IN THE LAIR OF THE TAMIL TIGERS
Dhiren Bhagat crossed no-man's-land to talk to
the guerrillas of Sri Lanka. He found evidence that Rajiv Gandhi's peace proposals lack support
THE most important thing one must real- ise about the Jaffna Peninsula is that it is divided in a very real way. Some of it — notably Vadamarachchi, which was 'liber- ated' in May — is held by the Sri Lankan armed forces: the best part of it is held by the Tamil Tigers. Between the two hold- ings lies a no-man's-land full of destruction and coconuts. Crossing over between Kankesanturai and Tellipallai, my hands held over my head, I stumbled onto the rotting head of a dog. Even the vultures had preferred to stay away. The new nation — Eelam — was to have been declared on 1 January this year but the Tigers never got around to it. Even so it is not quite Sri Lanka that one steps into when one crosses the barbed wire barri- cades which the soldiers in khakhi man.
You cannot bomb civilians from the air and then claim they are your own, that you have merely been restoring 'the civil admi- nistration'. You cannot bomb temples and churches, shell hospitals and dispensaries and then hope for a 'political solution'. Lalith Athulathmudali, • the Oxford- educated minister for national security in Colombo talks of the 'campaign for hearts and minds and stomachs'. It is clear he has not been across the lines to Tiger-held Jaffna.
When one talks of the bombing and strafing of civilian targets by the Sri Lank- an air force it is only fair to record that there is reason to believe that the Tigers take shelter behind such targets, perhaps even provoke the air force to attack. It is difficult to fight clean when fighting guer- rillas.
Take the recent case of the strafing and burning of the temple at Varani. On 14 July just before dusk a Sri Lankan air force helicopter passed above the temple, circled once then circled again strafing the temple, whose thatched roof immediately caught fire. In Jaffna I met a Red Cross official who had been at Varani overseeing the distribution of rations when the attack occurred. He confirmed hearing two loud blasts which he presumed to have been rockets fired from the helicopter.
Two miles away, from across the lagoon that separates Tennemarachchi from Vada- marachchi, Tiger territory from forces territory, Brigadier Jerry Silva too watched the incident, He claims that the Tigers fired on the chopper. The two loud blasts, he said to me, were mortars fired by the Tigers. (At other places in Vadamarachchi Brigadier Silva showed me temples where the Tigers had built defences and dug elaborate trenches.) But even if Silva is correct, need the helicopter have circled a second time? Could it not have flown away, especially since the Varani temple was a recognised `sanctuary', a place refugees from Vada- marachchi had been urged to take shelter in through announcements on Jaffna Radio? There were nearly 2,000 men, women and children living in the temple complex when it was burnt down. Miracu- lously, there were no casualties, but the people of Varani are unlikely to forgive this assault. IN A back number of the Saturday Review, a weekly run by the last Sinhalese left in Jaffna, I read a poem called 'Dooms- day'.
There is a sense of doom and gloom in Jaffna.
The boys are there on sentry duty.
The army is there itching to come out- . . . No petrol, no diesels, no kerosene but the bicycles are there.
The Jaffna people are a hardy lot hard to match in their fortitude.
In the wake of death and disaster they somehow carry on gala weddings and festivals.
Kanjeepuram sarees, gold Thali-Kodies, the bright pottus and what not . . .
Not poetry that reverberates, but its bland record says something of the irony of living in Jaffna. At Gnanam's hotel where I stayed — the only other guests were the Red Cross people — you can still get Foster's lager and elaborate Chinese meals built around Jaffna shrimps. ('We cater to all needs' reads the chalked, notice 'order your bits with your liquire') The beer like the Cokes and Fantas — still comes in from Colombo through a lorry service run by enterprising Muslims which has to negotiate the various sentry points Tamil and Sinhalese — near Elephants Pass. The Tigers don't drink Cokes — it is part of their rejection of Colombo — but the rest of Jaffna does not share their qualms. It is just the higher price that puts them off.
