Sri Lanka: ambitious plan to rebuild 'ground zero' in war with Tamil Tigers

After 26 years of civil war, Sri Lanka has an ambitious $1 billion plan to revive the city of Jaffna, long isolated by the rebel Tamil Tigers.

A man rides a bicycle through Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, once the scene of battles between separatist Tamils and Sri Lanka's most ethnic Sinhalese Army.

In chartered buses and private cars, Sri Lankans pour into this war-ravaged city, finally rejoined to the rest of the country.

Some are ethnic Tamils coming home to see relatives after decades living elsewhere. Others are Sinhalese tourists from the south, curious to see a long-denied corner of their island.

Jaffna served as ground zero in Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, which ended last May with the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The city remains run-down, hollowed out by war, occupation, and isolation.

But nine months of peace has opened up road links, pared down the number of military checkpoints, and ended a nighttime curfew in Jaffna. Ambitious postwar plans call for the rebuilding of its cratered downtown, though it will take more than money to undo the damage of a bitter, ethnic-based conflict over land and power.

"It will take many, many years," says S K Sirtrampalam, a retired historian at the University of Jaffna.

In 1995, the LTTE ceded control of the city and its hinterland to Sri Lankan troops, who carved out giant military bases and used Tamil paramilitaries to police a cowed population. In 2000, the separatist group tried and failed to retake Jaffna but held onto Elephant Pass, a choke point into the peninsula.

For much of the war, Jaffna was a place apart from the rest of Sri Lanka. The LTTE severed road access, forcing goods and people to travel by air or sea. While under government control, it was off limits to outsiders. Residents needed advance permission from authorities to leave.

The tourists are back

Now Jaffna has rejoined the country. Domestic tourism has picked up as Sri Lankans come to gawk at war wreckage and pray at the temples. Jaffna now attracts about 2,000 tourists a day, the mayor recently told a foreign visitor.

Night markets are busy, with hawkers laying out goods on plastic sheets by the road. A long-neglected Buddhist temple is raising money to build a monastery. Many hotels are full, and owners are scrambling to add rooms. The library, rebuilt after being torched by an anti-Tamil mob in 1981, is a draw for visitors. Residents say the dismantling of checkpoints means less tension in their daily commute.

But it's still uncertain whether the city will emerge as a symbol of post-war renaissance or an icon of festering civil war tensions.

Most of the tourists are Sinhalese, the dominant ethnic group, and they readily accept the official narrative of a liberated city that is earmarked for success under government rule. "There was a war, so we couldn't come here. It's developing fast. If we come back after three months, it will be like Kandy," says Charith Udagedara, a university student, comparing Jaffna to the southern city where he is from.

Sri Lanka plans to spend $1 billion a year to rebuild the north, focusing on the construction and rebuilding of hospitals, schools, government buildings, roads, and electrical grids, according to central bank governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal. The World Bank also recently approved $110 million in loans for projects in the northeast.

Revival is hostage to politics

The revival of Jaffna hinges, however, like so much else here, on politics. President Mahinda Rajapaksa's landslide victory left a bitter taste in Jaffna. Voters here largely stayed away from the polls or voted for the challenger, former Army chief Sarath Fonseka, who has since been arrested on charges of conspiring against the president. Many minority Tamils fear that the government has a Sinhalese agenda that will further marginalize them.

Douglas Dev­­a­n­­anda, min­ister of social services and the leader of Jaffna's largest political party, warns that the president's poor showing in Jaffna will mean fewer local demands will be met. "If I had got more [votes] in the election, I could have convinced the president" to make concessions, he says in an interview at his office, a converted movie theater packed with armed guards.

For many Tamils, a pressing concern is the resettlement of about 70,000 refugees who were displaced in the final stages of the war and have returned to Jaffna in recent months. Many are still unable to reclaim their houses because they lie inside buffer zones around military installations.

Read why the well-being of refugees is central to Sri Lanka's future.

Jaffna's shriveled population poses another challenge, as it may slow growth and will reduce representation in Parliament when the electoral map is redrawn, probably next year.

In 1981, the last year that a census was taken, the city and its eponymous district had nearly 900,000 residents. Its population is roughly half that now, as Tamil residents have fled to countries such as India, Canada, and Britain, or elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil diaspora, once an ample source of funding for the LTTE, is unlikely now to contribute to rebuilding Jaffna because it would mean partnering with a government they loathe.

In the recesses of a half-finished house, a Tamil fisherman sits with his family and shows a photo of his son in a school uniform. The man, who gave only his nickname, Pottayah, hasn't seen his son since the LTTE marched him off to fight.

After escaping the war zone last April, then spending six months in a government camp, Pottayah and his wife and five other children were bused back to Jaffna. But their home sits inside what is now a military zone. In December, Mr. Devananda told families from his village they could return in four months, though the pledge may be less certain after the election.

For now, the family is squatting in an abandoned house made of exposed cinder blocks. Pottayah longs for his life at sea, hauling fish from the rich waters around Jaffna.

"I need to be near the shore to feel that I'm home. It doesn't smell right here, I can't smell the sea," he says.

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