As the principal town of the north, Jaffna played a pivotal – and tragic – role in the early stages of the civil war. During the opening phase of the war, from 1983 to 1987, the LTTE gradually acquired control over much of the town and the surrounding peninsula, rendering SLA troops stationed in the area increasingly powerless. In the end, however, the first counterattack against the LTTE in Jaffna came not from the SLA but from the Indian Peace Keeping Force, or IPKF, who had arrived to police a ceasefire between the two sides and ensure fair treatment for the embattled Tamils – though in the event, they ended up attacking the people they had allegedly come to protect. In October 1987 the IPKF attacked Jaffna in an offensive called Operation Pawan (“Wind”). This was expected to last just two days, though in the event the Indian advance became bogged down by the LTTE’s determined resistance and a bloodbath ensued, with massive civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate IPKF shelling and bombing. IPKF forces were also widely accused of rape, looting and the random murder of civilians – most notoriously the storming of Jaffna hospital and the massacre of many of its patients. In the end it took three weeks of vicious street-by-street fighting before the IPKF could claim control of Jaffna.
The LTTE retreated into the countryside, from where they continued to harry the IPKF until the latter’s withdrawal from Sri Lanka in March 1990, at which point the LTTE simply reoccupied Jaffna. A brief ceasefire followed, though hostilities swiftly resumed. In June 1990 the LTTE captured and massacred around eight hundred Sinhalese policemen stationed in the east of the island. In retaliation, the SLA went on the warpath once more, advancing across the Jaffna Peninsula and subjecting Jaffna to a second siege. This proved a far more protracted affair than the first. Once again, Jaffna suffered indiscriminate shelling, killing hundreds of civilians. At the same time, the Sinhalese troops and others who had been trapped in Jaffna at the sudden resumption of hostilities took refuge in the town’s fort, where they were held by LTTE forces for three months – a bizarre siege within a siege – until a force of SLA commandos succeeded in rescuing them in a daring raid led by future Sri Lankan presidential candidate General (then Colonel) Sarath Fonseka.
Jaffna finally fell to the SLA in December 1995. As they had done in 1987, LTTE forces disappeared back into the countryside and merged with the local population, while continuing to attack the SLA. The LTTE never came close to retaking Jaffna, which remained relatively peaceful (at least compared to other parts of the region) right through until the end of the civil war, being mercifully spared the devastation visited on other northern towns during the final phase of the war.