Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part 3

Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part 3

   “Nothing can withstand the power of the human will if it is willing to stake its very existence to the extent of its purpose”

Benjamin Disraeli

The last leg of my journey from Point Pedro to Jaffna city in rebel controlled territory – 17th November 1994

More than a day had passed since I left my home in Colombo. I had still not reached my destination, the city of Jaffna. I have had no contact with home. The telecommunication services have been disrupted since the onset of the civil war and I am unable to call home to say that I have reached Point Pedro and now in the safe hands of the two doctors S & S. I did not know what the feelings of my family were not knowing where I was more than a day after leaving home. I could only imagine their thoughts and feelings at that time. I was also not able to contact my friend in Jaffna, Dr Ganesaratnam, the consultant surgeon at the hospital in Jaffna. That was the situation in the Jaffna peninsula at that time.

I was no doubt a stranger in unknown territory, unable to speak the language used by the people there and probably the only Sinhala speaking citizen of Sri Lanka in that part of the country then. I was somewhat fearful especially when I saw young rebel cadres in civilian clothes moving around in cycles and motor cycles clutching to their Kalashnikovs (Soviet Sub- machine guns). There were also female cadres, but they were not carrying weapons. They looked at me and I looked at them and smiled. That was it. My fears were allayed by the two doctors and I trusted them to take me to the city of Jaffna safely.

As we moved towards Nelliadi, my guides gave me a rough idea about the Jaffna peninsula and the directions that we would be taking on our way to Jaffna in that Kerosene driven Austin Cambridge A 55. I am sure this will also help the readers to understand our movements better. The maps (1 + 2) too would help in identifying the locations.

The city of Jaffna and the General Hospital, Jaffna where the examination was going to be held is situated in the Walikamam division of the peninsula. We were now in the Vadamarachchi division and getting to Walikamam was through the Thenamarachchi Division as the normal route was impassable for many reasons. The distance from Point Pedro to Jaffna was about 30 km and the entire area except the Military High-Security Zone (HSZ- marked in red dots) was controlled by the rebels.

Sightseeing in the Vadamarachchi Division

There were three important areas that we had to visit in this Division before leaving for Jaffna

  • Point Pedro
  • Nelliadi
  • Valvettithurai

Point Pedro is the main town in the Vadamarachchi Division of the Jaffna peninsula. It is a coastal town with a rich history. In Tamil, it is called Paruthithurai which means “cotton harbor”. Cotton was grown in the rich fertile soil and exported to South India via the Point Pedro harbor where I made my entry to the Jaffna peninsula. Sadly all those activities which brought in revenue for the country had come to an end with the civil war. I had a glimpse of the Lighthouse situated there.  The Fort built by the Dutch in 1665 was also damaged. I do not know whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were in occupation of the Fort. The northern most point of Sri Lanka is Point Pedro, located at a place called Sakkotai which we saw while passing through. Walking towards that point was not advisable because of the likelihood of this area being mined. There was extensive damage to the buildings and houses because of bitter battles that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had with the Sri Lanka Army and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) at different times. The un-imaginable scars of war!


From Point Pedro, we travelled to a small town called Nelliadi which was of great significance to the LTTE. This was because the first “Black Tiger” attack was launched by the LTTE in Nelliadi at the Nelliadi Central College during the Operation Liberation of the Sri Lanka Army also called the “Vadamarachchi Operation” launched on the 26th of May 1987. This was a military operation to capture the Vadamarachchi division of the Jaffna peninsula.

The Nelliadi Central College was completely devastated. How did this happen? Here is the story for those who have not heard, read, or seen such devastation caused by terrorism. This is history!

The first “Black Tiger” attack of the LTTE – 5th July 1987

The Sri Lankan Army launched a major military offensive in the Vadamarachchi Division of the Jaffna Peninsula. They deployed several thousand troops to take control of the area which was regarded as the bastion of the LTTE. After initial resistance, the LTTE opted for a tactical withdrawal to wait for an opportunity that was favourable to them.

The Army captured the Nelliadi region in the first few days of the operation. The Nelliadi Central College was transformed into a massive army camp by the Sri Lankan military. The structure and grounds were sufficient to accommodate hundreds of troops. It was located in a residential area near Nelliadi town in the heart of Vadamarachchi.

