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Lanka soldiers adapt to post-war pastimes

world Updated: Jun 24, 2010 10:33 IST

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In a wooden shelter in north Sri Lanka a soldier has swapped his gun for a pair of scissors, trimming hair and beards of civilians who now travel through what was a war zone until last year.

Business is brisk at the army-run salon, which also offers scalp and foot massages by battle-hardened soldiers.

Next door is the "Military Cafe", where veterans of the government's long civil war against the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels now serve up tea and snacks to passing domestic tourists.

"The food is fresh. It's made in the nearby army camp. Prices same as elsewhere," said Corporal Nimal Karunaratne at the cafe in Mankulam, 190 miles (300 kilometres) north of Colombo as uniformed soldiers wipe plastic tables.

The small businesses are just two signs of how the end of the war last May has affected life in Sri Lanka.

Situated on the main A9 highway that links the northern Jaffna peninsular to the island's south, Mankulam was a stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels who controlled one-third of Sri Lanka as recently as 2006.

After a massive military offensive that attracted international concern about civilian deaths, the Tigers were eventually crushed in May last year.

But the northeast of Sri Lanka, scene of much of the fighting, has been left a scarred and deserted landscape as former residents are unable or unwilling to return to many of the villages destroyed by the war.

The area is still littered with landmines and other unexploded ordnance. With little or no civilian life, the military has set up shops along the highway selling groceries, top-up phone cards and food.

A few miles up the road, Malaysian mobile phone operator Dialog has erected advertising over a military hut selling snacks to local tourists. Many pose for pictures near the burnt-out shell of a bulldozer used as a makeshift tank by the rebels.

Back in the capital Colombo, a former naval troop carrier is being used as a venue for cocktail parties.

A sound system plays hits by Swedish pop-group ABBA as guests sip drinks and watch the sunset from the decks of the Jetliner.

As the vessel leaves port on its short evening voyage, dozens of navy women release colourful streamers and balloons. A naval tug blares horns and a sailor points out passing landmarks to guests.

"This is the new image that the Sri Lanka government wants to project," navy chief Thisara Samarasinghe told AFP as he mingled with guests aboard the ship, including diplomats, leisure industry executives and socialites.

During the final years of war, the Jetliner ferried 3,000 men and military supplies to the battlefields up and down the northeast coast.

It came under attack many times but was never hit, Samarasinghe explained to his guests as they took pictures of Colombo's shoreline.

The Jetliner began its new life in January as a floating banquet hall and a venue for corporate events, weddings and seminars.