The past couple of weeks have kept me busy, visiting HHR’s field offices in Batticaloa, a town in the Eastern province, and Mannar, an island in the northwest. After my visit, it seemed most appropriate to discuss the direct economic consequences for the people.
I heard recently that the government is spending $2 million a day on the conflict. The LTTE is obviously spending their share as well, but I don’t know the amount. This doesn’t exactly compare to the $200 million a day the U.S. is spending in Iraq, but in a country where there is so much need, this amount seems so tragic and misplaced.
Traveling to the sites that have seen the most conflict is so different from traveling in the rest of the country. Admittedly I never made it to Jaffna; I hear it is like another world.
As we head east, the condition of the roads gradually deteriorates. The glassy windows and tall buildings that are hallmarks of Colombo and the South disappear. The disparity is so obvious I wonder how people can question it.
We jumped at the chance to visit when the two sides announced a 10 day ceasefire to honor the Madhu Church festivities. There is a road that branches off the Mannar road to go to Madhu Church. Unfortunately the church is in LTTE territory. Normally this road is closed, blocked by government soldiers on one side and, after a 2km no man’s land monitored by the ICRC, LTTE checkpoints on the other. The two sides agreed to open their respective checkpoints to allow people to visit the church for the holiday. ICRC inspected the no man’s land that separates the government territory from LTTE territory and announced it cleared of landmines.
Of course you aren’t allowed to take just anything or bring anyone. Not petrol obviously. No one would be taking petrol simply to run their cars, to avoid paying for the smuggled $5 per liter ($20 a gallon) petrol on the other side. No, no, of course she would be taking that to the LTTE. So the woman had to beg people coming from the other direction to return it to her village. I wasn’t allowed to cross. I didn’t have the proper paperwork. As Mr. Xavier said, maybe they didn’t want me to see what was on the other side.
Regardless, the road to Mannar was illuminating enough. This part of the Northwest has seen quite a bit of fighting lately. For now, the government controls the road, and the LTTE controls everything else. A road. The two sides are fighting over a road.
There is nothing particularly interesting about this road. In fact all it seems to accomplish is controlling access to Mannar Island, not a particularly interesting or strategic island, and blocking the LTTE from moving further south. Yet barracks are placed every 50 meters for approximately 30 kilometers to guard the road.
That’s a lot of barracks.
After the first couple dozen, I started to wonder exactly what or who they think they are protecting and why either side cares to possess this road. The people certainly don’t seem to be their highest priority. With the exception of a few scattered villages, many of the shops and people on the road were long ago displaced. The buildings are abandoned and a bombed bus carcass lies on the side of the road, a reminder that even sticking to the road isn’t always safe.
By the time we reached 50 barracks, I began to imagine the Orwellian chants that most be drilled into the soldiers’ heads, i.e. “Once we control THE ROAD, we control ALL!!”
Anyone who wants to enter has to face ID checks. Anyone who wants to leave must be physically searched along with their bags and vehicles. All buses must be searched. Cars are lifted so that the soldiers can look underneath for bombs.
This isn’t just a time-consuming nuisance. It impedes the flow of goods and services, slows the economy. All trucks carrying goods must be completely unloaded. If there is a line, this can take days. It holds up businesses and prevents people from receiving food and other essentials. Fruits and vegetables can rot.
Due to designated High Security Zones, fishermen are not allowed to fish in certain areas, and farmers are not allowed to farm. How do they survive?
This is where immigration comes in. If a son or daughter working abroad can earn enough to send even $50 or $100 a month to their families, it can be life-saving.
One of my friends called Jaffna an “open prison” because it is so cut off from the rest of the country. After seeing even only the outer edge, I would have to agree.
Posted By Madeline England
Posted Aug 10th, 2007