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Saturday, 1 February, 2003, 12:37 GMT
Return to war-torn Jaffna
Tamil girl Madialan Rosa smiles after meeting Singhalese members of a peace delegation for the  first time
Sri Lankans are celebrating peace, not fearful of a war
The BBC's Anna Horsbrugh-Porter goes to Jaffna in Sri Lanka to see what 20 years of war have done to the region.

They are not talking about war in every corner of the world.

In Sri Lanka, they are celebrating peace. Fighting in the long civil war there stopped last February when the two sides signed a ceasefire deal.

Now many of the thousands forced to flee their homes are returning to the battle-scarred ruins of Jaffna in the north of the island - some intent on rebuilding their lives there.

Jaffna's streets are wide and tree-lined, and it is still possible to imagine what the city was like before the war.

Others say they are seizing their chance to visit friends and relations just in case the ongoing peace talks break down and the area is once again sealed off from the outside world.

As we landed in the military airfield just outside Jaffna, the excitement inside the plane grew to fever pitch.

In the seats in front of me were three generations of men.

There was an old grandfather clutching a stick between his knees.

Beside him, his successful looking son, now a Sydney businessman, who pulled out his mobile phone importantly as soon as the plane touched the runway.

And then an eight-year-old grandson, bored and restless until soldiers armed with big rifles came on board the plane to escort us through the military zoned strip to the waiting buses.

Cut off

For 20 years, during Sri Lanka's civil war, Jaffna has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

As we travelled the 10 kilometres into the once beautiful city, famous for its university and elegant villas, everyone's faces were pressed against the window.

Going past were bombed-out shells of houses, their remaining walls pock-marked with shrapnel; the signs warning of landmines every few metres and the pathetic strips of paddy painstakingly being cultivated between the rubble.

Twenty years of war have left their scars on the island's environment
Rubbish heaps scatter the Jaffna countryside
Suddenly the crowd of five daughters, all in their 50s accompanied by their elderly mother, erupted in the seats behind me and started gesticulating animatedly out of the window.

"Look, it's Suresh's school!" they shouted. I turned to look too, and saw a large yellow building, open to the sky and with only two walls still standing.

But the woman spoke as if this ghost of a place was still intact and full of children.

Skinny goats and cows wander amongst the rubble of the city - in and out of destroyed buildings grazing on the grass growing up through vacant window frames, or foraging amongst the rubbish lying everywhere.

Garrison town

We saw beautiful villas lying waste, invaded by packs of dogs. A few are beginning to be restored, with big piles of sand outside gaping doors.

Jaffna's streets are wide and tree-lined, and it is still possible to imagine what the city was like before the war.

But it still remains a garrison town, with armed soldiers walking everywhere, and on most street corners, bunkers made out of sandbags now grown over by grass and flowers.

We went past burning rubbish dumps swarming with big black crows. The clear waters of the lagoon were spoiled by winding spirals of rusty barbed wire poking up out of the water

These bunkers are still occupied, look closely and a pair of watchful eyes and the butt of a rifle stare back at you through a narrow slit in the bags.

The streets are full of bicycles and pedestrians, and only a few vans endemic to the rest of the country thunder past.

Jaffna's taxi rank of dusty old Morris Oxfords stands in the middle of the main boulevard outside the hospital - but no-one ever seems to hire them and they sit idle in the scorching sun.

We found these cars also don't leave the city, and so to explore the rest of the peninsula we were forced to hire one of the few vans available.

Dangerous transport

As we bumped and wheezed out of Jaffna, we discovered that we'd managed to hire the most clapped-out of all Jaffna's clapped-out vans.

None of the benches of seats were secured to the floor, which meant everyone was suspended 20 centimetres above the floor as we flew over bumps.

Tamil Tiger women
Women Tamil Tiger soldiers wear their hair in their own distinctive fashion
I couldn't work out why this van was so breezy for the first few minutes - unusually good ventilation perhaps - until I realised that the vehicle had no sliding side door, instead a gaping hole onto the dusty track running by.

All the children with us were immediately dispatched to the back seat and bags jammed up against the side to prevent any fatal exploration of the doorless van.

The road to the famous Casurina beach - still listed on the maps as one of Sri Lanka's most beautiful beaches - was a thin strip of sand leading across lakes and lagoons.

We went past burning rubbish dumps swarming with big black crows. The clear waters of the lagoon were spoiled by winding spirals of rusty barbed wire poking up out of the water.

But where humans have suffered, bird life has profited. The lagoon is stuffed with all kinds of wading birds - flocks of flamingos stand in the middle distance, cormorants perch on the barbed wire, black wings outstretched sunning themselves, a huge heron waited on a concrete slab next to the road watching our van go by.

Everything is silent, hard to imagine the calm water boiling and crashing with shells and gunfire only a year ago.

Delight at tourists

We were stopped at five or six checkpoints on the way to the beach, guarded by bored Sri Lankan soldiers, mostly women, who leapt up in delight as we slowed down, enjoying the chance to while away a few minutes of the day pinching a baby's squishy cheeks and surveying this new breed in Jaffna - the European tourist.

Tamil Tigers logo
2002's ceasefire agreement ended 20 years of civil war
When we arrived at the beach it was long and flat and covered with rubbish and barbed wire.

A restoration job is needed to reclaim its title as a famous beauty-spot.

It was a Sunday, and so in common with beaches all over Sri Lanka, filled with young men drinking beer, having a barbecue and throwing each other exuberantly into the water.

A reassuringly familiar sight after so much destruction.

Coming back into the city, the wind got up, and the obvious defects of the doorless van revealed themselves as sand and dust blew into our faces.

Tamil Tiger coiffure

On the way, our driver pointed out two girls riding ahead of us on bicycles on the narrow causeway - both with two long plaits pinned and coiled around the sides of their heads.

They had thick black belts tightly cinched around their waists.

"Tamil Tiger soldiers," the driver said. "They all wear their hair like that as a sign".

One was pedalling with a false leg, and as we overtook when the causeway widened, she turned to stare in at us defiantly, her prematurely-aged face lined and scarred.

Later that afternoon, back in Jaffna, I walked through the deserted streets to find the new library which has been rebuilt since the ceasefire.

On my way, on a patch of wasteland I saw the remains of what must have been an imposing large grey building.

In the middle an arch still stood intact, proclaiming itself as the Regal Cinema. Cows were grazing in what must have once been the auditorium.

Its date of destruction was curiously preserved as faint letters underneath the arch still spelt out the legends of Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn - perhaps some Hollywood extravaganza like Spartacus was playing as the bombs fell.

I turned to see a Jaffna returnee staring with me as well - immediately recognisable by his western shoes and clothes and his eagerness to talk to me.

He used to come to the Regal every week, he said, listing some of the films he'd watched there.

Then he turned back, lost in his thoughts, surveying the ruins of his Jaffna childhood.

Peace efforts




See also:

31 Jan 03 | South Asia
31 Jan 03 | South Asia
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