The ceasefire agreement between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) still holds after 3 years, though progress towards a peace settlement has been uncertain.
This ambivalence shows its many faces during a drive down the A9 - repaired with ADB support - which has opened up the conflict-devastated north to the rest of country.
After being closed for several years during the 18-year civil war, the road was officially reopened shortly after the ceasefire, and its rehabilitation completed just over a year ago. Today, traffic and trade are once more flowing between north and south - though not yet in a totally unrestricted manner. Travelers need passes for the journey and vehicles go through time-consuming inspections at checkpoints.
Today, more people and goods from the south are reaching not only Jaffna, but also Mullattivu in the northeast. The A9 also links to access roads through which the rural poor can reach markets and social services in the urban centers.
The repaired road is having a "hugely significant" impact on the economic and social development of the north, says K. Ganesh, the Government Agent for Jaffna. Mr. Ganesh was also Government Agent based at Vavuniya while the road was being repaired from late 2002.
An unusual story lies behind one of ADB's most effective projects. For an institution sometimes criticized for cumbersome procedures, the project reflects aspirit of innovative improvisation and "can-do" practicality in the face of daunting challenges.
When the ceasefire agreement was signed in February 2002, an important clause was that the A9 - which had been barricaded and heavily mined on either side - would be opened up. This was easier said than done, however. After years of neglect, many sections were practically impassable. Some potholes could swallow up a small vehicle.
ADB's John Cooney, then country director in Sri Lanka, recalls that an idea for a quick, cheap and effective solution came to him "while I was in the shower."
He went to the Government with a proposal for a "quick and dirty fix" - making the road usable for 3 to 5 years, with a more comprehensive rehabilitation planned for later. Of course, the proposal also needed to be endorsed by the LTTE, who controlled much of the area through which the road passed.
"So off I went in a military helicopter, more nervous than afraid," says Mr. Cooney. "As we landed, I could see people smiling and waving who would have been running for cover a few months earlier. I was escorted to a meeting with senior LTTE leaders."
The LTTE was interested in repairing the road, but less enthusiastic about the approach suggested by ADB. Mr. Cooney says the fact that the construction would be carried out by local people helped to win the LTTE over in the end.
The result: a 100-kilometer (km) stretch of dilapidated road was repaired in 7 months at a cost of only $7 million. Time was saved by using loan savings from another project, without the need for the lengthy processing of a new project. Also, to keep costs down, the work was distributed among several contractors.
Symbolically and in practical terms, the impact was noticeable from day one. Once called the "highway of death," the road is now used by over three million travelers a year.
"The A9 provides physical proof of the ceasefire," says Bob Rinker, deputy country director of ADB's Sri Lanka Resident Mission in Colombo. "It is a demonstration of peace in practice."
The first dramatic effect of the road was to bring down prices.
"Basic goods were scarce in Jaffna during the war and prices were astronomical," recalls Mookiah Thiruchelvam, an ADB implementation officer responsible for projects in the north. "You couldn't even get batteries and fertilizer without great difficulty."
As essential consumer goods began to head north, so did products from the Jaffna peninsula's fertile soil and abundant waters begin to make their way south - fish, pulses, vegetables, fruit, rice, and tobacco.
Today, signs of new building abound in Jaffna. At one site, where a new judicial court is going up, T. Raju, project engineer for Colombo-based Sierra Construction, says the cement comes from Trincomalee and the steel reinforcement, scaffolding, and GI pipes from Colombo. "The travel time from Colombo since the road was repaired has been reduced by 25% to 3 days," he says.
Nowhere is the emerging affluence more evident than in downtown Jaffna with its bustling central market and packed bus terminal. One row of gleaming shops along Stanley Road, for example, didn't exist before the ceasefire.
Singer, the brand firm famous for sewing machines but which offers a range of household appliances, pulled out its northern branches during the conflict, but reopened in Jaffna after the ceasefire.
"Our supplies come through the A9 and business is growing steadily," reports branch manager Beeta Rajanayagan.
Across the road, at a motorcycle shop, Nadarasa Kunapalasingam used to bring in motorcycles by ship twice a week but, since the reopening of the A9, they all come by road. "Sales have increased by 50% since the ceasefire," he adds.
Times are changing for the better at towns along the way south, too.
In Chavakachcheri, the front buildings of the district hospital are ruined shells - but one intact building at the back has a long line of patients that extends outside. The hospital is targeted for rebuilding with ADB financing.
In his office, Dr. S. Ampikaipakan, the officer in charge, says medical supplies used to take a long time coming by sea via Jaffna when the road was closed. They often ran out of vital medicines such as antibiotics for asthmatic and bronchial cases. Nowadays, this isn't such a problem.
Soon after Elephant Pass - a narrow strip of land, control of which was pivotal in the conflict - comes the first LTTE checkpoint. Under the watchful gaze of gun-toting soldiers, two men are shoveling a pile of sand onto a lorry - after unloading it to be searched for banned items, such as weapons and ammunition.
Even the trees bear the badge of war - their tops are shorn as a result of fire from multibarreled rocket launchers.
The next major stopping point is Kilinochchi - a ghost town during the conflict, but which is now changing. A water tower toppled during the conflict is being rebuilt by the World Bank. At one of a handful of new restaurants, a staffer says all 10 waiters are kept hopping virtually all day to handle the busy trade.
Just off the main road, the Central School has walls with gaping holes and aroof open to the sky - but pupils are visible within. The secondary school, also marked for reconstruction with ADB help, has 1,700 pupils. "A third live 8 km away or more and before the A9 was repaired, the journey in took half an hour and the children were often late," says principal R. Rajamahenthiran. "Now they take the school bus for a 10-minute ride and late arrivals are much fewer."
At the LTTE headquarters, administrative officer R. Sinnaappa says the rehabilitated road has cut the 57-km journey from Palaly to 1 hour from 3. But, he adds, "Now they have speed checks because the vehicles go too fast - and there are more accidents."
Business is growing quickly in Kilinochchi, he says, and could develop even faster if it wasn't constrained by a lack of power and communications (Japan Bank for International Cooperation is reconstructing the town's main transmission line and extending the power system into the hinterland).
Further south are LTTE and government checkpoints at Omantai. An average of 7,000-8,000 civilians and 1,000-1,200 vehicles cross this line daily despite being stopped and searched. Most appreciate the lifting of the barricades and are philosophical about the delays. To be sure, the A9 is proving a vital conduit in bringing new life to a long-suffering region."