Jaffna would have to be one of the most religious places in the world. There must be a church and a temple for every person in the town. A blessing for the people who have been through so much.
The capital of the Northern Province and home to one of the finest libraries in all of South Asia it was once a place of learning and education, the intellectual powerhouse of Sri Lanka. They say you can always tell a Jaffna man because he is the one with his head in a book when everyone else has their head in the clouds.
Jaffna was the scene of heavy fighting during the war and was occupied by both the army and the LTTE at different times. The scars of the conflict are still etched on the walls of abandoned and bombed out buildings. As the war raged on thousands of families left, mostly those who were educated, as they had the means and the skills to escape to foreign lands. These lucky ones took their passion for education to the cities of London, Toronto and Melbourne. Those who chose to stay or had no option to leave have held the town together for the last 30 years.
It’s a place that is held in such high regard by so many people overseas. A place of childhood memories of train journeys to see grandparents, bike rides to school through the maze-like warren of streets, and the sweet taste of mangoes from the tree in the backyard. It’s viewed from the outside with an almost mystical reverence, a historical beacon of what could have been.
I found it to be an enduring place, where you can see the stoic determination in people’s eyes. Friendly, but wary after so many years of hardship. Peace has brought progress with new roads, train tracks and shops. It has also brought new faces, familiar ones from overseas who have not been home for years and strange ones from the south who are now making new homes.
The presence of the army is strong, patrols of cycling soldiers roam the lanes keeping things in check and army checkpoints and bases are scattered throughout the town. They are a now permanent fixture, just as common as the mango and palmera trees.
Amidst all of this the city keeps on surviving, its people are proud of their heritage, their culture, and their identity. However, the memories and expectations of those who left hangs over Jaffna like a thick fog. It’s taken a beating but its still standing, bracing its self for whatever comes next.