17th March 2002

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Post-ceasefire winds of freedom blow away fear in war-ravaged eastern villages

New sunrise for peace in the east

By Chandani Kirinde and Dilrukshi Handunetti in Batticaloa
The people of Batticaloa prefer to call the side of the lagoon under government control "Eluvankarai" (sunrise) and the LTTE controlled side "paluvankarai" (sunset). It takes less than ten minutes to cross the lagoon by ferry.

But years of heavy fighting in these areas have created a gulf between the two sides but that is now beginning to bridge. Changes are taking place at rapid pace and there has been a sudden turnaround in the lives and attitudes of the people since the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the LTTE last month. People are getting about their work with no signs of tension that had gripped them before the agreement was signed being evident.

Peace has eluded them for long. So they appear to be eager to grab it when signs are on the horizon.

One of the early dividends of the truce is the rise in the number of visitors travelling to the east. With roads open 24 hours day and checkpoints removed, there is heavy vehicular traffic to places of interest that were closed to them for so long. 

But the real difference has come to the lives of people who live there in the form of small things that most of us take for granted. They can now visit a place of religious worship, go for a swim in a river or lagoon or simply take a walk after dusk without being caught up in skirmishes or bomb explosions.

"All we want is this war to end and to live in peace," said A. Jeganathan who was visiting the Kokkodicholai Kovil for the first time in 12 years on Maha Sivarathri Day .

Kokkodicholai is the first town under LTTE control on the other side of the lagoon. Time has stood still in this war-ravaged town where lack of public transport forces people to walk long stretches of road by foot or on push bicycles. The only four wheeled vehicles are the tractors that farmers use to transport paddy. The LTTE cadres seem the more fortunate, many having motorbikes to get about.

Less than a kilometre from the jetty, in the heart of Kokkodicholai stands the Eswaran kovil. A statue commemorating a slain LTTE leader stands in its vicinity. Posters of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran are hung up for sale in some boutiques.

V. Arugan has been operating the ferry across the lagoon since the early '70s but the service was interrupted due to fighting. Today his business is booming. At least 2,000 people are making the crossing daily paying Rs 5 for a trip. "Earlier we could operate the ferry only between 6.30 a.m. and 6.30p.m. and we had to dock on the government side of the lagoon. But now we can operate till 8.00p.m. and we can dock on either side," he said.

Having the ferry docked on the Kokkodicholai side is important because the ferry can be used to transport the ambulance carrying patients from the area to the Batticaloa hospital. The land route out of the area is long and arduous and given the poor conditions of the roads, it could take upto two to three hours to get to Batticaloa.

The Kokkodicholai hospital and maternity hospital reopened on Wednesday after a lapse of more than four years. The building is freshly painted, equipped with new electrical fittings, and stocked with drugs and other necessities. A full-time doctor has also been assigned to the hospital.

Recalling how patients died at this hospital due to lack of transport facility, an attendant said the availability of the ferry service after 6. 30 p.m was a blessing.

Peace time the way people here refer to the post-February 23 period is a boon to school children. G. Shabeshvaran, principal of the Kokkodicholai Maha Vidyalayam, said the children "are happier to come to school now and are concentrating better on their studies."

Government delegations have started to visit the area to launch development work.

The problems of those living in government-controlled areas seem much less compared with those in the LTTE held areas but they too have had their share of grievances. 

"We can travel about freely now without being stopped and questioned everywhere," said Desmond Daniel, an O/L student of the Batticaloa Hindu College. 

He and his fellow students were enjoying the day bathing in a lake in the vicinity of the Mamangam kovil in Batticaloa. "We couldn't bathe here before as there was a police post here and swimming was banned. Now it's different," he said.

There is also an influx of local tourists to Kalkudah's beaches.

H. Mohamed who runs a boutique on the way to the Pasikudah beach said business was booming these days. "People are coming and we are very happy. We have lived in isolation for too long now," he said.

It is not only the Tamils who want the conflict to end. The Sinhalese in Welikanda villages that border the Batticaloa and Ampara districts also expressed hope though some of them are sceptic about the LTTE move.

"We have a very hard life here but even if we have to go hungry we don't care. We want to live without fear," said Nandatissa Wijesinghe. "If this lasts it is very good. If it fails we will be in a worse situation than we were in before," he said adding a note of caution.

Eight-year-old Saumika Sewandhi can sleep better at night in their village at Namalgama, Welikanda. Her mother Nirosha Nilmini said they had to sleep in the jungle or huddle together in the village temple fearing terrorist attacks. "We have seen so many of our villagers killed senselessly. We don't want that to happen again," she said.

The Namalgama Raja Maha Viharadhipathi Ven. Galthalawe Dhammlankara Thera who offers whatever spiritual solace he can to the villagers said he feared the villagers would leave the area if the war resumed. 

"Some here have even gone mad seeing the senseless killings and violence. They don't want luxuries in their lives. For them the biggest luxury is peace," he said summing up the hope of the villagers.

Like those in Batticaloa, the Welikanda villagers also pray that sun will not set on the peace process this time and the gulf between sunrise and sunset will be bridged forever in a lasting peace.

EPRLF alleges Tiger harassment

A Tamil party contesting the local elections in the eastern province say they are unable to carry out campaign work both in the government and LTTE-controlled areas due to security risks.

EPRLF's Batticaloa leader A. Thurairatnam alleged that their candidates and supporters were harassed by LTTE cadres and some even faced death and abduction threats.

The EPRLF is yet to hand over its weapons as required by the ceasefire agreement. 

Mr. Thurairatnam said the party did not possess unauthorized weapons. "All our weapons are licensed," he said.

The party along with the PLOTE and the EPDP has requested the government to provide them with adequate security before they turn in their weapons.

"We are a democratic party and we want to contest elections and win our demands. The LTTE too should come and fight us on the election platform. Then if we lose, we are willing to accept defeat gracefully," he said.

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