Through Tiger country

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

Sights and scenes along a war-ravaged land, on the way to Kilinochchi.

AS we drove out of Colombo in a van on the evening of April 8, we had no inkling of what would confront us on our way to Kilinochchi, about 320 km away. It was a varied melange of impressions and experiences of Sri Lanka in its present situation: the yearning for peace among both Tamils and Sinhalese; optimistic predictions that the current ceasefire will hold for a year or two; bustling towns contrasting with ghost towns; a temple in Vavuniya town, alive with devotees, pujas and ringing of bells in comparison with the skeletal remains of a chariot in a bombed-out temple only some miles away; benumbing destruction of Tamils' properties in northern Sri Lanka; the incipient "development" taking place in war-ravaged towns such as Kilinochchi and Mankulam - a hospital being repaired or a church getting a thatched roof; a Tamil in Kilinochchi happily announcing that the price of kerosene in the town had crashed to Rs.35 a litre from Rs.200 after the lifting of the economic embargo in December last; picture-posters on trees warning people against pulling out artillery shells from the ground; and thick yellow ribbons demarcating areas with live landmines.

The light drizzle in the suburbs of Colombo turned into rain occasionally. It was around midnight that we checked into Miridiya Hotels in the historic town of Anuradhapura, famous for its Buddhist archaeological sites. More cars and vans followed, all with journalists on their way to Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka to cover the press conference to be addressed by Velupillai Prabakaran.

The next morning, after a 45-minute drive, we reached Vavuniya, a town largely populated by Tamils, under Sri Lankan Army's control. Vavuniya appeared prosperous and bustling. Posters of the Tamil film "Red" featuring actor Ajith greeted us. Buses were crammed with passengers. Brisk business was under way in shops in the bus terminal, with Sri Lankan soldiers making long-distance phone-calls, and urchins selling lottery tickets.

A passerby in the terminus said there was tremendous relief among people after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and Prabakaran signed a Cease-Fire Agreement on February 22. "Fear used to fill this bus stand earlier with soldiers standing around," he said.

From near the bus terminus, airconditioned mini-buses operated every 30 minutes or so to Colombo. The six-hour journey cost Rs.160. Almost every trip was full after the ceasefire, said a tout hailing passengers.

According to the owner of a shop selling newspapers and magazines, Vavuniya's population ballooned from 20,000 to one lakh in 10 years, with people migrating from Kilinochchi, Mankulam and parts of the Jaffna peninsula, all ravaged by war. Consequently, the land value shot up. With the ceasefire coming into force, many families started returning to their homesteads.

Some distance away from Vinayagar temple was the LTTE headquarters for Vavuniya district, opened on April 3. The LTTE cadres were dressed in civilian clothes and were not supposed to carry arms. A number of journalists had reached this office as early as 9 a.m. to register themselves to go to Kilinochchi.

Young LTTE boys and girls, looking self-important, took down the journalists' names including the car drivers' names and vehicle registration numbers. People were streaming into the office and voicing their grievances. Nimilan, one of the cadres, said, "We just listen to them but no action is taken."

With our names registered, we pulled out of Vavuniya town and sped towards Omanthai on our way to Kilinochchi. A couple of kilometres from Vavuniya is Thandikulam, partially destroyed in the war. There is an Army checkpost at Thandikulam but soldiers did not check us that day. Buses, vans and autorickshaws have to wait at Thandikulam every day and are allowed to move to Omanthai only in convoys. This is a daily routine.

On the way to Omanthai, soldiers were seen standing under trees or chatting casually near their bunkers.

Omanthai town is totally destroyed. Until a few years ago, it was home to a few thousand people. Several hundred spacious houses, a rice mill, a vidyalayam (school), St. Anthony's church and temples have disappeared in the aerial bombing and shelling. Tamils alleged that the Army used bulldozers to raze the buildings. People have fled to Mallawi, Nunukkai, Nettankandal, Pandiankulam and Kottakkadu.

The Army has a big camp and an artillery centre at Omanthai. About a kilometre from the Army checkpost is an LTTE checkpost, marking the beginning of LTTE-controlled territory. The atmosphere around the Army checkpost was festive. Hundreds of people had reached there from Colombo and Vavuniya in buses, autorickshaws, cars and vans. They were going to Kilinochchi, Mallawi, Mankulam or the Jaffna peninsula. These vehicles were full of all kinds of goods. Bicycles, colourfully painted, were tied on top of every van and auto. Streamers flew from posts. There was colour everywhere. Alighting from buses, people ran into long sheds queuing up with their belongings to go to the LTTE checkpost, where they would be screened and their names registered before boarding Tamil Eelam Transport Corporation buses operated by the LTTE.

