The yearning for peace

Print edition : June 06, 1998

It is evidently a fragile peace that prevails in Jaffna, but a peace the people want.

THE fragile nature of the enforced 'peace' and 'normalcy' in the Jaffna peninsula of northern Sri Lanka was evident from two incidents that rocked the tiny nation last fortnight. One was the killing of Brigadier Larry A. Wijeratne, Commander of the government forces in the Vadamarachchi region, by a suspected suicide bomber of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who ran into his vehicle a day prior to his handing over command and returning to Colombo to take up a new assignment. The second was the gunning down of Jaffna Mayor Sarojini Yogeswaran, the 60-year-old widow of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Member of Parliament V. Yogeswaran who himself was killed along with another TULF leader, A. Amritalingam, in 1989 by the LTTE.

For any journalist visiting the Jaffna region, meeting with four persons were considered a must - Commander of the security forces in Jaffna Maj. Gen. Lionel Balagalle; the Jaffna Mayor; Brig. Larry Wijeratne; and Bishop of Jaffna Rev. Thomas Savundaranayagam.

Soon after landing at the Palali army headquarters - commercial flights now operate between Colombo and Jaffna - a request was made for a visit to Point Pedro, about 45 km from Jaffna town and close to LTTE supremo Prabakaran's native village of Velvettithurai, for an interview with Wijeratne. It was explained that he would hand over command the next day and an interview might be difficult; however, an attempt could be made. After meetings with representatives of some United Nations agencies working in the Jaffna peninsula, as well as those of local non-governmental organisations, (NGOs) who had been hosted a lunch at the Palali Officers Mess, one was off to Jaffna town.

At the Mayor's house one was told that she was not in and would be available at her office the next morning.

Bishop Savundaranayagam explained that he welcomed such meetings and interviews so that "we can tell the outside world what is happening here... all about the plight and the sufferings of the people of Jaffna". He thinks that "it is not normal life that we have here because there are 40,000 troops guarding the peninsula and the administration is under the security forces.... The Government Agent has to see to the day-to-day needs of the people."

But he does agree that the hatred for the Army has come down after efforts made to teach the Army that it "should not look at all Tamil people as Tigers".

Former Jaffna Mayor Sarojini Yogeswaran.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

JAFFNA town has none of the hustle and bustle of a town. You hardly see any motorised vehicles; the most common mode of transport is the bicycle. The few cars that are there use a kerosene-petrol mixture as fuel. The approach to Jaffna town from Palali, where the air strip is located, is lined by the shells of bombed buildings, a grim reminder of the violence that has rocked the region.

Only occasional sights like groups of young girls cycling their way back home from school, chattering all the time, make you believe that there is hope in the future.

As the sun goes down, the tropical foliage along the road, made greener and glossy by the summer showers, can deceive you into believing that this is just the kind of tropical paradise for which Western tourists yearn. But at the women officers' quarters, where one hoped to rest for a while before interviewing Balagalle at 8 p.m., as well as in the rest of the camp, a pall of gloom was evident.

Different versions of how exactly Brigadier Wijeratne was eliminated by the LTTE are doing the rounds. The suicide bomber got him when he was returning after a farewell lunch given to him by the Point Pedro traders' association.

As you tell Maj. Gen. Balagalle how you were hoping to meet Wijeratne during your trip to Jaffna, he says: "This is the price the officer had to pay for getting too close to the people. One thing the LTTE just cannot stand is the armed forces getting closer to the civilians. They want the Tamils to hate the Army. This is one thing on which I caution my officers all the time."

He spells out the efforts made by the Government and the security forces to restore normalcy to Jaffna. He has started accelerated classes in Tamil for his troops so that they got better acceptance from the people. The induction of about 350 women Army personnel has helped when it comes to screening women at the innumerable checkpoints in the region.

However, Maj. Gen. Balagalle is certain that real normalcy cannot return to the region until the LTTE is totally marginalised.

Marginalising the LTTE is easier said than done. In the town area, people are visibly relieved that there is at last some peace and that they can pick up the threads of their lives once again. The Jaffna Teaching Hospital is functional, even though only 700 of its 1,050 beds are operational as five of its wards cannot be reopened for want of nurses. The hospital had to be shifted to Point Pedro during Operation Riveresa, which the Army launched against the LTTE in November 1995.

The Hospital returned to its original home in April 1996, but has over the years lost some of its best doctors. "There was a time when there used to be competition among the topmost doctors of the country to get a posting in this hospital. But now only the juniors want to come here", says Dr. Kanagaratnam, its director.

