Jaffna: The Haunted and the Hopeful

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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Jaffna still bears the scars of one of history’s longest and bloodiest guerrilla wars. Aditya Iyer reports from the Sri Lankan city caught between a horrifying memory and a tentative future

A TANGERINE SUN rises over two predominant sights in Jaffna. The swaying shush of palmyra leaves and the buzzing beehive of construction sites. On Front Street, a stone’s throw from the historic Public Library, shirtless men with viscid arms haul pans of sand to what will eventually be the third storey of a house, its concrete roof held in place by several shafts of bamboo. “Reconcile, reconcile,” says the gentleman overseeing the work, in English, when he notices he is being overseen. Then, for my benefit, he explains again. “Reconcile. Can’t live in house. Many, many...” The final word, presumably ‘holes’, remains unsaid, replaced instead by an action; his finger puncturing bullet-sized cavities into an imaginary wall.

A cursory look down Front Street, away from the library’s boulevard, tells you that the work-in-progress could well be the last house on this road to be ‘reconciled’. Rows of spanking new facades lace the street, new enough to smell the polymer from their walls. The house opposite the semi-built home is washed with a coat of fluorescent green. A white board frames the gate: ‘IELTC English Coaching Classes’. Next door is a lozenge yellow bungalow. Its steel balcony railing winks rapidly as the sun creeps further over the peninsular sky.

Even the old houses promise change. Between Vembady Street and Second Street, not too far from Front Street and well within the central residential grid in the heart of Jaffna, are six identical Gelusil-pink constructions. All of them seem equally neglected, all of them peeling curls of plaster. But their walls are spotted with fresh, circular patches of grey cement, filling up what were once wounds from incessant shelling. “There is no past that can’t be covered up with some Tokyo (a Sri Lankan cement brand) and a coat of paint,” says Shanmugam, my tuk-tuk driver for the day. “Not even Jaffna’s past.”

For 26 years, between 1973 and 2009, Jaffna, the promised eelam, or state, for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population was the epicentre of one of Asia’s bloodiest and longest running civil wars. All of 20 square kilometres (the size of Puducherry), this small, northern-most settlement of the island has been captured and recaptured over and over again. During the ethnic conflict, it was besieged on two occasions by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant organisation that fought guerrilla-style for an independent Tamil state, and regained twice by the Sri Lankan army. The second and final time was in the weeks leading up to May 18th, 2009, the morbid climax to a war that left as many 100,000 dead and several more displaced.

All that fighting crippled Jaffna, which, according to both the locals and historians, resembled an architectural graveyard until just a few years back. In This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War (2014), author Samanth Subramanian wrote: ‘It took perhaps seven minutes to drive through the entire town in an autorickshaw. Broken houses and small temples and big temples and palm trees and matchbox shops flickered by, and then suddenly there was the highway, reaching out to the next settlement on the peninsula. Was this all of it? I thought, and marvelled at what a massive dent this little town had wrought in its country’s soul.’

Just three years since the release of Subramanian’s book, there are almost no broken houses. And to see one with bullet holes— once a sight as common as sparrows—Shanmugam drives his three-wheeler many kilometres away from the temples and the churches to the suburb of Kodaddy, where the dilapidated Leyden Industries Ltd building stands. It was once a factory manufacturing undergarments. Now it looks like the setting for urban ghost stories. As I walk past the gate that is less iron and more rust into a front lawn that has also fallen into disrepair, three men appear from what would once have been the security guard’s room. Few words are exchanged and one of the men leads me, in silence, to the side of the factory, where the entire 20-foot wall is blitzed with pockmarks of every conceivable ammo size—from cavities that you wouldn’t be able to fit your fist into, to craters that could well nest volleyballs.

As we drive back to the city, I notice another aspect of Jaffna that has changed since three years ago. It takes a whole lot longer than seven minutes to drive through this town in a tuk-tuk. Not just because there are many more vehicles on the road since 2014, but also due to the fact that Jaffna is expanding swiftly, like vapour that has been held under a lid for too long—towards the east, north and west (down south, there will always be the ocean). The growth isn’t just lateral, but vertical as well, with semi-luxury hotels mushrooming up on the Y-axis of the city.

On Somasundaram Avenue alone, a slender vein of a street off Hospital Road, there are four guest houses and a couple of budget hotels, all of which have sprouted over the last 24 months; all now brimming with Caucasian tourists. At Hotel Blue Whale, a kitschy two-star setup whose pink rooms are covered with unframed plastic posters of drooling pugs and fluffy pomeranians, I am one of only two non-White guests. The hotel has over 25 rooms.

