Displaced four times by Sri Lanka’s two-decade civil war with the Tamil Tigers, 22-year-old Nirmalashanthi Vijayakanth is ecstatic to finally settle into the first home she can call her own.
The ramshackle shelter in the artillery-ravaged northern town of Jaffna has no running water, no electricity and she and her husband sleep on a plastic sheet laid on the hard dirt floor. Their baby, due this month, will have to do the same.
But since she moved in earlier this year, a rash of violence culminating in the assassination of the island’s foreign minister has raised the spectre of a return to a war and she fears she may be displaced again.
“The way things are going I feel that war will come back,” Vijayakanth said, recalling how she had to flee the crumbling town in 1995 along with hundreds of thousands of others in a mass exodus ahead of an army offensive.
'Here in Jaffna, if a person has to fill in an application form in Sinhalese, it’s not fair'
“Back then we moved inland to live under trees, where they provided us with sheets to put up temporary tents. I was 13,” she added, her floral maternity dress and pigtails blowing in the wind. “I am more afraid now because I am expecting. Any moment this month I will give birth.”
Relief agencies estimate around 100,000 Jaffna Tamils are still displaced from their homes 3-½ years after the government and the Tigers agreed to a ceasefire. Many live in abandoned or rented properties or in shelters.
But Jaffna is re-emerging gradually from the ashes of the two-decade war. Newly built banks and shops sit alongside charred, empty shells of bombed buildings. The town’s colonial Dutch fort is still off-limits, strewn with landmines. Walls pockmarked by years of shelling serve as a constant, eerie reminder of war.
Heavily armed Sri Lankan soldiers, who have controlled Jaffna since wresting it from the Tigers in 1995, patrol the streets, resented by many Tamil residents with whom they cannot communicate because of a language barrier.
Many Jaffna Tamils still scorn what they say is decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese in the south, a central trigger for the Tigers’ war. The north is largely dependent on fishing and agriculture, infrastructure has long been neglected, and is far less developed than the south.
“Here in Jaffna, if a person has to fill in an application form in Sinhalese, it’s not fair, no?” said Prof. Ponnudurai Balasundarampillai, former vice-chancellor of Jaffna University.
“We don’t feel that we are treated equally,” he added. “We struggle to maintain our nationality, our Tamil identity and also devolution of power and our cultural rights,” he said. “A political solution must come.”
Any solution is still a long way off. However, the south - the island’s industrial heartland and political powerbase - has enjoyed steady economic growth since the ceasefire, and fears of a return to war are more muted.
Analysts say the main reason the island’s longest truce since war broke out in earnest in 1983 is holding is because most northern Tamils and southern Sinhalese are weary of war and neither want it to resume.
“I want peace. I want my children to study, to become big people, like doctors,” said N. Sundarabawan, 42, tending his vegetable stall in Jaffna market. “Before the war, most Jaffna people were graduates. Now it’s very rare.”
“If the war starts, nobody will do business. I will leave and go to a safer place. There won’t be any jobs,” added the father of two who reopened his stall only in 2002 after the ceasefire was signed and makes around 500 rupees ($5) profit a day.
Sundarabawan says many of his clients have moved south for fear of a return to hostilities, but is loath to do the same.
“This is their traditional homeland,” said Father Christopher Jeyakumar, who heads the Jaffna branch of Caritas - the social arm of the Catholic Church - and is helping 400 families displaced by the war to resettle.
“The fruits of peace must be tangible. Rebuilding their houses, rebuilding their livelihoods, being able to move freely,” he added. “Unfortunately, these things are not happening.”
Until government and Tigers find a way to stem a silent war in the east that the military and the LTTE each blame on the other, Tamils such as Vijayakanth can only hope against hope.
“I don’t know what my future holds for me,” she said, gazing at an adjacent lagoon ringed with razor-wire and green sandbag army sentry points.
“If war starts, I can’t tell you where I would go. I will join the rest of these people and go wherever they go,” she added, gesturing to her neighbours - dozens of other families trying to start again from scratch.