Stopped in her tracks

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By Arthur Wamanan in Jaffna

That was the last time Yarl Devi (Queen of Jaffna) rumbled into the station with civilians. That was the last day the station buzzed with travelers. Yarl Devi became a victim of the deadly war that raged for three decades.

The Jaffna Railway Station has become an iconic destination. The partially broken down building stands up majestically and attracts tourists despite the misfortunes it faced during the war.

The entrance to the station is adorned with clothe lines strung from one pillar to the other. The screams of children running around the station echo through the empty hallway. A few families have made the station their temporary abode. These families are not homeless. They use the station premises as a resting place during their frequent visits to Jaffna. These visitors come here for various reasons.

“I come here very often, at least once in two months,” says Nimalan, a small time businessman from Puttalam. “The hotels are quite expensive. Since I come here quite often this place serves as a comfortable place to put up for a few nights,” he said.

The platform serves as a kitchen. The stove comprises a few bricks, while pieces of paper and cardboard boxes strewn around the premises are used as fuel for cooking food. What used to be the railway line is now a littered path. It was once the busiest place in Jaffna. Hundreds of commuters traveled to and from the peninsula everyday until June 13, 1990.

That was the last time Yarl Devi (Queen of Jaffna) rumbled into the station with civilians. That was the last day the station buzzed with travelers. Yarl Devi became a victim of the deadly war that raged for three decades. It was once the second largest station with eight passenger trains and six freight trains operating daily between Jaffna and Colombo.

Today, 22 years after the last train left, the partially damaged station stands somewhat majestically in the heart of Jaffna. Over the years, the station has become a symbol of war and destruction. The empty staircase, polluted platform, and the scribbling on the walls, continue to convey a story, a story that has continued for 22 years. The building is shattered. It is a sorry site. One can imagine the station bustling with commuters in the good old days. Sadly, now, there is no one to travel, no one returning, and not even the rail tracks.

At present, hundreds of travelers go to the station, not because it is a destination or an exit point, but because it has become one of north’s attractions. The Jaffna station has turned out to be one of the most popular destinations for domestic tourists who travel up North in their thousands to witness what they couldn’t during the past three decades.

Within the past three years, the station has become an iconic destination owing to its history and the misfortunes it had to face due to intense fighting in the peninsula and the fate of Yarl Devi, the only express train that used to ply between Jaffna and Colombo.

However, this is not the time for this key attraction in Jaffna to remain the same ill-fated station. The end of hostilities has paved the way for it to regain its lost glory.
The railway lines that were restricted to Vavuniya have been extended up to Omanthai. Extension of railway lines commenced soon after the war concluded. Initially, the line between Vavuniya and Omanthai was reconstructed. The first railway station beyond Vavuniya in Thandikulam was reopened on June 6, 2009. The Omanthai station was re-opened nearly two years after, on May 27, 2011.

The government said construction work on railway lines beyond Omanthai was already underway with the assistance of the Indian government. The reconstruction of the entire Northern railway line is expected to be completed by next year.

(Published in The Nation on October 28, 2012)

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