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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
Jaffna war exhibition unites artists

By Chloe Arnold
BBC correspondent in Jaffna

From a distance, it looks like the drinks aisle of a supermarket - 500 plastic bottles that once contained Coca Cola or lemonade, stacked neatly on shelves in Jaffna's Public Library.

Jaffna exhibition
Bearing the scars of war
But step closer and you notice that each of the bottles contains a fragment salvaged from some of the houses burnt or destroyed during more than two decades of ethnic conflict.

There are children's shoes, dolls, charred photographs of lost relatives and letters that have never been read.

Some simply contain scraps of paper, scrawled with the word "hope".

The installation is the focal point of an exhibition dedicated to a war that claimed the lives of more than 60,000 people.

Coming together

Two and a half years ago, a ceasefire was signed between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels, who had been fighting to secure their own homeland in the north and east of the country.

It'll be a long time before life is the way it used to be
Jaffna woman
Now, for the first time in more than 50 years, artists from the north and south have set their differences aside and put on a display of their work in Jaffna, the northern-most town in Sri Lanka, which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

"We always thought that the South was against us in terms of politics," said Shanaathanan Thamotharampillai, an artist from Jaffna, who helped gather the material for the bottle installation.

"But if you look at the art, there are similarities in terms of experience. They have gone through the same traumas that we have."

The choice of venue is symbolic in itself, Shanaathanan says. Jaffna's public library was recently restored after it was completely destroyed by bombs during the war.

Scars of war

But much of Jaffna still lies in ruins - it's a town that has been ravaged by more than 20 years of conflict.

Jaffna exhibition
Artists from the north and south have joined hands
Driving along Beach Road, we passed statues that had had their heads blown off, deserted houses with sagging roofs and shops reduced to piles of rubble. The Regal Cinema, once a grand old building painted salmon pink, is now just a facade riddled with bullet holes.

Nevertheless, the people of Jaffna are trying to put the trauma of the war behind them. In the central bazaar, a once-busy market place, the few stallholders that remain compete for customers buying banana leaves, chillies and mangoes.

At the back of the market, an old woman who didn't want to give her name sells coconuts from a tattered mat on the ground.

Her face is lined and sad: she saw both her sons killed during the fighting.

"Nobody wants to go back to those dark days," she said. "But it'll be a long time before life is the way it used to be."

On the other side of town, Father Damien, a Catholic priest, runs a shelter for women who lost their husbands and children orphaned by the war.

People are very tired, they don't want to think of any more fighting
Father Damien
"When the ceasefire was announced, people were very happy because for 20 years they suffered tremendously," he said. "So that gave them some temporary relief."

But he says the initial hopes for a lasting peace are starting to fade. The recent split within the Tamil Tiger rebel group has seen a return to sporadic fighting in the north and east of the country.

"Now again there are doubts in the minds of the people, what is their future, what is going to happen next," he said.

"People are very tired, they don't want to think of any more fighting."

Hope

Back at the exhibition, the organisers say they hope it will provide a form of catharsis for a town and a country where memories of the war are still painfully fresh.

The government says initiatives like this are a mark of its commitment to peace. The Tamil Tigers are joining in, too.

"The war has been cruel and the Tamils have suffered greatly," said S Thamilini, the leader of the women's political wing of the Tigers.

"The other side should realise that we, too, want a permanent peace."

Two and a half years after the ceasefire was signed, the two decades of war are slowly becoming a memory portrayed in exhibitions like this one.

But many people fear that if the current ceasefire doesn't hold, the violence could become all too real once again.


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