The ghosts of war still haunt Jaffna. It is almost seven years since Sri Lanka’s brutal 30-year civil war was brought to a particularly brutal and bloody conclusion. Somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the last months of the conflict, as the Sri Lankan army penned the remnants of the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), the Tamil insurgent army, together with tens of thousands of civilians into a tiny pocket of land in the north-east of the country, and indiscriminately shelled fighter and civilian. Thousands more died in the wave of death squad murders that followed the Tigers’ defeat, as much of the Tamil population was herded into internment camps.
I was in Jaffna to speak at the Galle Literary Festival. The Festival began in Galle, in the south of the island, and has over the past ten years become an important and influential part of Sri Lanka’s cultural life. This year the Festival expanded out from Galle to Kandy in the Hill Country and to Jaffna in the Tamil North.
Over the past seven years much has been reconstructed in the north of the island. The railway line from Colombo has been rebuilt, as has the A9, the main route to Jaffna from the south, which had by the end of the war become little more than a series of shell craters. Many of the shattered buildings have been rebuilt.
Yet, some thirty thousands Tamils still live in camps, denied the right to return to their villages. Thousands more have disappeared, almost certainly dead. Throughout the north can be seen the shattered buildings and bullet-marked walls.
And then there are the war memorials, less commemorations of war and loss than seeming celebrations of Tamil humiliation. In Kilinochchi, 100 kilometers south of Jaffna, on the A9, once a stronghold of the Tigers, and the location of a one of the battles at the end of war, there is a war memorial depicting a missile bursting through a wall. According to the accompanying plaque, ‘This monument… was erected in memory of the magnificent victory achieved by the 57 Division with Task Force 2 and 3 of the Sri Lankan Army ably supported by the rest of the security forces to annihilate the savage and brutal terrorism which has terrified this land for thirty years.’ The bullet bursting through the wall is ‘symbolizing the sturdiness of the Sri Lankan army to blossom forth in a lotus of peace enwrapped in the fluttering national flag.’ The savage army attack is described as a ‘humanitarian operation’.
There is in Jaffna, and throughout the north, deep ambiguity and often open hostility towards the Tigers – they carried out brutal acts and often turned on their own. But no one, not even those most hostile to the Tigers, would begin to describe the brutality of the Sri Lankan Army as a ‘humanitarian operation’ or imagine that this was ‘liberation’. (To give a sense of the mood in the North, it is worth noting that the Tamil National Alliance, a moderate alliance of Tamil nationalist groups, took 80 per cent of the vote and 30 of the 38 seats in the 2013 provincial elections in the Northern Province.) The Kilinochchi memorial is a bit like the British government building a monument in the centre of Derry to commemorate ‘the magnificent victory of the Ist Battalion Parachute Regiment over the terrorists of Ireland’ and to celebrate ‘the humanitarian operation of Bloody Sunday’.
Arriving in Jaffna, after spending time in Galle and Colombo, I was struck by how much less open, more suspicious was the city, the unavoidable consequence of a savage war and its aftermath. (Friends tell me that two, three years ago, the sense of suspicion and paranoia was far greater.) It will inevitably take time for Jaffna to return to normal life, not just on the surface, but deep down, too.
Yet, beyond the ghosts of war, there is also a haunting beauty to Jaffna. The landscape here is different, as is the quality of light. This is especially true to the northwest of the city where a string of islands stretch out towards India. Causeways connect Jaffna to the nearest islands, and beyond that, boats to outlying ones. The sea is very shallow, and the causeways seem almost to skim over the water. The result is a quite extraordinary light, fragile and ethereal. Especially early in the morning, with the sun low on the horizon and the sea mist still to lift, there is an otherwordly quality to it. It is one of the most beautiful, almost meditative, landscapes on the island.
The first set of photos here were taken around 7 o’clock in the morning on the causeways, as fishermen went out in their boats or checked their nets. The later photos were in the fiercer glow of the afternoon.