Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"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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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Indictment against Sri Lanka: Introduction & Index > Indictment against Sri Lanka - the Record Speaks

The Charge is Ethnic Cleansing

Rescuing the Library
- 20 Years Later

  • Celia W. Dugger in the New York Times, 19 August 2001

see also Destruction of Jaffna Public Library - May/June 1981

On a fateful night 20 years ago, members from the Sinhalese-dominated police force rampaged through this town's public library, one of the great repositories of the Tamil people's history and culture, and committed an act of ethnic vandalism that helped set this country on a path to civil war.

They stormed into the grand public rooms of one of South Asia's finest libraries and set 97,000 volumes ablaze.

Rare old manuscripts written on palm leaves and stored in fragrant sandalwood boxes, miniature editions of the Ramayana epic from the children's section, yellowing collections of extinct Tamil-language newspapers - all were consumed in a roaring conflagration that convinced many Tamils that the Sinhalese were out to annihilate their very identity.

"Still I feel like crying after 20 years," said Nadarajah Raviraj, now the mayor of Jaffna, who recalled staring into the flames as a college student. "It is in my memory."

Until recently, the library stood as a gutted monument to the wrongs done to the Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, by the Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhist and make up almost three-quarters of the population in this island nation south of India. Birds swooped through the vacant windows. A shrapnel-pitted statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, sat serenely on a lotus blossom in front of the library with no one to tend her.

Now, finally, the library is being rebuilt here in the Tamils' cultural capital. It is a hive of activity, with workers laying bricks and plastering over the bullet holes. But it has not become the symbol of national reconciliation that President Chandrika Kumaratunga had hoped to create, at least not yet.

In 1996, she appointed a commission to restore the building to its glory. But the renovation has taken years to get under way. Government officials say the killing of two mayors of Jaffna by Tamil rebels in 1998, as well as severe war-related disruptions of travel and shipping have caused the delays.

But many Tamils say these are excuses. Whatever the reasons, the trust the president had hoped to build among Tamils for the Sinhalese- dominated central government has curdled. In that, the tardy library project is a metaphor for the government's peace initiatives.

Everything has taken too long. The constitution that she said would give Tamils greater autonomy to rule themselves in the north and east is unrealized. Peace talks with the Tamil rebels have yet to begin. And some Tamil leaders who were with her at first have drifted away.

"All these Sinhalese majority governments have showed step-motherly treatment of Tamils," said the mayor, Mr. Raviraj, who belongs to a Tamil political party that had helped the president draft a constitution. "The Tamils are not treated equally and that is why the ethnic war is still going on."

The burning of the library on June 1, 1981, and deadly anti-Tamil riots two years later were the pivots that radicalized Tamil young people and turned a largely peaceful movement for Tamil rights into a civil war waged by separatist Tamil rebels, students of the conflict say. The war has claimed more than 62,000 lives in a nation of 19 million people.

The destruction of the library had a particular resonance. Many Tamils come from the arid, hardscrabble north, where they are in a majority and had risen to prominence in the professions and the civil service through a devotion to education. The attack on the library was seen as an assault on their aspirations.

"The terms on which the Sinhalese and Tamils accepted each other, the value system that kept us together as a country and a civilization, were broken by these two events," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, director of the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, who is herself from a family of Jaffna Tamils.

The initial destruction of the library was already part of a cycle of vengeance. The police are believed to have burned it to retaliate for the killing of two police officers, historians and scholars say. Some say it was done with the tacit acceptance of two ministers in Jaffna that night. Many Tamils believe that the ministers ordered it.

But in the years since, the library has become caught in the cross-fire of the war. It was restored in part and reopened in 1984. Sunlight again streamed into its towering windows by day, while lamps inside cast a glow on the town at night.

The periodical room echoed with the crackling sound of newspaper pages being turned. Children flocked to their cozy, carpeted section, where little monkeys jumped through the trees in a mural on the wall.

But in the spring of 1985, Tamil Tiger rebels attacked the police station near the library. The army was stationed nearby, in the Jaffna Fort.

The events that followed are still subject to debate, but one witness, Sulochana Ragunathan, a librarian, said she heard militants from one of the many separatist groups - not Tigers, she thinks - firing from near the library toward the Fort.

Mrs. Ragunathan said she phoned the army that afternoon to ask for safe passage out for the people in the library. In the conversation she found herself denying an accusation that the militants had been allowed to wage their fight from inside the library itself.

As the staff and students in the library filed out later that day, Mrs. Ragunathan said she glanced back and saw soldiers swiftly going in.

With a dull sense of foreboding, she went to her home, a couple of blocks away. That night, hours after curfew had emptied the green, she heard the percussive blasts of bombs she assumes were planted by the army in the lending room.

Thousands of books on the newly stocked shelves were shredded.

She said she believes the army did the deed, but the militants must share the blame.

"They didn't care about human life or consequences," she said. "They only thought about what they wanted. They shouldn't have used the library for their fight. Who are the losers? We the public."

The library has been empty of books and readers ever since. In the late 1980's, the stately green, with its dignified public buildings, turned into a battlefield and the library's empty shell grew ever more pocked and scarred by shrapnel and bullets.

In 1990, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam took control of the town. Five years later, the government took it back. But the Tigers still desperately want to reclaim it.

In 1998, in quick succession, they killed two mayors of Jaffna, both from a Tamil political party that favors a peaceful settlement. For the following three years, Jaffna was without a mayor. The job was too dangerous. And it is hard to get a municipal library built when no one is in charge.

Mr. Raviraj, who was deputy mayor in 1998, recalled that his mother went on a hunger strike and lay her body across his front step to keep him from going to the funeral of the second slain mayor.

He did attend the service, but he did not become mayor until this January, when he finally dropped the word acting from his title. His law practice is in Colombo, the capital, but he comes to Jaffna every month. When the town thought a contractor picked by the central government was doing a bad job on the library renovation, Mr. Raviraj yelled about it at public meetings. The contract was terminated. Now the work is being done by the town itself and local Tamil workers. Mr. Raviraj regularly stops by to check in.

One recent morning, as he conferred with building supervisors on the library roof, college students dressed in pristine white decorously played cricket in a park in front of it. The Jaffna lagoon, edged with coils of barbed wire, glistened in the distance.

And sweaty Tamil laborers - many of whose homes were destroyed in the fighting that raged just a few miles from Jaffna last year - planed the wood and heaved the cement to raise this library from the ashes for the second time, though perhaps not the last.

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