The Sri Lankan Government is keen to show the world the peace efforts brokered by Norway is going on smoothly. A group of Malaysian journalists are travelling all over the country as guests of the government to see how the peace is holding up SHAHANAAZ SHER HABIB, who is among them, writes.
VAVUNIYA (Sri Lanka): Major SriLal Herath had one of his legs severely damaged during a battle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) five years ago but he holds no grudges against the LTTE for forcing him out of combat service.
“I have no hatred. We should not have such poor ideas in our minds. We are educated people,” he said.
The battle was part of being a soldier, he said, but now that there was a ceasefire and move towards peace by both sides, the Sri Lankan army should work towards this objective.
The battle “hero,” who is a decorated soldier, heads the Sri Lankan army checkpoint at Omanthai which is only 500m away from the LTTE checkpoint at the Tamil-controlled province of Kilinochchi.
For 20 years, the Sri Lankan Government had been fighting to put down an armed struggle by the LTTE for its own Tamil state.
Since February last year, the two sides agreed to a truce and are negotiating for peace.
Since the Tigers control parts of Sri Lanka's north and east, those planning to enter those areas need to go through a Sri Lankan checkpoint followed by an LTTE checkpoint where they have to show their passports or other identification documents.
The same applies when they return.
The checkpoints are along the A9 Highway – a road closed for 10 years because of the conflict.
The highway only reopened more than a year ago, following the latest peace initiative.
Work is ongoing to repair and widen the damaged “highway” which looks more like a tarred kampung road.
To travel 200km along this highway to Jaffna, which is at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, takes about seven hours.
Major Herath said about 10,000 people and 1,500 vehicles use the highway daily.
Because of the heavy traffic, the highway, which used to be open only on weekdays, is now also open from 7am to 5pm on weekends.
Major Herath said there are more than 250 Sri Lankan soldiers at the Omanthai checkpoint.
“But we are not armed. There is no security system here. We are dealing with people as friends. We want to allow them in easily without delay,” he said.
Major Herath said that since the checkpoint reopened, there had been “no trouble at all” and the LTTE was free to use the road.
He said they had seized items like compasses, army boots and helmets, which were handed over to the Sri Lankan police.
“We do not keep them. We advise people not to carry such items,” he said.
Major Herath said the Sri Lankan army does not cross LTTE borders.
If the soldiers needed to go to Jaffna, which is a government-controlled area and at the other end of the highway, he said, they would go by air or sea.
Major Herath said he did not fear an attack by the LTTE although the two checkpoints were only 500m apart.
This is because the memorandum of understanding for the ceasefire stipulated that either side had to inform the other if it wanted to resume fighting, he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has a post right between the two checkpoints, he said, adding that it would let them know of any danger or change in the situation.
Although there is a ceasefire, peace negotiations have stalled for now and there is always the possibility it could break down.
But Major Herath is optimistic.
“We hope that in two or three weeks, the peace talks will start again. We are praying to God for peace because we know the gravity of war,” he said.
Although he works a 12-hour seven-day week, Major Hearth spends some time reading up on the duties and responsibilities of soldiers according to the Geneva Convention.
Soldiers, he said, should be disciplined, up to the mark, educated and have attended courses on humanitarianism.
Major Herath himself conducts suchcourses for his men.
“It is not like 20 years ago. We are not like wild people. We know about the Geneva Convention and we are teaching this to the soldiers every day,” he said.