Trees of life and death

The palmyras of Sri Lanka's Northern Province are symbolic of the region's troubles

The palmyra palm, Borassus flabellifer, is the traditional emblem of Sri Lanka's embattled Northern Province. Silhouetted in the distance against the mauves and pinks of a Jaffna sunset, the palmyras resemble huge feather dusters. Seen up close, their fan-like leaves taper into criss-crossing spikes.

I had been asked to take a photograph of one by Father Ruban, a Catholic Tamil priest who was running a journalism programme at the university in Jaffna, the regional capital, and who needed the picture for a book cover. We could combine the hunt for the tallest, most expansive palmyra with a tour of the peninsula, he said. Jaffna Peninsula has always been at the centre of the Tamil Tigers' 25-year war, a struggle to carve away a separate state for the island's mainly Hindu minority. Last year, fighting resumed after four years, largely invalidating a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire.

The current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, came to power two years ago with an avowedly hawkish stance, pandering to hardline sentiments among the Sinhalese, largely Buddhist majority. Many see the island as uniquely sacred to Buddhism and thus indivisible. Unperturbed, the Tigers will undoubtedly push to recapture Jaffna, having run the peninsula as a mini-state between 1990 and 1995.

A few streets away from Father Ruban's office, the yellow and red of a Tiger crest, a roaring feline atop two crossed rifles, had not quite been scrubbed off one wall. Soldiers at the nearby checkpoint eyed me sternly as I snapped a shot. Depending on how the war progresses, the crest could prove to be either a memory or an omen.

When the Tigers captured Jaffna, much of the city was pummelled by artillery. The area around the 17th-century Portuguese fort is a wasteland of ruins, the walls splattered with bullet holes. Seventeen years ago, the president's younger brother Gotabhaya, now Sri Lanka's defence secretary, was a colonel commanding about 200 Sinhalese troops holed up in the fort. After a 107-day siege, the Tigers forced a humiliating retreat and flew their flag above the ramparts. Recently, Gotabhaya has vowed to "wipe out" the Tigers within three years. The Tigers have suffered heavy defeats lately, but they have long shown an ability to spring back.

If Jaffna's buildings evoke Beirut or Sarajevo, its vehicles make you think of an Anglophile Havana. Father Ruban's hired car was an antiquated but scrupulously maintained Austin, a model that disappeared from Britain's streets around the time of the Lib-Lab pact. Vauxhall Crestas, Hillman Imps and Morris Minors: they all sparkle in the tropical sun.

The Austin took us through Nelliady, the place where the tale of modern suicide bombing begins. Although preceded by Hezbollah's attack on the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983, the strike on an army camp at Nelliady in July 1987 was the first time that insurgents used a specially drilled division and specific bombing technology.

It would take just a few years for the Tigers' suicide belts to be copied by shahids, blasting across battlefields in Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq. To those who see suicide bombing as something that belongs exclusively to fundamentalist Islam, the Tigers must seem a glaring anomaly. After all, Tiger art and literature almost never make reference to an afterlife. Nor is a karmic view of the cosmos to blame. As if to stress the point that confessional passions do not motivate the Tigers, their dead (whenever bodies or body parts can be retrieved) are buried, not cremated.

The conflict has always been essentially an ethnic one, and island-wide pogroms against the Tamils in 1958, 1977 and 1983 created a ready pool of young militants, male and female. Day and night, the army's guns blast south towards a vast enclave of Tiger territory beyond the Jaffna Lagoon, known as the Vanni. In the southern part of the peninsula, it is possible to drive past groves of blackened tree trunks - of palmyras whose canopies have been blasted off.

It occurred to me while looking out of Father Ruban's moving car that the ghosts of the Vietcong might be flitting past us. The hunt for the perfect palmyra took us through countryside tailor-made for guerrilla combat. Jaffna town might be saturated with soldiers, but ten minutes could pass before a tractor would splutter past us ferrying a few morose lifers from one camp to another.

They will need company in order to hold on to the peninsula, but the president's brother takes his three-year plan seriously. National defence expenditure is expected to reach $7.2bn this year and there are plans to recruit another 50,000 military personnel. All this comes even as the Sri Lankan rupee falls against the dollar and fuel prices rise in the south.

In the north, however, there has been a long tra dition of dealing with privation. For this, the palmyra has repeatedly proved its worth. During the five years of Tiger rule, with the peninsula cut off by war and embargoes, the local people improvised detergent from its sap and paper from its dried fronds.

Travel to the north and east is usually called "going behind the cadjan curtain". Cadjan is a wicker-like material used in housing, called karukku, made by weaving dried strips of palmyra together. It is ubiquitous in a peninsula where so many stone walls are chipped and cratered by gunfire.

When we got to the Vallipuram Hindu temple, Father Ruban's students procured some palmyra-derived toddy. Tasting like cheap wine, it is mildly alcoholic, at least compared to arrack, the neuron-melting variant. For the kids, there is some toffee made from a sweetener called jaggery, a little like brown sugar. But as the security forces have long found, these trees are also the perfect place to conceal a sniper.

Father Ruban eventually found a sufficiently large palmyra. My photo would look well, he said, on the cover he was preparing, for a slim guidebook in Tamil aimed at trainee journalists.

The palmyra is afforded special status in Tamil culture. It is the celestial tree from which all human life derives. In today's Jaffna, many things do come from the palmyra: toddy and Tigers, to name two.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan