Jaffna: Waiting in hope (Sri Lanka)
On the streets in Jaffna Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard every 10 metres while army convoys pass by at high speed with headlamps flashing even during daytime, as part of their intensified security measures after nearly two months of claymore mine and grenade attacks that rocked the city.
After 9 p.m. the streets are deserted, in marked contrast to three months back, before the Presidential election when the streets were busy even upto midnight. Public and private sector bus services terminate before 8 p.m. now while three months back they operated as late as 10 p.m.
Such is the uneasy calm prevailing in the northern peninsula, ahead of peace talks between the government and the Tamil Tigers. For civilians who have been used to more than 20 years of turbulence these are trying times. The most glaring example of the situation was when the leader of the EPDP Douglas Devananda, had to come on Thursday in an army APV ( Armour Protected Vehicle) to the District Secretariat to hand in the party's nominations for upcoming local council elections. In general heavy security was thrown around the District Secretariat.
More than 400 soldiers and policemen backed by two more APV's provided security to the minister who was making his first visit to the north since being appointed a minister.
Expectations among the civilian population about the renewed peace talks scheduled in Geneva on Wednesday and Thursday are high. They know that on top of the agenda of these talks will be the prevailing security situation, and the strengthening of the ceasefire agreement which marks its fourth year on February 22.
Residents in Jaffna have been keenly following developments in the peace process, the subject of which was the main focus of the Jaffna-based newspapers. "We have no alternative but to hope that the peace talks will continue, otherwise our lives will be seriously affected as the security situation will depend on its outcome," says Edmund Rex, the President of St Anthony's Fisheries Co-operative society that operates from Kolumbuthurai close to Jaffna town.
He said that already fishermen were experiencing restrictions with fishing limited to only one hour a day and their earnings dropping to less than Rs. 200 per diem.
"If the peace talks do not materialize it will be difficult for us to continue fishing. Most fishermen in this area carryout what is known as trap fishing where they need to tie the nets to the shore. Due to the prevailing restrictions this is not possible in some areas," Mr. Rex said.
The Navy has placed restrictions on fishing because of Sea Tigers using fishing vessels as suicide boats to ram patrol craft and to smuggle weapons.
As the civilian population pins its hope on the peace process, some others are not taking chances. They are handing over their property and belongings to churches, hurriedly disposing of their cars and houses and leaving to Colombo or trying to travel abroad as uncertainty prevails.
"Already some people have approached me and told me to keep their belongings in the church or are trying to sell their cars and valuables before leaving Jaffna," a Catholic priest in Jaffna said. Some 5,000 families have already left the peninsula to the Wanni or Colombo while some 100 families have left to India.
Academics and traders are sceptical about the outcome of the peace talks expecting the Tamil rebels to intensify its pressure on the government to fully implement the existing ceasefire agreement.
" Both sides are talking only because the international community wants them to. There is no sincerity on both sides ," laments one of them. The immediate past President of the Chamber of Commerce in Jaffna, S.Jeyaratnam says that already some of the Banks have limited credit facilities, while some of them have put on hold their investment plans.
He said most of the restrictions have been placed after business plummeted following the incidents of violence during the past two months. "Most are waiting to see what the outcome of the peace talks would be. Some have put their business plans on hold until something positive comes from the talks," he said.
The sensitive issue of the army's withdrawal from the High Security Zones which will enable civilians to return to their original homes and cultivate their lands is expected to be raised by the rebels at the talks. The army is saying a firm 'no' to any withdrawal because of the vulnerability of their garrisons if the high security zone is dismantled.
Within the peninsula, the issue of the army occupying houses and lands of civilians has been one of the subjects simmering ahead of the peace talks. Humanitarian organisations have been overwhelmed by civilian complaints.
"The issue is having a huge impact on the lives of the people here. Some of them are even finding it difficult to give their daughters in marriage as they are not in a position to sell their lands or resettle in their original homes," a spokesman for a humanitarian agency said.
But, the other side of this problem is whether the military could trust the LTTE and shrink their defence lines. "It is about 10 years since we liberated most parts of the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE and it may be a risk to withdraw from some of the areas," says an army officer who cannot be quoted due to strict regulations from the Ministry of Defence in Colombo.
However, the officer concedes that any reduction of the extent of the High Security Zones would eventually be a political decision. For the soldier on the ground manning the sentry points in Jaffna, the outcome of the first round of peace talks next week would be crucial as the security situation is likely to be tied up with it.
Many of the soldiers doubt the LTTE's genuineness in taking the peace process forward. They cite as examples several previous attempts at peace talks. The recent spate of grenade attacks on them together with claymore mine attacks on troop convoys only add to their doubts.
Another senior army officer said that the 40,000 troops stationed in the north - almost a half of the regular force - are watching the peace talks with apprehension.
Both, the government and the LTTE are renewing the peace negotiations after a lapse of nearly three years amidst hopes and skepticism of civilians and soldiers. They say they will be keenly following the happenings in Geneva via the media.
In the LTTE controlled Wanni too civilians who have witnessed the benefits of the cease-fire during the past four years want the peace talks in Geneva to be a success. But unlike the residents in Jaffna they have limited information about the peace process.
Many of them are beneficiaries of local and international non-governmental organisations aid and believe that they will continue to enjoy the benefits only if the peace process continues.
Peace essential for development
Speaking to The Sunday Times Jaffna Government Agent K.Ganesh said successful peace talks were the key to development activities in Jaffna.
He said development activities had slowed down significantly in the past two months due to the violence.
Mr. Ganesh said everybody was hoping for a positive outcome from the peace talks to be held in Geneva, although some families had left the peninsula due to the unsettled climate. Emphasizing the need to find a solution he said the government was spending over Rs. 33 million a month to provide dry rations to over 41,000 displaced families.
Von: 19.2. Sibernews Media