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Wanni: The land that time almost forgot

Mallavi, Sri Lanka: For Sri Lanka’s surveyor general, the main access to this rebel-held region is along highest-rated “A” grade roads, but in a war-torn land where the clock stopped decades ago maps have no meaning.

Getting to this administrative centre of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), 310 km north of the capital Colombo, is an A-class endurance that could equal any international cross-country motor rally.

The atlas of the surveyor general makes a mockery of topography where main roads are reduced to dirt tracks with patches of asphalt used decades ago still visible from time to time.

An 80 km stretch of road by minivan could take over six hours. No modern car has been seen here for ages. Only a few high-ground clearance jeeps of international aid agencies brave the tough terrain.

The vast Wanni region, of which Mallavi is a key facility of the LTTE, is like a land locked in a time capsule.

“It is beautiful scenery with the lush greenery, but the people are living in the middle ages,” commented a western journalist, underscoring the problems in this area where 42 local and foreign reporters spent two days.

Like in most Sri Lankan villages the civilians here have no access to electricity and running water, but the conditions in Wanni are far worse. Prices are double or triple of what they are elsewhere. However, a fresh optimism has gripped the region following renewed efforts by Norway to bring the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government to the negotiating table and end the three decades of fighting.

Sinnathurai Kumaran, 50, who arrived here four months ago to visit his wife’s family, hopes this impoverished region may see an end to the bloodshed with the latest peace moves. “We hope the talks will be positive this time,” Kumaran said, echoing the wishes of most people in Sri Lanka.

There was similar euphoria here in 1994 when a previous government initiated a process of dialogue with the rebels, but it failed to usher peace and instead saw the fighting escalate. Kumaran believes it would be different this time. “There is a new government in Colombo,” he said. “There is international pressure (on the peace process). The international pressure after September 11 has made a difference.”

However, the Tigers deny they are under pressure because of the global coalition against terrorism following the September 11 terror attacks in the United States and argue that their push for talks began much earlier.