By Anuradha Herath
In its latest move, the government has permitted Sri Lankan nationals to travel to LTTE held areas without defence clearance, “at their own risk” of course. The new government - barely three months old - immediately after coming to office, launched numerous initiatives aimed at establishing a firm foundation for peace talks. Road barriers in Colombo and other areas have been removed, the movement of goods and civilians between Government and LTTE held areas have been greatly relaxed and the Colombo-Jaffna A9 route was reopened today.
The peace initiatives have been met with mixed views. However, the bold moves of the government have kept almost the entire population in a hush of anticipation. No doubt, these initiatives have greatly transformed the ambience in the south. But a journey across the forward defence lines to LTTE held territory revealed a similar sentiment.
It was indeed a rare sight to witness a peace march by around 1700 people. It was organised by the Association of Relatives of Servicemen Missing in Action. The 20 buses approached the forward defence line at Pirmananaalankulam (roughly 340km from Colombo).
The LTTE checkpoint was visible just about 100 yards away from the last Sri Lanka Army checkpoint. Travelling over to the LTTE held area through the no man’s zone, manned by two ICRC officials, one could see and feel the transformation. The tarred roads, vehicles, uniforms and even the guns pretty much disappeared. As we left army personnel clad in uniforms and arms, young LTTE men in civilian clothing with only walkie-talkies met us.
Ten miles from the first LTTE checkpoint is Madhu, famous for the Roman Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Madhu. Unlike the closest town of Vavuniya, in Madhu the biggest roadside shops were no more than shabby thatched huts. While the buses were being checked at the main LTTE checkpoint in Madhu, my friend and I decided to grab a snack. I had a queen cake, more or less a cupcake, for Rs. 10 and a toffee for Rs. 1.25 while my friend smoked a cigarette for Rs. 11 (January 20, 2002).
Tamil Eelam patriotic songs were being played over loud speakers, whether this was the norm or just a welcome for the group of Sinhala visitors was uncertain. Afterwards, the predominantly Sinhala group from southern Sri Lanka marched through the camps of displaced people accompanied by queried stares.
A diamond in the rough, the church stood beautifully painted in light blue with a green lawn immediately surrounding it. The surroundings no longer showed any traces of an attack, but anguish was evident from the eyes of displaced people in the surrounding camps. Children from the camp ran about and flocked the cameramen and video crew. Photogenic is the first impression one got as the children pose for the cameras. But a deeper look revealed that the excitement was merely innocent curiosity for never-before-seen gadgetry. As my friend pointed out, “Being camera shy requires knowing what you are being shy of.”
Meanwhile, under a large tree three inconspicuous young men stood idly. Clad in casual clothing and vigilant as ever, they scanned the crowds.
The journey from Madhu to Mallavi, on a route of approximately 70 kilometres, took seven hours. The road was nothing more than dirt tracks full of craters from previous shelling. People were vomiting rather than sleeping or relaxing during the journey. The night travel gave us little clue as to how we reached our destination. Only the headlights and the moonlight gave any indication of the surroundings we were travelling through. The vast darkness disclosed the night sky in all its splendour.
The first signs of real commercial activity upon entering the LTTE controlled areas were in Mallavi. The vans stopped near the local “filling station” – no more than a small hut with cola bottles filled with diesel and kerosene. The handful of mostly Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge cars and motorcycles ran on a mixture of kerosene and coconut oil. Novelty at its best.
On January 15th of this year the government relaxed the movement of various items that were previously banned. All people we spoke to in Madhu and Mallavi welcomed the relaxation but yearned for permanent peace and stability.
A 65 year old radio repairman in Madhu said he was happy with the relaxation of goods and civilian movement and he strongly believed a third party should be involved in peace talks.
Entering the premises of the LTTE’s Political Headquarters in Mallavi was a momentary flashback. It consisted of a conference hall and a guesthouse surrounded by a breathtaking rose garden. Entering the area cordoned off with tin sheets was the irony. Immediately outside the premises were the rugged faces of people facing everyday hardships.
A mother of seven who had been displaced from Jaffna and now living in Mallavi said her husband had lost a leg in a landmine explosion and was unable to obtain a prosthetic limb because they were banned. She also expressed her yearning to return to Jaffna, but said she would do so only if the LTTE came to power.
A young man in Mallavi said that what they wanted was peace. He said regardless of the restriction of goods, they got what they want. All they desire is for peace to return.
At the Head Office of the Political Section of the LTTE in Kilinochchi S.P Tamilselvan, LTTE’s political wing leader spoke at the press conference, marking the release of ten prisoners of war; he expressed satisfaction at the measures taken by the government. Speaking with the assistance of an interpreter he said, “We are at a crucial stage when, after years of war, the new Government has taken positive measures towards establishing peace. We are satisfied with the embargo being lifted. We are most of all happy with the Sinhala community which cast their vote for peace.”
Considering the history of attempted peace talks between previous governments and the LTTE, the southern population remains somewhat sceptical about the LTTE’s seriousness this time around.
However, Tamilselvan expressed optimism. “The LTTE would not set any pre-conditions for peace talks and would not make demands; that would be in anyway thought of as unfair towards the Sinhala community,” he said.
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