vanni, as this is where both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government fought a shadow war. For every terror strike by the LTTE, for every assassination of a Tamil politician perceived to have betrayed the Eelam cause, there were abductions and disappearances of Tamil youth perceived to be working for or on behalf of the LTTE.

The atmosphere was charged with all this and more the year Tilak landed in Jaffna and decided to invest in the hometown that he had left as a 17-year-old because the Sri Lankan governments policies had made it impossible for him to get university admission. He went to London, in a shiny new suit that he had cadged from his unclehis father was deep in debt after getting Tilaks sister married.

The staircase leading to level 2 of the bunker.-

He studied to be a civil engineer, married a Tamil girl from Singapore, had two children, made a successful business buying and selling property, and now sports long hair, wears black Underground Music shirts and a black tie.

So it was perhaps natural that Tilak invested in property. The ceasefire had just been signed, and he bought up cheap beachside land in Velanai Island, off Jaffna. He had dreams, he says, of bringing chartered flights full of tourists from Europe.

People spend thousands of pounds going from England to Tenerife, and when they get there, he said, they cant go into the water because its so cold. Here, we have these islands, sandy beaches, the water is so warm and nice, you go six or seven kilometres into the sea in a boat, and you already get the feel of a holiday.

But within four years, by the time he finalised his plans for a 75-room resort, with swimming pool and spa, the ceasefire had broken. But the eternal optimist and the businessman with an eye for opportunity that he is, Tilak started constructing a hotel on another property he had bought, opposite the Duraiappa Stadium.

The rear escape route from the bunker.-

I knew the war would end one day, and whoever won, the LTTE or the Sri Lankan military, I would survive, he said, a British accent over his thick Jaffna voice.

Savvy aside, he said, as a patriotic Tamil, he wanted to do something for Jaffna because he wanted to give his children in London a reason to come back and connect with their own culture.

Im a very passionate Tamil guy. Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world; Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. But Tamils live in all these countries abroad, and we are losing our identity, he says, as he shows us a video of his daughters coming of age ceremony back at his home in Chigwell, outside London.

"Operation Room".-

Thus came up the 42-room Tilko. It is built over land that was cleared of overgrowth and 40 snakes, levelled with 200 lorry loads of soil, and replanted with trees of Tilaks choice. It was inaugurated in December 2010Tilak flew his parents down from Canada where they now live with their eldest son, and got them to cut the ribbon. Kokila, a chartered accountant, flies down from London every now and then to help him with the books. Since the end of the war in 2009, the rooms, done in red and white, have been much in demand. Diplomats from donor countries and diaspora Tamils on a visit to check out property they abandoned 20 or more years ago are among the clientele.

The banquet hall can hold 900 people. The Indian Consul General in Jaffna hosted a Republic Day reception at the hotel. There is wireless connectivity, and the air conditioners work. I dont want people not wanting to come here because there are no facilities. I want to give them the facilities.

The guest book is full of mostly complimentary comments. One Tamil wrote in the book that this hotel is [the] symbol of Norths richness keep improving. In the restaurant, Tilak circulates from table to table, like a good restaurateur, talking to the diners, finding out if they have all they need.

The staircase leading to the lower levels.-

Jaffnas problems began, Tilak said, because its economy was too small to absorb the shock of the Sri Lankan governments Sinhala Only policy, followed quickly by one restricting Tamils from college education, known as standardisation.

So its my belief that to have peace, we have to develop the economy, he said. His own contribution may be small but significant for Jaffna. He employs 60 people at the hotel and hopes to train more young men and women for Jaffnas service industry.

With the high interest rates in Sri Lanka at the moment, it is a struggle, he says, to pay off the bank loans. But Im going to make it work. I have to, he said, for the sake of my children, for Jaffna.

THE TRADER OF TYRES

Post-war Jaffna is quite different from what it used to be in the 1990s and the first two years of this century. For one, there is electricity at all times. First it was provided by generators; now the peninsula is connected to the national grid. And, there is no curfew. Night-times used to be a combination of darkness and the fear of being caught beyond the curfew hours by torchlight-flashing soldiers at checkpoints. The silence of the night would be interrupted at regular intervals by the long whistle of shells as they traversed the air before landing on their target, or off it, a deep explosive thud shaking the ground for miles around. All that, thankfully, is history.

