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Caught between the Tigers and the tanks

[The Globe and Mail, Sunday, 7 June 2009 09:23 No Comment]

by Stephanie Nolen

TAMILNET-09_05_09__Mulli-vaaykkaal_23_80964_445 The Sri Lankan government claims it is close to defeating the infamous Tamil Tiger rebels, though it admits a terrorist insurgency is likely to follow. Meanwhile, both sides are preventing Tamil civilians from fleeing to safety

Every day, the women get up in the cool of early morning and walk a few kilometres north to the heavily fortified checkpoint that stands between them and their families. And every day a kindly staffer from the International Committee of the Red Cross tells them that they still cannot cross.

So they turn away from the barbed wire and stacks of sandbags and camouflage and walk back into town, where they squat in the shade of the main government office, waiting for the road home to open — and knowing it won’t, until home has changed so much that they will scarcely recognize it.

These women (along with their children and a few old men) come from a war zone — a region of Sri Lanka called Vanni, where until a few weeks ago the vicious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) maintained a de facto independent state Now, a punishing air, sea and land campaign by the Sri Lankan military has driven the Tigers into a tiny corner of the north, their backs against the bright blue sea.

In their retreat, the rebels have taken with them most of the civilians who lived under their control — an estimated 300,000 people.

One of the world’s longest-running conflicts, the 25-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka, seems to be entering its final phase of conventional warfare.

The Red Cross says an unknown number of civilians have been killed and injured since President Mahinda Rajapaksa set out in 2006 to crush the LTTE — which most Western countries, including Canada, consider a terrorist organization, best known internationally for carrying out grisly suicide attacks on civilians.

The rebels now hold an area no bigger than 30-by-30-kilometres, around the northern city of Mullaitivu. They have been pinned down before and fought their way back to power, but most observers think this is probably their end as a controlling force.

However, this war, which has already cost the lives of at least 70,000 people, seems certain to get much bloodier before it ends, as the cornered Tigers dig in and prepare to unleash their considerable arsenal.

The United Nations has issued repeated calls for the Tigers to release civilians and for the government to treat them well. The assumption is that all the civilians in the north would flee if they could.

A few have managed to get out, and these people stand on one side of the checkpoint, awaiting a long and unpleasant "security screening" by government soldiers hunting for any sign they have links with the Tigers. Those who pass muster — and most men 14 to 45 years old don’t even bother to try — are waved through and taken to a refugee camp, where they will live behind thick coils of razor wire, forbidden to leave.

But no one here is talking about the other line in Vavuniya, the one five times as long — the line of people desperate to go back the other way. No one admits what it says about the chances for real peace in Sri Lanka that so many people see more hope for their families in a war zone than in the calm of the government-held side.

But the Tamil women here have no trouble explaining it. Each has come across in the past few days or weeks to seek medical treatment or write exams, as part of a system of exchanges between LTTE and government territory that, surprisingly, kept functioning through the worst of the war until now.

"I’d rather go back and die with my family than be here alone," says Kala, a 29-year-old schoolteacher (like many others here, she is afraid to be quoted with her full name). Kala’s family has been displaced at least three times so far in the fighting; in the five days since she left to bring an aunt to the hospital here, their village has been shelled and her family is on the run again.

"I had a phone call from my three-year-old daughter screaming, ‘Mommy, come home,’" Kala says, tears on her cheeks. "We are trapped between the government forces and the LTTE. We are trapped between both sides with no idea what to do."

The LTTE won’t allow whole families to flee south, but even if it did, Kala says she would be petrified that her husband would disappear after the crossing. Young Tamil men are frequently detained on suspicion by the armed forces — by law, they can hold a person 18 months without charge; in practice, confinement can last much longer.

"If I am there, I can guard him," she says. "When they come with their questions — ‘Who are you?’ ‘What are you doing?’ — I can say, ‘This is my husband. This is my daughter’s father, leave him.’"

COLONIAL LEGACY

Sri Lanka’s conflict has its roots in historic tensions between the majority Sinhalese population, who are mainly Buddhists, and the minority Tamils, who are mostly Hindu — tensions deliberately exacerbated by the British colonial administration in a divide-and-rule strategy that lasted until independence in 1948.

