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The Besieged Fort of Jaffna

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In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna’s must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort

The Portuguese ruled Jaffna until 1658, when the Dutch sailed into town and took over. De Nederlanders expanded the fort and, after a century and half of dominance in northern Sri Lanka, ceded control to the British in 1795. Years after the tumultuous colonial years, the fort was the scene of major battles during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The LTTE controlled it until 1995, when a 50-day siege by the army finally uprooted them. Walking around the fort today, it’s immediately obvious how incredible the fight must have been. Almost everything is in ruins.

We were far from alone during our visit to the fort, which has apparently become a popular spot for a Saturday stroll. I’m unsure, though, whether the people visiting were from Jaffna or further afield. Now that the war is over, the peninsula has become a hot tourist zone for Sri Lankans, who hadn’t been able to visit the northern section of their country for decades. Perhaps even more than the fort itself, Jürgen and I were big attractions among the visiting families, asked to pose for picture after picture. It was a surreal, humorous touch to what had been a rather sobering day out.

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March 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (2)

The Modern Ruins of Jaffna Town

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We’ve never visited a city with a vibe like Jaffna’s. The only town of any appreciable size in the whole of northern Sri Lanka, Jaffna is the vibrant de facto capital of the country’s Tamil population. But it’s also a tragic showpiece for the horrors of modern war. A walk through the streets of modern Jaffna offers both a heartbreaking look at the darkness of humanity, and an inspiring example of our stubborn perseverance.

Jaffna Blog

Life in Jaffna is centered around the bus station, which is where we arrived with broken bums and twisted spinal columns after the journey from Anuradhapura. The first thing we noticed on stepping out of the bus was… nothing. No touts. Nobody directing us to “their friend’s” guesthouse. No tuk-tuks clamoring for our business. Nobody asking “what is your country?” There were people all over, but they were leaving us alone. Jaffna doesn’t get that many tourists and, apparently, hasn’t yet learned that there’s money to be made by harassing us. Immediate plus points.

During the ten days we’d spend in Jaffna, we were often downtown. There aren’t a lot of specific sights, but the city is fascinating all by itself. We’d walk along the Kasturiya Road, where hundreds of vendors sell gold and jewelry, or Main Street which is home to cavernous Catholic churches and colonial mansions. We’d visit the stately public library, which looks more like a courthouse, and find fishing boats coming to shore down Beach Road. Everyone, everywhere, smiled and waved at us. This was a lively town, with happy people going cheerfully about their lives!

Along those same streets though, in another mood or light, you could reach a very different conclusion. In the city center, half the stores are shuttered up or destroyed. Down Main Street, every other house was in ruins, only the barest foundations having survived whatever bomb or fire had wrought the devastation. The library, once one of the largest in Asia, has only recently re-opened after having been burnt to the ground by malicious policemen in the 80s. Streets are pockmarked with potholes. A lot of people are missing limbs. Eyes. There’s an excessive number of hospitals and funeral parlors. The ravages of war are everywhere; unmistakable, and impossible to avert your eyes from.

Between the dead ruins and the living city, you can easily imagine how beautiful Jaffna must once have been. I would love to hop in a Delorean, and travel back to see it during its prime, before the war. But perhaps I should just remain patient — hostilities just ended, after all, and I have a feeling that it won’t be long before Jaffna recovers.

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March 27, 2012 at 11:47 am Comments (2)

The Sri Lankan Civil War

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Between 1983 and 2009, a brutal civil war threatened to tear Sri Lanka apart at the seams. Waged primarily between the island’s Sinhalese majority government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives. The war only came to an end when the army killed the LTTE’s charismatic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, after a bloody campaign in the north.

As might be imagined, tensions are still high on the island. It will take decades for the wounds of war to heal and, even if peace proves sustainable, there will always be scars. Just look at the USA, where the ghosts of our Civil War remain discernible. For now, though, it’s enough for most Sri Lankans that the guns have been laid to the side.

Civil War in Sri Lanka

Although no one is eager to discuss the war with us, and we’re careful to never bring it up, not a day goes by when it’s not referenced in some oblique way. “You like Sri Lanka?” someone will ask us. “Is very peaceful, yes? Now is peace”. Or, we’ll pass another heavily-guarded checkpoint. Or see some awful relic of the war, such as a sign warning about landmines, or a makeshift museum dedicated to a particularly brutal bomb blast. There’s no escaping the legacy of the war, and on any trip to Sri Lanka, its presence will be (and should be) ever-present.

We’re not going to wade into the murky waters of the war’s origins. Suffice to say that there have always been tensions between the island’s different ethnic groups. The feelings of distrust were mostly held in check when the island was administered by the British, but came to the fore in the years following independence. The war officially began after a 1983 pogrom, known as Black July, during which Sinhalese mobs killed thousands of Tamil civilians. The pogrom itself was in retaliation for a deadly ambush by the Tigers, which was in retaliation for something else — and so on, and so on; the blame game could (and does) go back centuries.

The main goal of the LTTE was an independent state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, in the north and east of Sri Lanka. A guerrilla organization, the LTTE’s fighting techniques included suicide bomb attacks, often in heavily populated or religiously significant places, like Colombo’s Fort or Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth. Government responses were brutal and indiscriminate, and the attacks by both sides only encouraged more ruthlessness and anger in the other.

The war was a tragedy for Sri Lankans of all stripes, and during our time here, we’ve found it hard to believe that such a conflict was even possible. The Sri Lankans we’ve met — Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Rich, Poor — have been almost entirely wonderful, happy and friendly people. We can only hope that the peace, though fragile as ever, endures. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country whose diverse population only enriches it, and it deserves better.

We all do.

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March 26, 2012 at 11:02 am Comments (2)
The Besieged Fort of Jaffna In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna's must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.
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