Sri Lanka: Endless War

By Simon Robinson, TIME
Thursday, Apr. 05, 2007
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Like her country, Sinnathambi Jeevatharsini is beauty torn. Just 9 years old, she has long black hair tied up in two loose knots on either side of her head, and a smile that explodes across her face, as if someone has switched on a spotlight. She's smart, too, likes social studies best, and especially learning about different cultures in far-off lands. Crouched on a mat in a refugee camp on Sri Lanka's east coast, flicking the pages of a schoolbook, pencil by her side, she looks like a normal kid. And then you spot it: Jeevatharsini has no left arm. Through the hole in her dress where her upper arm should join her shoulder, a stump is just visible, the skin slightly puckered where the surgeon has stretched it back across the bone to stitch it together.

Jeevatharsini lost the arm in artillery shelling five months ago, says her father Loganathan Sinnathambi, who farmed rice until the family was forced to flee fighting between government soldiers and rebel forces in their hometown of Trincomalee last July. They headed south, but each time they found shelter with a relative or in a camp for internally displaced people, as refugees within their own country are known, fighting would erupt again and they would be forced to move on. Last November, the family was cowering inside a tent at a camp in the town of Kathiraveli during a bombardment when a shell landed close by. Shrapnel ripped through the flimsy canvas and into flesh, killing Jeevatharsini's 7-year-old sister, punching a fist-sized hole in her 4-year-old brother's lower back, and slicing into her arm. Sinnathambi has now moved his family further south to the district of Batticaloa, where I found them in a makeshift camp in early March, still in shock at what had happened. "She was full of life before," he says, nodding at Jeevatharsini. "Now she's scared and cries and comes to me all the time. She cries a lot."

THE DEPARTED: A Tamil woman mourns her dead brother at an L.T.T.E. "martyrs' graveyard" outside Kilinochchi, where the Tamil Tigers have their jungle base
MANISH SWARUP / AP

Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans share Jeevatharsini's scars. In 2002 the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.), as the rebels call themselves, signed a cease-fire designed to lead to a political agreement. While the rebels want a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka's north and east, the government wants to keep the island whole. A federation seemed a possible compromise. But peace talks sputtered and then collapsed (both sides accused the other of being insincere), and since December 2005, Sri Lanka has again been at undeclared war with itself. The latest round of bloodletting is much like previous ones—bombings (including a Tuesday blast that killed 15, mostly women and children, in a bus), shellings, suicide attacks against political leaders, government air raids on rebel-held areas, abductions and disappearances of anyone believed to be aiding the other side. In the past 16 months, more than 4,000 people have been killed, and 220,000 people forced from their homes; a total of half a million Sri Lankans are now displaced in their own country. Nordic peacekeepers who are supposed to be monitoring peace have "gone from reporting single shots as [cease-fire] violations to reporting whole battles," according to one international observer who did not want his name used.

Government forces have pushed the Tigers out of much of the east, in part because a breakaway faction of Tamil fighters that fell out with the main rebel group has joined with government troops against their old comrades. The Sri Lankan military is now opening up a new front in the northwest. But there are few signs that the military is on the verge of victory. The L.T.T.E. has used tactical withdrawals to regroup following defeats in the past and is still able to spring surprises. In late February a group of foreign diplomats, including the U.S. and Italian ambassadors, had just helicoptered into Batticaloa, an area the government had assured them was safe, when they came under rebel mortar fire. (Both ambassadors were slightly hurt.) Two weeks ago, in one of its most audacious attacks so far, the Tigers used two small planes (the government says it was just one), which the group had smuggled onto the island piece by piece over the past few years, to bomb an airfield adjacent to the country's international airport outside Colombo. The attack killed three and wounded 16, but officials say government planes weren't damaged. The air attack was so unexpected that the improvised bombers were able to make it back to rebel territory unharmed. The Tigers sent journalists photographs of its new "air wing," including close-ups of an airplane fitted with small bombs and a group shot showing Tiger pilots surrounding a beaming Velupillai Prabhakaran, the group's charismatic but ruthless leader.