“I stood and paused the first time I saw a White tourist in Jaffna. It was about a year or two after the war ended,” says Sansivan, receptionist-cum-manager of Hotel Blue Whale. “I mean, I had seen White people before, they worked for the United Nations or the Red Cross or were international journalists. But it was when I saw a tourist, you know, like a hippie he was—long hair, beads, backpack—that’s when I knew that if they find it safe to come here for tourism, the past was in the past.” Sansivan claims that until just a couple of years ago, the handful of Caucasian tourists who did dare leave the beaches of south Sri Lanka behind to make their way up north to Jaffna would seek shelter only at Morgan’s Guest House on Kovil Road. Within the last 24 hours, he says he has had to turn away roughly 10 backpackers. “As they leave, I tell them to book in advance next time. Jaffna, tourists don’t realise, is becoming a tourist hotspot.”

One of those who did book well in advance is Philippe, a teacher from Salzburg, Austria. When I ask him what drew him to Jaffna, he says: “Every traveller wants to go to places that few others have. Jaffna offers travellers that in abundance. But give it a couple of years and this won’t be the road less travelled, I’m certain about that. I also feel that in two years or so there will be no evidence that a large-scale conflict ever took place on this land. Even today, I have to look very hard to see any trace of the incredible recent history of this town.” He’s right. But when you do stumble upon proof of war, a sign of this peninsula’s deadly past, the moment can be quite overwhelming.

“When I first saw a White tourist, that's when I knew that if they found it safe to come here for tourism, the past was in the past” - Sansivan, manager, Hotel Blue Whale, Jaffna

AT MIDDAY, AN HOUR when Jaffna’s eyelids drop, I walk a few metres past an old cow sprawled out besides a spray of garbage on Martyn Road, before I am forced to retrace my steps. The cow has two remarkable markings on its greasy brown hide. Between her left shoulder and ribs are the alphabets ‘A.K’, the free limbs of the ‘A’ closing in on her udders. And by the rump is seemingly an address, ‘J/50’. I scan both Martyn Street and the adjoining Fourth Cross Street for this location but the houses are labelled strictly in numerals. Some 20 minutes pass before I return to the cow (she hasn’t budged, still working on her cud) and from the corner of my eye, I notice that I too am being watched.

“Tamil, ah?” he asks from across the street, holding a mighty padlock and a bangle of keys. When I nod ‘yes’, he ushers me to join him, unbolting the latch on the shop door that had just been bolted. All of Jaffna swears by its afternoon siesta, but Thyagalingam is about to give this precious routine a skip. “I saw you studying the cow—you know, I have never seen a local do that—and thought you might like to know about the markings. Would you like a Milo?” he says, half immersed in his aluminium freezer to retrieve a tetrapak of chocolate milk. The tetrapak has a picture of a very happy Angelo Mathews, an all-rounder in the Sri Lankan cricket team. Thyagalingam refastens his chequered sarong above his perfectly round belly, strokes a puff of white hair on his bare chest and takes his seat. On a plastic stool at the other end of the plastic table.

“During the prachanai (meaning trouble, a word used interchangeably with war), when we had to flee to the vanni (forests) on short notice, we would mark our belongings in the hope that we would get it back on our return,” he says. “Just a few years back, you could see such markings on many things in Jaffna—bicycles, houses, palm trees, cattle. Now one sees less and less of it.” So who does the cow belong to? “I don’t know. I haven’t asked,” he says. “I see her from time to time. Maybe her owners never did return. Many people never came back, you know. Some relocated, most were killed.” The cow, somehow, survived.

We stop talking about the cow, but the topic always returns to the prachanai. Thyagalingam says he fled on a few occasions to the vanni, not far from Kilinochchi, the gateway to the peninsula. There, he had to build a house for his family from ground up, with bamboo poles and a tarpaulin sheet for a roof. “Some people had friends or relatives in different towns inside the vanni. We had no one, so building something temporary was the only option.” When Kilinochchi was captured by the army at the end of 2008, half a year before the war finally ended in Mullivaikal (the last Tiger-controlled pasture to fall), Thyagalingam claims that he survived death by barely a few metres. “There was heavy shelling one night and the family who were staying next to us, all of them, went up in flames. Old people, able people, young boys and girls, all gone like that,” he says, snapping his fingers.

There’s an uneasy silence in the shop and I focus on the perspiring Milo, which is now surrounded by a puddle of water. The suffocating bubble is pierced when Thyagalingam reveals that a few of his relatives fought for the Tigers, one of them to her very end. While Thyagalingam didn’t physically pick up arms, he too was sympathetic to the cause of the supreme leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. But that mindset, he says, has long changed. “Sometimes I think the Tigers never fought for us. They were ready to kill us, their own people, and they didn’t really need a reason to do it. If we didn’t want to join their military, dead. If we objected to their style of governance, dead. If we dared question them, dead. It was all for our good, our future, they told us. Being used as a shield when the Lions reached our doorstep, what kind of a future was that?” he says, pausing to regain his composure. “I have a saying: When Tigers and Lions roam free, humans die.”

