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17th February 2002

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Hopes never so high

Sunil Jayatillake from Omanthai
The trek was hard and clouds of uncertainty were unmistakable, but over and above all most of these people were full of hope that they were at last on the road to peace.

Hundreds of civilians clutching on to bags with food items, medicines and others with brand new bicycles waited patiently on Friday noon until they could make use of the newly re-opened A 9 high way or the Jaffna - Kandy main route.

The full stretch of the road was being re-opened for the first time up to Kilinochchi after a lapse of nine years. During the nine year period the movement of civilians had been regularly interrupted.

The first movement of civilians on the re-opened road came from the uncleared areas into the cleared areas with many of them saying they would be able to use a shorter route in future instead of the circuitous path being used now.

However the road has been re-opened only upto Kilinochchi leaving behind a stretch of over 20 kilometres upto the Jaffna peninsula . That part would be re-opened as the government and the LTTE proceed closer to talks, according to Tiger cadres who were present at the scene.

The checkpoints maintained by the military are continuing at Omanthai, but with a difference. Facilities have been improved and inconveniences minimised.

Beyond the line at Omanthai, journalists were the first group to be allowed into the LTTE controlled area. Sudharan, a secretary to the LTTE's political wing leader was overseeing the re-opening of the road.

Civilians from govt. controlled areas wait to crossover to uncleared areas.Civilians from govt. controlled areas wait to crossover to uncleared areas.
 

Civilians will be allowed to pass through the Omanthai checkpoint from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and the point will be kept under the supervision of the ICRC. An average of 30 lorries carrying food and other items will also be allowed daily.

In Colombo the State Transport Board had finalised plans to send more buses to the Wanni. An official said ordinary and luxury AC buses would be operated regularly to and from Kilinochchi and later to Jaffna when that part of the road was re-opened.

Civilians coming from the uncleared areas said that the LTTE had cleared mines on most parts of the road, but had warned the people not to deviate from the main road as some of the places were still mined.

Journalists travelling into the LTTE controlled area were shown sign boards warning civilians to be careful of mines. The boards resembled scenes from Cambodia.

Civilians arriving in Vavuniya said that though trade embargos had been relaxed, the cost of living was still high.A bag of cement sold in other areas at Rs. 360 was being sold at Rs. 2,000 in the uncleared areas while a litre of petrol was selling at Rs. 200.

But above all the opening of the road has inspired confidence among the people that the country was well on the road to lasting peace. They said hopes had never been so high.

This section of the A9 road had been the scene of some of the fiercest battles between the security forces and the LTTE over the past few years. Some of the main military operations had been launched to recapture the road.

One of the offensives had been launched ahead of the 50th anniversary of Independence with the former Deputy Defence Minister General Anuruddha Ratwatte pledging to operate a bus service from Jaffna to Kandy on the day of the golden jubilee. But that turned out to be only a political boast.

Despite several other military operations the troops failed to gain control and finally they were pushed back to Omanthai.


Making room in Jaffna

With hundreds of local and foreign officials expected to visit Jaffna in the coming weeks for large scale rebuilding and development programmes, the Rehabilitation Ministry is taking urgent steps to provide accommodation for them.

With this in view the Ministry sent top officials to Jaffna to assess the situation.

At present only three hotels function in Jaffna Subash, Ashok and Gnanam- and all three essentially cater to security forces.

A guesthouse run by the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Authority for the North however, had limited accommodation for others.

The Ministry has now asked the government to take steps for the 40-roomed Subash hotel to be made available for rehabilitation officials and others.

With many big houses and land found abandoned in Jaffna, authorities are also looking into the possibility of taking them over and building hotels or renovating existing buildings to meet the demand.

Moreover, Jaffna is coming alive following relaxation in the North with people expressing hope and being optimistic that the peace talks would turn out to be successful.

Jaffna youth have made appeals to the visiting Ministry team to open a hotel school in the district to enhance their vocational horizons. 

The team from Colombo during their visit met the Bishop and several NGOs to discuss ways of implementing the plans for rehabilitation work.

Some immediate problems that affected the people in Jaffna included the shortage of Kerosene following the attack on a ship carrying kerosene and the non availability of cement. 

Another area that needs to be looked into was the fishing sector. 

Though the restrictions on fishing were relaxed from a one mile radius to two miles, fisherfolk want a further relaxation. However, the government feels that due to security reasons, the matter has to be reconsidered carefully. 



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