Sri Lanka has been in ceaseless turmoil for more than three decades. During the 1970s and '80s, Marxist radicals in the south engaged in a fierce campaign against the government and were just as brutally put down. The conflict with the L.T.T.E. was sparked in 1975 when the Tigers assassinated the mayor of Jaffna, Sri Lanka's northernmost city, and intensified after the killing of 13 soldiers in 1983. Fighting has gone on for so long now that it has brutalized an entire society, creating a culture of violence that haunts the country whether there is fighting or not. In his exquisitely written novel Anil's Ghost, set in an earlier phase of the conflict, Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje describes the unnatural horrors that grip this tropical South Asian island of 21 million people. In Sri Lanka, Ondaatje writes, "the reason for war was war."

As the U.S. grapples with insurgencies in Iraq, and internecine fighting rages on in places like Darfur, the renewal of hostilities in Sri Lanka offers some lessons as to why civil wars are so hard to end. Part of the problem is that fratricidal disputes are often personal and heartfelt. "Both sides see themselves as being locked in a fight against evil," Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, wrote in a recent appraisal of his country's war. This fight is part ethnic, part religious and wholly vicious. "It is the belief in the unchanging nature of the other that often leads to violence. Both think the other won't change."

In the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians implicitly understand that a solution to their interminable feud requires a framework in which both sides feel secure, yet they remain deadlocked. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, newspaper polls suggest that Tamils as well as Sinhalese grudgingly accept the need for political compromise. The years of fighting, however, have left people bitter and angry and all too ready to seek revenge in a terrible cycle of violence. "There are those who are very war crazy," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank. "And the rest often go along."

Among those most hungry for war are the leaders of the L.T.T.E., a group born out of the belief that Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority will never treat the country's mostly Hindu Tamil minority as equals or give them the autonomy they long for. Since independence in 1948, "all the agreements we have reached have been torn up and thrown into the dustbin," L.T.T.E. Peace Secretariat secretary-general Pulee Devan told TIME by phone from the Tigers' jungle base in Kilinochchi, in the north. "Fifty years' experience has dictated to us that there is no big difference who is in power in the capital. They have all failed to deliver any meaningful settlement to the Tamil people." Sri Lanka's Tamils have some valid grievances: Sinhalese chauvinism is evident in everything from innocuous conversations with money changers to the billboards that dot Colombo stating "One Country. One People." In the decades following independence, governments in Colombo progressively impinged on Tamil rights, forcing kids to learn Sinhalese, taking over land for Sinhalese settlements in Tamil areas, favoring Sinhalese candidates for government jobs. And so the L.T.T.E., which is now listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Europe and India, took up arms, perfecting the modern method of suicide bombing and so successfully indoctrinating its troops—there are now some 12,000—that Tiger soldiers carry vials of arsenic to swallow if they are captured.

The Tigers' bloody insurgency has forced the government to the negotiating table more than once. But there things usually stall, in part because a real settlement would require the Tigers, and in particular longtime leader Prabhakaran, to concede that the group is not the sole representative of the Tamil people. Free elections in Sri Lanka's Tamil region would likely bring moderate Tamil parties to power, threatening the L.T.T.E.'s influence. There is no doubt Prabhakaran is a prophetlike figure for many Tamils, but his power stems as much from his cold-blooded elimination of political rivals and moderate Tamil leaders as from genuine devotion. "Each individual person knows that if his name gets on a list of those who want change [from Tiger domination], they better be very careful," says Father Benjamin Henry "Harry" Miller, 81, a Catholic priest who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1948 and works at a Jesuit school in Batticaloa. Proud and inflexible, Prabhakaran needs the violence—or he risks irrelevancy. "You will not change his mind," says Miller. "You can only stop his mind."

