JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (AP) — Cheered by tens of thousands of people, a train decorated with banana plants and colorful flower garlands arrived in Sri Lanka's northern Tamil heartland on Monday, 24 years after the "Queen of Jaffna" was suspended due to civil war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa bought a ticket and boarded the train for the last 43 kilometers (27 miles) of the journey and opened several railroad stations along the way.
"Yarl Devi," as it is known in Tamil, was once a popular mode of transport between the ethnic Tamil-majority north and the Sinhala-majority south but was scaled back in 1990 because of the heightening of the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels.
The civil war that raged since 1983 ended in 2009 when Sri Lankan troops crushed the rebels.
"This is not just a train journey but a bridge between north and south," Rajapaksa told The Associated Press onboard the train.
"Today what is left to us is to win over hearts and minds, healing of minds. I think this train journey today will help connect hearts and minds once again."
Many government ministers and military commanders joined Rajapaksa on the journey as thousands of people gathered at every station to greet the train and rushed to take photographs with it.
An old woman using a walking aid clasped her hands in a sign of worship as the train reached Chavakachcheri, a town south of Jaffna. Since the service stopped, Jaffna has had no trains, meaning few of the city's children have seen one in real life.
"We are very happy. My children now will be able to travel by train," said Mary Saroja, who runs a grocery shop in the town of Pallai, south of Jaffna. Saroja has five children 20 and younger, and they have never traveled by train.
Before the civil war erupted in 1983, the train was not only the most convenient way to travel between north and south, but also was a symbol of unity between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. At the time, Tamils dominated bureaucratic and state service posts, and many civil servants based in Colombo used it to visit friends and family in the north.
It was a main artery in Sri Lanka's commerce, transporting fish from the north to the capital, and connecting the islanders regardless of ethnic identity.
As militants from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam increased their attacks in the 1980s, the government stationed many soldiers, mostly Sinhalese, in Jaffna, and they used the train to return home for visits.
In January 1985, rebels blew up the train, killing 22 soldiers and 11 civilians and wounding 44 other people, in the single-biggest attack on the military at the time. The train was shut down in 1990 as rebels stepped up attacks in the north to push for their own independent state.
During the war, both sides attached immense strategic and symbolic importance to capturing and holding key access roads to Jaffna, including the railroad and the parallel A9 highway, dubbed "the highway of death" for the many lives lost in battles over its control. That highway has since been restored.
Resumption of the "Queen of Jaffna" train service, thanks to an $800 million loan from India, completes the restoration of government authority in the north. The government is dominated by the majority Sinhalese.
But many Tamils feel such infrastructure projects alone won't bring true ethnic reconciliation. Deep wounds have been left by the war, which took at least 100,000 lives on both sides over more than 25 years, according to conservative estimates by the United Nations.
The U.N. says up to 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed, mainly in government military attacks in the final months of the conflict. Relatives are still looking for missing family members, and villagers have been denied entry to farmland occupied by the military.
The U.N. is investigating into allegations of war crimes against the government and Tamil rebels.