Feature Article

Battle for seats

[TamilNet, Monday, 18 December 2006, 23:27 GMT]
For the half million or so civilians in Jaffna, travel to a town outside the district has become an almost impossible endeavor. "This is the fourth day I am standing here in pouring rain and scorching sun to obtain tickets from the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) for a seat in their ship to travel to Colombo. We are standing close to where Jaffna Railway Station once stood. Getting out of Jaffna even for an emergency visit to Colombo has become a nightmare," says Sinnappu Rajadurai, 47, of Chankanai who stands in a line in front of the Sinhala Maha Vidyalayam in Jaffna.


Theresa Sathiyanathan, 36, displaced from Allaipiddy, waiting in the long line said, "My husband and five children were seriously injured in the SLA rocket fire on Allaipiddy on August 13. I have to take them to Colombo for medical treatment. I made several attempts through the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission in Jaffna and through other means to obtain special permission to take my children to Colombo for medical treatment but I wasn't able to. I have no other alternative other than to wait here."

"Civilians in need to go to Colombo for urgent medical treatment or to visit relatives on personal emergencies outside jaffna, are waiting here for the fourth day. Only 350 civilians are taken in a single trip along with SLA soldiers.

"But only hundred tickets reach the ordinary citizens while the rest 250 are given to those close to the SLA, the paramilitary groups, and representatives and personnel of the NGOs and government officials. Yet, thousands line up," said another elderly man in the queue.

Subramaniam Sivasambu, 63, another civilian waiting, "This is my sixth attempt to get a ticket for my daughter who wants to join her husband in Colombo and I am here for the fourth day waiting for my chance."

"Obtaining permission from the SLA authorities to leave the peninsula is itself a difficult and cumbersome process which makes many to give up the thought of traveling," said another in the queue.


Civil society sources in Jaffna said the SLA does not have a streamlined process in selecting the passengers to Colombo in their ships and the issuing of tickets.

The ships taking Sri Lanka armed forces to Colombo usually twice a week, sometimes do not operate for weeks at a time. Announcement of the ship about to leave Jaffna comes suddenly and unexpected over the local radio.

The private planes which transported people from the peninsula no longer fly. Limited flights take only 50 passengers at a time. And here too at prices five to six times the normal fare which only a few can afford.

The Sri Lanka government, having closed A9 route, should have made alternative arrangement for the peninsula people to travel out. People are held prisoners in their own land, civil right group officials in Jaffna said.

Liberation Tigers have refused to guarantee safety of ships plying the northern waters. Civilian passengers are aware that their sea travel is fraught with dangers of getting caught in clashes at sea.

But they all appear to be willing to take the risk. Travel out of Jaffna has become a rare privilege available only to the lucky and the rich.


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