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Helping Tamil civilians locked in endless war


Latest update : 2008-04-06

Two communities are locked in a tragic conflict that has spanned 30 years and cost at least 70,000 lives. (Report: C.Henry, C.Simon, S.Daguerressar). WARNING: some images are distressing.

Behind the tropical beauty of Sri Lanka lies a cruel and very real civil war. The majority Buddhist Sinhalese live uneasily under a cloud of terror and suspicion with the predominantly Hindu Tamils, a minority group totaling some 12 per cent of the island’s population.


Last month, a ceasefire in place since 2002 was shattered. The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army are again waging a total war.


At stake is the island's Northeastern region, which is claimed by the Hindu Tamil rebels in a country populated mainly by Sinhalese Buddhists.


The Tamils say they are the victims of harassment, discrimination and abductions on a daily basis. Hundreds of Tamils have been seized and detained - often never to be heard from again.



A conflict turning into ethnic cleansing?


Cecilia and Ravindra are mothers desperately looking for their sons, who they say disappeared while trying to flee the fighting zone. Their story is a common one in Sri Lanka.


In an attempt to free her son, Cecilia meets Mano Ganeshan, a lawyer who campaigns for Tamils’ rights. This Tamil leader has been fighting for years to denounce arbitrary detentions of members of his community. Since fighting flared again, he doesn't go out and lives in fear of an attack.


The curtains are drawn, the identity cards checked and Cecilia’s voice is verified to see if it matches the one on the phone message she left begging for help.  


Ganeshan cuts the emotion short as he receives the mothers in his office: "Stop whining!  Consider yourself lucky.  Your children are captured but alive. So many Tamils have completely disappeared."


The lawyer lived and learned: "Some stay years, 5 or 6 years, without a trial. Because of the state of emergency and the war against terrorism they are kept like that without an investigation, with no valid reason. Some mothers die without having seen their children again.”


Ganeshan has received several death threats for his role in tracking down Tamils who he says have been victims of “ethnic cleansing.” Humanitarian organisations estimate that 12,000 people have gone missing since the beginning of the conflict.



An ever-deeper rift


In the streets of Colombo, three decades of fighting, attacks and assassinations have created a rift between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities - a situation Cecilia suffers every day.  “We're afraid of them and they are wary of us," she says. "We're afraid of the military too who could arrest us.  We civilians are checked all the time."


Many Sinhalese consider the Tamils to be only low-caste Hindus from India, brought over by the English to work on tea plantations. 


The political jusification for the war against the Tamil Tigers is to defend Sinhalese identity and preserve the island's unity. - a point of view also shared and relayed by the religious authorities.


”The Sinhalese Buddhist community owns this land because we were the first settlers in Sri Lanka," says Elle Gunawansa of the Patriotic Alliance. She has strong feelings about the Tamils. "They cause problems everywhere. They fill our schools, they take our lodgings, and they take our land.  Never forget: they're dangerous, they're terrorists.  They come here and rob us of everything, our money and our possessions.  How can we tolerate them?"


Violence firebacks


There are 5,000 policemen constantly patrolling the streets of Colombo, and more than 100 checkpoints. Since fighting has started again in the north of the island, there have been reprisals in the capital too. A month ago a defender of the Tamil cause was assassinated in a Hindu temple.


On the separatists' side, suicide attacks are increasing, performed by the Black Tigers, the Tamil Tigers' suicide squad.  Graphic video images of a female suicide bomber have circulated widely on the island. The images show a woman sitting at a desk and then igniting her explosives belt. Minister of Social Affairs Douglas Devananda was targeted. It was the twelfth time he's escaped an attack on his life.  Now holed-up in his office, he only communicates by video conferencing.


Devananda told FRANCE 24 that the Tamil Tigers coerce Tamils to join their cause. "If they don't support the policies of the Tamil Tigers, they are harassed by the Tigers themselves. They drag in everybody, and force them to support them."


The minister showed video testimony by a tamil woman who says the Tigers kidnapped her husband. "I've had no news of him for three years. They say they're going to take my elder son and compel him to go to a training camp. I have to hide my children. Every month they come to me asking for money.  If I didn't give it to them, I'd be dead. I daren't go out anymore."


The meeting with the minister was interrupted - a bomb exploded in the town centre.


Dim prospects


Since the beginning of 2008, 23 civilians have died in attacks, and 400 rebels and 20 government troops are said to have died in fighting. Sri Lanka's Tamils find themselves caught between a nationalist government and terrorists waging a war in their name.


Ganeshan is now exiled for security reasons. Cecilia and Ravindra are still waiting for their sons to be freed. They haven't had any news of them for a month.


Date created : 2008-02-21