In the 1950s, to cement its power, the Sinhalese-dominated government began a series of overtly chauvinistic actions such as making Sinhala the only official language, giving special status to Buddhism and passing a law that said Tamil students required higher marks to enter university than Sinhalese students did.

There were communal riots — which international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, describe as state-sponsored — in which tens of thousands of Tamils were killed or lost property. The then-president called the killers "heroes of the Sinhalese people."

There was a corresponding rise in Tamil nationalism, and in the 1970s the LTTE, having killed off Tamil leaders who favoured a non-violent push for federalism, emerged as the dominant force demanding an independent Tamil nation in the north and east of the country.

The ensuing conflict was largely ignored by the outside world until the 1980s, when the Tigers unleashed fleets of suicide attackers, whose most famous victim was Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi — killed by a young female LTTE fighter who bent to touch his feet in a gesture of veneration before triggering the explosives beneath her sari.

The LTTE did not limit itself to political or military targets: It blew up buses full of poor rural people and slaughtered worshippers at one of the holiest shrines of Buddhism.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the 70,000-plus casualties of the war have been Tamil civilians, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Nearly half the Tamil population has fled, the bulk of them to Canada, which has the largest population of Sri Lankans outside the country — at least 300,000, two-thirds of them in the Toronto area.

Periodic peace efforts, spearheaded by Norway, have yielded little. Most observers agree that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was never serious about negotiations. Both sides violated ceasefires. The last one broke down with the launch of this military campaign.

The government has promised that after its military victory, it will begin intense reconstruction and development efforts in the north to demonstrate to Tamils that they will be equal citizens. "The President has promised a just and honourable peace," says Lakshman Hulugalle, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defence.

Earlier this month, however, the government "proscribed" the LTTE, making it illegal to talk to the organization and closing the door on any negotiated settlement.

BATTLING ACCOUNTS

It is impossible to obtain precise information about what is happening in the north, which the government has completely sealed to both Sri Lankan and foreign journalists. Both sides blatantly manipulate the information they release.

"We have zero damage to civilians and the minimum to our forces," says Mr. Hulugalle. "The downfall of LTTE terrorism is very near." Official reports say the Tigers are now pinned by the army on three sides and blockaded by the navy from an exit by sea.

On their websites, though, the Tigers insist they have not lost territory but rather strategically withdrawn to position themselves better for a fight; that they have killed thousands of government troops; and that the armed forces’ air and artillery strikes have left hundreds of Tamil civilians dead.

United Nations officials say privately that the Sri Lankan military has indeed taken thousands of casualties. And while the government insists that no more than 1,000 or perhaps 2,000 Tiger fighters remain, senior staff with aid agencies and diplomatic missions (not permitted to speak on the record) say that the real figure may be as high as 40,000 of the most seasoned rebels and that the Tigers have brought their weaponry from across the northern territory with them into Mullaitivu.

There is feverish speculation on the whereabouts of Mr. Prabhakaran, the shadowy Tiger leader. Some say he has left the country, after sending out his family — his sister, for example, lives in Toronto. But most people here believe that he is still on the island and that he will fight to the end with his much-vaunted cyanide capsule worn around his neck to make sure he is not taken alive.

"He says he will fight to his last breath for us," says one older man in Vavuniya who is in his fifth day of waiting for the border to open. Then he adds, with a sardonic smile: "Whether we like it or not."

Meanwhile, an unknown number of people is stuck in the middle of the increasingly fierce fighting. How many, again, depends on whom you ask: The government says 100,000 at most. The Red Cross says perhaps 200,000. But it’s at least 300,000, according to United Nations staff working on the ground in the north with the few agencies that are sporadically bringing in humanitarian supplies.

"We have been able to get basic supplies to them, but they don’t have what they need," says Neil Buhne, a Canadian who is the top UN official in Sri Lanka.