can be misleading, though. Before the six Indian Red Cross officials got in on 25 June, Jaffna, I am told, was like a town hit by plague. Today, confidence restored, carefully preserved Austin Somersets and Morris Minors make gracious progress down the roads. (Unlike Colombo there are no flash Japanese cars here.) But that's also because the shortage of petrol has eased. (Petrol in May used to cost more than Rs 200 (£5) a gallon: now it is a mere Rs 74, only Rs 14 more than Colombo.) After the aerial bombing began in May the cinemas in Jaffna closed down but colourful posters regularly advertise films like The Stud which can be viewed on 57-inch video screens every day at 10:30, 2.00 and 5.30. But the signs, too, deceive. I did not go to see Joan Collins perform but locals who did tell me coyly that Tiger censorship regulations will not permit 'the hot bits'. On Victoria Road the signboard outside the G.S. Ladies' Academy announces that the establishment instructs young ladies in flower-making, dressmak- ing, even 'cake icing'. It is only when you go inside and get a whiff of ether that you discover the academy has been converted into an emergency dispensary by Dr V. Selvaratnam. There are branches of the Bank of Ceylon and they are even open some of the time, but you cannot draw cash even if you hold an account. The banks will not keep money, so customers have to cash cheques at grocery stores which charge a four per cent commission for the service.
More than anything else, it is the charts on the medical superintendent's walls at the Jaffna teaching hospital that tell you how keen the people have been to leave their homes in recent months. (The hospit- al has been shelled by the Sri Lanka army on several occasions and the government in Colombo has even ordered its closure: Dr Nachchinarkininian has just defied orders and kept it open.)
Admissions Outpatient attendance Inpatient days Condoms issued JAN 3,776 21,242 28,932 470 FEB 3,331 19,756 24,687 530 MAR 3,382 18,121 25,403 350 APR 2,526 17,530 15,115 380 MAY 1,719 9,898 8,624 210
The hospital is some 600 yards from Jaffna Fort where the Sri Lankan army is garri- soned. (Helicopters fly in with supplies for the troops who are otherwise isolated.) Beyond the hospital, there are no Austin Somersets, no people at all. On my first day in Jaffna, an innocent abroad, I ventured beyond, along the empty bunkers on Vembaddy Road. In the background 300 yards away one could hear the rat-a-tat of sniping but it all seemed somehow remote. A greying man in his forties cycled up and offered to show me around. We walked past Lockwood House, the Methodist pastor's bungalow. The walls had been knocked down, replaced by sandbags. Behind them, the luxurious overgrowth of an unmanageable tropical garden concealed the deserted building. 'Five months ago the boys used this as their forward position,' my guide explained. 'Now they've moved ahead to the Hotel Ashok.'
We walked up to the clocktower where barbed-wire barricades divide Jaffna town from Jaffna Fort. As I greedily picked up shell fragments as souvenirs a sentry from the Tiger outpost at the Hotel Ashok began waving frantically. He tried explain- ing that we were in the direct line of fire but it was not much good as I did not understand Tamil.
There were some 20 dishevelled Tigers in Sarongs camping in the shelled hotel. Few wore shirts but each wore around his neck an amulet containing a capsule of potassium cyanide. Till the fighting began the Ashok had been the smartest hotel in town: the billboard at Palaly airforce air- port advertising its old luxury had acquired a new meaning: 'Capture the peninsula's magic from Hotel Ashok.'
The sentries at the hotel were not keen on my going ahead and taking pictures. My friend — who was in the process of persuading me to move into his home at a cheaper tariff than Gnanam's — began negotiating with them in Tamil. All of a sudden they agreed. We scurried across to the cricket ground of the Jaffna training college and took shelter from stray sniping under the scoreboard. Later we crouched along the frontline to the Jaffna public library where I merrily clicked away.
