The civil war in Sri Lanka may be over, but you can buy a land mine on the side of the road in Jaffna though they're more likely to explode in your mouth than anywhere else. In the main city on Sri Lanka's northernmost peninsula, besieged by 2½ decades of bloody sectarian violence until last May, the spicy samosa sold by street vendors throughout the city is still known by its nom de guerre: midi-vedi, the Tamil word for land mine.
The name was first used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, in the early 1990s when they were in control of Jaffna. The moniker has stuck, and the delicacy is a hit among the tens of thousands of visitors who have begun to stream into the peninsula since it opened to public traffic in January. Most of the tourists are from the majority Sinhala community living in the south of the island, curious to visit a place that has been cut off from most of the nation for nearly 25 years.
The Tigers, on the other hand, are nowhere in sight. The separatist group waged a long and violent fight demanding an independent homeland for the country's minority Tamils who call Jaffna their cultural and political home. The war, which cost the country more than 70,000 lives, came to an end last year, when the Tigers were destroyed by the Sri Lankan forces. The final deadly blow was delivered on May 18, 2009, on a narrow beach stretch on the northeastern Mulaithivu coast, when the top Tiger leadership, including its once elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed by the army.
The reopening of the old A9 highway the only road connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island has quickly helped the Tamil and Sinhala communities, largely kept apart by years of war, come together. "During the war, the A9 was closed and people felt isolated," says the Rev. Thomas Soundranayagam, the Catholic bishop of Jaffna who has lived here since 1992.
Now, after years of isolation, Jaffna is changing with each new visitor. The thousands of tired travelers from the south, some of whom camp out within the bombed-out shell of what was once the magnificent Jaffna railway station, are just the outward manifestation. Prices of goods have come down drastically. During the height of the conflict's last phase, all supplies were brought in by ship, increasing the prices and causing shortages. The opening of the road and easing of restrictions on activities like fishing around the peninsula could generate vital income. "The fishermen can go out to sea whenever they want. Because fertilizer and other agriculture material are freely available, farming has also picked up. The Jaffna producer can now tap the southern market," the bishop says.
For most domestic tourists, visiting Jaffna is like entering another dimension. Along the way, they stare at the giant water tank toppled onto its side in Kilinochchi, once the Tigers' political nerve center. Military officers stationed nearby explain that the Tigers for reasons known only to them placed explosives around the base of the tower and set them off before retreating. The more adventurous walk into the empty shell, where names have been scribbled on the inner walls.
A little farther north, crowds gather at the southern end of Elephantpass, the narrow causeway that connects the peninsula with the rest of the island, to see another legendary relic of the war, a bulldozer with armor plating and gaping holes caused by explosions. In 1991, the Tigers launched a massive attack on the army base here, using the improvised bulldozer to ram the army fortifications and breach them. They almost succeeded, but the vehicle was stopped in its tracks by the Sri Lankan soldier Hasalaka Gamini, who climbed onto it and lobbed a grenade inside. He was shot dead soon afterward.
On the opposite side of the road, two more odd-looking armored vehicles are parked like props from a low-budget war flick that the film crew didn't bother to remove. They were used by top Tiger officials when they moved close to the front lines. It's difficult to say whether anyone survived the last journeys of the two vehicles; they are riddled with bullet marks. "I just can't believe I am here. It is so unreal," Thurairajah Sudaharan, a 20-year-old from central Sri Lanka, says while walking through the partly destroyed ramparts of the 350-year-old Jaffna fort. It, too, was a victim of the war.
For 60-year-old Senna Pakiavathy, life in Jaffna now seems too good to be true. She was born in central Sri Lanka but moved to the north in the 1980s, when ethnic tension grew between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Her wrinkled face is a tale of what she has endured in the past 30 years. One of her sons, recruited to fight for the Tigers when he was 17, was killed in battle. Another son lost his leg in battle, and a third, who she says was also taken forcibly by the Tigers, was injured too. Her family fled for their lives from Puliyankulam, a village that lies on the A9, in early 2009, when fighting became too intense. She returned a year later to find that her house was a pile of bricks. "What to do? We have to survive somehow," she says, looking at her new home of mud and sticks. Her husband has begun farming again, and the family runs a small tea shop on the side of the A9. "My dream now is to have a permanent house before I die," she says.
The U.N. estimates that more than 160,000 houses were either damaged or destroyed in the north during the final phase of the war, between 2006 and 2009. Reconstruction has yet to begin. It will likely start after the April 8 general election, when there is a more stable government in power with a five-year mandate. President Mahinda Rajapaksa staved off a challenge by his former army commander Sarath Fonseka in the January presidential election and is expected to lead his UPFA coalition to victory as well. But there is hardly any election fever in Jaffna, except for the occasional campaign vehicle and posters of candidates. Soundranayagam says the city is beginning to enjoy the calm after nearly 30 years of nonstop fighting. "Then there was the sound of the booming artillery, the aircrafts, the shells. The only silence was the silence of the curfew. Now the guns have fallen silent," he says. It is a quiet that residents and tourists alike can rejoice in and should hope to continue indefinitely.