The LTTE military high-command planned a suicide operation to inflict heavy casualties on the Army. Vallipuram Vasanthan, a twenty-one-year-old cadre of the LTTE commonly known as “Captain Miller” had volunteered to carry out the suicide mission. On 5th July 1987, the LTTE first attacked the army camp with mortars and rockets. Following that, with the disorganization of the army personnel, “Captain Miller” had driven a lorry load of explosives through the main gate of the camp a distance of 50 yards. This had taken the lethal cargo close to the main structure of the building. He had then detonated the explosives. Like the eruption of a volcano, the massive blast had shattered the building to pieces. All that remained was a huge crater where the lorry had been. The school building had collapsed completely adding to further destruction in the North. Scores of soldiers had been wounded and killed.

The military withdrew from the area. The success of this Black Tiger attack was celebrated throughout the North. “Captain Miller” became a hero and a memorial was erected in his memory at the site, after the withdrawal of the army. This has been destroyed after the end of the war and no memorial remains at that site now. But, what is important is that according to reliable sources, the school buildings have been renovated and the school is functioning very well now after reconstruction following the end of the war.

Valvettithurai – The port of the raised stretch of open land”

From Nelliadi we moved towards Valvettithurai (VVT), which is a coastal town of the Jaffna District on the northeast coast of the Jaffna peninsula. VVT was historically known for its seafaring traditions and olden transnational shipping trade.

I came to know that Valvettithurai was the birthplace of V. S. Kumar Anandan, a Guinness World Record Holder. His one of many records included swimming the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka to India and back in 51 hours.

After the onset of the civil war, VVT became a popular town for other reasons as it was the birthplace of the leader of the LTTE and many other leaders of Tamil political parties calling for separation. Therefore, we made it a point to visit the area to have an idea of the area and also to see two important sites before leaving VVT, as these sites would not have been spared after the war ended. They included the ancestral home of the “leader” and a memorial for the LTTE cadres who had sacrificed their lives for their cause.

The Main Point Pedro – Jaffna Road was impassable

Now we were ready to travel towards the city of Jaffna from VVT. Valvettithurai is situated on the main Point Pedro – Jaffna road. However, this road was impassable. To the west of VVT is the Vadamarachchi lagoon. The bridge over the lagoon is referred to as the Thondamannar bridge on the way to Kankasanturai from where you divert to the city of Jaffna. That road was impassable for two reasons.

  • The Thondamannar bridge over the Vadamarachchi lagoon had been blown up in 1987.
  • On the other side of the lagoon was the Walikamam Division and the HSZ was right in there. Getting too close to that region was  dangerous!

The Devious route to Jaffna

We had to take an alternate devious route to Jaffna. This was not the main road and because of the war prevailing in that area for a considerable period, the road had not been repaired for years. Furthermore, the road had been blown up in many places by landmine explosions. Temporary bridges had been erected over waterways to enable the movement of both civilian and LTTE vehicles. The entire area was deserted except the small boutiques where there were a few old people gathered together. Young people were conspicuous by their absence in these areas. Paddy lands had not been cultivated and were overgrown with weeds. Partly damaged buildings without people, damaged railway tracks, telephone and electricity posts which had collapsed with wires hanging all over was a significant observation.

Scenes on the way

“Tiger” checkpoints on the road

There were many checkpoints on the way. These were manned by the youthful cadres of the LTTE carrying T56 and AK-47 automatic weapons. They were not in military fatigues. The vehicle was stopped at all these checkpoints but I did not have to get off the car at any of these points. My guides got the clearance for the vehicle to proceed. Once again, I remained silent! I do not know whether the modified number plate gave an indication that it was one of “their” vehicles.

Jaffna City at last

After travelling for around two hours, we were close to the city of Jaffna, and more activity was visible with more people on the road. In Jaffna city, the LTTE traffic policemen in their special kits were controlling the traffic. There were many cyclists and motorcyclists on the road. I noticed only a few cars on the streets. A board indicating the direction to the main hospital was visible and close to that was Victoria Road. Subhas Tourist Hotel was situated on this road and my accommodation had been arranged in this hotel for the entire duration of my stay in Jaffna. At last, I had reached my destination safely and that was around noon on the 17th November. A tedious journey indeed, but exciting!

