It was dusk when I checked into Bastion hotel in Jaffna. I had left Colombo at dawn. Layers of red dust had settled on me in spite of the car’s determinedly rolled-up windows.
It took a clearance from the Lankan defence ministry and 12 hours to cross from Colombo on the west coast to the far north, road-distance of over 350 kilometers.
The town was in Sunday somnolence. Markets were shut. Mostly television chatter and the queasy smell of incense sticks came out of pretty houses with red roofs and little gardens in front.
The scene changed dramatically in the morning.
The roads of Jaffna town burst into life with school children on bicycles and office-goers on two-wheelers — many of them women in saris wearing over-sized helmets — swarming them. Shops opened shutters with loud cranks and owners switched on tape recorders to play Tamil songs. Kiosks under tarpaulin sheets selling children’s dresses for Rs 150 spread their wares. Gleaming Toyotas of the UN made busy trips. Army personnel kept watch from under the lengthy shadows of ruins of homes or trees.
Inside the office of the Tamil newspaper, Uthayan, the printing presses were on their morning shift, the sound deafening and defiant. In 25 years of its history, the Uthayan has been bombed, burnt and displaced.
Several employees were murdered, at least two inside the office. “Even the IPKF town commander in 1989 complained when we wrote something critical,” editor-in-chief MV Kaanamylnathan said. On the walls outside his office are carefully conserved bullet marks and photos of victims.
Jaffna has been under government-control since 1995 but many of the attacks took place after that. The newspaper continues to have a brave 32,000 circulation.