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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Tamilnation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Conflict Resolution - Tamil Eelam - Sri Lanka > Norwegian Peace Initiative > Third Session of Peace Talks in Oslo & Aftermath > Report on Visit to Sri Lanka - David Feith

Norwegian Peace Initiative

Report on Visit to North and East 
David Feith - 14 December 2002

I visited north and east Sri Lanka as a representative of  Australian Volunteers International between 11-22 November 2002.  The main objective of the visit was to investigate and assess the possibility of assigning Australian Volunteers to live and work in north and east Sri Lanka.  This report is intended to more broadly describe the situation in northern Sri Lanka at this transitional time.

The Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) agreed to a cessation of hostilities at the end of 2001 and signed a MOU in February 2002.  Since that time, there has been a period without war.  A permanent peace settlement has not yet been reached, but the war has stopped, and there have been several rounds of talks between the government and the LTTE, facilitated by Norway, which have proceeded well, according to all reports. Everyone we spoke to in Sri Lanka expressed the view that both sides are committed to the peace process, and that neither side will revert to warfare.  Several people expressed the view that there will be problems and difficulties, but they will be addressed politically, not militarily.

We first traveled by plane from Colombo to Jaffna.  There are now 3 different commercial domestic airlines operating flights between Colombo and Jaffna, departing from Ratmalana airport, which is an Air Force base.  There was a stop at an army checkpoint as we drove in to Ratmalana, but apart from that the procedure was straightforward, and normal.  We checked in, waited in the waiting hall, boarded the plane, and flew to Jaffna.

The plane landed at Pillaly air strip, which is surrounded by another large army camp.  We walked off the air strip to a corrugated iron shed that served as a terminal, waited for our luggage, and departed.

Jaffna peninsula

Jaffna is a peninsula of land about the size of Wilson’s promontory in Victoria.  It is flat, and surrounded by lagoons and the sea.  Traditionally and historically Jaffna has been an important center of Tamil culture and learning, and for many years it was controlled and run by the LTTE. .      

In  February 1995, during the last ceasefire, I traveled to the north of Sri Lanka, to investigate the possibility of assigning volunteers there.  I stayed for some days in Jaffna, which at that time was under the control of the LTTE.  I found a society cut off from the outside world by the war and the economic embargo imposed by the government, but great interest in having Australian volunteers to go and live and work there.  When the peace talks broke down, and war resumed in April  Australian Volunteers International had to suspend any plans of sending volunteers to the north for many years.

 Later in 1995 the Sri Lankan army carried out a major military offensive, and took control of the Jaffna peninsula.  At that time, the LTTE and 90% of the population moved out of the peninsula to the Vanni region, and later many people gradually returned.  The population of the Jaffna peninsular prior to the war was around 900,000, and is now estimated to be around 500,000.

Jaffna town now has many shops and businesses operating. The streets are clean, and the people are neat and well dressed.  In the market and shops a great range of goods is available, many items having been brought by truck from Colombo.  Most consumer items are available, and more are appearing every day – recent additions include bacon, chicken pieces and apple juice.  Since the cessation of hostilities and the signing of an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, there has been free movement of goods and people between the southern parts of Sri Lanka and Jaffna, so many more goods are available in Jaffna than were before, and many new shops and businesses are opening.  There are now commercial Internet shops from where one can access email.  A Tamil man on the plane told us he was going to open the first supermarket in Jaffna. 

There are parts of Jaffna where the destruction of the war is very obvious – in some areas all the buildings have been destroyed, and only ruined and broken walls remain of houses and office buildings. However in other parts of Jaffna there has been very little damage – in some suburbs the streets are lined with comfortable looking solid brick houses with well-established gardens, and no signs of damage.  It is similar throughout the peninsular.  We visited some areas that were totally destroyed – in the Thenmarachi / Chavakacheri area it looked like all the houses and shops had been destroyed.  This was an area directly in the line of the Sri Lankan army as it moved from the Pallaly base towards Jaffna town.  However other towns in the peninsular looked as if they had suffered no physical damage.      

Throughout the peninsular there are many army camps still in use, surrounded by fences and barbed or razor wire, and the army is still obviously present. There are army checkpoints in many places, with soldiers holding machine guns standing around, observing, and soldiers in uniform are visibly present in many places but they don’t stop or harass people as they used to.

There are many challenges facing the community in north Sri Lanka; the ones we heard discussed the most are de-mining and addressing the needs of the internally displaced people.  During the war, thousands of mines were laid – an estimated 600,000 mines in the Jaffna peninsular, and an estimated 1.5 million in the Vanni, the area of northern Sri Lanka excluding the Jaffna peninsular, which is controlled by the LTTE.  In Jaffna the Mine Action Group is working on a range of activities to deal with mines – mine education, risk assessment, de-mining and victim assistance.  There are many places that have signs up warning of mines, some areas are fenced off with mine warning signs, and there are risks of mines still remaining in unidentified places.

The issue of displaced people affects all parts of northeast Sri Lanka.    During the decades of conflict thousands of people were forced to leave their homes, and many were repeatedly forced to flee their homes.  At some times of the conflict Tamils fled to Jaffna from Colombo and other parts of the island, at other times they fled away from Jaffna to the Vanni.  Tamils in the East fled to the north, and vice versa.  Now that the ceasefire has been in place for some months some people are beginning to return home.  However because many areas are still mined, for some returning home can mean risking mine injuries.

Many international organisations are working in Jaffna, including UNDP, UNHCR, ICRC, MSF, UNICEF, GTZ,  Save the Children, FORUT, CARE International, Action Contre de Faim, HALO trust.  They are assisting local organisations to work on de-mining, return of displaced people, provision of medical services, and other areas of work.

