SRI LANKA: Tamil Youth Rediscover Life beyond the Battle-scarred North

  • by Amantha Perera (sigiriya, sri lanka)
  • Inter Press Service

The motley bunch of young travellers, who had just climbed Sigiriya, the famous 5th century rock fortress, was far from an uncommon sight among visitors who troop to hundreds of tourist spots across this South Asian island state.

But even a year back, it would have been unheard of — if not impossible — for this group of Tamil youth from Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula to travel together anywhere outside of the north and east of the country, unless they were on trips organised by the government or non-governmental organisations.

After raging for almost 30 years, Sri Lanka’s sectarian war has driven a deep wedge between the north and south of the country — just 432 kilometres long, from tip to tip. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers, fought successive Sri Lankan governments since the early 1980s, demanding a separate state for minority Tamils in the north and east of this Sinhala-majority nation.

By the time the bloody war ended in May 2010, over 70,000 Sri Lankans had been killed and tens of thousands more uprooted. The last bout of fighting alone, which started in late 2007, left close to 300,000 displaced.

Through the fighting, Sri Lanka’s north had become isolated — all civilian travel out of the area was either to escape the war zone or out of necessity. For citizens here, excursions to a 5th century rock fortress outside the north were a distant memory.

'It was an interesting experience. This was the first time I travelled out of Jaffna after the war,' said 25-year- old Sathiralingam Swarnam, a teacher who had arranged the seven-day excursion to southern Sri Lanka for 25 of his students at a private school in northern Jaffna, the cultural and political heartland of the Tamils.

Like his students, Swarnam had not seen some of the sites firsthand. 'This was the first time for me in Sigiriya,' he said. 'I saw the (famous) paintings for the first time that I had only read about in books. It was fascinating.'

Most of the Tigers’ ranks comprised young northern and eastern Tamils, some of whom had carried out attacks — including suicide bombings — on military and economic targets disguised as civilians. As a result, all Tamil youth found outside of their native villages or towns — including those without links to the Tigers — were greeted with mistrust.

Now, more than a year after the end of the war, Tamils from Sri Lanka’s north are able to make their first apprehensive forays into other parts of the country without getting suspicious looks from government forces and other civilians.

'We had an awesome time,' said Beevirasa Robinson, 17, from Nelliady town in Jaffna. 'This was the first time in my life that I got a chance to go out of Jaffna. We went to several places like Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Trincomalee and Nuwara Eliya. It was fantastic.'

With the re-opening in January of the A9 highway, the only land link between Jaffna and the rest of the country, Swarnam said, civilian travel to the south had increased multi-fold. Now, over a dozen long-haul buses leave the main bus terminal in Jaffna every night on overnight journeys to Colombo.

The A9 highway had been closed off since August 2006, when the Tigers attacked forward lines of government forces south of Jaffna. All travel and goods transportation had to be done by sea, which became dangerous as the war escalated, or by air, which was far more expensive.

'What trips (could we have) then?' Swarnam exclaimed. 'We were only focused on surviving into the next day.'

In the Vanni, a large swath of land controlled by the Tigers for over 10 years, tens of thousands of newly returned civilians are still struggling to piece back together a life after the mayhem, Swarnam said. 'I don’t think we will see many people from the Vanni travelling like this, but a few schools have organised excursions to the south for students,' he added.

While travellers from the north are only beginning to slowly venture out of their region, more than 100,000 south- based Sri Lankans visit the north each week. On weekends that coincide with holidays, and on religious festivals, the number of southerners who travel north reaches well over half a million.

Like many of his peers from the north, Robinson was nervous about travelling to the south. But despite their inability to speak fluent English or Sinhala — the language of Sri Lanka’s majority group — the Tamil travellers did not feel unwelcome at any point during their adventure.

'No one looked at us in the wrong way,' Robinson said. In fact, he added, 'we were looked after very well.'

'We were isolated from the rest of the country for a long time,' Robinson mused, describing his experience as stepping out of a dark vacuum. 'We thought Jaffna was beautiful. Who knew it was this amazing outside?'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service