The road out of this peninsula has been closed since August 2006, making the area near inaccessible.
Today, although food and fuel manage to arrive, the town market shuts by afternoon and shopkeepers are reluctant to keep stocks, not knowing when they might have to close up and run. By 7pm, barely sundown, stray dogs have the run of the streets of Jaffna. People are indoors, doors locked, well before an 8 o’clock curfew, which is the most liberal in 10 months. Sri Lankan soldiers linger at the edges of the alleys. All is still.
This is Jaffna, the picturesque prize of the quarter-century-long Sri Lankan ethnic war, girding for a new storm.
The army commander for the area, General G.A. Chandrasiri, said he expected a major battle for Jaffna before the August monsoon. A 2002 cease-fire, which ended the bloodshed for a time, has collapsed. For a year, fighting has spread across the island between the Sri Lankan military, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and the separatist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
According to the Sri Lankan defence ministry, more than 4,800 people, civilians and fighters, have been killed in the past 18 months. Although the number is not entirely reliable, it points to a significantly lethal epoch in this ugly war.
Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the Sri Lankan defence secretary, said the military was under instructions to eliminate the rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and to eradicate his organization once and for all. “That’s our main aim, to destroy the leadership,” Rajapakse had said in an interview last month. The job, he went on, would take two to three years.
Peace talks are nowhere on the horizon. Pressure from abroad—including suspension of aid from countries such as Britain and the US—has done little to temper Sri Lankan military ambitions. The Tamil Tigers, banned in many countries, including the US, upped the ante this spring by conducting air raids using modified two-seater propeller planes. The weapons of war are now dirtier than ever. Assassinations and land mine attacks in crowded civilian areas are common. The Tamil Tigers regularly deploy suicide bombers.
Journalists, diplomats and aid workers face hostile scrutiny for any criticism of the security forces. On a Sunday morning in April, a young reporter for a Tamil-language newspaper in Jaffna was shot dead as he rode his bicycle to work. In May, fliers appeared at Jaffna University, containing a hit list of alleged rebel sympathizers. At least 15,000 people are waiting to get on government ships to the relative safety of Colombo, the capital city. Those who remain dare say little. “Anytime, anything can happen,” offered Ravindran Ramanathan, a tailor. “People are afraid of everything,” he said.
Jaffna is no stranger to war. Its temples and churches bear the pockmarks of battles past. Its people are familiar with running and dying. No other place is so scarred because no other place carries Jaffna’s special curse: It is the heart of the homeland that the Tamil Tigers have fought to carve out, and the trophy that soldiers and rebels have fought over all these years.
Lately, a new fear stalks Jaffna, and it is more ominous than anything its people recall from their grim past: A spate of mysterious abductions usually carried out during curfew, when soldiers and stray dogs rule the streets. No one is quite sure who is being taken, for what reason, by whom. Sometimes, corpses turn up on the street. More often, they do not turn up at all.
One night in May, well into the curfew, C. Kuharajan’s son, Kanan, 18, was watching television on the floor of his parents’ bedroom when four armed men pushed open the front door of their house and demanded that Kanan come with them for questioning. His captors refused to identify themselves—“none of your business”, Kanan’s father recalled them saying—or to explain where they were taking him and why.
That was on 4 May. Kanan, a high school senior, has not been heard from since. According to his family, Kanan had been active in a high school group affiliated to the students union at Jaffna University, which security forces describe as a den of anti-government activity.
“That’s the terrible thing,” Kuharajan said, “snatching children from parents’ hands.”
The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission says it has received 805 complaints of abductions in Jaffna from December 2005 to April 2007. The army said it was aware of 230 abductions.
Occasionally, someone survives to tell of the horror. In January, Arunagirinathan Niruparaj, a university student, was plucked from his village, taken to what he later identified as a series of military camps and interrogated about his rebel links. He said his captors hung him upside down from the ceiling and beat him. They covered his head with a plastic bag soaked in petrol. They rammed a stick into his anus. After seven days, they left him on the side of a railway track. By then, his kidney had failed, one of his ears was damaged and he could not keep down any food. In April, Niruparaj, 26, fled to Chennai, in southern India. He said he has no links with the rebels. No one has been arrested for his kidnapping.
General Chandrasiri first blamed the abductions on pro-government Tamil paramilitary groups who, as he put it, try to “eliminate” Tamil Tiger operatives. He later acknowledged that some in the security forces could be complicit. But most of those abducted, he claimed, were not innocent civilians, but known Tamil Tiger operatives.
Reports of abductions have been criticized even by Sri Lankan allies such as Richard Boucher, a US assistant secretary of state who met Chandrasiri on a visit here in May. In the weeks after Boucher’s visit, reports of abductions fell.
Not far from the general’s office, another kind of uncertainty hovers over a Roman Catholic church, now home to refugees from Allaipiddy, a fishing village west of the town. The United Nations (UN) estimates that there are roughly 300,000 people displaced across Sri Lanka. Some families taking refuge at this church have fled their homes as many as four times since the war began. The last time was in August, after rebels and soldiers clashed in Allaipiddy.
The families here somehow carry on. The men cannot fish any more because the coast is occupied by soldiers. Food aid has not come for weeks. Women have sold their gold bangles for rice. Or they have gone without eating, saving what little there is for their children.
An emergency assessment by the UN has found signs of more child malnutrition in Jaffna. The government has blocked the study’s release.?
(Kavitha Kumar in Bangalore contributed to this story.)