From the tiny Palaly military airfield where Indian Air Force transporters landed troops of the Indian Peace Keep Force in the 1980s on a mission whose failure was foretold, and where later, an extremely fragile Sri Lankan Air Force landed Sri Lankan troops to recapture Jaffna peninsula from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, taking back dead and wounded soldiers along with those going home on leave, to the shiny new Jaffna International Airport from where civilians will arrive and depart, this transformation has been a long journey in many ways. It is symbolic of the distance Sri Lanka has travelled from war to peace.
Ten years after the war ended, the airport at Palaly will now connect Jaffna to many places in the world. Through the war years, the Tamil diaspora spread widely across the globe, but the only airport to fly out from all this time was Colombo. The Chinese-built road through the heart of northern Sri Lanka has eased the road journey from the peninsula to the capital city, and the Jaffna-Colombo train service has been back for five years. But for many years, the distance between the two cities to catch a flight was not just long, but filled with the hazards of multiple checkpoints, where packing and unpacking suitcases was considered only the most minor of misfortunes that could befall a traveller, and of having to stay overnight in Colombo lodges that could be raided anytime on suspicion that LTTE members were sheltering there. The first civilian flight to land there was from Tamil Nadu. It carried the weight of the long chequered history of India-Sri Lanka relations, more specifically, the special place the southern state has occupied in this from times immemorial.
That bilateral relations have changed to a point where Sri Lanka is confident enough to permit transport links between the Tamil-speaking north and Tamil Nadu tells its own story. Sinhalese Buddhism lives in the atavistic fear of an invasion from the north, and the sides taken by Tamil Nadu political parties in the civil war fuelled such fears. Sri Lanka turned down Indian financial assistance to redevelop the airport, but the air link will help boost trade, both formal and informal, and travel. Not long ago, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to build a bridge connecting Sri Lanka and India, to bring the island country closer to mainland South Asia. Jaffna International Airport could be that bridge.