Both sides of the A9 highway are studded with remains of war. Bombed out houses with bullet marks, scorched trees, bunkers and danger signs in red plastic straps warning 'mines: do not cross'. Along the way, there are many army posts and two checkpoints where vehicles are searched and identities confirmed. As dusk falls, army personnel with rifles slung over their shoulders begin short patrols on the highway.
Outside empty towns herds of abandoned cattle aimlessly roam. These aimless cows are possibly the biggest danger to the hundreds of buses, vans and trucks that now ply the A9 to Jaffna. For decades Jaffna was isolated (except an expensive air link and circuitous sea route) as the highway was closed to civilians. In January, restrictions were lifted.
Till last year, the A9 carried with it the burden of a bloody war; now it’s uneven, potholed surface carries busloads of tourists and trucks full apples and oranges to Jaffna in the north. The distance between Jaffna, at the heart of Sri Lankan Tamil identity, and Kandy, the religious and historical capital of the country’s Buddhist-Sinhalese majority is the 321 km-long highway.
For a better part of the last 27 years, the A9, built by the British in the late 19th century, separated the two entities more than bridging them. Towards the north, the LTTE controlled the highway and swathes of land on either side. Till 2008, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army (SLA) exchanged bodies of dead combatants at a village called Omanthai on the highway as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) kept watch.
The SLA and the LTTE fiercely fought to control the road through the 1990s. ``Sometimes the distance would be measured in casualties; like 45 every km. The SLA had launched one its longest operations `Jayasikuru’ (definite victory), in 1997 to gain control of the highway. It was discontinued after heavy casualties,’’ an army officer said. Along the A9 is Kilinochchi, once the LTTE’s administrative capital where chief V Prabhakaran addressed his only press conference in 2002.
In January 2009, the SLA brought the highway under its control in decades.
A year later, northern parts remain war-ravaged. Near Elephant Pass – an expanse of blinding salt fields, the gateway to the Jaffna peninsula – there is a cluster of trees stumps, a literally stark reminder of relentless air-raids by the Sri Lankan air force.
Down the road is a dumped road-roller converted into an armoured vehicle by the LTTE. Now decorated with garlands, tourists from the south pose victoriously in front of it.
There are some signs of life in Kilinochchi. Small shops selling provisions have opened for the displaced who have returned. At the bus-stand, a dozen Tamil displaced wait for buses and their mobile phones to get recharged at a communal phone-charging station. From a nearby kiosk, a Sinhala song is blasting; a change from the all-Tamil signage which remains on crumbling shops.
South of Vavuniya, a Tamil-dominated town which always remained under government control, the vegetation gradually changes, and so does the population. It becomes almost wholly Sinhalese.