Usually, the only way to leave is at night, crossing in an open boat a lagoon often strafed by army gunners. But because the Pope was flying into Sri Lanka, the final stop on his punishing Asian tour, and because a new ceasefire between the rebels and Colombo has endured for an astonishing 12 days, the pilgrims were given safe passage.
"I'd never before seen a train - or this thing called television," said Mary, in her best dress.
Led by the Catholic fathers across the battlelines, the Tamils will attend an open-air mass today in Colombo. More than 250,000 people, nearly a quarter of all Sri Lanka's Christians, are expected to hear the pontiff beatify a 17th-century missionary, Father Joseph Vaz, who was persecuted by Dutchmen.
The Pope, who flew in yesterday from Australia, no longer looks the embodiment of robust Christianity. After a taxing 11-day tour, he appeared frail. His left hand shook uncontrollably, his smile replaced by a wince of pain from a hip operation that has taken too long to heal.
Security has been extremely tight for the 24-hour visit, with an extra 15,000 police drafted in. But the pontiff shrugged off possible danger. He rode into Colombo from the airport with his Popemobile's bullet-proof windows open.
Most Sri Lankans are Buddhists, and many are seething over the Pope's refusal to apologise for his dismissive remarks about Buddhism as a "negative" faith in which salvation is obtained through "indifference" to the world.
The Pope tried to mollify the Buddhist clergy - who are boycotting the visit - by claiming he had "the highest regard for the followers of Buddhism and its transcendental virtues".Reuse content