Successive governments have proved just as stubborn. The government's heavy-handed treatment of the Tamil citizens it claims to want to liberate from L.T.T.E. tyranny has merely created more distrust and resentment. Rather than reach out to the Tamil people directly and offer them a degree of autonomy and self-governance that would undercut the Tigers' power, officials have regularly been suckered into more fighting by the rebels. As in Israel, domestic politics plays an important role. The cease-fire in 2002 was signed with a government more open to negotiation. But the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse in late 2005 saw the return of a more hard-line attitude toward the L.T.T.E. Top officials in Colombo oscillate between talking and fighting. "They forget that you can and should deal with the underlying problem with or without the L.T.T.E.," says Dayan Jayatilleka, a senior lecturer in the department of politics at the University of Colombo who was recently named Sri Lanka's ambassador to Switzerland and permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva. "It's this kind of a trap."

And so the two sides remain locked in a deadly military struggle that diplomats, peace monitors and military analysts say neither can ever win. "They fight each other to the point of exhaustion and stalemate," says the Centre for Policy Alternatives' Saravanamuttu. "Both sides have the ability to take territory but holding it proves difficult." The conflict has now killed more than 65,000, and yet peace seems more distant than ever, especially because the collapse of the cease-fire has destroyed any goodwill that might have existed between the two sides. "We have no way out of this problem other than winning this war," says H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, a former deputy inspector-general of Sri Lanka's police and now an adviser to the Minister of Defense. "Otherwise, we will be condemning future generations to endless war."

The violence has infected other parts of Sri Lankan society. The country has high rates of domestic violence and alcoholism. The suicide rate, especially among Sri Lanka's young, is one of the worst in Asia. The fighting and threat of suicide bombings means many children miss long periods of school. Cell phones have turbocharged Sri Lanka's rumor mill and kids are yanked from classes at even the whiff of potential trouble. Many of those who do well in school end up leaving the country for opportunities abroad.

Jayatilleka says the bombings and assassinations have gone on for so long that he now navigates Colombo according to where atrocities occurred. "Every place has a story of violence," he says. "The whole landscape." The brutality colors the way people think about the current fighting. Sri Lankan film star and would-be peacemaker Ranjan Ramanayaka is given to phrases like "the most powerful God is nature," and "the conflict can be ended with the weapon of love, the weapon of having sex, the weapon of making little babies together." But even he recently applied for a gun license after a series of death threats against him because of his antiwar stance. "The élite use war to stay in charge," says Ramanayaka. "The only way to success in Sri Lanka is violence."

Human-rights groups say that disappearances and extrajudicial killings are on the rise again. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that followers of Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, otherwise known as Colonel Karuna, one of the L.T.T.E.'s most senior military leaders who broke away in 2004 and now fights alongside government troops, have been responsible for hundreds of recent abductions. (Karuna and the military deny committing these acts.) The L.T.T.E., too, continues to kidnap potential young fighters. The violence is not chaotic, as in parts of Africa, but controlled and sadistic. It's as if the entire nation is suffering a slow-burning but destructive psychosis. "There's been a brutalization of society," says Saravanamuttu. "For centuries we have gone through these occasional paroxysms of violence, but over the last three decades we have increasingly relied on violence as the chief form of dispute settlement."

Even the normally peaceful agitate for war. A hard-line Sinhalese nationalist party of Buddhist monks is now part of the ruling coalition. Late last year some of the party's nine M.P.s scuffled with antiwar protesters—mostly Sinhalese but some Tamils—at a rally in Colombo. "Clearly when groups fight, the first attempt should be to solve it through talks," says the Venerable Athuraliye Rathana, who heads the Buddhist group. "But we cannot tolerate [the Tigers'] terrorist activities. We have to destroy [them], and then we can talk." It's the mantra of a nation: kill or be killed. In the camp outside Batticaloa, as Jeevatharsini finishes her schoolwork, her father ponders what he will do next: "Because of the losses I have [suffered], the depression and frustration," says Sinnathambi, "sometimes I get the feeling I should also resort to violence." In Sri Lanka, the reason for war is war.