Sun, Jun 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Famous library lights up future for Sri Lanka


The Hindu goddess of learning is standing guard, a retired school principal is all fired up and the computers are in place.

War-weary Jaffna is ready for the reopening of a famous library, more than two decades after a mob of Sinhala police and thugs set it on fire.

"I am so very happy about that," said A. Sabaratnam, the retired headmaster.

The library, a center of learning and culture, is hugely symbolic for the country's minority Tamil community. The fire destroyed nearly 100,000 Tamil-language books, including rare palm leaf writings.

Its destruction one night in June 1981 opened an ethnic wound that rallied Tamils who wanted to join the fight for a separate homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Locals hope its reopening will help heal some of the torment from a civil war that killed 64,000 people and displaced more than one million. They also hope it will bolster a peace process backed by a 16-month-old ceasefire between Tamil rebels and the government.

The building is once more a gleaming white cultural icon, where a statue of goddess Saraswati stands in the forecourt and a new computer room is already open in the back.

But a date for the official opening has not been set because of a dispute between the government, local Tamil leaders and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Jaffna has been a Tamil center of learning for centuries and many of its schools -- run by missionaries including the great, great grandmother of one-time US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles -- were the best in Sri Lanka.

The schools even attracted students from the Sinhala south from the 1950s through to the 1970s.

The Jaffna library first opened in 1841, and was an important focal point for Tamil history by the time it moved in the mid-1950s to the building that was eventually attacked.

Sabaratnam, who joined the library in 1951, says he remembers the attack vividly.

"It was a great loss for me," he said, while looking at books in a temporary library in Jaffna's old government building.

"When the Jaffna library was burnt it touched almost the hearts of the Jaffna people because they value education very much," said Thomas Savundaranayagam, the Catholic bishop in the region.

The renovated building is still surrounded by reminders of war. Trees and bushes have grown over buildings destroyed by two decades of fighting that made Jaffna the epicenter of the ethnic bloodshed.

It is also just across the street from a sports field named after a former mayor, Alfred Durayappah, who was gunned down in 1975 and is widely believed to have been the first victim of secretive Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The rebels delayed a planned opening in February, with residents saying the LTTE wanted more books collected and a wing built showing what happened to the library.

"They even wanted some of the holes kept to show what happened," one resident said.

Government troops captured Jaffna in 1996 but it is still seen as a rebel stronghold -- the political wrangling over the library highlights the mistrust that still exists despite a ceasefire that has mostly held since it was signed in February last year.

Head librarian S. Thanabaalasinham said there would be about 30,000 volumes when the building reopens.

"We expect more than 1,000 people a day to use it," said Thanabaalasinham, who added he sees about 200 people a day use his temporary building.

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