What provided a carnival-like atmosphere was the arrival of 152 runners belonging to a "peace marathon." They were all Sri Lankan policeman who were on a run from Colombo to Jaffna, the heartland of the Tamils, to spread the message of peace. They were dressed in white shorts, white vests and white sneakers. In the vanguard, one of them held aloft a torch. A foreigner - a white person - seemed to be an enthusiastic participant. There were vans with banners hung from their sides, reading "peace rally." A trader from Vavuniya had put up a yellow hoarding. It said, "Peace is our only objective." Another banner said, "We welcome the peace march." There were a couple of CARE vehicles as well. A jeep with a red pilot light drove in. On its sides were written, "Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission," which keeps a tab on how the ceasefire is being observed.

After we gave our names to a soldier at the Army checkpost, we were waved through. Some 300 metres away, a board on the road says: "Beware of mines. Your precaution ensures the prevention of your disablement and even death."

The LTTE checkpost is at Panikkaneeravi, like Omanthai, totally destroyed. Our van develops problems with its radiator and the LTTE men fetch water to cool it. At Pannikkaneeravi, the LTTE is building several sheds to accommodate people going to and coming from Jaffna who might be held up at Panikkaneeravi at night.

Some distance away was the media coordination centre set up by the LTTE for Prabakaran's press conference. This was our gateway to Kilinochchi where the press conference was held. Daya Master, a thin, wiry and active man in his 40s, takes down the journalists' names and hands them a pink piece of paper with the name of a place written on it. For us from The Hindu and Frontline, the slip says "Kilinochchi office." We are asked to reach the LTTE political office at Kilinochchi.

The whites among the reporters are asked to go to Mallawi in Mullaitheevu district. Reporters from Colombo resent this preferential treatment. The government circuit house at Mallawi, which the LTTE has taken over, has big rooms, cots, fans, two mosquito nets for each cot and attached toilets too!

We start off again, clutching the pink slip. At Puliankulam, we see a board, "Tamil Eelam Transport Corporation." Here and there, we see red-coloured buses belonging to the Corporation. There are taxis, operated by the LTTE, which have Tamil Eelam number plates.

Over a distance of 72 km from Omanthai to Kilinochchi, it is an unrelieved picture of destruction of villages and thick scrub jungle all the way. Near Puliyankulam, a temple has been bombed out, and we see only the skeletal remains of the chariot. A small Vinayagar shrine is intact. Another village, Kanagarayankulam, is totally destroyed.

Mankulam is again a ghost village. A board hangs from a badly damaged building. It says, "Under the control of Tamil Eelam."

For long stretches, the A-9 'highway' on which we are travelling becomes nothing but a mud track. At places, it is so narrow that thorny bushes brush against your vehicle. We reach the LTTE political office at Kilinochchi town around 2 p.m. From there, we are guided to another place.

Here, several LTTE men welcome us. Four houses, freshly painted, are located close to one another. There are lawns with crotons, marigold and canna. In front of one building stands a flag post. We were given tea or a cool drink. After we wash by drawing water from a well, we are taken to the dining hall with a table and a crisp, spotlessly clean white cloth spread over it. There are flower vases too. Tired, we eat in silence. The food comprises a limited quantity of rice, gravy, vegetables and a non-vegetarian dish.

Lunch over, the journalists set out to see the Kilinochchi town guided by a young cadre, Gnanasekaran. The town, which was an economic centre a decade ago in the Vanni heartland of the Tamils, is in ruins now. But it is "developing," thanks to the lifting of the economic embargo on the North and the Cease-fire Agreement.

The greatest handicap people are facing is the lack of a hospital. There has been no supply of electricity in the entire district for the past 15 years, the cadres say. Medicines are not available. According to P. Maniam, "podiyans" (meaning the LTTE boys) use "engines" (generators) to provide electricity to important businesses at higher rates. P. Viswalingam runs into his shop and fetches a lamp - an ink bottle filled with kerosene that looks like an emulsion.

The Kilinochchi district headquarters hospital is totally bombed out. Broken walls rise everywhere. There are deep craters on the floors. At the entrance to the hospital, medical emblems in red are painted on the pillars of the non-existent gates. On top of one emblem is "8 G R". Gnanasekaran says it stands for "8 Gajabahu Regiment" of the Sri Lankan Army.

A Roman Catholic church nearby and a Murugan temple some distance away are badly damaged. So are shopping complexes and a post office. A huge overhead water tank, which stood atop a tall pillar, is on the ground now. While Kilinochchi residents say it collapsed in Army shelling, a journalist from Colombo says the LTTE brought it down. There has been no piped water supply to the town for several years.

"Development," albeit in a very small way, is taking place at Kilinochchi. The church has received a thatched cover. A tiled building is being repaired to house a medical centre. A lathe is coming up. Where cement concrete buildings stood, mud huts are coming up now. Government personnel recently inspected the damaged hospital. For the residents of Kilinochchi, rebuilding the hospital is a priority.

In the market square is a branch of Bank of Tamil Eelam, run by the LTTE. S. Ravindran, manager, concedes that the bank does business only in Sri Lankan currency. It accepts current deposits, fixed deposits and savings bank accounts. The bank has been functioning from 1995. "We give loans to agriculturists, industrialists and businessmen. They return the money promptly," Ravichandran says. Nearby is the District Court of Tamil Eelam.

