A railway in Sri Lanka that connects the Island’s south and north and runs through mine-fields and snake-infested jungle has reopened, nearly 25 years after the country’s bloody Civil War shut it down.
Trains to the northern peninsula of Jaffna ground to a halt in 1990 after dozens of passengers were killed in attacks by LTTE rebels.
The railway sleepers 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 Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s Tamil heartland which has been devastated by years of war but which has seen an economic boom, of sorts, in recent years.
Work on the 91-mile single track took three years with engineers only able to work during the day-time over fears of attack by wild animals.
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.
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.
In the 1980s the main rail service, known as the ‘Yaal Devi’ or ‘Queen of Jaffna’ was often ambushed by gunmen despite military escorts.
The rebuilding of the track began in March 2011 and was carried out in stages, with trains to the southern part of the peninsula operating from March this year.
President Mahinda Rajapakse formally reopened the Jaffna station on Monday after inaugurating the new station at Kilinochchi – once the headquarters of the Tamil tigers – in September last year.
Authorities have also relaid tracks to the north-west coast of Mannar, a distance of just over 100 kilometres, which could allow a train-and-ferry link to neighbouring south India to resume.
Opposition Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said the resumption of services to Jaffna would be a huge relief to the local population.
“Yaal Devi has a strong place in Jaffna society,” Sithadthan told AFP. “Getting the train back is very good and it is a very welcome move.”
Jeevantha Silva, head guard of a locomotive operating to Pallai, about 28 kilometres south of Jaffna, said there had been no trains to Jaffna since he joined the service in 1991.
“When I joined the railways, the train had already stopped going to Jaffna,” the guard said. “We go through a lot of thinly populated areas, but we will have a full train when we start going to Jaffna.”
When the first trains to enter the former rebel stronghold of Vanni did so in September 2013, school children came out in hordes just to catch a glimpse of the carriages passing through Kilinochichi.
“The entire public here is waiting for this dream to come true,” said S L Gupta, project director for IRCON, a subsidiary of Indian Railways, that was in charge of reconstruction of the track.
“It will be momentous,” Gupta asserted.
Vadevil Jayakumar, a native of Kilinochchi, agrees with this assessment. He takes the train weekly with his wife, his sister and his young niece.
“It’s cheap, it’s convenient and faster than the bus,” Jayakumar told IPS, riding on the footrest of one of the carriages, his sister and niece occupying the open door at the other end of the train car.
Indeed, a ticket from Colombo all the way up to the Vanni – covering a distance of some 264 km – costs just 180 rupees (about 1.25 dollars). But the novelty of the trains, many say, ends there.
“Very few take the train, they prefer the bus still,” said Nesarathnam Praveen, the 23-year-old stationmaster of the Madhu Road terminus.
He says the bulk of his commuters pass through here only when there are festivals at the famous Madhu Church, which attracts thousands from in and outside the province.
On ordinary days, he confesses, the little station lies mostly empty.
Even on the Yal Devi, returning from Colombo on a hot and humid October afternoon, the bulk of the passengers are government military personnel returning to their posts up north.
Part of the problem, passengers say, is that trains here don’t run as regularly as they do elsewhere in the country.
In fact, the most frequent carriers on the northwestern line are former road buses that have been converted into rail-friendly vehicles that move in pairs along the track.
Despite their multi-million-dollar price tag, the new rail links are yet to provide the spark needed to jumpstart the Vanni economy, still in the doldrums despite five years of peace and a massive reconstruction effort in the Northern Province exceeding three billion dollars.
Poverty is rampant in the region. The poverty headcount in the District is a national high of 28.8 percent, almost six times the national average of 6.7 percent and 20 times that of the 1.4 percent recorded in the Colombo District.
Other districts in the north are not faring much better: Kilinochchi has a poverty rate of 12.7 percent, Mannar 20.1 percent and Jaffna 8.3 percent.
Only Vavuniya, the southern-most of the five northern districts and the gateway to the rest of the country, is performing well, with a poverty ratio of 3.4 percent.
Unemployment rates follow a similar trend, with Kilinochchi recording a rate of 7.9 percent, nearly double the national average of 4.4 percent, while all districts other than Vavuniya recorded rates higher than the national benchmark.
The primary reason for this, experts say, has been slow job creation.
Fishing and agriculture constitute the bulk of the Vanni’s economic activity, but policies aimed at creating markets and bringing in buyers are rare.
Private sector involvement, while on the rise, has not been able to breathe life into an economy repeatedly amputated by the conflict.
Economists blame a lopsided policy framework, that has poured millions into large infrastructure development without paying adequate attention to revitalising local income generation, for the chronic poverty in the north.