I ask him if the old wounds have healed with the passage of time. He spits out a sarcastic smile. “This new Jaffna, all this is cosmetic. By simply applying lots of powder on the face, an ugly person is not going to become beautiful,” he says. “Every day, someone tells me, ‘Look, this new thing has come up, that new thing is coming up’. Do you know what that means? Nothing is older in Jaffna than us people. Us makkal. We are the only remnants of the prachanai. But luckily, these remnants can talk. And we will never let them forget.”

“This new Jaffna, all this is cosmetic. By applying lots of powder on the face, an ugly person is not going to become beautiful. Nothing is older here than us people” - Thyagalingam, shopkeeper, Jaffna

It isn’t clear who Thyagalingam means by ‘them’, but I don’t ask, for he is shaking. Instead, I pull out a soggy note of 100 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) from my wallet for the Milo and a Gold Leaf cigarette that was consumed during this conversation. Thyagalingam returns to the present, folds his hands and politely refuses.

AUGUST IS THE month of Sri Lanka’s most significant Tamil tiruvila, or festival—the 26-day long celebration of Lord Murugan at the Nallur Kandaswamy temple in the district of Nallur. Today’s grand pujai is Vel Vimanam, or Flight of the Holy Spear—the lord’s weapon that is said to have slain the evil asura, Soorapadam. In a couple of hours, by 7 pm, when the sun drops into the lagoon beyond the peninsula, thousands of pious women and men will flock here, draped in their finest jerry saris and gold-rimmed white veshtis. But now, during the calm before the swarm, the road leading up to the kovil is eerily empty. In the stifling Jaffna heat, shop vendors on both sides of the road snooze by coir baskets of marigold flowers even as a Jaffna Municipal Council water truck washes the street clean with a python-like hose. The refreshing spray causes coils of dust and steam to rise. Now, a mirage dances over the drunk road.

Shanmugam, the tuk-tuk driver, has brought me here early on a different purpose. He wants me to meet an acquaintance of his, a person who makes ends meet by selling oodhuvathi, or incense sticks. “She was in Mullivaikal when the war ended,” he had said, rubbernecking while speaking as tuk-tuk drivers do. “She has gone through more atrocities than anyone else I know.” We find Latha (named changed) by a barricade close to the main temple, six boxes of Nag Champa Jasmine in one hand and a polythene bag full of more such boxes slung over her shoulder. Shanmugam asks me to wait a little distance away while he has a word with her. A minute or two later, he beckons me with his hand to join them. “He’s from India. Delhi. You can trust him,” he says. She nods. “He wants to talk to you about Mullivaikal. We can speak in my taxi.”

If not for her eyes, large and sad, Latha could easily pass off for a girl in her early twenties. But you believe her when she says she is 30. Her hair is separated into two tight plaits, looped with the help of ribbons. She wears a half-sleeve purple shirt over a worn-out frock and she stands on leather sandals at least two sizes too large for her feet. Latha and Shanmugam get into the passenger bench at the back of the tuk-tuk and I take the driver’s seat. The three of us would have been all alone if not for the company of a reefer-smoking Bob Marley and Kollywood actor Asin on the tuk-tuk’s interior.

“My husband, Sathish (name changed), was roped in by the Tigers. He doubled up as a mechanic and a driver, doing menial jobs—retrieve jerry cans of kerosene from across the Kilinochchi border, transport the bosses, things like that,” she says, Shanmugam nods his head next to her. In early 2009, when the Sri Lankan army won Kilinochchi and began sweeping the Tamils into a corner towards the north east, Latha and Sathish, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians and militants, began moving through settlements almost on a daily basis. “By May, we entered Mullaitivu district, trapped between the water on one side and the army on the other.”

On the night of May 16th, 2009, two days before the last of the Tigers’ top brass were killed, including Prabhakaran, Latha says it rained artillery from dusk till dawn. “The dead lay everywhere and we, the barely living, lay among them. Makeshift hospitals were filled up to the brim and even they were brought down. I was certain we were all going to die. But by the grace of God, both my husband and I survived.” When a crimson red sun rose on the morning of May 17th, she remembers vividly, voices on megaphones began urging them to surrender. The army, the voices said, had won. But for them, the voices reiterated, all was not lost. So the living, now reduced to zombies, queued up for hours at one end of a causeway in Mullivaikal, white shirts or handkerchiefs held high up in the air.