Accommodation in Jaffna – Subhas Tourist Hotel

As the vehicle entered the premises of the Subhas Hotel, I saw the owner of the hotel coming hurriedly to the main entrance to meet and greet me. He was a happy man that day as he had a guest after a very, very long time at least for a few days to occupy a room in his once-popular hotel which was deserted because of the prevailing civil war. I was the only guest in a 30-room hotel. The owner of the hotel made it a point to see that I was happy and the meals served were to my liking. I was concerned about my security but was reassured by the staff of the hotel. Still there was no way of contacting home, but finally the ICRC had sent a message to Colombo to say that I was in safe hands in Jaffna. That would have been good news for my family!

Visit the hospital with my guides

I had no way of contacting Dr. Ganesaratnam to inform him that I had arrived safely as the phones were not functioning. Anyway, the doctors who accompanied me had conveyed the information to him. He was happy that I had arrived safely. After a short break in the hotel, I visited the hospital with

my guides who gave me directions. The hospital was just adjoining the hotel, but the entrance was through the rear gate close to the mortuary. That was a shortcut. Dr. Ganesaratnam greeted me and we discussed the trip from Colombo and the program for the next few days including the details of the examination. It was a tight schedule with many exciting events consisting of lectures to medical students, a visit to the Faculty of Medicine, dinners, and lunches by various groups, and visits to places of interest, etc. After that discussion, I returned to the hotel for a well-earned rest.

A risky journey of experiences

My journey from Colombo to Jaffna took nearly 30 hours. Under normal circumstances it would have taken only around 7 hours. It was no doubt a tedious and tiring journey but packed with a series of “once in a lifetime experiences”.

I went to bed with trepidation but eagerly waiting for the next day for more experiences in a part of the land called Sri Lanka, my motherland  much destroyed and sadly controlled by a rebel outfit at that time.

The next day I had to be an examiner at the final MBBS examination at the General Hospital Jaffna. That was my primary objective for visiting Jaffna. All other experiences were incidental, interesting, and somewhat risky.

I had the unique distinction of serving on both sides of the divide. First on the military side attending to the wounded and then on the other side dealing with another aspect of my profession: medical education. In keeping with the dictates of my profession I remained neutral, hoping that the war will end soon and there will be reconciliation among the different communities of my country Sri Lanka.

I was informed by the doctors that there was much more to see in the war-torn city of Jaffna in the days to come and I will bring you those stories one at a time …

Dear Reader, you might also like to read our next story which is the continuation of the above, Please click this link : Overcoming barriers to enter war torn Jaffna under rebel siege / Part 4

20 thoughts on “Overcoming barriers to enter war-torn Jaffna under rebel siege Part 3

  1. “Dr in need was a Dr indeed ”
    Fantastic narration Gamini ,l have sent to our Ex serviceman & all you fans here in Western Australia
    Awaiting your next episode.

  2. Very interesting Gamini. You are a brave man on a mission to get something done. All the best.

  3. Thanks Gamini for this uncertain and challenging final part of your 30 hour journey. To have such first hand experience is extraordinary. God Bless

  4. Incredible story.
    It is amazing that the Sri Lanka Government was having examinations for medical students to be given Sri Lanka medical degrees in an area held by the rebels. Admire your courage in going there and your interest in medical education. Looking forward to receiving more of your stories.

  5. A very brave and selfless person who sacrificed much for the betterment of others!

  6. Incredible journey. I was on the ground myself but never got to writing about my escapades. Inspired to try but you are hard to follow.

  7. It’s a travelogue, a memoir and an epic-tale complete with thrill, suspense and heroism

  8. Read with interest your journeys in the old Austin car and Silva’s three wheeler. What journeys they would have been for you.! All we can do now is wish that your life’s journey in the years to come will be happy and pleasant.

  9. A well compiled account of your experiences in war-torn Jaffna. You are one brave doctor to have undertaken such a task. It certainly was an interesting read.

  10. Just desire to say your article is as amazing. The clarity in your post is simply nice and i can assume youre an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the gratifying work.

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