'Queen of Jaffna' train to resume after 24 years, restoring link to Tamil heartland in north

The "Queen of Jaffna," a once-popular train linking the ethnic Tamil's northern heartland to the rest of Sri Lanka before a bloody civil war cut the link 24 years ago, chugs back into service next week, reinforcing the government's authority in a region once controlled by Tamil rebels.

For the old, it is a nostalgic piece of the Indian Ocean island's past. For the young, the train represents something novel and opens opportunities to explore the north. For the central government, the resumption of the "Yarl Devi," as it is known in Tamil, marks a step toward restoring national unity five years after the Tamil separatists were defeated.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa will inaugurate service along the 400-kilometer (250-mile) route between Jaffna and Colombo, the capital, in a ceremony Monday. Rebuilding the railroad, stretches of which disappeared as rebels and residents used the rails and sleepers to build bunkers and houses, is one of the government's big infrastructure projects to contribute to the economy in the north and win over Tamils, many of whom are still estranged after the war.

Like the old version, the new "Queen of Jaffna" is not a luxury train, although some of its coaches will have air conditioning, Internet access and televisions. The new track will make for a faster, smoother ride, allowing the trip to take about six hours.

The line was shut down in 1990 as militants from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, stepped up attacks in the north to push for their own independent state.

The train holds significant symbolic importance. Before the war, it not only was the most convenient way to travel between the two important cities, but also was a symbol of unity between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. At the time, Tamils dominated bureaucratic and state service posts, and many civil servants based in Colombo used it to visit friends and family in the north.

"We took the train to Jaffna for weekends and came back by the same on Sunday evenings," said Karuna Navaratnam, a 69-year-old retired teacher, who traveled on the route frequently in the 1970s.

Now settled in Colombo, Navaratnam wistfully recalled the train traveling through the rice paddies and farms on its way to Jaffna, which was once the seat of a Tamil kingdom before it was colonized in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

"As day broke we saw villagers in their morning activity," she said. "As we approached Jaffna, we sensed the smell of its palmyra" palm trees common in the north.

Navaratnam remembered people from her village standing on the station platform each weekend to welcome home relatives and loved ones.

When the war erupted in 1983, the train was a main artery in Sri Lanka's commerce, transporting fish from the north to the capital, and connecting the islanders regardless of ethnic identity.

Since the service stopped, Jaffna has had no trains, meaning many of the city's children have never seen one in real life.

"Some younger people here do not know what a train is. I know its value," said 50-year-old R. Thiyagarajah, who hopes the train will help boost Jaffna's economy through tourism and cargo shipments.

As rebels increased their attacks in the 1980s, the government stationed many soldiers, mostly Sinhalese, in Jaffna who used the train to return home for visits. That made the "Queen of Jaffna" a rebel target.

In January 1985, rebels blew up the train, killing 22 soldiers and 11 civilians and wounding 44 others, in the single largest attack on the military at that time. Five years later, the service was scaled back as Tamil Tigers took control of Jaffna peninsula.

Restoring the link is an important step, physically and symbolically, in rebuilding the country, the government says.

"In the past, it was not only a mode of transport, but it was also a cultural bridge between the Sinhalese people here and the Tamils there," presidential spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said. The project was an "incentive to enhance communal harmony and friendship."

But the railroad's resumption also clearly shows that the government, dominated by the majority Sinhalese, is stamping its authority on the north.

During the war, both sides attached immense strategic and symbolic importance to capturing and holding key access roads to Jaffna, including the railroad and the parallel A9 highway, dubbed "the highway of death" for the many lives lost in battles over its control. That highway has since been restored.

Now with the "Queen of Jaffna" also scheduled to start running again, thanks to an $800 million loan from India, restoration of the government's authority in the north will be complete.

But many Tamils feel such infrastructure projects won't bring true national unity. Deep wounds have been left by the war, which took at least 100,000 lives on both sides over more than 25 years, according to conservative estimates by the United Nations, though the death toll is suspected to be much higher.

Rajapaksa's government has resisted intense pressure from abroad to investigate alleged war crimes during the civil war. It has also been accused of resettling Sinhalese civilians and soldiers in the north to break up the ethnic Tamil dominance of the area, and some believe resuming the rail line will speed up that process.

"The people welcome this because they have transport difficulties, but they also think it is the military that will benefit from this more," said Shanmuganathan Sajeevan, an activist campaigning for the return of private property seized from Tamils by the military during the war.

Despite lingering issues, the railroad may well move the country toward greater unity, said Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, an analyst with the independent Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo.

"Let's hope that politics will follow infrastructure," he said.