JAFFNA: At the northern end of Sri Lanka’s epic, ruined A9 Road, the jungle suddenly disappears. The frangipani trees give way to dry, brown grass. The road then narrows to its most dramatic point: a tiny causeway surrounded by warm turquoise lagoons.
It is here, at Elephant Pass, that the last great battle of Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war was fought - one that would ultimately convince the country’s rival Tamil and Sinhalese adversaries that neither side was ever going to win.
Two years ago, the rebel Tamil Tigers launched a spectacular offensive at Elephant Pass, capturing the Sri Lankan army’s supposedly impregnable base before advancing to within a few miles of Jaffna, the city they had held in the early Nineties.
Last year government forces counter-attacked, levelling Tiger-controlled villages and towns along the road with multi-barrelled rocket launchers. The attack then ran out of steam.
The ensuing stalemate helps to explain last week’s announcement by the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, that he was now ‘seriously considering’ giving up his demand for a separate homeland for the island’s Tamils.
Prabhakaran has spent his entire career waging war against the Sri Lankan state. He has ruthlessly eliminated his enemies.
He is regarded by many as a fiendish monster - a cross between Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden. But in recent months the LTTE has found itself isolated, friendless and out of touch with the times. Britain outlawed the LTTE last year, and shut down its London office.
After September 11 the organization that wiped out the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi using a woman suicide bomber has found its tactics increasingly hard to explain. Sensing the changing mood, the LTTE signed a formal ceasefire in late February. It has agreed to hold peace talks in Thailand next month with Sri Lanka’s new government - a development welcomed by Jaffna’s weary residents.
“We are tired of war. We pray to God the peace continues,” Tamil businessman S. Sivapartha Sundaranam, who has just returned to the ravaged town of Chavakacheri, said.
“Everybody is supporting Prabhakaran. He is a good leader for Tamils,” he added.
The LTTE is now striving to reinvent itself as a mainstream political force. The organization is attracting support from some surprising sources - including moderate Tamil politicians, whom the LTTE used to assassinate with relish.
Nadarajah Raviraj, a former mayor of Jaffna, said he trusted the LTTE to come up with a political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem - even though in 1998 it murdered his two predecessors.
Last week’s decision to reopen the A9 road between Colombo and Jaffna through the LTTE’s previously forbidden northern heartland has been universally welcomed.
But there are many who doubt Prabhakaran’s sincerity - and are skeptical, after 150 suicide bombings, that his organization has really abandoned its dark, murderous and distinctly fascist ways.
The LTTE leader, who had summoned journalists to meet him at a secret location near the Tiger-controlled town of Kilonochchi, turned up in a grey shirt rather than in his usual green fatigues.
But his new image - that of a law-abiding democratic politician - was undermined by the extraordinary security surrounding the event and the young, sinister men wearing dark sunglasses who acted as his personal bodyguards.
“How can you expect us to take you seriously when you give every impression of a military dictator surrounded by goons?” one correspondent asked. It was a good question. There was no answer. Instead, it was left to Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s suave London-based chief negotiator, to dismiss inquiries about the LTTE’s record of assassination, suicide and terror as ‘in the past’.
But as the Bishop of Jaffna, the Rt Rev Dr Thomas Savandaranayagam, pointed out, the Sri Lankan government has not apologized either for its many massacres against Tamil civilians since the conflict began in 1983, after decades of discrimination against Tamils by nationalist Sinhalese politicians. “The government has not expressed remorse. How can you expect these men to show remorse?” he said.
The Sri Lankan army had killed 70,000 Tamil civilians (the LTTE admits that 17,000 of its cadres have died in action), bombed places of worship, destroyed property and displaced families, he added.
Jaffna’s old Dutch fort, remnant of Sri Lanka’s pre-British colonial past, survives but only just, its green moat presided over by a gang of unruly cormorants. The Tigers destroyed much of it in 1991 when they recaptured Jaffna, only to lose it back to the Sri Lankan army four years later.
The town feels much calmer now, but the old colonial seafront with its palm trees and tropical swirls of cumulus cloud is still enveloped in razor wire. The detritus of war is everywhere: the A9 road south runs through avenues of blackened, headless palm trees and mortar shells sunk in the sand.
Since last Monday Tamil civilians have queued at the Sri Lankan army’s new checkpoint to enter the Wanni - the LTTE-controlled north. Previously the only way to reach the Wanni was by ship - a difficult and tortuous journey taking days. Families separated by war have been reunited - the most hopeful symbol yet. “We hope that this time the peace will last,” the Bishop of Jaffna said.—Dawn/The Observer News Service.