Text and Pix By : Arthur Wamanan in Kilinochchi and Jaffna
Kilinochchi, the one- time Tiger political centre, now takes the image of Kataragama or Kandy during a weekend. There are visitors everywhere, as thousands throng to the battle-scarred Wanni.
The Wanni was cut off from the rest of the country, between late 2006 up until early this year, due to the final stages of the war. More than 300,000 people were isolated from the rest of the country during this period. Many of them escaped the battle and have now been resettled, after being in welfare centres.
“Things have changed a lot since the end of the war. We are with lighter heads,” said G.K. Raja, a resident of Kilinochchi.
During the war, those living in the Wanni area were left stranded, with no way of leaving. However, Raja said the situation today had enabled people from all over the country to go to any place they want.
“It is very evident now. People from the south have started to visit the north. Likewise, we, too, are in a position to go to other parts of the country, thereby getting to know of the cultures of other communities living in our country.”
The end of the war marked a new chapter to the entire country, especially the areas that were affected by it.
For the people who were affected, this change has brought in a new lease of life.
The sound of bombs and gunfire have stopped. People ride their bicycles and move at their own pace with peaceful minds, with very little worries.
The local singing stars and beauty queens who had no place in the region, have started to smile on large billboards on either side of the A9 highway.
As local tourists enjoy of what remains from the conflict, those who were directly affected have just begun to rebuild their lives after being resettled.
Buildings on either side of the Jaffna-Kandy road, popularly known as the A9 Highway, have just started to come up, indicating that the region is slowly getting back on its feet.
The people who have been resettled are living on whatever they could get. All these families were displaced, and have lost almost everything they had. Therefore, they have no option but to start their lives from the scratch.
Most of the families who have been resettled have begun to start their lives with the initial assistance given by the government. The government had provided each family a sum of Rs 25,000 to start their lives immediately after resettlement.
The resettlement process continues in many parts of the Wanni. However, a level of uncertainty still remains in the minds of the people who have gone back to their own villages. The war has ended. But the dreadful experiences and the losses they underwent continue to haunt them. The occasional house sprayed with bullet marks, stands as a symbol of what the people faced during the past 30 years.
“It is not about the uncertainty after the war or their security. We have lost a lot of things due to the war. Though we have returned, the environment is totally different. Our houses have been damaged. Some of our loved ones are not with us. Therefore, the whole environment is different now, said Shanthini Daniel, a mother of two.
Basic facilities such as housing, health, transport and education are being provided in many of the resettled villages, and expanded on a daily basis. “Many of the schools have begun to function with whatever facilities they have. Children are attending schools. These children used to face problems due to the lack of proper transport facilities. However, now there are more buses operating in most of the areas,” she said.
The relaxing of security measures and the reopening of the A9 Highway has become a great boon to the people, who have been having limited access to the rest of the country. To them, travelling has become a lot easier, even though many of them continue to use bicycles to travel long distances.The government is in the process of providing basic facilities and expanding them to other areas of resettlement.
Kilinochchi Government Agent, Roopavathi Ketheeswaran said the government ensured that the people were provided with the basic facilities in order for them to go ahead with their lives.“The government has taken steps to assist the people to get back on their feet. For instance, several housing loan programmes have been implemented for their benefit. As far as transport is concerned, we have about 24 SLTB buses operating in the district. We have also been given bicycles to schoolchildren,” she said.
Travelling several kilometres north of Kilinochchi, one witnesses the reduction in the scars of the war. The Jaffna District was virtually untouched by the final stages of the war. Therefore, signs of devastation are less, compared to Kilinochchi.
A bunch of youngsters park their motorcycles under a tree and chat about how their day was, before a game of cricket. “There are about 15 of us. We are waiting for the others, so that we could start the game,” said Arulthasan Charles (20), a carpenter from Jaffna.
The situation was not so light a few years ago.These very youngsters were not allowed to meet whenever they wanted to, or play a game of cricket as and when they pleased, due to the situation that prevailed in the North during the past many years, until mid last year.
Though the peninsula was not directly affected during the final stages of the war between the Tigers and the military, the people did feel its effects. “Those times were different. It was very difficult for people to move from one place to another within the Jaffna District, as there used to be curfews imposed frequently,” said Charles.
Jaffna was first affected due to the closure of its only link to the south, the A9 Highway, on August 11, 2006. The Muhamalai entry-exit point was closed, following clashes that erupted in the area.The closure of the road meant that the people were cut off from the rest of the country. Their only access to the rest of the country was by sea or air.
The prices of essential items soared sky-high immediately after the closure of the road. However, arrangements were made for goods to be transported by sea.
“We were not sure whether we would get our supplies until we got them,” said J. Sathiyamoorthi, a wholesale dealer in Jaffna.
“The closure of the A9 Road was a crucial point in the lives of the people in the peninsula. They were forced to depend on the local products and goods transported by sea. The latter meant that the goods would take a long time and would cost more than the quoted price.”
Today, business is growing rapidly in the peninsula. “The road is open. This has allowed goods to be transported freely. Therefore, people can now buy anything they want for the same price sold in Colombo,” Sathiyamoorthi added.
In addition, Jaffna too has its fair share of tourist arrivals. The historic Jaffna library and the Casuarina beach have become the favourite hotspots among many of the domestic tourists.
This unprecedented influx of southern civilians has resulted in many lodges being put up in every nook and corner of Jaffna town.
“People should know about Jaffna and its people. The end of the war has allowed these people to come here,” Sathiyamoorthi added. “We did not know Sinhala. But now, almost all the businessmen know sufficient Sinhala to sell their products.”