Sri Lanka restores railway to Tamil heartland, 24 years after it was shut by bloody conflict

Sri Lankan construction labourers working at the Jaffna railway station on Oct 1, 2014. A railway in Sri Lanka that runs through minefields and snake-infested jungle is to reopen on Oct 13, 2014, nearly a quarter of a century after a bloody ethnic co
Sri Lankan construction labourers working at the Jaffna railway station on Oct 1, 2014. A railway in Sri Lanka that runs through minefields and snake-infested jungle is to reopen on Oct 13, 2014, nearly a quarter of a century after a bloody ethnic conflict forced it to close. Trains to the northern peninsula of Jaffna finally ground to a halt in 1990 after dozens of passengers were killed in attacks by guerrillas seeking an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils. The rebuilding of the track which began in March 2011 had been carried out in stages. Trains were operated to the southern part of the peninsula in March this year with the full service to Jaffna due to open on Oct 13. -- PHOTO: AFP

JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (AFP) - A railway in Sri Lanka that runs through minefields and snake-infested jungle is to reopen on Monday, nearly a quarter of a century after a bloody ethnic conflict shut it down.

Trains to the northern peninsula of Jaffna ground to a halt 24 years ago after dozens of passengers were killed in attacks by guerrillas seeking an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's minority Tamils.

The railway was ripped up to make bunkers after a truce between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces collapsed and fighting erupted in June 1990. Five years after the government declared victory in May 2009, the scars of the conflict remain, with bombed-out homes and buildings still visible.

Reopening the railway was a priority to allow reconstruction materials to be brought into the area devastated by years of war and restore a key lifeline to Jaffna which is also the political capital of the northern province. But it has not been easy.

The work took a full three years, with workers on the 146km single track having to down tools at night for fear wild animals would attack.

"I first came to inspect the area (in 2009) with military escorts," said project director Shyam Lal Gupta. "De-mining the area was one of our main challenges."

Professionals from Sri Lanka and India, which provided an US$800 million (S$1 billion) credit line to rebuild railways after the war ended, were deployed to clear mines and unexploded ordnance.

But the team still found 10 land mines during the project.

Snakes were another hazard - at one point Gupta, who works for Indian Railways Construction company (Ircon), found a pair mating on what was going to be his construction site.

More than a million Tamils live in Jaffna, which was first connected to the rest of the Sinhalese-majority island through a rail link in 1905 under British colonial rule.

The Jaffna railway station, site of many battles between troops and Tamil Tigers, was also a key lifeline for security forces before the guerrilla war for a separate Tamil homeland escalated three decades ago.

In the 1980s, the main rail service, known as Yaal Devi Express or Queen of Jaffna Express, was often ambushed by gunmen despite military escorts.

The rebuilding of the track began in March 2011 and was carried out in stages, with trains to the southern part of the peninsula operating from March this year.

President Mahinda Rajapakse will formally reopen the Jaffna station on Monday after inaugurating the new Kilinochchi station on the northern mainland in September last year.

Kilinochchi was the headquarters of the Tamil Tigers and Mr Gupta said that when he first went to the area, not a single building had a roof.

"This will be Sri Lanka's fastest track and cut down travel time considerably," he said of the new line, which can accommodate train speeds of up to 120km an hour.

The authorities have also relaid tracks to the north-west coast of Mannar, a distance of just over 100km, which could allow a train-and-ferry link to neighbouring south India to resume.

The rail connection with India was disrupted about 30 years ago when fighting intensified in a conflict that eventually claimed 100,000 lives, according to United Nations estimates.

Opposition Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said the resumption of services to Jaffna would be a huge relief to the local population.

"Yaal Devi has a strong place in Jaffna society," Mr Sithadthan told AFP. "Getting the train back is very good and it is a very welcome move."

Mr Jeevantha Silva, head guard of a locomotive operating to Pallai, about 28km south of Jaffna, said there had been no trains to Jaffna since he joined the service in 1991.

"When I joined the railways, the train had already stopped going to Jaffna," the guard said.

"We go through a lot of thinly populated areas, but we will have a full train when we start going to Jaffna."