It's only an hour's airtime from Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo, to the Jaffna peninsula at the northern tip of the island, but getting there is a miserable ordeal that can kill nearly half a day. Suitcases in hand, heaving and sweating for hours under the blazing sun, passengers endure a gauntlet of checkpoints, where they are repeatedly stopped, questioned, frisked and hassled. Most of the travelers are ethnic Tamils, a minority on the island, although they're the overwhelming majority in the battle-scarred north. Some, without the necessary paperwork, are turned back. No one dares to protest. The slightest disruption can halt air service at any time. After five sweltering hours of queuing up, a Tamil passenger elbows me in the ribs and mutters: "This is how you're treated when you're taken to a prison camp."
The people of Jaffna can only hope their isolation will end soon. For two years they've been cut off from overland access to the rest of the country by fierce combat in the swampy jungles of the Wanni region, just south of the peninsula. That's where the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have dug in as they continue to wage one of the oldest running insurgencies in the world. Jaffna's old lifeline to the Sinhala-speaking south, the Alpha 9 highway, runs right through the middle of it. The fighting has strangled Jaffna's economy, causing severe shortages of food, fuel and electricity. Now, however, the Sri Lankan army has made sweeping advances along the A9 to within a mile of the insurgents' capital, the town of Kilinochchi. If that obstacle falls, and the A9 is reopened, life could get at least a little easier for Jaffna's civilians.
Their bullet-pocked homes and shrapnel-scarred temples bear witness to how bad their lives have been. The fanatically cultist Tigers, who pioneered the use of suicide-bomb vests, succeeded in establishing a de facto separatist state in Jaffna in the early 1990s. Government forces recaptured the city 13 years ago and have maintained an iron grip on it ever since. Today, 40,000 government soldiers stand guard over the peninsula's 600,000 Tamil inhabitants. Crowds in the markets pay little attention to the occasional thud of artillery duels in the distance. Troops wielding Chinese-made T-56 assault rifles operate checkpoints at practically every street corner. Although fishing has traditionally been Jaffna's primary occupation, the movements of boats are tightly restricted, for fear that LTTE infiltrators might stage an amphibious assault across the lagoon.
Nights in Jaffna are surreal. The streets go empty at sundown, and a curfew is strictly enforced through the night. In the last two years, a wave of nighttime civilian disappearances and killings has gripped the city. Corpses of the disappeared sometimes turn up on the streets in the mornings, but mostly the victims are never seen again, dead or alive. Townspeople say most of the killings and disappearances happen during the curfew hours, cautiously referring to the perpetrators as "armed groups." People in fear for their lives can seek aid from the Human Rights Commission. According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank, "surrendees" are sent to Jaffna's squalid prison to be placed in protective custody, sometimes alongside convicted criminals because the facility is so overcrowded.
Fliers regularly appear on the Jaffna University campus, says a 20-year-old Jaffna student, too scared to give out his name—hit lists of supposed LTTE sympathizers. He says most of them are young people, between 18 and 35, adding that he has known several people who have suddenly vanished. "If you are Tamil, you are always under pressure to prove you are not LTTE," he says. "We live in an open prison." Earlier this year, the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch summarized its findings on Sri Lankan disappearances since 2006: "In the vast majority of the cases we documented, the evidence indicates the involvement of government security forces—army, navy or police. The victims are primarily young Tamil men who 'disappeared' in the country's embattled north and east, but also in the capital Colombo."
Jaffna's army commander, Maj. Gen. G. A. Chandrasiri, blames LTTE infiltrators for the killings, although he doesn't deny the possibility that some of his soldiers might also be involved. In any case, he confidently predicts the killings in Jaffna will stop once "the war is over." "We are determined to eradicate terrorists," he says. "There will be no mercy for the LTTE."
Sri Lanka's government has promised to transform the country into a peaceful land of ethnic harmony—after the military crushes the LTTE and gains control of all rebel-controlled areas. But after 13 years of government control in Jaffna, peace remains an elusive dream. For decades, the Tigers have fought ruthlessly to make themselves the sole representatives of the Tamils. Now many people in Jaffna are worried that without the LTTE, Sinhalese domination will become more entrenched than ever. An elderly Tamil man, a lifelong resident of Jaffna, negotiates a labyrinth of checkpoints on his drive to work. It seems almost every day, he says, he gets stopped. A soldier sticks his gun through the car window and barks questions at him in the Sinhala language, not seeming to care that Jaffna's inhabitants are Tamil speakers. "Will this attitude change, once the fighting ends?" the old man asks. Many people in Jaffna fear that they already know the answer.