The way to the underground car park.-

Soldiers stand guard here and there, but the visibility of the Army is much reduced and more discreet now. Shops are open late into the night and people are out on the streets at all hours. There used to be one hotel in all of Jaffna; now, aside from Tilko, there are places by the dozen, and numerous dives serving liquor, unthinkable when the LTTE ran a parallel government here.

Tilaks optimism, however, is hardly a viral fever. Most other diaspora Tamils came in after the war, stayed at his hotel, saw, and flew right back. In the months after the fighting was over, banks fell over each other to open branches in the peninsula to make good on what they believed would be a post-war boom. Jaffna town boasts of 35 bank branches, including one of Indian Bank and one of HDFC Bank. Spread across Jaffna district are 135 branches and ATMs. The expected revival, though, has yet to happen.

A recent hike in interest ratesbanks now charge as much as 18 to 21 per centand in the interest on overdraft facilitiesa staggering 29 to 32 per centhas put a damper on business across Sri Lanka.

The Army signboard to guide the tourists.-

Peoples fears too have not ended, three years after the war. Elections to Northern Province could have given Jaffna its own elected government, but the Mahinda Rajapaksa government is not in a rush over that. The government says it needs time to revise the electoral rolls of a region that has seen displacement of people on a large scale, and the province continues to be ruled directly by Colombo.

At least 18,000 soldiers are still based in the peninsula, most of them in the High Security Zone (HSZ) around Palaly airfield, which fuels speculation about what role the Army still has in the peninsula three years after the war.

Last years mysterious grease devil incidents further heightened peoples fears. A number of women in many parts of the country, but more so in Jaffna, reported being attacked by a person coated with a black substance that looked like grease. Not surprisingly, the incidents got attributed to the Armysome said it was a plot to provoke militant elements in the Tamil community, to see if they would come out in the open to protect the honour of Tamil women; others said the grease bootham was armed with a syringe and was drawing blood from the women he attacked for a ritual. No one was caught, but what the incidents did was to envelop Jaffna in an atmosphere more reminiscent of the war years.

RUSTED CARS, vans and buses left behind by a fleeing population and the LTTE.-

So everyone is waiting and watching. No one is investing, said C. Jayakumar, president of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce and a tyre trader who also runs some other businesses. Selling high-end tyres, like the ones stocked in his shop, would have been unimaginable in Jaffna a few years ago because there were few cars, and those that existed were more suitable for vintage car rallies than for everyday driving. In place of the ubiquitous bicycles and the old Morris cars that ran on kerosene defying the petrol blockade, all manner of vehicles now clog the streets.

Yet, Jayakumar is a bitterly angry man who says that to understand why Jaffnas economy has not made the expected recovery, it is necessary to understand what the economy of the peninsula was before the war.

We talked sitting at the back of his tyre shop, where he stopped a couple of times to count wads of notes before handing over the thick bundles to his assistants to make some payments. There was a time in Jaffna, according to him, when it had a surplus of goods.

A GRIM REMINDER that the war lingers on in some pockets: Demining being carried out near Oddusudan Road.-

Seafood, agri-products, cement asbestos, there were more than 1,000 industries in Jaffna. There were five salterns. Just one of those, at Elephant Pass, was enough to meet the salt demand in the whole of Sri Lanka. There was so much, we did not have enough lorries to take them to the south. Our lorries used to go loaded, and from the south, there was not much that came here, except tea and some imported goods, he said.

Then came the war, and it destroyed our industry. Today we send lorries to the south, but only 10 to 20 per cent are going full. And everything is coming from there, he said.

