( A morning scene in Jaffna town. Pic by Indika Handuwela)
JAFFNA: The thundering roar of a MiG-27 engine on training sorties over the skies of this peninsula revived memories of the brutal three-decade-long separatist war.
Hindu Primary school students in the town area panicked. A teacher asked them to lie flat on the ground in the mistaken belief that an air raid was imminent. Some screaming and others trembling did just that. Still fresh in their minds were the days when Air Force raids on Tiger guerrilla hideouts saw them being goaded into underground bunkers, amidst deafening explosions. Once more they were being forced to re-live that trauma. Elsewhere, farmers in their fields or those on different chores in the town and outskirts looked confused. That included cyclists and motorists who stopped on the roads to stare at the skies.
The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) spokesperson, Group Captain Chandima Alwis, said a routine training exercise with the Navy was under way on Tuesday and Thursday. He confirmed Russian built MiG-27 ground attack aircraft were deployed for this purpose. That they chose the skies over Jaffna, perhaps unwittingly, was to say the least, a grossly insensitive move. More so, when this northern city has almost shed the scars of the wounds caused by the separatist war. Gone are the buildings with pockmarks, the result of intense gunfire. What were once the offices or bases of Tiger guerrillas are no more. Multi-storeyed buildings or shops have come up in their place. Hotels are springing up in many areas and tourists, particularly large groups of budget travellers, are frequenting the smaller restaurants, some with air conditioned rooms on offer.
They seem content with string hoppers, thosai and sambar. Fishing and farming, two of the main occupations, have increased. Military presence is rare. Even the police presence is symbolised mostly by traffic officers at every intersection. Yet, indiscipline among motorists, particularly motorcyclists, is rampant. This grew when the Tiger guerrillas dominated the ground. Hardly a day passes when motorcyclists demonstrate their daredevilry by darting in to the centre of a highway from a byroad.
The face of Jaffna has changed rapidly from a war-torn city to one which is fast developing. Almost all banks in Colombo have established their branches. Finance and Leasing companies are doing brisk business. Private sector companies are engaging in a flourishing trade of electronic items and consumer goods. Factory off runs of branded clothes are a heavy draw. Such speedy developments have also brought in its wake some social evils. Liquor sales have boomed. It is not the licensed outlets, which stock more brands than in Colombo and the rustic bars that serve mostly coconut and Palmyra arrack or bottled toddy that are drawing crowds. At restaurants in the newly sprung hotels, locals sit around a table drinking Johnny Walker Double Black Label Scotch whisky — a sign that speaks of normalcy after the war and the resultant prosperity. That is one better than their counterparts in Colombo who are still fans of the exquisite Johnny Walker Black Label. A more frightening aspect is the rise in the consumption of drugs and their easy availability.
G.K. Perera, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG – Jaffna), said the situation has been made worse by the widespread use of a variety of cannabis called Kerala Ganja. It is being smuggled into Sri Lanka from South India. The DIG said Jaffna has become a hub in the distribution of this drug. The latest detection this week, he said, was at the Pannai causeway the road across the lagoon that links the peninsula to the Mandaitivu Island. The police found 25 kilograms with a street value of Rs 4.5 million. He said the ganja is smuggled by Indian fishermen and handed over to Sri Lankan operators in mid sea. Four persons were arrested over the recent detection. It turned out that one of them was a Sri Lankan living in France and holding dual citizenship. This was proof that there is a lot of money in this illegal trade. “Last year, one single detection amounted to 180 kilograms,” DIG Perera said. It was detected off the coast of Point Pedro. He said the alcohol consumption in the north too was high. Youth spend their earnings to consume liquor. One of the reasons, he said, is because part of the money for them comes from relatives living overseas. It is from those who fled the war and found lucrative employment in western countries.