Return to Jaffna
In November 1983, a few months after a civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, Rajan Eswaran* locked up his house and moved to Canada with his family. Little did he know at the time that it would be thirty years before the war would end and he could come back home.
True that in those thirty years his home had been shelled into an irreparable condition, but there were still people living in Jaffna he hadn’t seen in decades, friends who had aged, school-going nieces and nephews who now had their own families, many others he knew who had gotten left behind and were just about rebuilding their lives. There were also matters of property and finance to be settled. But what drew him back to his city most of all was nostalgia.
How things must have changed, Rajan wondered. Would he recognize the old streets on which he rode his bicycle to school every day? The marketplace the British had built—was it still as lively as the mustard yellow paint on the shop walls? Did young men and women still hide out at the old fort, away from their families’ prying eyes to continue secret love affairs?
In June 2013, Rajan Eswaran landed in Colombo with his wife, prepared for grim disappointment. After their jet lag had worn off, they took the night bus to Jaffna. They got off along with everyone else at the army checkpoint before the recently reopened ‘Highway of Blood’, where their luggage was examined and questions were asked. The remainder of the journey Rajan stayed awake in apprehension.
Day was just breaking when the bus entered the Jaffna depot. As a few shops started to open and the early risers took to the streets, Rajan struggled to believe his eyes.
“I’ve never seen streets so perfect in all of Sri Lanka,” he told me one day at our boarding house on the outskirts of Jaffna town. Rajan and his wife were the only people I could really converse with at the board which doubled up as the office of the local welfare organization I was volunteering for as a teacher. Years of living in Canada had rendered the Eswarans’ English fluent, and in the city clothes and mannerisms we were used to wearing, the three of us stood out as a little too alien.
The power had gone out yet again, and the only way to not agonize over the stifling June heat was to swap engaging life stories. Rajan said he was excited to see the modern infrastructure in Jaffna. Four-star hotels had opened, old houses had been beautifully revamped; there was even an air-conditioned Food City downtown. This was all well and good. “But where the hell are the signs of war?” he asked, incredulous but happy.
* name changed
Searching Jaffna for the Signs of War
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.