Fishing and agriculture have resumed as people return slowly to their homes and lands but retail trading is the mainstay of the local economy, and the main market is filled with shops selling construction materials, consumer electronics, clothes, cheap plastic goods, and jewellery. As a result, he said, even the road construction was being undertaken more to help southern traders who were sending goods to Jaffna than to benefit Jaffna itself. That it was helping his tyre business did not seem to weigh much with him.

THE INDIAN PRESENCE in Jaffna.-

In fact, people in Jaffna, always doubtful of government intentions, suspect the roads are an instrument with which the government in Colombo is making it easier for the Sinhalese majority to colonise Northern Province. It does not help that some places in Northern Province have new Sinhalised names: for instance, Ariyagundan, a Tamil village in Vavuniya North (Nedunkeni division), Pattikudiyiruppu Gram Sevak division, has been renamed Adhavettu Wewa and annexed to Weli Oya. Chinnakulam, Mundhirikaikulam, Akkaraiveli, Ilangaimunai, Karaiyammunai and Eechangadu, all villages in Manal Aru, which itself has been known as Weli Oya for decades, now have Sinhala names. Whether by mistake or not, Omanthai, the gateway to Northern Province, has been painted in as Omantha at the railway station.

At the height of the conflict, Sri Lanka, and more so Jaffna, was convinced it was at the centre of the geopolitical calculations of the worlds superpowers. That conviction remains. Many in Jaffna mention, almost slyly, that China is making the roads, almost as if to say, China is making inroads in Indias backyard. Jayakumar is no exception. In his thinking, this is sufficient ground for New Delhi to shake Colombo by the collar and get the Rajapaksa government to finalise a political settlement for the Tamils. But, he laments, India has not played right by the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

What is more, India was not even stopping its fishermen from disturbing the livelihood of Jaffna fishermen. Our fishermen are right at the bottom of the heap. They have to pawn their jewels to buy nets. And then your fishermen come in with their trawlers and rip them. Why cant India tell its fishermen not to do this?

Retail trade has always been the mainstay of the Jaffna economy, and the global players are all here now.-

Ignored and squeezed by India on one side, said Jayakumar, and with Sri Lankan soldiers refusing to move out of Jaffnas most fertile lands, where they had started farming themselves, and where the Chinese were now building permanent accommodation for them, the end to the suffering of the people of Jaffna was not in sight, he said.

According to him, Jaffna urgently needs a permanent political solution, but India is not pushing its weight enough with the Sri Lankan government for this.

We accept that the LTTEs killing of Rajiv Gandhi was a mistake. The Tamil people did not accept the killing. It was not the right thing to do, but for that, is it right to punish the entire Tamil population of Sri Lanka? he asks.

THE POLITICS

What Jaffna urgently needs, said Ahilan Kadirgamar, an academic and a democracy activist who recently moved to Jaffna, is intellectual capital, and people with the willingness to engage with issues. What they were making do with, however, he said, was the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was unable to offer anything more than the same old rhetoric of years past.

NO MORE CURFEWS: The vegetable market in Jaffna by night.-

It is far easier for the TNA to blame the government than to engage with issues, he said.

The TNA is a group of parties that first came together as a political proxy of the LTTE way back in 2001. It is now a much sober version of its earlier avatar, its positions now modified in keeping with a more responsible role in post-LTTE, post-war Sri Lanka. As the party that swept the local government elections in Northern Province that were held in 2011, it rightly claims to be the most credible representative of the Tamil people. If and when the Northern Provincial Council elections are held, it is the TNA that is expected to pick up the most seats and form the provincial government.

And this is the political group with which the Rajapaksa government has held stop-start talks on a political settlement after the war. The challenge, over the years, has been to find a solution that will vest autonomy in the Tamil-dominated North, and the more ethnically mixed East, and yet leave Colombo confident that there is no scope for separatism in these areas. The complication is that devolution through the India-brokered 13th Amendment is now deemed insufficient by the Tamils and too much by the Sinhalese.

