- There is every sign of the victorious military, but the LTTE remains in quiet corners
By Mick O’Reilly – Deputy Managing Editor, Gulf News
Elephant Pass: The military checkpoint here is sponsored by the Colonial Group, pipe and steel manufacturers based in Colombo. It’s a well-built structure allowing soldiers to stand guard behind sandbags, neatly felled palm tree trunks and some steel railings.
A soldier with a whistle stops traffic on the A9 allowing visitors to cross the road.
Elephant Pass, 2.5 metres above sea level, as the sign on the A9 says, is now a tourist attraction.
Brightly painted Lanka Ashok Leyland buses are parked on a gravel parking lot which is replete with corrugated steel latrines for men and women. The latrines, however, are not sponsored by the Colonial Group of Colombo.
Sixteen months ago, this stretch of highway, a vital junction between north and south, and at a vital crossroads on the Jaffna Peninsula, was the scene of a bloody battle between LTTE forces and Sri Lankan army forces.
In May, President Mahinda Rajapaksa unveiled a large monument here to commemorate that struggle. These words are carved into granite plinths at the base of the monument:
“Place where enormous strength, force, power and determination concentrated from four directions.”
It continues: “With the objective of engarlanding the reconciled persons, the valiant, heroic and valorous troops of the 57th and 58th Divisions approached diligently, courageously with might and main and without a wink of sleep from the southern direction and tranversed scrubs, impassable moats, quagmires and demolishing dreadful traps and the troops of the 53rd and 56th Divisions advanced from the Northern Direction, converged on this historical place of Elephant Pass and liberated the long path of brotherhood with a magnitude of force annihilating terrorism and social disparities on the 10th January 2009.”
It’s also repeated in Sinhalese and Tamil, just in case there’s any doubt.
For the majority of his 50 years, Bluda Awickermansanghe has lived with violence and war. A manager at a garment factory in Jaffna, Awickermansanghe is using this Friday afternoon holiday as an opportunity to visit the war memorials here and at nearby Kilinochchi and pay tribute to all who died in 37 years of civil war.
“It’s an important time for us all now in Sri Lanka,” he says, looking out over the flat landscape and joining roads from the new memorial raised 50 metres above the army checkpoint.
“We have all endured so much suffering from all sides and we have to learn to work together and rebuild Sri Lanka. It has great potential for tourism up here in Jaffna but now there is nothing — only landmines. You are the first foreigner visitor I have met in Jaffna in years,” he tells me.
He also looks at his 20-year-old daughter, Tajan.
“I never want her to have to live what we have lived through. Thankfully the government managed to defeat the LTTE and now that is behind us. We must look to the future but we must never forget the terrible war we all suffered through.”
Little Sanduni, 11, a friend’s daughter, also accompanies them on this pilgrimage. “She is our hope for the future,” Awickermansanghe says. On one side of the road, the hulk of a rusting armoured bulldozer sits on a plinth, flower garlands hanging off twisted wire and gaping blast holes. A plaque marks that a young Sri Lankan soldier was posthumously awarded with a medal of honour for stopping the LTTE bulldozer as it tried to take an army bunker. On the other side of the road, behind the army checkpoint sponsored by the Colonial Group of Colombo, a topless Prado sits on bricks, its bodywork riddled with bullet holes. This was Prabhakaran’s car, and some senior LTTE leaders were killed in it as they tried to flee the battle here at Elephant Pass.
At Kilinochchi, flattened buildings hem the A9. A 20-metre wide and 100-metre tall concrete tower lies toppled in a twisted mess of rusting rebar and rocks. A platoon of young soldiers clamber into a tractor-drawn trailer, balancing awkwardly as it fires into life and pulls away.
After 14 months of peace, there is little sign of reconstruction in this small city that was the headquarters of the LTTE for nearly 20 years.
Instead, newly constructed sandbag emplacements are located every 100 metres down the main street, soldiers and armed police patrol the shops and stalls that are hawking vegetables, coconuts and dried fish and shrimp.
Every vehicle passing north to Jaffna or south to Maankulam on the A9 are stopped, identities checked, contents searched.
The only new construction visible so far as a peace dividend for the people of Kilinochchi is another new war memorial, opened by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May. It’s a huge grey-painted concrete cube with a large crack running through it, dissected by a protruding brass shell. On top, a bronze lotus moves awkwardly in the wind. The monument is supposed to symbolise the struggle of all Sri Lankans in overcoming the LTTE terrorists. I can’t help but think that with the size of the crack running through the concrete cube, it represents an island forever divided.
Further up the A9 near Chavakachcheri, the electricity company is planning to replace the concrete pylons along the road. The original ones are long since gone, blown up, knocked down, out of commission. The company has left the new concrete poles every 20 metres by the side of the road, waiting to be erected. The poles, however, won’t be going up anytime soon, not until the land mines are gone.
All along this road, for kilometres on end, yellow tape is strung, written in Sinhalese, Tamil and English warning: MINES! More ominous red signs with skull and crossbones also warn of the landmine danger.
I watch one young soldier move back gingerly from behind the yellow tape to the cleared roadside, wrestling with a large blast-proof shield as he does so. He pulls off a mask ever so much like that worn by a welder, only more Perspex than metal. He is covered in sweat — nerves not humidity. He sits and draws out a cigarette, a nicotine break well deserved. It will be years before these paddy fields and palm groves are safe to use.
Demining programmes active on the Jaffna peninsula estimate that there are still some 25,000 antipersonnel mines to be located in this thin neck of land. Since they started demining programmes in earnest last year, the casualty rate has fallen to single digits per month. Scrap metal recycling along this A9 is a risky business — the Sri Lankan army has organised one drop-off point. Mortar shell casings are in one pile, artillery shell casings in another, a third for bits of assorted shrapnel such as spent RPG rounds and rocket parts.
For all of this landscape scarred by nearly three decades, there is every sign of the victor and none of the vanquished.
Every 150 metres along the A9, soldiers stand guard, with every village or town being home to a different battalion or detachment, welfare stores and rest stops being run by the military.
In Jaffna, a pokey and dirty bar sells beer in big bottles, cigarettes are stubbed underfoot, glasses are swirled in basins and arrack flows freely.
If you want to find LTTE fighters, this would be as good a place as any to start the hunt.
A wide-eyed off-duty police officer slurs his words; a driver hustles for fares, a jeweller smokes cigarettes too close to his yellowing fingers while a tall, quiet man with a steely stare listens a lot and says little. I explain where I’m from, make small talk about different parts of the world, and try to explain what has taken me to this place where few foreigners venture.
“The LTTE are still here?” I ask quietly, out of earshot of the now drowsy and dosing off-duty policeman.
“Yes,” the tall quiet one with the steely stare says. “We are. This is our home.”