It had been a week since I had started teaching at a few schools around town. Some of my friends suggested that teaching in Jaffna was a potentially foolhardy choice, and according to the warnings of my overcautious parents, it held great risks for a lone outsider, especially one from India. But I had travelled extensively in Sri Lanka before, fallen in love with the island country, and the Northern Province was the only part that remained to be seen, a part I knew was essential to my understanding of the country’s politics and history.
Tensions between India and its island neighbour had been brewing ever since the Sri Lankan army went on the offensive and defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in one of the bloodiest battles of the century. The Sri Lankan Tamils, notoriously alienated by the country’s Sinhalese majority, had often looked to their Indian brethren for refuge and succour.
But the government had come under international scrutiny for allegedly turning a blind eye to and perhaps even allowing war crimes against the LTTE and the people in the north and east. So for various diplomatic reasons, the Sri Lankan government had been trying to diminish the Tamils’ contact with the people of southern India. Flights between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu had long been cancelled and army bases were conspicuous at Point Pedro and the island of Mannar, from where the Indian shores were very close.
Despite these factual accounts, some of which my parents wielded at me as a deterrent, Jaffna town seemed stable and calm. The crime rate had indeed gone up and inflation was high, but the people seemed to be more than back on their feet. The traces of war had mostly been removed from the public eye. Only the railway station was still defunct and some rubble lay around the old Portuguese fort, which for some years had been the LTTE’s stronghold. But when asked, most people couldn’t tell for sure whether the damage was from the war or the 2004 tsunami. Now if you went for a stroll along the tranquil walkways of the fort and looked down to the sea speckled with boats and fishermen going about their business, it would be almost impossible to picture, in spite of standing behind the city’s defensive walls, a war raging here for almost three decades and well into the twenty first century.
This is the second post of a four-part series on Jaffna. Read the third post here.