Human Rights, Human Security, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Jaffna: Retrospect and Prospect

Most of what I reveal below has been lying concealed in my notes and diaries deposited in the Government Achieves. I have decided to focus on them out of my belief that they may throw some light as we grope through the darkness covering our arduous trek towards national reconciliation. Read between the lines with insight, they may perhaps point the way to peace and prosperity.

I started my career in the then Ceylon Civil Service in 1957 as a Cadet in the Jaffna Kachcheri. My thoughts of Jaffna are nostalgic, prompted by the happy life I led among a hospitable, and peace-loving people, nurtured in the best traditions of a noble culture. I always looked forward to returning the ample help and courtesy I received from them in whatever little way I could.

The opportunity came my way unexpectedly, soon after the “Riviresa Operation”. I was suddenly summoned to Temple Trees to see the President immediately. The Lady told me that the Government had a problem in running the civil administration in Jaffna as all the public servants there had left with the population to the Vanni, following the retreating LTTE cadres. A couple of retired army officers were holding the fort and there were no takers to take over the administration.

Trying to allay my presumed apprehensions, the Lady explained that I could run the set up from Colombo and visit Jaffna occasionally. Could I think of the offer and let her know my response soon. I told the President there was no need to think. I was prepared to go immediately. The situation demanded an immediate and hands-on response. I left for Jaffna by the next available plane telling my family I was going to Polonnaruva, for they would not have allowed me to go if I told them the truth.

On arrival, I was shocked and dismayed to see Jaffna turned into a ghost town. It was not the warm and vibrant environment I cherished as a Cadet. The streets were deserted; only a few stray dogs were seen here and there. Visible humanity was limited to members of the armed forces dangerously exposing themselves to unimaginable risks. Nor was I sure that I would reach my destination as I travelled from the Airport.

Old and disabled members of certain families had been left behind. White flags marked the houses in which they lived. Retired army officers were dutifully looking after them. The only government institution functioning was the General Hospital, once the pride of the district, now reduced to a temporary ward attended to by a couple of septuagenarian retired Apothecaries.

I was in Jaffna when “Riviresa II” commenced and the influx started from the Vanni. Over 250,000 persons marched back to Jaffna in a continuous procession of men, women and animals. They were walking for miles and miles, destitute and exhausted. There could have been persons of high achievement among them. Calamity is no respecter of persons. It was a pitiable sight, a people reduced to nomads and refugees in their own land!

I have also stood by in agitated silence when bodies of men in the prime of their youth were brought back from the battlefield to Palaly. I have travelled in planes transporting soldiers with amputated legs holding up their saline bottles in their own hands. It is my direct personal experience of human suffering like this that has prompted me to look at our ethnic conflict beyond the dividing fence.

My first task was to feed the returning hungry masses. In this I was ably assisted by the ex-army officers who maintained a round the clock kitchen at Wembadi. While the returnees rested, the army checked their homesteads for land mines and owners of cleared lands were transported to their homes.

But life had not yet started in Jaffna. Vegetables were hard to come by; an egg sold at twenty five rupees, a tablet of Panedol cost ten rupees. There were no onions in Jaffna! Schools were deserted. The University was closed.

The G.A. had returned with the masses along with his men and I helped him to re-establish the administrative machinery. All this time I was operating from the Army barracks where officers looked after me right royally. But I realized that I had to move with the people if my services were to be effective and meaningful.

I took up residence in an abandoned house in town. There was apprehension that my shift of residence was fraught with danger. Nevertheless I did not face the slightest interruption when I toured the district by day and slept the night in my room with all windows open.

Arrangements were made to get down seed onions from the South by plane. Day old chicks were similarly transported and distributed. All teachers’ transfers out of the district were stopped without exception. Returning doctors were supplemented by Internees from the South. The district was slowly but steadily limping back to normalcy. In the next season Jaffna was sending onions to the South and selling eggs cheaper than in Colombo.

Encouraged by the resurgence, Ministers tried to capitalize on the situation by coming on inspection to the North, until such visits ended abruptly with a suicidal explosion. The only person I had got down from Colombo to help me, a retired SSP lost his life in the attack. He had forgotten my advice that our mission was to grant relief to our siblings in distress, not to get involved in politics.

In retrospect, I see that my survival in Jaffna owed much to the apolitical policy I followed. Once a reporter from Udayan asked me what my own response was to the ongoing conflict. I replied, “I have not come to choose a king for the Tamils. My mission is to see that the king would have living subjects when he finally arrived after the conflict is resolved”.

Convinced by my commitment to the cause and my honesty of purpose the GAs stood by me through thick and thin. They became so close to me that they insisted on my staying with them whenever I was on circuit in their districts. Later I discovered regretfully that one of them had been secretly sharing the store-room with his family, having placed the only comfortable bedroom in the ancient building at my disposal. Other officers who attended my regular Progress Control meetings and accompanied me on circuit developed strong personal attachments to me. Their tireless application to their assignments significantly stepped up the rate of recovery.

Citizens who were able to get through to Colombo made it a point to visit my Colombo office though they had no particular business there. They told my Secretary that they had come to see ‘Nambada Aal’, – ‘Our Man’. Such identification was presumably the natural result of my own genuine sympathy for their lot.

My sights were equally focused on the citizens on the other side of the divide. They were where they were by accident of birth and could not be held responsible for the actions of those who were in power over them. Presumed to be subjects of a unitary State, they were entitled to all the rights and privileges of those across the bunker line. I realized that the discriminatory treatment meted out to them had made them aliens in the country of their birth, even without a unilateral declaration of independence!

For example, their rice ration was brought all the way from Colombo by contractors who were making mints of money on the deal. In the meantime, rice produced in the Vanni had no market. I put an end to this discriminatory anomaly and got the cooperatives in the Vanni to buy and distribute rice locally. Though this step was vehemently resisted by vested interests, it granted relief to the impoverished farmers of the Vanni while conserving State funds.

This decision had been highly appreciated in the Vanni. UN officials who had unrestricted access to the area got wind of the changing climate arising from my attitude and approach to the conflict. In their anxiety to settle the ethnic dispute, they saw in it, an opportunity to bring about rapport between parties to the conflict.

The officials were exited about the emerging possibility and negotiated with the late Thamil Chelvam for a meeting with me in the Vanni, thus far closed to all Sinhala visitors. But Prabhakaran was understandably cautious. He had presumed that I was a political stooge appointed by the President.

Nevertheless I believed that trust in my credentials would grow as I continued to execute my assignment, winning hearts and minds. But that was not to be. I was suddenly called to the South to meet a crisis that had arisen on the collapse of the grandiose plans of the SDA. I still feel confident that placed in a strategic position, I would be able to narrow the gap between the warring parties through negotiation and consensus.

Somapala Gunadheera