|Sunday, 16 March 2003|
Batticaloa... Life without war
by Rohan Canagasabey
The confrontation between the Sri Lanka Navy and an LTTE cargo ship 185 nautical miles east of Mullaitivu on 10 March resulting in the demise of the LTTE ship with eleven cadres on board, and the earlier incident last month, off Delft island, are reminders of the fragility of the ceasefire, that is nevertheless still holding at the time of writing.
The anniversary of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on February 22, was marked by celebrations in Colombo and elsewhere in the South.
As I headed towards Polonnaruwa on that evening, it was remarkable to see the darkness pierced by lamps - in response to a government suggestion - placed every few metres along the road running beside the Parakrama Samudra. In addition, worshippers thronged an illuminated Buddhist temple, perhaps also praying for a permanent peace that would bring light to everyone's life in Sri Lanka and banish the darkness of war.
In the East, however, the anniversary was marked by LTTE organised hartals, in protest at the slow pace of rehabilitating displaced Tamil civilians. Despite the hartals and LTTE imposed taxation (otherwise known as extortion) - 5 per cent on teachers and other government employees for instance - the Tamil and Muslim people are grateful for being able to enjoy life without war, not unlike enjoying a breeze of fresh air blowing away a severely polluted atmosphere.
For life during the war was very different for those in the North-East. In Batticaloa town for example, people avoided venturing out of their homes after 5 p.m., leaving streets deserted, except for the Sri Lanka Army personnel, manning critical points in the town.
If a member of a Tamil family did not return home from work or school by late afternoon, it used to leave the other family members in deep worry. With the cessation of hostilities, new possibilities to visit friends or relatives in the evening, have become an option.
Leisure activities for young adults, such as martial arts are another new possibility.In Puliantivu district, which is an island connected to the rest of Batticaloa town, is located the colonial period Dutch Fort housing the Kachcheri offices, other government departments, an Air Force and Army base, as well Batticaloa's most notable institution, St. Michael's School. During the period of hostilities, its residents had to endure shells whistling overhead, as the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE exchanged artillery fire.
Beside the Army base at one end of Puliantivu, a group of teenagers are eagerly engaged in a game of cricket in a small playground.
This would not have been possible, prior to the ceasefire. Children are now able to enjoy the normal childhood activities, including school sports events. And well after 5 p.m. and into early dusk, people gather beside the lagoon near the clock tower in Puliantivu - in sight of a manned Army bunker - and relax with snacks bought from a stall vendor, or congregate in a street nearby with their bicycles whilst exchanging small talk.
Meanwhile, fisherman venture into the lagoon surrounding Batticaloa, even as dusk draws in and the setting sun paints the sky above in hues of pink, orange and red. Not far from the Sri Lanka Air Force base on Puliantivu, a group of men are engaged in fillings sacks of harvested paddy, for loading onto an adjacent tractor.
Paddy has been harvested in most of Batticaloa district for first time in many years, despite the recent floods.
The MoU has also made it possible for the authorities to consider utilising the water from Unichchai reservoir to meet the needs of Batticaloa, as the reservoir is in an area under LTTE control, otherwise known as an uncleared area.
On Kallady beach in Batticaloa, a Catholic church is being constructed. A metal cross stands proudly in front of the walls open to the elements.
This was another area off-limits to civilians as an Army base is located nearby to guard against possible arms shipments by the LTTE. With the MoU has come the beginning of a church, which nevertheless attracts worshippers in its present form, while others use the beach as a recreation place, as elsewhere in Sri Lanka.
This writer has attempted to show that the most basic facets of life taken for granted in the South, even during time of war, notwithstanding the numerous checkpoints, cannot be enjoyed by people in Batticaloa and elsewhere in the conflict areas.
In this writer's opinion, those advocating the abrogation of the MoU, for example, due to continued LTTE child conscription, despite the LTTE leaderships avowed commitment and orders to end this practice, omit to mention that death will most likely await these child conscripts, if war was to return.
As will the death and injury of more of Sri Lanka's armed services personnel without any guarantee of victory. Shouldn't the answer be to redouble our efforts to reach a permanent peace, which by definition would see an end to any shortcomings in the MoU, as there would no longer be a need for a MoU?
Produced by Lake House