Many schools have opened in Jaffna town and they are slowly getting back their pupils as people are returning from the Vanni area with their families. But as many of them come with malaria and respiratory diseases, what they need immediately is medical attention.

With help from NGOs, the farmers have been provided low-cost technology to improve production. The Tamils of Sri Lanka are known for ingenuity and hard work. There is enough food, especially vegetables and fruits, available in Jaffna to get the people who had fled to the Vanni region to return.

The project manager (food security) of CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere), Arul Gnanam, says that there has been a bumper crop of bananas in Jaffna this year: the choicest varieties, which sell at between Rs. 50 to 80 a kg in Colombo, go at Rs. 10 in Jaffna town. One major reason for the low price is the lack of transport facilities. Jaffna has always depended on the Colombo market to sell its produce with the sea route choked by the damaged port at Kankesanturai, which is yet to be repaired, the farmers are looking upon the security forces and the Government to find a solution to the problem.

Come June-July and the famous Jaffna mango crop will be ready. However, with outside markets remaining closed, there is the prospect of mangoes being sold at 25 to 50 cents apiece in the interior region of the peninsula, says Gnanam.

Bishop Savundaranayagam adds that the restrictions imposed on fishermen for security considerations have adversely affected the fishing community. For one thing, they have to use small boats as the Army does not allow the use of mechanised vessels; for another, the ban on fishing at night, when the catch is the most abundant, has resulted in reduced yields. "At one time one third of the catch used to go from here to the south and Colombo, but now what they get is not even enough for the local people," he said.

Jaffna is no more the ghost town the LTTE had hoped it to be after the Army operation.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

The people are piecing together their shattered lives slowly, and it is evident that Jaffna is not the ghost town the LTTE had hoped it to be after the Army operation. Long years of war have taken their toll on the ordinary people, and there is little doubt, as you talk to them, that they want peace and help from the international community to rebuild the area, restore economic activity and, more important, create employment opportunities.

And yet many a Jaffnaite's sympathy is still with the LTTE. "But for the LTTE, the Sri Lankan Tamil's plight would not have been recognised by the world. We may not like their bombs and their killings, but today if the Sri Lankan Government is taking us seriously and trying to give us a package, it is thanks to the efforts of the LTTE," says a food vendor in Jaffna town.

But this was on May 14 and 15. On the morning of May 17, the Jaffna Mayor was gunned down by suspected LTTE men, in less than 48 hours since she had granted an interview to this correspondent. She had consistently refused any security cover offered by the administration, saying: "The people will protect me."

Two days before her death, the fiery Sarojini Yogeswaran, who voiced her aspiration to move out of Jaffna politics and take over her husband's place in the Sri Lankan Parliament, readily agreed to sit down for a 45-minute interview.

Bishop of Jaffna Rev. Thomas Savundaranayagam.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

She had no reservation about expressing her disappointment with international funding agencies, which, she said, were "tight-fisted" and distributed their favours thin and sparse.

"I'm very hesitant to meet U.N. agencies because I don't think anything positive will come from them. I don't have an ambulance for the Council. We don't even have a garbage truck. The Council hall is a shambles. This is a kalyana mandapam. We don't have an audio system, intercom, fax machine, nothing. Compared to the Colombo Municipality which is a model municipality where millions are poured in by all the embassies, we have nothing."

Two sources that she hoped would help rebuild Jaffna at least partially were the Sri Lankan President ("She is a very nice woman and is willing to go out of her way to help us") and the Indian Government ("I gave a dinner last night to the Political Counsellor from the Indian High Commission, R. K. Sachdeva, briefed him about our problems and he has promised to get back to us").

She was also concerned about the job situation. "For 15 to 17 years no recruitment has been made by the Central or local bodies and I have a string of applicants coming for various jobs, in labour, clerical and technical grades."

Maj.-Gen. Lionel Balagalle, Commander of the security forces in Jaffna, at a public meeting.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

The outspoken women paused for a moment before answering questions on the LTTE and requested this correspondent to "be careful when you quote me on the LTTE." "You can quote me generally, but don't let me down with the LTTE, as I have to do tightrope-walking between the LTTE and the Army," she almost pleaded.

But the LTTE got to her anyway. With the assassination of the Brigadier and the Mayor, the Tigers are back in the business of eliminating those who offer a competition or a threat to them.

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