Misery and death stalk Sri Lanka's north

By Somini Sengupta, The New York Times
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
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The nights are broken again by artillery fire across the black lagoon.

The road out of this peninsula has been closed since last August, making the area nearly inaccessible.  Today, though food and fuel manage to arrive, the town market shuts by afternoon, and shopkeepers are reluctant to keep stocks, not knowing when they might have to close up and run.

By 7 p.m., barely sundown, stray dogs have the run of the streets of Jaffna. Its people are indoors, doors locked, well before an 8 o'clock curfew, which is the most liberal in 10 months. Sri Lankan soldiers linger in the edges of the alleys. Flashlights come on when a car passes. All is still, except for the dogs.

This is Jaffna, the picturesque prize of the quarter-century-long Sri Lankan ethnic war, girding for a new storm.

The army commander for the area, General G.A. Chandrasiri, said he expects a major battle for Jaffna before the August monsoon.

A 2002 cease-fire, which had  stanched the bloodshed for a time, has collapsed. For a year, fighting has spread across the island between the Sri Lankan military, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and the separatist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

According to the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry, more than 4,800 people, civilians and fighters, have been killed in the past 18 months, and though the number is not entirely reliable, it points to a significantly lethal epoch in this long, ugly war.

It is likely to continue for a while. Gotabhaya  Rajapakse, the influential Sri Lankan defense secretary, says the military is under instructions to eliminate the rebel leader, Vellupillai  Prabhakaran, and eradicate his organization once and for all.

"That's our main aim, to destroy the leadership," Rajapakse said in an interview late last month. The job, he went on, would take two to three years.

Peace talks are nowhere on the horizon. Pressure from abroad, including suspensions of aid from countries like Britain and the United States, have done little to temper Sri Lankan military ambitions. The Tamil Tigers, banned in many countries, including the United States, upped the ante this spring by conducting air raids with the aid of modified two-seater propeller planes.

The weapons of war are dirtier than ever today.

Targeted killings and land mine attacks in crowded civilian areas are common. The Tamil Tigers regularly deploy suicide bombers.

Journalists, diplomats and aid workers face hostile scrutiny for any criticism of the security forces. On a Sunday morning in April, a young reporter for a Tamil-language newspaper in Jaffna was shot and killed as he rode his bicycle to work. In May, fliers appeared at Jaffna University, containing a hit list of alleged rebel sympathizers.

At least 15,000 people are waiting to get on government ships to the relative safety of Colombo, the capital. Those who remain dare say little. "Anytime, anything can happen," offered Ravindran Ramanathan, a tailor. "People are afraid of everything."

Jaffna is no stranger to war. Its temples and churches bear the pockmarks of battles past. Its people are familiar with running and dying.  No other place is so scarred because no other place carries Jaffna's special curse: it is the heart of the homeland that the Tamil Tigers have fought to carve out, and the trophy that soldiers and rebels have fought over all these years.

Lately, a new fear stalks Jaffna, and it is more ominous than anything its people recall from their grim past: a spate of mysterious abductions usually carried out during curfew, when soldiers and stray dogs rule the streets. No one is quite sure who is being taken, for what reason, by whom. Sometimes, corpses turn up on the street. More often, they don't turn up at all.

One night in  May, well into the curfew, C. Kuharajan's son, Kanan, 18, was watching television on the floor of his parents' bedroom when four armed men pushed open the front door of their house and demanded that Kanan come with them for questioning.

His captors refused to identify themselves  -  "none of your business," Kanan's father recalled them saying  -  nor explain where they were taking him or why. The gunmen, all in civilian clothes and with pistols, promised to return him soon.

That was on May 4. Kanan, a high school senior, has not been heard from since.

According to his family, Kanan had been active in a high school group affiliated to the student union at Jaffna University, which security forces describe as a den of anti-government activity. But the father says his son was under strict instructions to avoid anything political. He planned to send Kanan abroad to study next fall.

After a month of waiting and searching,  Kuharajan wondered why those who abducted his son did not come to the house and interrogate him, or at least arrested him and taken him to jail.  "That's the terrible thing," he said, "snatching children from parents' hands."

The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, a government agency, says it has received 805 complaints of abductions in Jaffna from December 2005 to April 2007; the army says they are aware of 230 abductions.

Occasionally, someone survives to tell of the horror. In January, Arunagirinathan Niruparaj, a university student, was plucked from his village, taken to what he later identified as a series of military camps and interrogated about his rebel links.

He said his captors hung him upside down from the ceiling and beat his feet. They covered his head with a plastic bag soaked in gasoline. They rammed a stick into his anus.

After seven days, they left him on the side of a railway track. By then, his kidney had failed, one of his ears was damaged, and he could not keep down any food. In April, Niruparaj, 26, fled to  Madras, in southern India. He maintains he has no links to the rebels. No one has been arrested for his kidnapping.

Chandrasiri first blamed the abductions on pro-government Tamil paramilitary groups who, as he put it, try to "eliminate" Tamil Tiger operatives. He later acknowledged that some in the security forces could also be complicit. "I'm not saying all our people are clean," he said. "Our duty is to catch them and punish them."

Most of those abducted, he added, are not innocent civilians, but known Tamil Tiger operatives.

As for Kuharajan's son, the Chandrasiri said he had personally resolved to find him. "I don't want internationally anybody to think everyday we are killing people," he said.

Reports of abductions have been sharply criticized by even Sri Lankan  allies like  Richard Boucher, a U.S. assistant secretary of state who met with Chandrasiri  during a visit here in May. In the weeks after  Boucher's visit, reports of abductions fell

Not far from the general's office, another kind of uncertainty hovers over a Catholic church, now home to refugees from Allaipiddy,  a fishing village just west of the town. The United Nations estimates that there are roughly 300,000 people displaced across Sri Lanka.

At this church, some families have fled their homes as many as four times since the war began. The last time was in August, after rebels and soldiers clashed in Allaipiddy, driving its residents into a local church. When it, too, was shelled, the Reverend Jim Brown knelt before the troops and, waving a white flag, led the villagers here.

Brown, who had rebuked the Sri Lankan Navy for attacking the village, disappeared days later. He has not been heard from since.

The families here somehow carry on. The men cannot fish any more because the coast is occupied by soldiers. Food aid has not come for weeks. Women have sold their gold bangles for rice. Or they have gone without eating, saving what little there is for their children.

So little had one mother, Sathyaseelan Thilaka, been eating that she could no longer produce enough breast milk for her youngest child, a boy of 4 months born in this camp.

Sathyaseelan, 39, said she raised four children through this war. Never before had she been without milk. This morning, she sent the older children to school without breakfast. She had eaten nothing herself, and it was almost sundown.

An emergency assessment by the United Nations found signs of more child malnutrition in Jaffna. The government has blocked the study's release.

Kavitha Kumar contributed reporting from Bangalore.