 The Vanni, under control of the LTTE

The Vanni region has been under the control of the LTTE for many years, and in some respects it is like a separate state – to enter the Vanni region one passes through a Government check point, then a small strip of No-Man’s Land, then the LTTE checkpoint. The Vanni roughly comprises 3 districts – Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, and  is the LTTE heartland, where the LTTE leader Mr. Pirabaharan is based.  Consequently it has been severely devastated by numerous government military operations over many years.  The government also imposed an embargo on goods being moved into this area for many years, and so until recently many goods and services were not available here.

Signs of the devastation of war are widespread – in towns and villages many of the buildings are ruined shells; in the rural areas many of the coconut and Palmyra trees have lost their crowns through shelling or artillery fire, and their trunks stand as forlorn monuments to battle.  In the Vanni, as on the Jaffna peninsular, there are many signs warning of mines, and mined areas fenced off.

The legacy of the war is also seen in the number of orphans, whose parents were killed in the war, the number of people seen walking around with artificial legs, and the high level of malnutrition.

However it is clear that since the cessation of hostilities and the opening up of the A9 highway life is returning to a semblance of normality  here.  Buildings are being repaired, shops are opening up with a range of goods available, roads are being repaired, and mines are being removed.  I was advised that the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation (SMEC) had won the contract to re-build the A9 highway; and that soon phone lines would be re-connected to Kilinochchi.

 We met with various NGOs in the Vanni region, and spent time visiting areas where two NGOs in particular are working, the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) and Sewa Lanka.  TRO is a large NGO focused on the Northeast of Sri Lanka, with a range of activities; it has a de-mining unit, and is also working with internally displaced people, and vulnerable groups, particularly women, children and the disabled.  Sewa Lanka is a large NGO that works in both the south and the northeast of Sri Lanka, and is working mainly on the social mobilisation aspect of the large North East Irrigated Agricultural Project (NEIAP), funded by the World Bank.  Both these NGOs, as well as others, expressed strong interest in having Australian Volunteers come and work with them in the north of Sri Lanka.

 In Jaffna and the Vanni region we met with a range of organisations and individuals, including NGOs, international organisations, government officials, university staff, foreign volunteers, the LTTE administration and many local people.  Everyone expressed strong interest in having Australian volunteers come to work in the north of Sri Lanka.  Some of the areas identified by people we met with for people with particular skills are: English teaching, irrigation engineering, Agricultural development, vocational training in building, electronics, mechanics and other areas, fisheries processing, small business development, Information Technology, computer training, Alternative Technology, livestock development, civil engineering, project management, geology, meteorology, health services, physiotherapy.  Many Tamil organisations and individuals are working hard to plan for the future, and meetings were going on to feed information into the peace process talks and meetings with international donors.

Everyone in northeast Sri Lanka we met is hopeful that the peace process will continue, and a permanent settlement will be agreed on.  There is a degree of caution, because of the history of broken promises and failed negotiations, but everyone seems to feel that this time it looks hopeful, and both parties are genuinely committed to the peace process.

Eastern Sri Lanka

In Trincomalee life seems to be continuing pretty normally, and there are now no security checks on the road to and from town.  Unlike in the north, where the majority of the population is Tamil, in Trincomalee the population is roughly evenly divided into Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities.  Because of this there is possibly greater risk of security incidents. I was advised of a security issue that had arisen some weeks earlier which had resulted in a curfew being imposed for 3 or 4 days.

Some people said that it will be in the border regions – the areas where Tamil and Sinhalese, or Tamil and Muslim villages are next to each other – where security issues could arise.  As the thousands of internally displaced people return to their original villages there will be problems and conflicts.  Someone expressed the situation like this – if there are 2 villages in which people have been killed by people in the other villages it will be difficult for the relatives of the dead to reconcile having people from the other village returning to live next to them again.  So far the emphasis of many NGOs and other organizations has been on relief and rehabilitation - there is also a need for reconciliation work.


Almost everyone we spoke to in Sri Lanka thought that the government and the LTTE are genuinely committed to continuing the peace process through negotiations.  Most people we met are hopeful that the peace process will continue, and a permanent settlement will be agreed on.  There is a degree of caution and scepticism, but everyone seems to feel that this time it looks more positive than ever before, and both parties are genuinely committed to the peace process.  A range of factors were offered in discussions to explain this belief that the peace process will work.  One factor was the LTTE attack on the air force base next to the country’s one international airport in 2001 – this had a major impact on tourism, with a large number of tours cancelled, and a significant affect on the economy.  I was told that following this attack the business community told the government that they had to end the war – the country could no longer afford it.  Also significant is the events of September 11, and the banning of the LTTE in the US, UK, and Australia, making it more difficult for the LTTE to operate internationally.

After speaking to a large range of people my conclusion is that it is not likely that war will resume.  There are however other (less dangerous) security risks.  The risks caused by the large numbers of mines in the north will continue for some time.  De-mining is occurring, but progress is slow in relation to the overall numbers.  Many of the mined areas are fenced off and marked with signs in English, Tamil, Sinhalese and pictures; however there are possibly still other areas that are not marked.

There are enormous needs in the north and east of Sri Lanka, areas that have been devastated by decades of war.  There are material needs, technical needs and human resource needs.   Many Sri Lankan organisations are working to address these needs, but they are also looking to the international community for assistance.  Norway has made a valuable contribution to peace by acting as mediator in the peace negotiations, and it is now also up to other parts of the international community to assist in building confidence in the peace process; and in assisting in the rehabilitation and reconciliation work.


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