There were no other vehicles for about a mile, it felt as though we were zipping along an American highway but instead of burger joints and service stations there were UN-Habitat houses, Australian Aid camps, army camps, special task forces outposts and police headquarters scattered equally along the long straight road.
I was on my way to Jaffna, passing through Killinochi town where a huge water tank lay on its side as a result of the civil war, and was heading for the Elephant Pass. Along the highway, for about half a mile, danger signs mark the sites of unexploded land mines which haven’t yet been cleared from the area.
Once I had reached Elephants Pass I walked up to the large war memorial which sits looking over salt pans. The water around it is bright green and the sand gleams in strong sunlight, it’s beautiful but sobering at the same time. It was along this pass that the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE had three major battles and where the Sri Lankan Government cut off Jaffna’s supplies in hope that the lack of food, petrol, oil, soap, telecommunications and much more would weaken the LTTE defence.
Almost immediately after entering Jaffna’s city I was taken to the interestingly shaped cubic Fort (originally built by Portuguese), not much is left of it after the war but what little remains is being lovingly restored with Dutch funding. Inside I found the remains of a church, prison, bell tower and a small war monument in memory of soldiers that were killed there in my lifetime. It looked as though a bulldozer had charged its way in, leaving parts of the buildings still recognisable. As I passed through the fort gates it was easy to make out the thousands of bullet holes and graffiti left on the walls; parts have been patched but what’s left leaves a lace-like pattern all through the walkway.
I also went to the library, where in the 1980s the Sinhalese government are rumoured to have burnt all the books in an attempt to hinder the education of local Tamils. When I left I spotted a man walking towards me, he had also been inside, under his low worn, washed-out red baseball cap his big eyes looked around nervously, as he continued to walk closer I smiled at him, all of a sudden he turned direction and walked away looking back over his shoulder towards me again. My driver, Brian gave me a knowing look and I realised that it wasn’t just me that thought the man was acting strange.
The following day in my attempt to dig deeper into Jaffna’s past it was recommended that I contact Dipesh a local guide and it wasn’t until halfway through a tour of the city that Dipesh announced it was him at the library, he wanted to approach me to ask if I needed a guide but had second thoughts and walked away.
Dipesh was a tall man, he looked old before his time, he had huge brown eyes with yellowed whites, he wore what was left of his hair combed over to one side and hidden underneath his cap. He had studied geography! Sri Lankan history and he had also survived a war of 30 years in his home town, he announced shortly into the tour that he had seen a gun before he had seen or used a telephone and that to listen to the radio they would wire up push bikes to make a dynamo. I could tell instantly that he was well-read, an intellectual not really a socialite.
Education has always been important in Jaffna, in fact, it is home to one of the countries best universities and during the war education is what focused the young and helped them look towards a brighter future. The problem the city now faces is that highly educated young people with top-class degrees no longer want to stay in the northern province and are tempted by better opportunities elsewhere, either in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo or further afield in Australia.
It’s rumoured that locals who fled Jaffna during the war to seek refuge in other countries are now beginning to return, but a good number of them are claiming back their land, selling it and taking their cash back home with them. The city is recovering slowly but until people are confident that the troubles are over it seems unlikely there will be any major investment in the near future, which can only add to the problem of unemployment.
Most people in this province are involved in agriculture or fishing and although you wouldn’t know it now, the hard-working farmers did well when the area was cut off from the rest world, people had no choice but to source their food locally and as a result, demand was high. These same farmers survived for many years without modern irrigation systems, pesticides or fertilisers, they invented clever ways of irrigating their land using the wells which are still dotted all around and used organic methods such as planting marigold plants near crops to deter pests.
As you move north it is obvious that fishing is the main source of income and at the recently opened, most northerly tip of Sri Lanka, I found fishing villages that suffered badly from the tsunami. It is a beautiful, lively part of Jaffna and like the rest of the north, it’s been untouched by tourism and is seeped in history. I was lucky enough to watch the huge red sunset from the end of the road with music from a nearby temple blasting through the air.
During my visit to the north I also visited Delft, a strange and intriguing little island where the pace of life is slow, the landscape reminded me of the isle of Gigha on the west coast of Scotland apart from the dry stone (or coral!) walls made from dead brain and fan coral that neatly divide the land. The little 30km island has a post office, court, prison, market area, several schools, some of which are funded by the church and international aid. To reach the island I took a cargo boat, it’s blue wooden sides had been battered from years of hard work ferrying essential supplies and passengers to and from the mainland. The journey took just over an hour, not to be sniffed at when there were no seats or shade from the blazing sunshine, it was gruelling and I had to return exactly the same way.
Whilst on the island I met with Reverend David who gave me a whistle-stop tour of the island, he showed me the baobab tree, one of only two found in Sri Lanka and the ruins of a fort, prison and hospital that had all been sadly destroyed during the war. After the short tour we stopped at the beach, the water was clear blue and waves were gentle, it felt far removed from the sophisticated beach resorts near Galle, in the south of the island, but there was no one in sight, no honking horns, no beach touts or beer to be found. To my horror I though, also saw the beginnings of a small hotel, a two or three-story monstrosity that has been promising to open this year and I realised that this little island may not stay undeveloped for long, as tourism creeps it’s way further up to the north leaving luxury hotels in its path, it will eventually hit little Delft and when it does, I can only hope that it’s charm and innocence isn’t lost along the way.
We have a number of holiday ideas and suggestions that take in Jaffna and the north, our North Sri Lanka Discovery can be perfectly tailored to your wishes and must-see places.