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Travails of a journey to Jaffna September 30, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

It was nearly two years after my last visit to Jaffna. On that occasion, in December 2007, the war was over in the east, and the Sri Lankan military was battling it out in the north. Late in the night we could still hear the thunder of artillery firing in the distance. There were hardly any visitors to Jaffna. The tension in the air was palpable and the people melted from the streets by 5 pm. On this occasion when I visited Jaffna the war had been over more than four months. The streets had people on them well past 9 pm and the tension was much less with the sound of thunder being only caused by lightning.

However, some important things remained unchanged. The road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country, the A9 Highway, remained closed to people who wished to travel to Jaffna from outside, unless a special permit was obtained from the Ministry of Defence. There is still only a limited bus transportation service. But that is only open to passengers from Jaffna. If they purchase a two-way ticket from Jaffna, they can also return by bus from Colombo. Strangely enough is not possible to purchase a bus ticket from Colombo to go to Jaffna.

It seems that no one, except for those who drew up this scheme of travel, will know the rationale for the restriction on the flow of passenger traffic by road to Jaffna. The freedom of movement throughout the country is a basic right of the citizen. But the residents of Jaffna, and those in the welfare camps for the internally displaced, remain as a large and conspicuous exception. They feel and they are marginalized and excluded, cut off from the mainstream of economic, social and political life of Sri Lanka.

For many years Jaffna residents have described themselves as being confined to an open air prison. They are free to move about within Jaffna, subject to checkpoints that dot the peninsula. But they are not free to travel out of the peninsula. Any resident of Jaffna who wishes to leave the peninsula for whatever reason, be it to visit relatives, see tourist sites in other parts of the country or for medical emergencies, has to obtain an exit permit from the military authorities. Obtaining this permit requires certification from the Grama Niladari, the local military commander and so on, until it goes higher up the chain of military command. Needless to say the power to give exit permits is a source of patronage that anyone who wields such authority would be loath to give up.

One of my purposes in traveling to Jaffna was to find out how life there had changed with the end of the war. The first encounters, however, were not favourable ones. I had to travel by air, as travel by road was not possible without a special permit from the Ministry of Defence. I hoped that travel by air to Jaffna would be an improvement over what it had been two years ago during the time of war. To my disappointment and discomfort there was no difference, the hardships were just the same.

Along with all other passengers, I was asked to report at 3.30 am at the airline office in Wellawatte to be taken from there by special bus to the airport at Ratmalana to catch the 7 am flight. It appears that no exceptions are made, so that passengers who come from beyond Ratmalana also have to come to Wellawatte to catch the bus. At those wee hours of the morning in the airline office, a single clerk painstakingly took down by hand, the identity card and ticket details of all passengers and also took away their mobile phones and cameras which he sealed in individual plastic bags.

It was close to 5 am when the bus finally left the airline office with its plastic chairs. The environment was closer to that of a welfare camp for displaced persons than to a multi million rupee business enterprise. Before reaching the airport, the passengers had to disembark at a shed-like place and show their tickets and identity cards to military personnel. They too painstakingly took down all these details by hand. This was done again at the airport itself after we had boarded a second bus. It was told to us that we had to go through this procedure twice at the airport because both the army and air force shared responsibilities for the security of the airport, and we had to give our details to both.

These procedures were no different from what I had experienced two years ago. The fact that the war had ended seemed to have made no difference to the security precautions being taken, if this could be called that. The only improvement that could be observed was the X-Ray screening of baggage rather than the hand search that took place in the past.  Going from one phase of the process of boarding the airplane to another took a long time each step of the way. The waste of time seemed to be not of consequence. When the flight took off it was past 7.30 am.

This was almost like a flight to an international destination, though in much less comfortable circumstances. Usually internal flights require just one hour or less for the check in. Here it was at least three hours. The cost of the flight was around Rs 20,000 for a return ticket, which is more than some of the return tickets to Indian destinations. The comparison to an international flight was also made more real by what happened on disembarkation at the Jaffna airport.

Upon disembarking in Jaffna, all passengers had to go through a screening process, that was no less time consuming than the one in Colombo. Passengers had to be registered again, on two separate occasions which included the taking of a photograph, before being issued an entry permit that was valid for a month. Passengers also had to board two different buses within the airport, to get us through the different checkpoints, before finally boarding a third bus that took us to Jaffna city. When we finally arrived in Jaffna city it was past 10.30 am, a full seven hours after reporting time for a flight that took less than one hour of flying time.

In a manner that was similar to the physical travails of travel to Jaffna, the outer appearances in Jaffna were also unfavourable. There was the appearance of a run down town with ramshackle roads and the fearful scars of past battles in the form of massive physical destruction of buildings. There were also welfare camps for those who had been displaced by the war, with new camps and old camps, some 64 in all, on the side of the roads and in the interior. There was also a strong military presence, with soldiers present at almost every main junction.

On the positive side, conditions also have improved. There has been a reduction in the level of tension, and people feel more secure about their safety. The last time I went to Jaffna people showed me where someone had been shot and another had been abducted. That was a time of great tension when half a dozen or more such incidents could occur in a day. This had all stopped. With the opening of the A9 Highway to the transport of goods, the prices had fallen and Jaffna farmers and fishers had more opportunity to sell their produce. But this is still not normalcy. The opening of the A9 Highway to passenger traffic and the removal of the exit and entry permit system to Jaffna is a necessary first step to the restoration of normalcy, and to truly re-uniting the north with the south.


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