E. Ayadhurai, Government Agent (Collector) for Kilinochchi district, reports there were 36,000 people in the district and 3,000 in the town. "People want peace. People do not want war. This is one of the reasons why the LTTE went for a ceasefire." According to him, the LTTE, after wresting control of the town from the Army in 1998, cleared more than 40,000 mines in the district using rudimentary tackle. He says there are plans to rebuild the hospital and get the post office working again.

On the road, there is a sudden flurry of traffic. Clouds of dust rise in the air. LTTE policemen, dressed in dark blue trousers and light blue shirts, materialise. There are also commando policemen among them. Veluchamy Ramesh and Kandaswamy Sakthivel say they are not mere traffic policemen but inquire into every kind of crime in town. They quickly bring order to the traffic. The peace marathon from Colombo has reached Kilinochchi.

Lucky Peiris, Senior Superintendent of Police, who is leading the marathon, declares with conviction, "Past is war. Future is peace. I love peace. My officers love peace. All policemen are happy to have peace. The Prime Minister wants everybody to get into the stream of peace."

Peiris says that the peace marathon, which left Colombo on April 6, includes two policewomen and Upali Kumarasiri, Superintendent of Police. A Buddhist monk, Rev. Rambukale Sudamme, is accompanying them in a van. Peiris says the Tamils are welcome to join the peace run. S.K. Warnashantha, policeman, tells us he joined the run with "high expectations of peace and love for the Tamil people." Ranil Sewathi, who lived with Tamils and Muslims in Trincomalee, adds: "With hopes of living in harmony, I am taking part in the race."

It is evening and we visit the "Cemetery of the Warriors" of the LTTE at Kanagapuram, about 5 km from Kilinochchi town. The LTTE calls it "The Sleeping Place of the Great Warriors." A legend in Tamil at the entrance-arch says: "The heroes of history live here. Let us remember them as long as the Tamils live." Spread over scores of acres, the cemetery is kept spic and span. There is total silence. There are lawns and trees all round. The bodies of several hundred LTTE fighters are buried here. The tombstones mention the name of the dead fighter, the place to which he or she belonged and the date of death. There are memorial stones for those whose bodies could not be recovered, including Black Tigers and Black Sea Tigers, who are kamikaze fighters. Every day at 5-55 p.m., the cemetery keeper rings a bell and observes three minutes of silence in memory of the killed fighters.

On our return to our place of stay, we have a meal of lemon rice and vegetables. About 70 journalists are put up in four houses. We sleep on the floor covered with plastic sheets. Each person is given a new mat, pillow and sheet. There are no fans in the long rooms.

A Sinhalese journalist wakes me up around 5-20 a.m. and announces that Prabakaran will meet the press around 7 a.m. Everybody hurries up. There are only about four toilets - all newly built. We bathe near the well, drawing water from it.

An LTTE member accompanies journalists in their cars. After driving a few kilometres, we reach Vadakkachi. It is here that the Tamil Eelam Economic Development Organisation (TEEDO) of the LTTE is situated. The campus is clean with four long halls. In the middle is a quadrangle. Sudha Master, a senior LTTE member, briefs us on the security procedures we have to undergo. Another senior member, Mathi, starts taking down our names. About 350 journalists go through the checks and line up in front of a room.

The procedures leave nothing to chance. Satellite telephones are taboo. LTTE men run a fine tooth comb through everything. They feel the shirt collars including collar pins and shirt sleeves. They open journalists' pens; flip through their shorthand notebooks; test wrist watches, reading glasses and battery cells; scan audio cassette recorders and video camera equipment; weigh still and video cameras on electronic scales; poke the heels of shoes; and ask journalists to remove their shoes, socks and belts. Male journalists have to remove their shirts. Journalists are asked to open their mouth and push out their tongue. If anybody has dentures, they are tapped. Every journalist is videographed and photographed.

By the time the security procedures are completed, it is around 4-45 p.m. The journalists are herded into buses and driven to the venue of the press conference, some distance away. Women LTTE cadres stand on the roadside with assault rifles. Close to the venue is a tank bund. LTTE cadres line up on the bund, armed to the teeth. On the way, streams flow, and there are paddyfields and trees. There are bunkers guarded by men and women LTTE fighters.

The press conference is held in a make-shift hall constructed for the purpose in a clearing. A low wall runs on three sides and on the fourth side was the elevated dais.

About five minutes before Prabakaran drives in, his security guards dressed in battle fatigues and belonging to the "zero group" materialise and take up positions, armed with modified AK-47 assault rifles. They have ear phones. Prabakaran surprises everybody by driving in in a van from behind the venue. As he walks the short distance, his inner security ring dressed in civilian clothes goose-step before him to check whether there are any mines. A few minutes after a nervous-looking Prabakaran takes his seat on the dais with Balasingham beside him, the press conference begins.

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