‘Mailman’ helps keep the peace


  • Nation
  • Saturday, 16 Aug 2003

BY SHAHANAAZ HABIB

KILINOCHCHI: Jorgen Harboe describes his job in the Tamil heartland as that of a “mailman”.  

On call 24 hours a day, his work is mainly to pass messages between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission headquarters which is watching over the ceasefire in the country.  

“Sometimes, there is a telephone call in the middle of the night, or some incident or people wanting to speak to the LTTE. One of us here has to go out and make the contact,” he said in an interview.  

In the war-ravaged town of Kilinochchi where there is no power supply after midnight, making such contact can be tricky.  

Armed with a torchlight, Harboe, who has been in Tiger country for six months, said he had never felt his life was in danger during those nocturnal trips.  

Harboe: I simply sit and wait to see if anybody wants me to do anything.

“It is a very, very peaceful area. I have never been afraid. I don't have a night guard to watch over the house,” he said.  

Harboe's day begins with getting on the Internet to follow up on news and e-mails. He then heads to the Peace Secretariat to see if there are any messages for him to deliver.  

“Then I simply sit and wait to see if anybody wants me to do anything. It can be very boring,” he said.  

Other than playing “mailman”, Harboe spends a lot of time making sure the facsimile machine, Internet and telephone lines are working.  

Danish-born Harboe is one of 50 Scandinavians working for the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission in various parts of Sri Lanka, to assess the situation on the ground during the ceasefire.  

After fighting for 20 years, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government have agreed to the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, which has been holding up considerably well in the 18 months it was made.  

The ceasefire is part of a process to look for a more permanent solution to the two-decade ethnic war.  

Peace talks between the two sides stalled in April when LTTE withdrew on grounds that Colombo was not doing enough. Norway, the peace mediator, is now trying to restart the talks.  

As for Harboe who has his ears to the ground in a hotspot where the Tigers, as they are commonly known, have their headquarters, he “gets the feeling” that both sides are interested in peace.  

So when the freelance journalist and book writer hears reports that there have been 40 breaches of ceasefire by the LTTE during the ceasefire, he feels sad.  

“The monitoring mission can see what is happening and we can give our opinion but we cannot enforce it.  

“Our job is to follow the ceasefire agreement and see if there are violations and get the information about the killings. We make enquiries but we have no power.  

“It is only the parties involved that have the power and it is up to them how they react to that,” he said. “As they are both interested parties, it is a very difficult situation.  

He said for the two parties involved, the ceasefire is seen very much in military terms of keeping the power balance until a proper peace agreement is reached. 

“That is the philosophy now. In that sense, you can support the power balance even with these killings, although the ordinary people will react and say 'what is this?'  

“But it is not the ordinary people who are making peace. It is the politicians,” he said, pointing out that much had improved since three months ago.  

Yes, there were a number of “incidents” in April and May especially at sea, he said, and when peace talks were interrupted on April 21, many people were worried there would be war once more “but fortunately, it didn't go back to that”. 

One thing that struck Harboe most in his months in Sri Lanka is the resilience of the people of Kilinochchi,  

“This area has been very much in the war. It was totally destroyed. Yet, only one and half years later, it has been more than half rebuilt!  

“The war has been severe here. The people here were very much involved in the war and they were resettled again and again but I haven't seen anything that I would recognise as war trauma,” said the journalist who covered the war in Bosnia in which he saw people jittery and “behaving in very strange ways” – all effects of the war.  

“In Kilinochchi, the people are (still) very friendly. Children and adults are always smiling and are open. This astonished me in a good way,” he said.  

When he has time to spare, Harboe travels to Jaffna in the north and Batticaloa in the east – the two areas the LTTE is seeking autonomy for and which comprised about one third of the country.  

Harboe who was in Sri Lanka in the 1980s during the war said back then when he visited Batticaloa, he saw a huge difference between the south and the north and eastern regions. 

“Today, it has not really changed. The feeling is that the Tamils and the Singhalese are not exactly the same,” he said.  

His thoughts on the monitoring mission is that it will remain in the country as long as the parties want it there. 

“Although we play a small role and have been criticised, the fact that war has not erupted while we have been here – although not to our credit – I think we have helped, and that is a good thing,” he said.  

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