At the other end of the bridge was the triumphant army, collecting the survivors in batches and packing them into buses headed for camps in Vavuniya. “When we reached the soldiers, we saw their faces as we passed. They looked crazed, like pisaasu (the devil),” she says. “The next morning, when the bus pulled up at the camp in Vavuniya, I cried from exhaustion. But at some level, I think I was happy. All the madness was finally over.” Little did she know that the madness that follows the stupor of victory was only the beginning.

Even before Latha could eat her first meal in the new, undivided Sri Lanka, her husband Sathish was plucked out of the camp by the security forces, who were combing rehabilitation centres all over the country for Tigers who may have passed off as civilians. Her final image of Sathish was him being accosted by two men with rifles, walking between a scatter of tents. She never saw him again. “I know he is dead. Today, I am certain of that,” she says. “But I still hope he will return someday. It isn’t easy raising a child all alone.” With that, we walk her back to the kovil, the road now buzzing with devotees, ours the only cheerless faces amid a festive sea of smiles. Within seconds, she is back to selling her incense sticks. LKR 50 per box of Nag Champas.

“There is something else you need to know,” says Shanmugam, back to driving the tuk-tuk, neck turned 180 degrees while parting our way through approaching pilgrims. “The army did all kinds of bad things to the survivors in these camps, especially to wives and widows of Tigers. Latha doesn’t know if she was pregnant before she was taken to the camp in Vavuniya. Her girl is now seven years old.”

NIGHT SPREADS SWIFTLY over the peninsula, warm like a relief blanket. The ever-present ting ting ting of construction sites has stopped by dusk and the breeze from the Indian Ocean is making the palmyras sway again. Tonight, even from the southern edge of the city, by the Dutch Fort, one can hear the kovil bells toll from many miles away, followed by a unified voice of a thousand pilgrims. ‘Vetrivel! Vetrivel!’ (‘Victorious spear! Victorious spear!’) On a perfectly moonless night such as this, you tend to rely on your ears over eyes, and I can hear lovers giggle on the benches strewn around the fort and from a little further west from Beach Road, the cackle of merry, squabbling fishermen.

Down the harbour, past the fishing trawlers, is said to exist a ‘Martyr’s Monolith’, which, as one blogger who visited it recently wrote, ‘remembers 31 locals killed by the military in 1986’. The monolith, the blog says, sits besides ‘a weird statue of a man wearing dark glasses with one hand held aloft making a V sign.’ Martyr’s Monolith shows up on Google Maps as well, the app claims with authority that the structure is precisely 950 metres and 12 minutes from my location, past the now-restored Public Library, which was burnt down, with all its 95,000 books as a symbolic gesture, during the anti-Tamil riots of 1981.

The route takes a whole lot longer. For instead of a stroll through a fisherman’s colony down Beach Road, I find myself walking besides a massive, seaside army camp. The camp is separated from the road by a continuous fence of dried palymra leaves and intermittent watch-towers, a vantage from which powerful beams of torchlight are struck directly into the passerby’s eyes.

All along the perimeter of the camp stand large, two-sided signboards, with a stern message in English on one side and in Tamil on the other. The first one reads: ‘In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments. There are only consequences—Robert Green Ingersoll.’ Another one warns: ‘An education is not how much you have committed to memory or even how much you know. It is being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t – Anatole France.’ After skirting past a few more boards making similar threats, I reach the monolith, an unremarkable, four-sided block of concrete, placed in the middle of a dimly lit road. A metre away, as noted in the blog, is the promised ‘weird statue’.

It is a gold-painted stone structure of MG Ramachandran, the Sri Lankan-born, superstar-turned-superstar Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. A plaque at his feet reads: ‘Endrum engal irudaya deiyvam, MGR’, or, ‘Always the lord of our hearts, MGR’. I marvel at how, of all things, this statue survived. Given that earlier this year, Kumaran Pathmanathan (better known by his initials, KP), the chief international financier of the Tigers, said in an interview that a large portion of the LTTE’s money to buy ships (which would eventually carry weapons) came from MGR.

The Martyr’s Monolith, however, doesn’t disappoint. The names of the 31 martyrs have vanished behind a thick coat of paint—now triangles of yellow and red cover each of the four walls. The picture in the blog-post had an alcove on the front wall, seating within it some form of a carving. The alcove has now been covered up with cement, the patchwork further concealed by an Ajantha clock. The clock’s battery works, for it tells me the right time—10:35 pm.

Directly below the clock, stomach on the mud floor, snores a middle-aged man in a blue sarong. The man seems completely at ease except for his outstretched right hand, whose long fingers are wrapped firmly around a small, lid-free glass bottle. Wafts of stale spirit tingle my nose even as somewhere in the distance, a gang of mongrels howl awkwardly into a moonless sky.