EMPTY SHELVES AND A BRAVE FRONT: A shop selling dried fish in the Jaffna market.-

The talks are stalled because the TNA refuses to join a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to hammer out a new political solution to Sri Lankas Tamil question. The TNA has a pointcommittees have come and gone and their recommendations are gathering cobwebs. M.A. Sumanthiran, a TNA parliamentarian, is a fresh-faced lawyer with a thriving practice in Colombo. We met him at his well-appointed office in the capital, an extension of his home in the Tamil area of Wellawatte, the day before a TNA delegation was to fly to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other officials. The Sri Lankan papers were reporting that the TNA had been summoned by New Delhi to tell them to get on board the parliamentary committee.

Sumanthiran, whose grey-green tie and shirt sleeves complete with cufflinks set him apart from other Tamil politicians, said they wanted the government to agree to an agenda for the parliamentary committee first. He speaks without a break and with immense confidence. The agenda, he said, should be based on five previous documents offering devolution solutions, and not a free-floating discussion on the merits and demerits of devolution.

Back in Jaffna, all this goes down well with the Tamil press, where it makes thundering headline news. In the black and white world of the Tamil media, any opposition to the Sri Lankan government is big news. There is no room for nuances.

JAFFNA has seen a flurry of construction activity. Here, a shopping mall coming up.-

The TNA and the diaspora are what the government wants, to show that it is fighting an enemy. The TNA and the government, they need each other, said Thirunavakarasu Sritharan, a leftist politician and a member of the former militant group Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). Part of his group joined the TNA, but he and some others stayed out as they did not want to submit themselves to the LTTE. Now they are marginalised. With the LTTE gone, they are hovering on the fringes of the TNA. He describes Jaffna as an intellectual desert whose people remain trapped in a mindset of narrow nationalism.

Competing for attention with the TNA is the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), led by Douglas Devananda, one of the few to have been attacked by the LTTE and lived to tell the tale, not once or twice but 13 times, and a man that other Tamil politicians love to hate. From 1994, he has constantly allied with the party in power in Colombo. The EPDP was a useful ally to the government, and to the Army in Jaffna, when the LTTE was still around, but not so much now. That, however, does not mean that he has become more acceptable in Jaffna. His fiefdom is Kayts Island, and he has an office in Jaffna, converted out of a cinema hall on Stanley Road. We met him at his office in Colombo, where, in his fascinating style of speaking in parables, he says he has now got used to every crime being pinned on him or members of his group.

Like Sritharan, Douglas too believes that the TNA and the government are locked in a mutually symbiotic confrontation. They need each other.

THE NORTHERN ROAD Rehabilitation Project links Jaffna with Point Pedro, Palaly and Kankesanthurai.-

If there was the expectation that with the going of the LTTE there would be space in Jaffna for more open political discourse and dissent, that seems not to have happened. In fact, not just in Jaffna, said Ahilan, but across the country it was fast shrinking. For one, the presence of the Army in the peninsula inhibits open discussion. And expressing opinion has invited trouble for others. There are new punishments now, even if they are not as brutal as in the past. A woman politician who came from southern Sri Lanka to express solidarity with the people displaced from the HSZ got a load of waste oil thrown on her. Other such waste oil attacks have taken place and, like the grease devil incidents of 2011, are keeping people on tenterhooks.

But recently, teachers at Jaffna University joined a three-month-long strike by university teachers across Sri Lanka. It was only reluctantly that the Jaffna teachers agreed to be part of the trade union action, said Ahilan, but what it has done is open up the space a little for speaking more openly, for dissent, for alternative politics. But it was only a crack in the wall, he said.

TILAK THIAGARAJAH, who runs the Tilko Hotel in Jaffna, believes economic development is essential for peace in the region.-

Perhaps people are just too tired; there is a general sense of unwillingness to take risks, to get involved in anything, he said.

THE ENGLISH TEACHER

He looks relaxed and fresh, sitting in an armchair on the verandah of a house in Kokkuvil that now serves as the office of Dan TV, a television channel based in Jaffna. He used to have the designation of media co-ordinator of the LTTE. He was an English teacher in Point Pedro before he joined the LTTE in the mid-1990s. He was over 40 years old then, and a late entrant to the group, though he had hovered on its fringes for years.

