Jaffna: A voyage of exploration and discovery
By Malini Balasingham
Emotions that stem from grass roots level have an in-depth aura that differs from those that stem from casual reactions to the passing scene. A visit to Jaffna was an event that was memorable for this very reason. Let's take it step by step.

The civilian air route from Ratmalana airport to Palaly is low key in most respects. We were a group of eight people on a "voyage of exploration and discovery", who arrived at the Ratmalana airport with expectancy and anticipation of what was for most of us, an unique experience. Previous rumours of the stringent regulations regarding hand luggage etc. proved slightly exaggerated. Only Kamal had to part with her precious camera, till she reached the end of the 55 minute flight.

Alighting at Palaly, we cautiously looked around, but everything was peaceful and normal. We were warmly greeted by Rev. Joshua, who was the very epitome of efficiency, and in no time we were on the way to our destination - the house of the Principal of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.

Acres of land covered with scrub bushes, coconut and palmyrah trees (some decapitated) and patches of intensely cultivated fields, gave way to cottages and houses (some decapitated). And soon we were being greeted by the Rev. Anthony Durairetnam Paul and his wife Venothini. Somehow everything seemed familiar - roots reacting, I suspect.

Review of projects
Our programme over the following days proved this fact. The next morning we visited the Institute of Nursery Studies and Gender Development at Moolai. On the way it was noticeable that the motor traffic was sparse, but cyclists were abundant. The Moolai Institute had been set up in 1986, discontinued from 1996-98, and reorganised in 1999. Its activities, with Mrs. P. Rajeswaran at the helm centred on the social mobilization of villages with training, advisory services and the building of a new partnership user support system at grass roots level. We visited a training centre, - the only current activity located in the spacious Moolai Cooperative Hospital, which, for the time being appears to be non-functional.

Meeting with friends
From my point of view, the highlight of the visit was the opportunity I had to meet Professor Daya Somasunderam once again. With characteristic modesty, Dr. Somasunderam did not speak of the vital role he has played as Head of the Department of Psychology, and initiator of numerous other facilities to help overcome the intense degree of trauma and mental distress that people in the region have had to cope with for years. One of the undertakings is the Mental Health Society, which will make a major contribution to the expanded network of the Institute of Nursery Studies and Gender Development.

It was a pleasure to receive a copy of one of Dr. Somasunderam's latest publications, "Mental Health in the Tamil Community", of which he is a co-author, with Dr. Sivayokan. This book has been compiled for a wide cross section of professionals and social workers, engaged in community mental health, and describes simply, effective interventions for psycho-social problems.

Visit to Wanni
Our visit to the Wanni will remain memorable for a long time. We passed through Chavakacheri, with its devastated buildings, which strangely formed a backdrop to a lively scene of bustling city life, and children on their way to school. The checkpoints we negotiated later bristled with efficiency. Having Rev. Joshua with us was very reassuring. We visited a boys farm and girls school, both bustling with activity.

Our next point of call on returning to the peninsula was Point Pedro, where the Methodist Church has recently set up a self-help centre for war widows. Mrs. Doris Thambyrajah, the live wire of the project briefed us on the activities, ranging from cloth painting to setting up canteens.

A seasoned viewpoint
On the last evening of this memorable visit, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rev. Dr. Jebanesan, whose viewpoints on the present situation in the North carry much weight, since they epitomise the spirit that now prevails there. Rev. Jebanesan, who comes from Chavakachcheri has watched and participated in the progress and occasional regression of events over the years. "The total breakdown of law and order was when the killing of Alfred Duraiappa took place," he said. At that time Rev. Jebanesan had been the Principal of Jaffna College, with the responsibility of dealing with bereaved parents and traumatised pupils.

Rev. Jebanesan expressed some concern about the fact that most of the younger people wanted to go abroad, with a view to having greater opportunities and prosperity. Recalling 1995 he said, "The majority faced the trauma with admirable resiliance. We will have to wait for some time for high confidence to be restored, but Jaffna is now open to varied activities - buying and selling has stepped up, and even scrap iron is going out."

The next day some of us prepared to leave. The two main organisers of the visit Sybil Kanagasunderam and Sarojini Kadiragammar stayed on for further discussions and an outing to Kayts.

The flight out of Jaffna was also uneventful. As we departed, the message that came through, was that with the prevailing resilience and determination, the peninsula was on the pathway of adjustment to cope not only with the present but with the future.

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