The next day I mentioned this escapade to a senior Tiger, Yogi. Sometime later, he asked me casually: 'Who was that man with you?' I told him. 'We are very angry with him,' Yogi said. 'It appears in trying to impress you he told our sentries a lie. He said Rahim had given you permission to visit the frontline. We don't allow journal- ists there as it is heavily mined.'
That night I felt a terrible guilt and wondered what would happen to Sivanesan. I did not go to stay with him.
Eventually I did meet one man who had been taken in for questioning by the Tigers. His story is an interesting one but I fear I cannot tell it, as it would immediate- ly identify him and the consequences would not be pleasant. He is no friend of the Tigers but he did admit that some of them — especially those in senior positions like Kittu and Rahim — were reasonable men. When they had taken him away for questioning his family and friends auto- matically assumed that he would be shot but eventually the Tigers released him after he had convinced them of his essen- tial innocence.
Then there is the case of the proprietor of Kunam Video Club, a small video- cassette rental outfit across the road from my hotel. The day after I got into Jaffna the owner was visited by a group of Tigers who wished to examine some of his casset- tes. An adult film called Inter Movement did not stand up to their scrutiny: its 'hot' bits had not been properly excised by the proprietor. He was asked to burn the cassette. He, in turn, asked an employee to do this.
The Tigers were not amused. They now required him to stand on the street and ignite the cassette himself, just by his shop. After this humiliation the video club re- mained closed for the rest of my stay in Jaffna.
Both these men resent the army for what it is doing to the Jaffna Peninsula but equally they have no faith in the Tigers. From them I heard the new refrain: 'We wantrIndia to annex the Jaffna peninsula.' I told them it was impossible, even fantastic- al but they were adamant that it was the only hope they had of living in decency and security.
These men are in a minority but the idea of Jaffna as the 26th state of the Indian union has been gaining ground ever since the Indian Red Cross officials came here a month ago to distribute food. It is not a new idea but even as recently as 1976 a merger of Jaffna with India was decisively rejected by the Tamils of the peninsula. That year Ambala Vanar fought the Kank- esanthurai constituency by-election against the Tamil leader Chelvanaikam on precise- ly this platform and polled some 200-odd votes in all.
Most of the people in the peninsula, however, seem to back the Tigers and think the LITE are the only ones who are going to protect them, though they are apt to concede that the Tigers will be unable effectively to resist the Sri Lankan army should it attempt to take Jaffna. Their only hope in that eventuality lies with the Indian Army. I said I had gained the impression that India would not allow Colombo to storm Jaffna. Most of my friends did not believe me though they wished they could. The morning I was to leave Jaffna the academics at the university were planning to address a seminar on President Jayewar- dene's 19 December proposals. The discus- sion had been convened by the commerce students union but Professor Sivatamby, a well-known Tamil literary figure tried to suggest to me that the Tigers were 'really behind the seminar'. He was excited by the prospect. 'It means the boys want a settle- ment.'
I met Yogi for breakfast. He, too, was planning to attend the seminar. He is a member of the political committee of the L 1-11.. Did this mean that the Tigers were interested in the 19 December proposals?
Of course not, he smirked. 'The only reason I am attending is to find out how they feel.' He was referring to the academics, the older, more moderate men of Jaffna who are no longer in control.
How did he feel about a settlement? He was frank: 'We are guerrillas. We have asked for a separate state. We cannot now ask for less. Maybe we are prepared to settle for less but we cannot go on record as saying that. That is our problem. If we give in the Sri Lankans will ditch the agreement and leave us looking like fools. We will lose the respect of the people.'
Later that day, after the seminar, Yogi met Hardeep Puri, the Indian first secret- ary who had flown into Palaly and crossed the 'border' to discuss the latest peace proposals with the Tigers. Later that week Yogi accompanied Prabhakaran, the sup- reme commander of the Tigers to Delhi where they hammered out the proposals with Rajiv Gandhi. The Tigers accepted the proposals with reluctance. But the division in Jaffna is far too real to be rubbed away with an accord.