He joined the political wing of the Tamil Tigers, acted as their media relations manger, translating from and into Tamil at interactions between LTTE commanders and international journalists, diplomats and workers of international non-governmental organisations who swarmed northern Sri Lanka during the conflict.

Velayutham Dayanidhi, better known as Daya Master.-

Now, he has an ordinary job on the news desk of Dan TV, said to be a channel that reflects the positions of the Sri Lankan government. With his teacher-wife and a five-year-old daughter, he lives in Point Pedro. His wifethey were married in 1996even received a certificate last month from President Rajapaksa for passing the principals exams with flying colours.

He seems happy in his new surroundings, different as they are from the bleak, LTTE-controlled Killinochchi and Mallavi where, in black trousers, white shirt, green cap, he met and escorted groups of journalists or diplomats to LTTE officials. He is still dressed the same way, but he tells us he is enjoying his freedom from the restrictive conditions of life with the LTTE.

There are no issues from the Army side, he said. It did not take us long to trace him. He is well-known. Many people are aware of where he works, and one of them gave us his numberHere, talk to him. Without any fuss, he agreed to be interviewed.

They did not tell me anything; I thought they were taking me for some investigation, he recalled. In fact, he was being flown out to identify the body of his leader, Velupillai Prabakaran. There was another person with himKaruna, the LTTEs eastern wing military commander who rebelled against Prabakaran in 2004, quit and joined hands with the Sri Lankan forces.

There was no truth to the stories that Prabakarans body was mutilated, Daya Master said. I saw the bare body, he said, also dismissing as false propaganda the pronouncements of Vaiko, the leader of Tamil Nadus Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) party, that Prabakaran was still alive and would return to claim Tamil rights.

Why do they do this? he asked. Vaiko is indulging in false propaganda. [Prabakaran] died. This is the truthhes no more. I dont know why they are talking like that. I saw the body. Me and Karuna identified the body.

Meet the rehabilitated Velayutham Dayanidhi, better known to the world as Daya Master. As the war in the Vanni rose to a crescendo in April 2009, Daya Master was among the several hundred Tamil civilians who gave themselves up to the Sri Lankan security forces. His surrender, along with that of George, a senior translator of the LTTE, created ripples. They were the first well-known names in the LTTE to cross over.

Daya Master was immediately arrested and shipped off to Colombo. I was sent to the fourth floor, he said, a reference to a military interrogation centre in the capital. He does not speak about that time, but that must have been the period when he was rehabilitated. He was sent to jail, and given bail on September 11, 2009. But before that, he did make one journey, in May 2009, to Mullaithivu in a military helicopter.

As to the fate of Pottu Amman, the LTTEs intelligence chief, he says he does not know. No chance to disappear. No chance to survive. But not found at all, he said, in his simple but articulate English.

A few other old-time and well-known LTTE members, such as Kittu, Balakumar and Ilamparathy, had also surrendered, but he did not hazard a guess as to where they might be, gesturing with his face that he did not know.

Dismissing talk of Tamil militancy rising again, he said the only way was for the Sri Lankan government and the TNA to work for a political solution for the Tamil community.

In Northern Province, he said, there was a lot of development visible in all sectors. Agriculture, construction, etc. No one denies. The problem is political solution, he said. He hopes that the government and the TNA, which represents the majority of Tamils in Parliament, will find a solution. Thats the only way. Tamil people want a solution, he says.

He was critical of other Tamil Nadu political leaders too, including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M. Karunanidhi and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

Can we accept what [Karunanidhi] says? They are saying these things only for their own political reasons. They have never been straightforward or spoken positively when it comes to Sri Lankan Tamils, he said.

It would be easy for the extremists still present within the Tamil community, especially in the diaspora, to dismiss his words as that of a government stooge when he says that there is no chance for the LTTE to regroup. Only politically, they can put some pressure from abroad through diaspora Tamils. But in reality, Daya Master represents the fatigue of most Sri Lankan Tamils with 30 years of militancy and extremism that took the community to the brink of disaster.

