Sri Lanka restores blood-soaked railway to Tamil heartland

  • AFP, Jaffna
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2014 08:31 IST

A railway in Sri Lanka that runs through mine-fields and snake-infested jungle is to reopen on Monday, nearly a quarter of a century after a bloody ethnic conflict shut it down.

Trains to the northern peninsula of Jaffna ground to a halt 24 years ago after dozens of passengers were killed in attacks by guerrillas seeking an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.

The railway was ripped up to make bunkers after a truce between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces collapsed and fighting erupted in June 1990.

Five years after the government declared victory in May 2009, the scars of the conflict remain, with bombed-out homes and buildings still visible.

Reopening the railway was a priority to allow reconstruction materials to be brought into the area devastated by years of war and restore a key lifeline to Jaffna which is also the political capital of the northern province.

But it has not been easy.

The work took a full three years, with workers on the 146-kilometre (91-mile) single track having to down tools at night for fear wild animals would attack.

"I first came to inspect the area (in 2009) with military escorts," said project director Shyam Lal Gupta. "De-mining the area was one of our main challenges." Professionals from Sri Lanka and India, which provided an $800 million credit line to rebuild railways after the war ended, were deployed to clear mines and unexploded ordnance.

But the team still found 10 landmines during the project.

Snakes were another hazard -- at one point Gupta, who works for Indian Railways Construction company IRCON, found a pair mating on what was going to be his construction site.

More than a million Tamils live in Jaffna, which was first connected to the rest of the Sinhalese-majority island through a rail link in 1905 under British colonial rule.

The Jaffna railway station, site of many battles between troops and Tamil Tigers, was also a key lifeline for security forces before the guerrilla war for a separate Tamil homeland escalated three decades ago.

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