"Many have moved 10 times, sometimes more, and they’re very scared, scared of everything, as any population in this situation would be. It’s important that every effort be made to protect them — that they be allowed to come out if they want to, or stay if they want to stay."

The government says the Tigers are holding the civilians in the north, using them as human shields and not letting them flee. The LTTE uses a cold, calculated system of "bail" for any Tamil who wants to leave its area — the person must "post" a relative or close friend, who will be taken for manual labour or to fight if the person does not return in a specified time.

The practice has been widely condemned by human-rights organizations, but the people waiting in Vavuniya simply see it as part of life.

Kala’s brother-in-law offered to be her bail; she does not know where he has been since their village was bombed, but she has no doubt the Tigers will find him if she doesn’t come back.

Yet bail is not the only explanation for why, even in the thick of war, she and many others still wait and want to go home.

"We want to die together," says Nandini, 27 and in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy that brought her over the line of control for tests.

She has chafed against the restrictions of LTTE rule most of her adult life, but she is desperate to get home — even though bombers have come low over her village, 10 kilometres from Mullaitivu, for weeks. "Either we live together or die together."

INSURGENCY IN WAITING

Army commanders say it is a matter of days or weeks at most until they control the whole north; diplomatic and aid workers say it could take several months.

But there is agreement that the all-out military strategy embraced by Mr. Rajapaksa and his brother, Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (a former software engineer in California’s Silicon Valley), has been a military success.

The campaign has combined heavy air attacks with multi-pronged advances by army brigades.

The forces have reclaimed an area called Elephant Pass, which links the peninsula of Jaffna in the north to the main island. But their most conspicuous success was the capture on Jan. 2 of Kilinochchi, which the Tigers for years called the capital of their independent homeland, with a parallel civil administration including customs and taxation offices and banks.

The news was greeted with jubilation in the streets of Colombo, the national capital. But the noise of celebratory firecrackers was, within hours, dwarfed by the explosions of two Tiger suicide attacks that left several military officers dead.

There is a sense here that any declaration of victory by the government would be hollow, as the Tigers will switch to a different sort of war, using the shelter of the dense jungles of the north and a community still hungry for freedom to wage an Iraqi-style insurgency.

"There will be for the next couple of years bombs coming up — they will be able to do it, but they won’t control areas," says Mr. Hulugalle, the defence spokesman. "It’s very difficult to crush it 100 per cent, we accept that. The war will be over, but terrorism will be there."

As a result, he says, the government will be obliged to maintain its vast network of checkpoints and other "security measures" loathed by the Tamil population, which include sealing off prime land, restricting civilian movement and barring fishermen from going to sea.

The new phase of the conflict could be just as grim as the last, in its effects on the civilian population and on the prospects for development in Sri Lanka.

"As the government congratulates itself on its glorious military victories, the old proverb applies: They have won the battle, but they haven’t won the war," says one Western diplomat.

CORRUPTION AND IMPUNITY

Tamils and other opponents of the government who look around the country today will probably take little comfort in the promise of a just peace.

The east — which came under government control in 2006, after the No. 2 Tiger leader split off with several thousand fighters and allied with Colombo — remains heavily militarized and is actively being "Sinhalized," with areas losing their Tamil names and Hindu shrines being converted to Buddhist worship sites.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago in the capital, the country’s leading anti-corruption journalist was assassinated by gunmen on motorbikes, a crime the government limply condemned. International observers put the blame squarely on state intelligence agencies.

"They whacked the most influential editor of a newspaper in the country in broad daylight, with real military precision," the Western diplomat says. "It’s the work of armed groups funded by the intelligence agencies and reporting to the Secretary of Defence — that’s the prevailing point of view.

"There is a complete culture of impunity here. There is a perception that the government can do whatever they want — and they can."

That leaves the civilians of the north facing two equally odious choices.

"Helpless Tamils are pressured by both sides," says a weary government employee in Vavuniya who is charged with looking after the civilians who cross from the north. He is Tamil himself.

"People find it very difficult to live in a war zone with bombing and shelling, and they would leave if they could. Then the government says it wants to safeguard them and then puts them in a jail.

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