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Fear and loathing in Jaffna

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The deteriorating security situation in the north is affecting the lives of the people in Jaffna with business activities slowing down, travelling between the north and south curtailed and southerners working in the north leaving.

The construction industry in particular which was picking up during the cease-fire period has slowed down. A number of foreign NGOs have also returned to Colombo.

Pilgrimages from the South to places like Nagadeepa have virtually come to a standstill following the string of attacks in the past weeks, which has led to a tense security situation.

As people prepared for last weekend''s Thaipongal celebrations we observed a marked difference in the atmosphere that prevailed during the eve of Deepavali celebrations, before the presidential election in November.

There was a bustle of activity on the streets then. The markets were crowded and buses were packed with passengers even travelling on the hoods. But in contrast, on the eve of Thaipongal many of the shops had closed earlier than usual, the bus stand was virtually deserted shortly after dusk and celebrations appeared to be on a low key compared to previous years.

Among the worst affected by the deteriorating security situation were the traders who enjoyed brisk business last year.

“Before the spate of violence, an average of 200 lorries would come in from the south bringing supplies to Jaffna. They contained mainly building material and food items. But today only an average of 50 lorries come from the south daily,” R. Jeyarasa, President of the Chamber of Commerce (Jaffna branch) told The Sunday Times.

He said there was a time when companies based in the south used to dispatch goods on a bank guarantee to the value of Rs. Five million or even more as they were certain of the returns. But now most companies have cut down on the bank guarantee and were even reluctant to provide credit.

“There was a time when about 20 to 30 lorries of cement used to come daily and the stocks were over in a short period. But today it is difficult distribute these stocks because people are reluctant to go ahead with the construction activities,” he said.

Many projects that employed workers from the south have also been affected as many have gone back to the south fearing the security situation.

Many of them were masons and carpenters. The scarcity of the labour force has resulted in labour charges suddenly skyrocketing in Jaffna. Many companies from the south that sent luxury items and other essentials have reportedly reduced the flow of goods due to a drastic slump in business.

A. Gunaratnam, an agent in Jaffna, for companies including Ceylon Tobacco, Delmege and Milgro said there were times when he got about 12 lorry- loads from Colombo, but now he sometimes even gets less than four lorry-loads.

He also said his sales had been affected as most of the salesmen from the south and those from the upcountry working for him had left their jobs and returned home.

“There is also a drop in the number of people coming to our shops in town. Buses now stop plying from town as early as five in the evening and people are reluctant to venture into town after dusk,” he said.

Many southern businessmen including those who transported items including soft toys, flower plants, flower pots, furniture and ornaments for sale in the north have stopped their sales activities due to the security situation.

The sight of lorry-loads of timber plying from the south to the north being parked at the Omanthai security checkpoint was a common sight not too long ago but today one sees only a few lorries making their way to the north.

Banking activities in Jaffna have also been affected after Banks were forced to closed down for a week following threats.

During the week long closure of the banks, many of the ATM machines ran out of cash, forcing residents to return home with empty pockets and purses.

“Some people have even started withdrawing their savings from the banks in Jaffna as they fear if the situation turns worse they would not be able to pull out their money,” a bank manager of a private bank told The Sunday Times.

Some of those who invested heavily in the hotel industry have also been affected as the number of people patronizing these places have dropped due to movement of civilians being curtailed at night.

Many of these hotels and restaurants were patronized by Sri Lankan expatriates who were home on holiday and local and foreign NGO workers.

In contrast to the crowded restaurants and pubs before the November 17 election, many of them were now empty and closing up shortly after dusk. Crowds that gathered at the cinema halls were no longer seen. Some 10 cinema halls had come up during the past four years and most cinemas were screening as many as five shows a day.

“We are having only one show for a day now and even then only a handful of people turn up,” the manager of a popular cinema said.