see also Destruction of Jaffna Public Library -
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
They stormed into the grand public rooms of one of
South Asia's finest libraries and set 97,000 volumes
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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.