The outlook of the once war affected Wanni has changed now. Eight years is long enough to bring in change, for better or worse. In the case of Killinochchi and Mullaitivu, the emergence of new businesses, renovated buildings and time have slowly erased the bullet marks and cracks on the walls.
But all is not rosy. Yes, there are people who still go in search of the missing and there are families who continue to struggle to make ends meet. Everything seems normal on the outside, until you stop by and talk to a bystander on what his life has been these eight years. But what you see will not reflect the complete picture.
A drive from Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu via Paranthan will make you realize how the region has changed over the past eight years to become what it is now. The comparison of the roads that were travelled on before and now would tell you the story.
You do not see any signs of the war in its physical sense. But there is still, a grim feel in the environment. The drive is not difficult as it was eight years ago. The journey, which would have taken at least a couple of hours seven years ago, now takes less than half the time.
The potholes have been filled, the roads are tarred, and the bridges have been built. It took some time, but they are completed. The playground on the side of the A9 highway, which was once used by the LTTE to train civilians, is now a field of battle between the bat and ball.
From a distance, you would hear the toot of the Yal Devi train, which resumed its services in 2014. A few years ago, no one would have thought that this train would once again whiz past Killinochchi towards Jaffna. The driver, who is a resident, not only takes us through the roads, but also through the incidents that took place during the terminal phase of the war.
It was along the Paranthan-Mullaitivu stretch that the battle intensified. The driver explained the scenes of what happened when the people were running away from the fighting, towards the coast in Mullaitivu.
The images of people frantically trying to cross over to safety cross your mind as you cross these points. It is hard to imagine that these very places, which are now somewhat developed were scenes of catastrophe.
The road is busy all the time. The towns are abuzz with people moving here and there and looking into their daily routine. It is not as busy as Colombo, but seven years ago, one year after the war you would not have believed that the Wanni would not get back on its feet.
“It has changed quite a bit since we were resettled,” says 22-year-old Nishanthan. He was among the thousands who rushed from Killinochchi to Mullaithivu in order to save his life. “There were many anxious moments where we thought we would never survive. But here I am,” he said.
Unlike Colombo, life in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu seems very slow. Even time seems to move at its own cool pace in this part of the world. The spaced out houses and the endless fields littered with palm trees makes us feel that time has come to a standstill.
Bicycles are a normal sight in the North and the Wanni too is no exception. At any time during the day, you would spot a large number of bicycles on the roads and by-lanes. Unlike Colombo, the distance between two houses are a few hundred metres, separated by fields. Therefore, people either choose to cycle or walk the distance.
“We do ride motorcycles at times. But most of us prefer the bicycles because it gives us some exercise,” Nishanthan added.
In fact, these bicycles, for decades have been a sub-culture of the people in the north. No wonder the people seem fitter than those in Colombo.
As you travel further towards Mullaitivu, you would expect to see some signs of the war. You would expect to see partially standing structures or buildings with bullet holes as you enter a region that faced the brunt of the heavy fighting during the last phase.
Sadly you won’t. You would spot one or two such buildings if you carefully scan the area. But it would be a difficult task. The present Puthukudiyiruppu would surprise you. Seven years ago, you would only find one or two hotels with barely a soul passing by. It’s a complete change-over from what it was barely a few years ago.
But as you reach Mullaitivu and as you enter the beach, you could come across things that are now remnants of the final phase of fighting.
The sandy shores which lead up to the calm seas are littered by belongings of people who ended up cramped and cornered in the small stretch on the coast. These remnants serve as grim reminders of what the civilians of the Wanni had to face eight years ago, struggling to save their lives every minute.
Mothers protest for their sons
While the Wanni has seen an outward change for the better over the years, there is another side which tells us a different story. Despite the changes, there are still those who continue to find it hard to come to terms with their losses during the war.
It is a region where each family had to leave its home to find safety. All of them left their homes, but not all of them returned. Some were killed, some are still missing. On the side of the A9 highway in Killinochchi, mothers and wives of those who have gone missing have gone missing themselves.
This is just one indication that everything is not alright in this part of the country. In addition, the Tamil political parties and the government are yet to find a solution to the longstanding ethnic question.