Jaffna – 1995
It was late in the evening when shots rang out in the air. When shots ring out in the evening sky in jaffna, it is an indication of a raging battle between the rebels and the Sri Lankan security forces.
By that time in the evening, fighting between the security forces and the rebels in Jaffna spilled into the tiny village of Nallur. People went back to their homes, to wait it all out.
It was 1995 and Sri Lanka was in the middle of the civil war. Jaffna was one of the hotbed of movements of the military and the rebels. One of the Tamil households in Nallur had a mother and her children locked inside a room.
They heard the shots all evening. Perhaps the security forces and the rebels were still fighting in the streets.
They ate whatever the mother cooked in a jiffy. She told the children to sleep after dinner, but the children refused to sleep. After eating their dinner, they hid in their living room with all the lights off.
Repite came when shots stopped ringing. In the middle of the night, someone started banging at her door. The mother opened the door while initially reluctant. Standing at the door was a teenage boy with a rifle in hand. He looked like any Sri Lankan teenager at that time.
With her mouth open, horrified look in her face, ‘Who are you?’ the mother asked.
‘I want to drink some water, please make it quick’, said the boy.
The mother went to the kitchen, brought him some water in a pot, and gave it to the boy. The boy drank it, and without saying anything he turned around and ran. That was her first encounter with a rebel soldier. All night she prayed to not see another gun wielding rebel at her door.
At this time of violence outside her house, she would not have a chance to contact any relative at her ancestral home in Tambaram, Chennai. Her neighbors houses all spread out, and they would be trying to stay safe too.
The next morning, the gun fire subsided. There were only military personnel outside. She saw military trucks pouring into the Jaffna town. The military would be pushing another offensive.
Shops are all closed, so the people of Jaffna buy groceries to make their meals. Her two little boys get a message from their friends. There are military personnel two houses away and they can go see all the cool stuff they brought with them.
The children convinces their mother into let them go out to the place where the military personnel has been staying. The children go to the house, the military personnel would give them food and biscuits to eat.
Later in the day the mother finds that the military is distributing groceries to the houses, some of which she receives. At night the children decide to stay with the military. The military has already pushed the rebels out of the town. The Nallur village already sense that the military is winning.
So the mother does not worry about the well being of her children. But she can still hear shots from afar, but it was faint.
Late in the morning the news spreads that Jaffna is liberated. The rebels will no longer stake claim to Jaffna which otherwise is their capital. The children come back home to their mother about their experience with the soldiers.
It is 2016, the war is over, Jaffna is now a peaceful town. There are signs of war everywhere. Building destroyed in the war, bullet holes and businesses are thriving. Most of all, people like to tell their stories.
Where were they and what were they doing at that time. My host in Jaffna excitedly recounts the memories of all the battles. ‘Through all of the war, I did not have anyone but Jesus and this bible.
My children were young and I had to stay determined’ she said to me waving the old bible that she held onto all these years.
Journey from Colombo to Jaffna
After a nice stay at Colombo, I decided to go up North to Jaffna which has a rich Tamil culture. I went to the Fort Railway station at Pettah on the morning of the journey. All the trains including the Yal Devi were fully booked.
The ticket collector told me that he will get me a ticket to Anuradhapura, from there I can catch a train to Jaffna from there. But this travel arrangement did not interested me.
I exited the station and went back to my room. I packed my bags and I went to the Pettah bus station at 8 in the night to board a bus to Jaffna. Only private companies run luxury buses.
The private buses I checked with were booked too. So I went to the Pettah bus station. I saw the crowd in the red colored government bus, and I decided to go to the other bus station next to the market.
The buses over there were all private but not luxury ones. I boarded a bus for which I paid LKR 660. The journey takes eight hours said the teenage conductor. He put my rucksack at the back of the storage, and he let me keep my backpack with me. The bus left Colombo at 11PM.
I could not sleep throughout the whole journey. There was a television in the bus that played loud music the whole night. ‘Is it always like this?’, I ask my co-passenger.
‘Yes, it is like this in this bus’, he tells me. At 1 AM, late at night, the bus stopped at a place called Madurankuli on the street.
I saw a tea shop on the left of the bus where everyone from the bus went to. I had my sweet milk tea and went back to my seat. However, the bus did not move. The driver and the conductor went to catch a concert that I could see from my bus.
They played Sinhala songs at 1 in the night, and everybody from my bus were out watching the concert. ‘Is it someone famous’, I ask another co-passenger. ‘Maybe, I do not know’, he says. Half an hour later, everybody were in and bus was onward to Jaffna.
I do not know when I slept, but I woke to to have glimpse of camps that was set up during the war to help war affected people. It was my first time seeing a concentration camp. So I knew I could get to listen to stories.
The Tamil Household Where I Stayed
I had already booked Lotus Homestay on Booking.com before leaving Colombo. The bus reached the Jaffna bus station at 8AM in the morning. I had only couple of days in this town. The morning was warm, and I knew that it would get hot in the afternoon.
The town is small, but everything is far away from each other. There is no bus service within Jaffna, and all the buses originating at this station go to next towns, and other far away places.
Auto rickshaws/tuk tuks are what we have. She guided me to interesting places in Jaffna and introduced me to wood apple juice which is made from the famous wood apple of Sri Lanka.
At my stay here in this homestay, the senior host of mine struggled to keep up, but she does manage to make my stay nice. I did learn a lot about Jaffna, and my host told me stories about her house and stories during war.
Well, listening to stories are why most travelers travel for.