Battle to overcome trouble in paradise

Soldiers stand guard at the gates as pupils try to recover from weeks of civil war.

What has been been called the war in paradise is now in its 13th year as Tamil rebels seek to create their own ethnic state of Eelam in the island of Sri Lanka.

Inside Jaffna Hindu Ladies' College, the pupils were behaving as if the war had never happened, the only sign of the conflict being the soldiers standing guard outside.

In the assembly hall 500 pupils were gathered. All were wearing immaculate uniforms despite having been refugees just three weeks previously, and living in difficult circumstances: lacking running water, electricity, or any of the basics of life.

The school only recently reopened after government forces recaptured the Jaffna peninsula from Tamil rebels. After the collapse of peace talks in April last year, the government decided to hit the insurrectionists in their heartland, northern Jaffna. By the last week of May, the army had effectively cleared the area of rebels.

During the military action, nearly all of the 900,000 population left their homes for refugee camps and temporary shelter. The Tamils say that heavy shelling drove them out; the army says the rebels forced them to leave. Jaffna City became a ghost town, and the fishing villages and farmland were abandoned in the exodus.

In the past six weeks the army has brought 450,000 people back to their homes and, in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the people, the military has concentrated on repairing the infrastructure and reopening educational establishments.

At the end of June, the government told the first journalists to be readmitted to Jaffna that 266 of the peninsula's 470 schools were open, and that student attendance stood at 40 per cent, while 60 per cent of teachers had returned. Journalists were allowed to visit the ladies' college, Jaffna Hindu College (a senior boys' school specialising in technical and business studies), and Jaffna University.

Although the ladies' college was not damaged in the war, the pupils said that the equipment in the science labs had been destroyed or stolen and their books burned.

Some children say they cannot return to school because they cannot obtain material for uniforms, and they complain that a 200-page exercise book costs 35 rupees (50 pence). The many military checkpoints also make journeys to school a tiresome business.

The ladies' college is heavily guarded, with soldiers in camouflage uniforms secreted around the buildings. Of the staff of 73, 39 have reported back for work and out of 2,056 students, 925 are attending classes.

Similarly, although the Jaffna University campus at Thirunelveley has not suffered war damage, the acting vice-chancellor, Professor P Balasunderampillai, said that all the equipment in technical, medical, agricultural and scientific departments, along with computers, had been stolen by the rebels as they retreated. Of the staff of 1,000, some 400 had returned. A total of 900 students had re-enrolled, out of 3,000, but many were still in refugee camps and unable to return.

Professor Balasunderampillai said: "There is an acute shortage of educational facilities here. The computers and other valuable equipment are missing and refurbishing will cost a tremendous amount of money. The government has promised 30 million rupees (Pounds 400,000) which is only a fraction of the funds needed." He estimated the losses at 100 million rupees.

Although the relationship between the military and the civilian population seems remarkably good throughout the peninsula, if the battle for the hearts and minds of the people is to be won, then the government in Colombo is going to have to dig deep into its pockets for the people of Jaffna.

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