Postwar Sri Lanka’s Awkward Peace

by Ellen Barry, 'The New York Times,; December 28, 2014

Ethnic Tamils gathered on Oct. 13 to welcome the Queen of Jaffna as it arrived at its northern terminal in Sri Lanka after being out of service for 24 years. Credit Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka — Two men were riding the train known as the Queen of Jaffna as it rattled through the haunted battlegrounds of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

One of them, Nisal Kavinda, a 20-year-old man from the Sinhalese ethnic group, was jubilant. He had wanted to ride this train since 2009, when President Mahinda Rajapaksadeclared victory over separatist rebels in the Tamil north, an event he called “the most happiest thing in our lifetime.”

As the train approached Elephant Pass, the site of three pivotal battles, Mr. Kavinda jumped down onto the platform with his camera. A burned-out rebel tank stands as a memorial to a government soldier who, famously, carried out a suicide mission by clambering up its side and throwing grenades into it. “Terrorism memories,” Mr. Kavinda said happily, as he scrambled back onto the train.

Not far away from him sat the other man, Saravananuttu Subramanian, a 78-year-old retired accountant in wire-rimmed glasses who watched the tourists from the south out of the corner of his eye.

“They want to know how their soldiers defeated Tamil separatists, put it that way,” said Mr. Subramanian, a Tamil. “That’s what it is, though they don’t say so.”

Outside the window, the roofless ruins of houses slid by, pitted and gouged and blown apart by explosions. Thousands of civilians had died there, trapped between the government and the rebels during the last, flattening assaults of the war, but there is no memorial for them. Mr. Subramanian stared out, his expression unreadable.

“The saddest thing,” he said, “is to start a war and be defeated.”

In October, after a 24-year suspension, the Queen of Jaffna resumed its regular service along the 250-mile route linking ColomboSri Lanka’s Sinhalese-dominated capital, and the Tamil north of the country. The train was blanketed in flowers and banana trees as it pulled out of Colombo Fort, celebrated as a sign that the bloody wedge between the country’s two largest ethnic groups was now gone.

Route of Yarl Devi from Jaffna to Colombo

But conversations on board the train made it clear that a psychological gulf still separates Sri Lanka’s northerners from its southerners. Visitors from the south, in many cases, are full of sincere pride about what the government has brought to the north — peace, they say, and economic development. For many Tamils in the north, though, the relief of peacetime is mixed with darker feelings of defeat and humiliation. And the restoration of train service does not ensure that these groups are speaking to each other.

“As soon as the war ended, the feedback we got in Jaffna was that buses and buses of Singhalese are going to Jaffna out of curiosity,” said Silan Kadirgamar, 80, a Tamil historian who lives in Colombo. “They came with their own cooking utensils and food, and they sat on the ground and ate. They didn’t go there to meet Tamils.”

Twenty-six years of civil war physically devoured this train, known in Tamil as the Yal Devi. Tamil rebels pulled up steel rails and wooden ties to build bunkers, and the Sri Lankan Air Force blew the roof off Jaffna’s train station. But even before that, people riding this train knew they could be attacked by militants from either side. If a bus was ambushed, the driver could brake and throw the vehicle in reverse. A train loaded with people had nowhere to go.

Mr. Kadirgamar recalled waiting at the station in Colombo one afternoon in 1977 — his wife and two sons were expected from Jaffna on the afternoon train. It was not unusual for Yal Devi to be late, but this time, when he asked about the delay, the station officers were silent. He found a telephone and called two cousins in the police force. They also refused to talk. Rushing outside, he picked up an evening paper, which reported that rioting had broken out in Jaffna.

Night fell, and in a deepening panic he managed to get a passenger list — his wife, having anticipated violence, had not boarded with the children. But Mr. Kadirgamar was standing on the platform at 11 p.m., when the 5:30 p.m. train pulled into the station. The passengers were gone, except for a handful of injured people, he said, “and there were bloodstains all over the train.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka, waves to constituents from the Queen of Jaffna.CreditEranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

“That’s the way we lived then,” he said. “We took the risk and traveled.”

Five years into the peace, a ride on the Yal Devi is stunningly normal.

Passengers line up at dawn with pillows and sleeping children, and there is the slapping sound of people in sandals running to catch the train. The landscape of Colombo’s postwar boom flies by, including one of Mr. Rajapaksa’s pet projects — the Chinese-financed “Lotus Tower,” which, at its final height of 1,150 feet, will be South Asia’s tallest structure. After that come slums, a mud-colored river and abandoned rail cars, their metal sides so corroded that sunlight shines through in patches. After that signs of human life are swallowed by the jungle.

“There are no words, that much I am happy,” said Mr. Kavinda, whose T-shirt read #SELFIE, as the train moved toward the north, a territory long closed to him. As a southerner he grew up far from the front line of the civil war, but the fear of terrorist bombings was present from his earliest memory, when his parents nervously whisked him away from school the minute class was dismissed. Visiting Jaffna was a way of proving that the fear was gone forever.

“I am not scared,” he said. “My parents are also not scared.”

A Sinhalese man eating on a train on a trip to the north of Sri Lanka in October. The Tamil-dominated north is a popular destination, but some there do not welcome the visitors. CreditEranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

A Sinhalese man eating on a train on a trip to the north of Sri Lanka in October. The Tamil-dominated north is a popular destination, but some there do not welcome the visitors. CreditEranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

Sinhalese vacationers sprawl out in the course of the journey, beating drums and singing bayila, the folk songs left behind by Portuguese settlers. The train, restored with the help of an $800 million line of credit from India, has made the journey a comfortable and safe one, just six hours on the fastest train. Government employees receive free passes for reserved seats, and many stay in hotels operated by the army, making a circuit of Buddhist temples and notable civil war sites before returning home.

The Tamil passengers are not singing. They are edgy, perhaps because the train is packed with government soldiers, returning to their posts after home leave. Officials have said that the number of government troops in the northern province has been steeply reduced, offering estimates as low as 12,000, but C. V. Vigneswaran, the province’s chief minister, said he believed that the true number was far higher, closer to 100,000. After years of counterinsurgency, many Tamils are wary of questions from strangers, lest they turn out to be informants.

“Life in Jaffna, I would not call it normal,” said Mr. Subramanian, the retired Tamil accountant, whose own days are delineated by the sound of morning and evening patrols from a nearby army camp. “Normal is a word that, I would say, doesn’t come to mind. It is not normal. But it is peaceful. People are afraid to speak their minds.”

The last miles of battleground stretch out beyond Kilinochchi. Single bullet-pocked walls stand alone, fingers of steel reinforcing bars twisting into the air. By the time the train pulls into Jaffna, which was in government hands at the end of the war, a kind of normalcy has returned to the landscape — fruit trees, verandas — and passengers stream off into a city adjusting, awkwardly, to postwar tourism.

Siva Padmanathan, 44, who offers auto-rickshaw rides from the station, said his conversations with southern customers were strange ones, even when they managed to find a common language.

“They ask me, ‘Now are things good here?’ And I tell them no,” he said. “They look at us as if we are exhibits in a museum. They think we are funny people. They think they won and we lost. Though they don’t say it directly.”

But little of that came across to Mr. Kavinda, the Sinhalese passenger, who returned south again on the Yal Devi, thoroughly elated by his tour of the north. He said he wished that the Tamils he met had spoken better Sinhala, since, as he said, “Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese country.” But he was sure they were glad to see him.

“The war is over, so they like to see Sinhalese,” he said. “When we went back to Jaffna, they were smiling, so I think they like Sinhalese.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 29, 2014, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Postwar Sri Lanka’s Awkward Peace

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