Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict

Jaffna: Tears, blood and terror

Few weeks before I went to Jaffna, Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council had visited Jaffna and captured the powerful testimony of one airline passenger saying “the only thing we can do is cry”.

After my own visit to Jaffna, I wonder whether all I, other people in the rest of the country and the world can do is cry with people of Jaffna. Or whether some even care to cry.

I remember that Jehan finished his article saying that people in Jaffna don’t want to be shut off or be forgotten. But my impression was that the government seemed to be intent on just that – shutting off people in Jaffna from rest of Sri Lanka and the world.

I had spent fair amount of my youth traveling to various countries, including “hot spots”, taking hundreds of flights – and been through some arduous visa and immigration procedures. But no procedure was as frustrating as this. I spent 8 hours to reach Jaffna – from the time I reported to the airline office and the time I was finally allowed to be free in Jaffna – the flight was actually 70 minutes. My phone and camera was confiscated in the earliest part of the journey. In what was similar to a “visa on arrival” procedure, I was photographed, and given a special pass to keep with me while I was in Jaffna. Unlike in other countries, I didn’t have to fill a form, but security forces wrote up the information I gave at the several interviews. Coming back, we had 4 bus rides, the last two of which had curtains drawn so that we can’t see the outside, pass through 5 counters in the check in area (the old Railway station) and our bags were checked several times.

The next visible sign of shutting off Jaffna is the restrictions imposed on foreign passport holders from going to Jaffna, to provide essential humanitarian assistance and protection to civilians the government is obliged to provide, but is not providing. I was expecting a good friend to join me in Jaffna the day after I went. She was born in Jaffna, speaks Tamil, but had fled Jaffna with her family due to the war and holds a US passport now. She had subsequently returned with high hopes of working for peace and reconciliation in what she considered as her country – but she couldn’t come – instead, I got a text saying she can’t come due the newly introduced long procedure to get permits to visit Jaffna. As I languished for hours at the first checkpoint approaching the Ratmalana Airport, I met a humanitarian worker who has been working in Jaffna – she had a document from the Ministry of Defense (MOD) specifying she could work in Jaffna, but military personnel were telling her she needed another permit from the MOD! She was not allowed to board the flight. While in Jaffna, I heard that this was the latest of yet another changing procedures to enter / leave Jaffna – and for now, all foreign nationals doing humanitarian and peace work in Jaffna will need to get a permit from the MOD everytime they go to Jaffna – in addition to the work permits allowing them to work in Jaffna issued by the very same MOD. In the present environment of fear that grips Jaffna, it was clear to me that foreign nationals’ presence meant a lot to civilians, and even aid workers in Jaffna. “I’m not sure whether I could go back. I worry for my staff, I had already had staff killed” said one head of an agency who was on the flight back to Colombo with me and worrying whether she would be able to go back.

But these procedures seem to pale when compared to the “Colombo visa process”, that Jaffna residents have to go through. “It took me few days to get a visa to Italy – but it took me almost a month to get a “visa to” Colombo” a passenger in the flight to Jaffna told me. He also told me he spent much more for photocopies for the “visa” or permit to come to Colombo, than for the documents for the Italian visa. I met one person who had not got his Colombo visa after 3 months and had lost hope of ever getting it!

Several friends in media also told me its difficult to go to Jaffna – at the Ratmalana airport entry point, I met a group of journalists waiting for their permit – when I left them, they were not sure whether they would get their “clearance” – even though they would be “embedded” journalists, who would travel in an air force plane.

Life in Jaffna
All around the town, I saw bombed out buildings, barbed wire and what once would have been residential houses now occupied by the military. One man I met in the plane told me his land and house had been taken over by the military in 1990, and no compensation or alternative land or housing had been provided. He has given up hoop of ever getting it back.

In terms of hearing, nothing can beat the shelling. Whether it was while I was trying to sleep, or while doing the training that took me to Jaffna, or even while playing a friendly cricket match, shelling continued.

Daily, there is a powercut at a specified time. But I also experienced unannounced powercuts, in the night as well as day time. There are mobile phone signals, but the signals are cut off regularly without advance notice – mostly, it was for around an hour or less, but on one day, there was no signal from about 9am to 4pm.

