Long road to normality

Traffic on Sri Lanka's A9 highway reflects the increased mobility brought by peace, as hundreds of buses, cars and three-wheelers, packed to the brim, race each other along a road that cuts through the centre of the former conflict zone.

Two years after the government's declared victory over the separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) on 18 May 2009, the bustle paints a dramatically different picture from the nation paralyzed and divided by a 26-year civil war.

On a given day, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans - mostly those from the Sinhalese majority from the south - come and go in this region largely cut off for a quarter-century.

Northerners, mostly from the minority Tamil community, take the same road, which stretches for 110km through the area popularly known as the Vanni.

Seven months after the war ended in December 2009, the A9 was opened for private civilian traffic. Before that, it was closed or travel was restricted due to the conflict, which left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more fleeing in fear.

Two years on, most of the more than 300,000 who fled the last bout of fighting between mid-2007 and 2009 have resettled; however, 17,000 remain in camps, largely outside the northern town of Vavuniya.

The lifting of travel restrictions has allowed southerners to visit Jaffna, Kilinochchi and other parts, though some areas in the east of the Vanni, where the fighting was intense, remain inaccessible to civilians from the south, even Sinhalese, without special permission.

"I feel the opening of the highway is the best meeting point for these two communities kept apart for so long," Denagama Dammika, an ethnic Sinhalese from the southern district of Matara, told IRIN.

Ramanan, a young man from the minority Tamil community in Kilinochchi, the former political and de-facto LTTE capital, agreed. "We never had any close interaction with people from the south during the war. It was as if a wall had been built," he said. "The opening of the A9 has changed that."

But both say the two communities remain wary of the other. "It will take time for the mistrust of over 30 years to go away," Dammika said.

In the Northern Province, where the conflict was worst, many say life has improved, despite crippling unemployment and a devastated infrastructure: 160,000 houses were destroyed, no electricity lines were intact and the A9 was reduced to rubble.

Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
Sri Lanka's 26-year-old civil war ended in May 2009

According to the UN's latest Joint Humanitarian and Early Recovery Update, thousands of returnees will have ongoing shelter needs until permanent housing recovery projects reach them.

"There is no tension in Kilinochchi. It is the total opposite to what it was two years ago and many years before that," Ramanan said. He returned home in April 2010 after fleeing two years earlier.

Lopsided development

Rights activists, however, feel that remaining travel restrictions and heavy military surveillance have slowed a return to normality.

Ruki Fernando, the head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the Law and Society Trust, based in Colombo, told IRIN: "The government doesn't seem to realize that restrictions on travel, religious events, freedom of association and assembly that apply only to the North are abnormal in relation to rest of the country, and hinder a restoration of normality."

Dammika, who has travelled on the A9 on several occasions, also feels that post-war economic development, accelerated in other parts of the country, has been slow to take off in the North.

There have been large development projects in the Vanni since the end of the war. The A9 was repaved and electricity supply restored to at least the main towns, but private investment and jobs have been hard to come by. 

Sithamparampillai Jeyanthi, 27, from Chavakachcheri, a town south of Jaffna, has been searching for a job since she returned home in late 2009 after a decade. She said there were hardly any permanent jobs despite Jaffna's tourism boom.

"My family, we are farmers, but our fields have not been cultivated for over 10 years. Our houses are destroyed. There should be some special programme to benefit those like me," she said.

Ramanan said despite the hardships, no one in Kilinochchi would want to return to what it was two years back.

"Peace is good. But for life to become normal and for us to regain trust, it will take time."