His bail conditions demand that he registers himself at the Jaffna police station on the last Sunday of every month. Charges against him were still pending, that we were members of the LTTE, he said.

The 58-year-old former English teacher now describes himself as only an employee of the LTTE, a line that sounded like it was part of his legal defence in the case against him. Back in 2006, when the ceasefire between the military and the LTTE was still holding, President Rajapaksa went out of his way to allow him to travel to Colombo for a heart surgery at Apollo Hospital.

Wearing the same smile and certainty that he had 10 years ago when he used to hold forth on the LTTE and Tamil Eelam, he now speaks about Prabakarans two lost opportunities to make peacein 1987, during the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and in 2002, during the Norwegian-mediated ceasefire.

On the political side, the LTTE should have come to a solution. Thats the problem. But, he said, you understand? No one was there to say anything against HIS way, emphasising the pronoun, including the commanders.

Life after the LTTE was different, he said. Then, he could not speak on the telephone with anyone or watch television. Now I am enjoying my freedom. No harassment from the Army side, he said. Earlier, like all released LTTE cadre, he was kept under surveillance. Now, he said, there was no such watch.

Still, he does not socialise with other rehabilitated LTTE members. He may sometimes bump into them at the police station on registration day, but otherwise, he said, getting together with them might give observers the wrong impression: That we are regrouping or something like that. He knew though that some of them faced problems in their community, especially women cadre who had lost their LTTE fighter-husbands in the war.

Some cadre married [into a] different caste. At that time the parents accepted. Now the families do not accept. In some cases, the women are widows. [They are facing] financial problems. No one to help them, he said.

THE BICYCLE SELLERS

All Tamils displaced in the war have been resettled; there are no more camps, the last one was disbanded in early September. When the Sri Lankan government declares this, it is apparently not including the camps still in existence in the Jaffna peninsula, which date back not to 2009 or 2000, or even 1995, but 1990.

That was when the Sri Lankan military first established a HSZ in and around Palaly for troops landing at the airfield and the Kankesanthurai port. The HSZ covers a total area of 26.38 sq km; nearly 400 families living in the area were forced to vacate their fields and houses then, and still live in miserable conditions in asbestos sheet-palmyrah thatch shelters. They now fear they have been forgotten.

Konapulam, in Valigamam North, is one such camp where people have been staying for the last two decades, hoping that they will one day return to their homes. It has been so long now that in some families the children have got married and had their own children. In between, the families were further displaced during the fighting in Jaffna in 1995, and when they returned, it was to these shacks because these had already become home.

SELLING SCRAP FOR A LIVELIHOOD: Pavalochini in a camp for displaced Tamils at Konapulam, in Valigamam North.-

Now if I move, it has to be back to the home I left in Thyiddy, soon after I got married. No way will I go to another camp, said 42-year-old Nagamma.

After the war ended, the government stopped distributing rations too, so the families in these camps have had to fend for themselves. Pavalochini and her husband, Ravikumar, now make ends meet in an unexpected way. They sell bicycles abandoned in the Vanni in the final stages of the war three years ago to scrap dealers from Colombo.

The cycles are lying in a heap in Mullaithivu, twisted and bent out of shape. Ravikumar sets out once or twice a week on the 60-km journey. There he goes about collecting every scrap of metal left behind by civilians and the LTTE as they retreated systematically, dragging civilians with them to a narrow strip of land in Mullaithivu in the final stages of the war in 2009.

Buses, vans, cars and thousands of bicycles, damaged by the heavy shelling and their remaining parts rusted, are still heaped by the side of the road. The good bits are already gone. Small-time scrap hunters like Ravikumar forage for what remain, especially bicycles, and bring them back home to sell.

REPRESENTATIVES OF PEOPLE displaced from their villages in the High Security Zone in Palaly. They have refused compensation.-

There are some Muslim dealers who buy these cycles for Rs.49 a kg, said Pavalochini, as we sit talking in the shade of a mountain of bicycles in her front yard. It might fetch Rs.65 a kg if we took it to Colombo and sold it ourselves in the scrap market, but think of the transporting costs.

