Thousands of people from the south of the country are visiting the Jaffna peninsula each week, the influx starting with the recent 24 hour opening of the A 9 road.
Buddhists are making the journey mainly to visit the historic Nagadeepa Vihara while many others are flocking to see a part of the country they could not visit for nearly 30 years due to security concerns.
Except for a brief security check at Omanthai, the one time well-known crossing point between Government controlled and LTTE controlled territory, travel is unimpeded on the A 9 road from Vavuniya to Jaffna.
According to Military Spokesman Maj. Gen. Prasad Samarasinghe, on an average around 35 vehicles carrying local tourists cross Omanthai but traffic increases during weekends. Most people travel as a group in large private buses carrying their cooking utensils and dry rations with them to prepare their own food.
|Visitors having their meals on the steps of the Duraiappah Stadium
Sriyani Samarakkody had come with around 60 of her fellow villagers from Kantale to visit Nagadeepa Vihara and see Jaffna last week. “This is the first time I am visiting here. People from the north and south have all suffered due to this war but we are glad it is over. We are all people of this country and it is the same blood that flows in all of us,” said Sriyani who had gathered with the others at the Duraiappah Stadium overlooking the Jaffna library, while taking a lunch break after visiting the temple.
Does she know of the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981 which remains a deep scar in the wounded relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils?
“Yes, It’s an unforgivable crime,” she said adding she prayed at Nagadeepa for such violence never to take place in this country again.
Another pilgrim-cum-tourist R.D.K.Leelaratna first visited Nagadeepa Vihara way back in the late 1950s and considers it a great blessing to be able to come back to pray in peace at the sacred Buddhist temple.
“The people here have been very nice to us and have helped us when ever we needed assistance,” she said admitting that language remains a barrier to closer interaction.
However to R.Muralitharan, a former IDP who left the Manik Farm welfare camp in Vavuniya only about a month ago to move in with relatives in Jaffna, language is no barrier for him to engage in his business of selling candy floss to the visitors.
“The only Sinhalese people I had seen before were the soldiers but now I meet many Sinhala people in Jaffna. They are all very nice people,” said Muralitharan.
Many of the pilgrims come with no definite plans as to where they would stay overnight and so make ad hoc sleeping arrangements, many roughing it out in the open at the stadium or at other public halls.
Jaffna Chamber of Commerce Vice President R.Jaysekeran said that while the influx of tourists is welcome, there needs to be better organized facilities for their convenience.
As development work on the A 9 road continues along with the reconstruction of the railway line between Vavuniya and Jaffna, the number of people visiting the area is likely to increase in the weeks ahead.
“Now the A 9 is busier than Galle Road,” remarked a driver who does regular runs on the road.
It bodes well for the future given the fast thawing relations between two communities, who were separated by a cruel war for several decades.