JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (AFP) - Jaffna was the scene of the bloodiest fighting in Sri Lanka's drawn-out ethnic conflict, but war has given way to business after three years of ceasefire and locals hope it continues.
Bullet-riddled buildings and bombed-out offices have disappeared, replaced by air-conditioned shops selling mobile phones in an area that had no electricity a decade ago.
"I have just spent a lot of money to do up this place," says N. Balendran, the owner of Atlas Telecom which holds a franchise for Mobitel cellular phones. "There is a lot of demand, but we can sell more if we have better network coverage."
Before the ceasefire between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels in February 2002, it was an offence to use even a satellite phone here without prior approval from the defence ministry.
As trade thrives, even the air here has changed.
Jaffna's trademark cooking-oil smell has also disappeared from the roads as trucks and buses now run on diesel instead of a concoction of vegetable oil and kerosene used during an embargo which was lifted in 2002 after nearly 15 years.
However, security forces, which retook the town in 1995, still occupy a large number of private homes, though there are fewer armed troops as traffic police take their place.
The rebels held Jaffna between 1990 and 1995 until a 50-day military offensive code-named Riviresa, or Sunshine, which according to the army killed 500 soldiers and 2,500 rebels.
The entire population of 500,000 left the peninsula with about half returning by mid-1996. The rebels say a large number of civilians perished in the military's heavy bombing of the 900-square-mile (2,340-square-kilometre) peninsula which drove residents out.
The arid peninsula, at the northern top of the tear-drop shaped island of Sri Lanka, sits on a bed of limestone and is also known for its palmyrah trees and white-sand beaches.
But the scars of battle are still visible as the palms had tops blown off during the fighting amd others were cut down to build bunkers.
Residents however have largely recovered from the devastation and hope renewed strains on the truce after the August 12 assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar will not lead to renewed fighting.
The government has blamed the killing on the rebels, who deny the claim.
M. Kulasingham, the owner of Varathan Learners, is one of those who came back to Jaffna. He teaches driving lessons and now has about 100 car, truck and bus-driver students every month, a four- to five-fold increase since the ceasefire.
"We want the casefire to continue," Kulasingham. "Business is good and we are looking to the future. When there was an economic embargo I had closed down my school. But now I have a lot of work."
Travelling to Jaffna, 400 kilometres north of the capital Colombo, is still tedious, going through de facto frontier posts while crossing a 100-kilometre (60 mile) stretch of highway through rebel-held territory.
Sri Lanka's Central Bank says relaxing some of the tight trade restrictions has resulted in sharp price declines in the city. The central bank, however, has not quantified the gains.
Locals though complain that seafood which was cheap and bountiful before the ceasefire has disappeared from their dining tables to fetch better prices in the capital Colombo.
"The tiger prawns and the squid no longer appear in the market here," said a military officer who has served here for three years. "The fishermen get a better deal if they send the catch to Colombo. Some of it is also exported."
Muslim trader Mohamed Sanoon who left here in 1989, just before the Tigers ordered all minority Muslims to leave as part of an ethnic cleansing program, returned after the truce. The Tigers later apologised to the Muslims.
"We have no problems now, business is good," Sanoon said while hawking caps at the main bus station. "We will have more business if there is a permanent peace agreement."
An elderly Tamil bus passenger, T. Thriruvanakarasu, said she has rebuilt her bomb-damaged house and does not want war to start again.
"We don't want any trouble," she said.