Many others in the camp are in the same trade. The other day, said Pavalochini, she had to feed the children in the neighbouring house. Both parents went off scrap-hunting to the graveyard and did not show up for two days.

We used to be fisherfolk, said Francis Maridas, whose village in Thyiddy is smack in the middle of the Palaly HSZ, but fishings out so long as I cannot return home. Now I go fishing for metal.

When we saw him, he was returning from Mullaithivu in a lorry filled high with bicycles and other vehicle parts.

There is so much metal there, even if we pick every day, we cannot run through it for years. But the Army is very selective about who can pick what. We get only the small bits, he said.

The people living in the camp say they will not accept compensation. Why should we accept money and go and live in some forest. These are our ancestral lands, said another man, who had been displaced from Thyiddy.

They are fertile lands. The Army is growing vegetables on it and selling them in the Jaffna market, said Sugeertan, chairman of the Valigamam North Pradeshiya Sabha, an elected, village-level local body.

Maj. Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe, Jaffna security forces commander, said the Army would keep some of the lands in the HSZ for the expansion of the airport and for building accommodation for soldiers, and return the rest to the rightful owners. The HSZ, he said, had already been reduced significantly.

The Chinese are building the accommodation. This will be ready in December [2012] or January [2013]. After this, we will hand over most of the houses in Jaffna, he said.

THE FILM CREW

Since the war ended, Jaffna has drawn Sinhalese tourists like a magnet. There are no war museums here, but there is an important Buddhist temple, the famous Naga Vihara. The years of conflict deprived Sinhalese the chance of making the pilgrimage, and now they are making good use of the opportunity for unrestricted travel to the North. They also visit the Keerimalai freshwater mineral spring, close to the HSZ, and a temple tank called Nilaverai in Achuveli which, legend has it, is bottomless. The freshly widened and carpeted A9, once known as the Highway of Blood for the battles the LTTE and the Army fought for its control, makes travel easy. And along the way, more Buddhist temples have come up close to the Army camps.

But not everyone can make the trip. So, the makers of Rupanthara, a film in Sinhalese (the title means Transformation) decided to shoot some scenes in Jaffna to tell the people of Sri Lanka how beautiful this place is, said Shaila Nathaniel, the female lead of the film. The rest of the crew were having lunch at the restaurant in Tilko. Petite Shaila, dressed in a white T-shirt and hot pants, gracefully agreed to postpone her meal to talk to us.

The war is over now, and people havent seen Jaffna. Theyve been unable to see this beautiful place. What we want is to give a feel of this place to the people, she said. Her father is a Pakistani from Lahore, and her mother is Sri Lankan. She grew up in West Asia. Jaffna, she says, has had a wow effect on her.

THE DIRECTOR of the film "Nalaka Vithanage".-

The film is a love story, she told us, a triangle actually, and Jaffna provided the locales for two songs. Most of the film has been shot in Colombo.

The idea is to show people how Sri Lanka is after the war, she said, speaking animatedly about how beautiful Colombo too had become in recent months. Earlier, everything was closed up, people wanted to secure themselves from attacks. Now its all open, and the public can roam freely.

The film is director Nalaka Vithanages second venture. We are giving a message through the film. We want to tell people in southern Sri Lanka how people in Jaffna live, how peaceful it is here.

He decided to make a romantic film, he said, because people are sick of war movies. For 30 years, there was a disaster here. Now they want to see something different. But there is a military angle to the love triangle: one of the male leads plays a soldier.

IN A REFUGEE CAMP near Palaly.-

There was another unexpected military angle to the shoot: the entire three days they were in the peninsula for the shooting, they stayed in the lovely military-run Thalsevana Hotel in Kankesanthurai, in the HSZ.

Shaila tells us that she is a trained psychologist and is, therefore, able to read people very well. When she walked down the main street in Jaffna, she said, she could feel the love of the people.

I know how I am accepted here; people are happy to accept us. This is my country. They are my people, and this is what we want to show in the film.

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