JAFFNA • As an army of labourers churns out limestone bricks, archaeologist Prashantha Mandawala reflects on the ambitious task of restoring Sri Lanka's centuries-old Jaffna fort, which was destroyed by ethnic war.
The project has so far included the dangerous task of clearing unexploded mines and shells from the seafront site and scouring the northern Jaffna peninsula for scarce limestone bricks for the rebuilding.
Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil rebels laid siege to the European-built fort, branded a symbol of colonial oppression, during the conflict that raged on the island until 2009.
"There was damage due to the war. Artillery fire and things like that," said Professor Mandawala, who is heading the mammoth restoration of the 17th-century complex.
When the Dutch and British ruled Sri Lanka in the 1600s and 1700s, the fortress was a sign of European military might in the Indian Ocean region, a star-shaped structure with moats and draw bridges.
Hundreds of years later, after Sri Lanka gained independence, the fort came under attack from Tamil rebels, fighting for a separate homeland for the island's ethnic minority. They successfully recaptured the fort from Sri Lankan troops, then set about destroying the strategically important site's features.
"They wanted to prevent the Sri Lankan military from getting control of the fort, which was a staging post for attacks in the past," a Tamil legislator from Jaffna, Mr Dharmalingam Sithadthan, said.
After the rebels were crushed in 2009, the authorities began the painstaking task of restoration, with financial help from the Dutch government.
About 150 labourers are now holed up inside, making artificial limestone bricks by mixing cement, crushed limestone and sand. They churn out 300 bricks a day, although thousands are needed to finish the job.
"The biggest challenge we face in carrying out the restoration is finding coral stone," Prof Mandawala said. "Environmental laws prevent us from quarrying limestone, so we have to improvise."
Prof Mandawala, an archaeology academic at the University of Sri Jayewadenepura, said progress is slow, with care taken to preserve what is left of the original structures.
The next stage is to restore the bombed Dutch church and the governor's residence, with the entire project set to be completed by 2018. The Sri Lankan government has earmarked 28 million rupees (S$278,000) annually for the next three years, but experts say that may not be enough, given the size of the project.
Since the end of the war, local and foreign tourists have flocked to Jaffna, capital of ethnic Tamil culture, visiting what was, until recently, the scene of bitter battles.
Another fort nearby on a small island, used as a jail until the 1970s, has been transformed into a boutique hotel run by the navy and offering guests a unique "prison experience".