People are being reduced to starvation due huge prices and forcible restrictions on livelihoods. Eggs were being sold at Rs. 24, Rice around Rs. 200, fish around Rs. 700 and potatoes around Rs. 180 per kilo. My pen torch batteries were confiscated and not returned at the security checkpoint in Ratmalana, but pen torch batteries in the peninsular are rare and costs around Rs. 200 in Jaffna. All these, in a context where many fishermen can’t fish due to fishing restrictions of the military, many farmers land has been occupied by the military and shops close down before sunset as the town and streets gets deserted as darkness descends and curfew starts.

Insecurity of civilians
The curfew is now at 9pm (untill early November it had been 7pm) and on two days, as I went around at about 7pm, I didn’t see a single vehicle or cycle on the streets. Several friends told me that they “regretted” they can’t invite me for dinner as curfew starts at 9pm, and in any case, it would not be safe for me to visit them or vice versa after dark. The training was I was doing had to be concluded by 2.30pm, to enable participants to reach home before dark, leaving space for “convoys” that block roads for hours.

But everyone I spoke to said curfew is not for protection of civilians – but for protection of “unidentified groups” that roam the streets of Jaffna abducting and killing people. I got names of seven people who had been killed in the week I was in Jaffna. I remembered a recent report that showed that showed that almost 2 person per day disappeared or was killed in Jaffna in the first 8 months of 2007.

All this is despite the curfew, large number of armed military personnel at every few meters and severe restrictions on freedom of movement of civilians. Part of man roads, including main roads are made off limits to civilians. I saw for myself how a 12 kilometer stretch on the A18 highway between Jaffna and Palali was sealed off and civilians were left stranded for hours – to ensure security for the military convoys. I heard that this was a daily occurrence on the roads around Jaffna.

Fear was evident in all the people I spoke to. Men were scared of “unidentified” groups, including those in motor bikes without number plates, engaged in killings and abductions. They also feared harassment and torture at the hands of the security forces, who demand civilians to provide them with names of LTTE cadres. Mothers, wives and sisters fear for their men. I also heard of girls who had been raped and sexual harassment of young girls at checkpoints, including during the checking that occurs in taking a flight out of Jaffna. Everyday, people surrender themselves to the Human Rights Commission seeking security.

People I spoke to vehemently said they don’t agree with bombs such as the one in Nugegoda that targets civilians. Several told me the government is free to take on the LTTE militarily if they wanted to – but that the Colombo government and military personnel should stop this type of discrimination, harassment and attacks on civilians. I did hear from some people about abuses by the LTTE, but certainly, it was not something many spoke to me about.

Aid workers face numerous problems. At least 16 have been killed and abducted since 2006. In some cases, its clear its due to their work, but in others, it is not clear whether this was due to their their work or organizational affiliation. Even within the peninsular, aid workers need to get permits, often 48 hours in advance, to reach their project sites. On several occasions, the permission had not been forthcoming and they had been turned back. Priests face similar difficulties in reaching their flock to perform religious ceremonies.

Hoping against hope….
Given the suspicion the government, military and even the some members of the public and religious leaders treat Tamil people, particularly those coming from the North and East, as well as the discriminations, harassments and indignities forced upon them in Colombo and rest of the South, I was surprised at the warmth extended to me, a Sinhalese from the South, by Tamil people in Jaffna. I was an invitee, a guest, but even ordinary people who I never met before displayed a warmth and kindness I would not expect from a people under such stress. In the University, a group of students invited me to join them in a friendly cricket match. Unfortunately, before I could bat, the match was abandoned – not due to bad light or rain, but due to intensification of shelling and fear of terrors Jaffna nights bring to young men in particular. As in my visits before, I came away with several gifts – amongst the ones I valued most was a plaque with a peace dove breaking free from a chained cage, with a map of Sri Lanka forming the backdrop.

But the last sense of hope was given by a young soldier who saw this plaque during the course of rigorous checking at the Palaly airport “we hope peace can come and we can go back and stay in our own lands without occupying other peoples lands” was what he told me.

(Apologies for no photos – in the first place, batteries in my camera and flashlight were confiscated and never returned, and the prices of batteries are so high in Jafna, and anyways, I was told taking photos in the streets and markets in Jaffna could prove a risky business)