It’s been more than six years since the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and killed its leader, V. Prabhakaran, ending a civil war that had raged for more than 20 years, but the shadows of the conflict still loom over northern Sri Lanka. As recently as last year, when the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government was in power, a defence permit was mandatory for everyone looking to visit.
Under the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in January, that has changed. For the first time since the war, all travel restrictions to the war-torn north have been lifted. That hasn’t exactly resulted in a rush of international tourists—unlike the south, the tourist infrastructure in the north is far from developed—but the first wave of curious travellers, most of them from the country’s south, has begun to arrive.
Jaffna, the capital of the Northern Province, resembles an Indian cantonment town.
Young army men keep to themselves and play cricket with civil volunteers. But their presence in large numbers is a reminder of the war. The curfew culture of the past ensures that even now the city steps indoors as soon as the sun goes down.
What is a mild reminder in Jaffna turns into memorials in Mullaitivu, where the final battles were fought. Hordes of southern Sinhalese tourists swarm the Victory Monument, the War Museum and the LTTE Sea Tigers swimming pool. Nearly all are visiting these parts for the first time.
On her maiden trip to the north, a female resident of Hikkaduwa quips, “Even these terrorist areas have beautiful places to see.” This after she has established that I am not a northern Tamil. Clearly, the road to integration is going to be a long and winding one.
Coincidentally, I visited Mullaitivu on Pongal. With a sea of devotees and multiple ice-cream stalls, the festival in Mullaitivu’s Vattappalai Kannaki Amman Temple is a spectacle like no other. But the memory of the war shows up in the most unlikely of places.
“First, LTTE used to shower flowers on the temple during Pongal using aeroplanes. Now, the Sri Lankan air force does this,” says my friend, a Kilinochchi local, the disappointment clear in his voice.
Kankesanthurai, or KKS, as the locals call it, is more melancholic. This deserted town is dotted with empty homes, as if they are memorials to those who died. Despite the presence of several important sights such as the Keerimalai Naguleswaram Kovil, Keerimalai springs, Our Lady of Lourdes church in Mathagal, a few kilometres away from Kankesanthurai, and the Dambakola Patuna Sangamitta Temple in Mathagal, it’s the emptiness of those houses that stays with you.
Further south on the eastern coast, in Trincomalee, though, there are signs of hope. Trincomalee is actually developing as a tourism favourite and the economy is benefiting locals, unlike in the north. Here, despite the scars of war, the beauty bursts forth unabashedly—in the white sandy beaches and in the blue waters of Nilaveli and Uppuveli. The Koneswaram Sivan Kovil, situated on a hillock, provides some of the best views of the majestic Indian Ocean.
Areas that were once open only to the military and guerrillas are now welcoming tourists. In time, perhaps, it will become as much of a tourist magnet as the south. Till then, however, northern Sri Lanka is a twilight zone reflecting a bruised beauty.
Kawarias, who hang themselves by hooks during Pongal celebrations, at Vattapalai Amman Kovil, Mullaitivu.
The LTTE was experimenting with a submarine, and its skeleton is on display. What might have been cause for grave concern earlier is now guarded by a lone, bored soldier.
Naval assault vehicles captured from the LTTE, at the War Museum in Puthukkudiyiruppu, close to Mullaitivu.
Tourists at the Dutch fort in Jaffna, restored in 2013 with help from the Netherlands.