The evening of 11 August 2006 is etched in the minds of those who live in the northern Jaffna peninsula. At around 5.30pm, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked the front lines that separated government-controlled Jaffna and areas under Tiger control farther south. The onslaught prompted the closure of the A-9 highway, the only land link between the peninsula and the rest of the island.
About 100km of the A-9 runs through LTTE-controlled areas and it has not opened for civilian traffic since, leaving Jaffna residents isolated.
“The A-9 closure has been the key date that changed life in Jaffna,” Mirak Raheem, a human rights researcher from the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), told IRIN. “Everything else that followed stemmed from the closure.”
Jaffna’s 632,000 civilian population now depends on the limited number of ships and aircraft for commodities and other essentials such as medicine, according to the Jaffna Food Security Bulletin, January 2008, released by the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on 18 February.
However, compared with 2006, the situation on the peninsula has improved. “The very good cooperation between local authorities and international agencies working in the peninsula has meant there is a wide availability of food and shelter material,” Neil Buhne, the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, who recently toured Jaffna, told IRIN.
Interactive map of Sri Lanka
“Almost all essential food items are available in Jaffna; however, open market commodity prices fluctuate depending on supply and other considerations,” the Jaffna Food Security Bulletin stated, adding that despite prices being slightly higher than in the rest of the country, they had dropped compared with August 2007.
“Most food stocks in the peninsula are sufficient for three months,” the report stated. Eight cargo ships were transporting supplies to Jaffna and “in total 30,000MTs per month can be transported by these cargo vessels, more than the total monthly full requirement for food and other essential items of 25,000MTs per month”. The report also stated that 326,000 people in Jaffna benefited from government and WFP relief programmes.
However, Raheem remains concerned that the security situation could deteriorate again very swiftly. “Things are very tense, especially after 16 January [when the Sri Lankan government ended the 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Tamil Tigers], and there is an overwhelming military presence,” Raheem told IRIN.
“There are still significant challenges to overcome,” Buhne said. “As long as Jaffna remains this isolated, there is a very limited chance of its economy recovering.”
“All road movement by civilians is subjected to the military convoys and there are parts of the peninsula where civilians are not allowed called high security zones; these two combined are definitely impacting on the mobility of agencies,” Jeevan Theeyagaraja, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group of local and international relief organisations working in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.
“The high security zones, curfews and road closures all have restricted movement one way or the other,” Gordon Weiss, chief of communications at UNICEF in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.
Other agencies said they had worked their routines around the movement of the convoys and other restrictions, in order to minimise delays.
“Work is not affected if you plan your own movements not to clash with the convoys and curfews,” Menaca Calyneratne, spokeswoman for Save the Children UK, told IRIN. “We take alternate routes and pre-plan the work so that they don’t clash with any restrictions.”
The Sri Lankan military said the restrictions were in place for the safety of the civilians and that extra care was taken not to cause undue delays. “When Claymore mines and other attacks targeted the military in Jaffna, ordinary civilians also got caught and killed,” military spokesperson Brig Udaya Nanayakkara told IRIN.