Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tamils in rebel-held Sri Lanka sick of civil war

Thamalin Thirvakumar and her baby son live in a camp for war-displaced in rebel-held north Sri Lanka. Her husband is stuck across an impassable frontier in territory held by the Sri Lankan army.

Her husband has missed all but the first few weeks of his son's life after the "border" that separates government from rebel territory in the northern Jaffna peninsula was suddenly shut last year following a renewed escalation of civil war.

As fighting between the state and Tamil Tiger rebels deepens, there is no hope of them being reunited any time soon.

Like many impoverished families repeatedly displaced in government and rebel territory alike by two decades of war, Thirvakumar longs for an end to fighting that has killed nearly 70,000 people since 1983 and displaced hundreds of thousands.

"I haven't seen my husband since the road was closed. He hasn't seen the child. I'm very sad," she said mournfully.

"Both sides must stop the war," she added. "We hope there will be peace so we can go back to our village and live a normal life. If this war continues, what future will my son have?"

Civilians are paying a high price on both sides in a war that pits the majority-Sinhalese government against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels who say they are fighting for an independent state for minority Tamils in the north and east.

Forced from one camp to the next as fighting spreads, they must often leave their worldly belongings behind. There are few work opportunities, which means no income and dependency on food handouts from aid agencies.

While the Tigers claim to be the sole voice of Sri Lanka's Tamils, and vow all those living in their territory will fight to the last, civilians here overwhelmingly want peace. They blame both sides for the war and for their misery.

"The problem is there's no water, there's no work to do, so I can't earn any money. It's very difficult to live here," said 57-year-old Kanavathipallai Thavamani, who is living in the camp with two of her grown up children and two grandchildren.

"Army shells and LTTE shells -- that's why I came here. It is the innocent people who die in war," she added. "So as long as the war is there, we will suffer."


Around 70 percent of the more than 190,000 people in the northern district of Kilinochchi, the heart of the Tigers' northern stronghold, are below the poverty line - earning $22.50 a month or less -- making it the poorest district in Sri Lanka.

The United Nations estimates around a quarter of the estimated 350,000 people living in the Tiger's de facto state in the far north have been displaced by the war. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced in the government-held south too.

Compounding the misery, thousands of families who survived the 2004 tsunami and were trying to rebuild their lives, have had to abandon homes in various states of reconstruction because of shelling. A government embargo on construction materials such as cement, steel and fuel, has forced aid agencies to halt or abandon development projects in rebel areas.

"Projects funded by the World Bank and ADB (Asia Development Bank) are unable to continue without construction materials," said Nagalingam Vethanayahan, the central government's representative or 'Government Agent' in Kilinochchi.

"Most of the people are living in small huts due to these restrictions. They are unable to do anything. We have to give up development work, no?" he added, lamenting the restrictions imposed by his own government and the military.

At another nearby settlement housing tsunami and war displaced, a new school funded by UNICEF has progressed no further than its foundations because of lack of building materials. The architect's model sits inside a nearby hut gathering dust.

Fishing, one of the main livelihoods in the area, is too dangerous.

"We only go 1 mile out to sea because of the navy, but there are no fish close to shore because of the season," said 22-year-old fisherman Sanmugamoorthy Nishan, idling in the camp with friends.

"When they see the boats, they don't know if we are fishermen or the LTTE, so they open fire," he added. "I know of four fishermen who have been killed by the navy in the past month."

Back at her hut, with little more than a few clothes, pots and a plastic mirror to her name, Thirvakumar lives in constant fear of shells booming in the distance and the sporadic growl of fighter jets flying overhead on bombing raids.

"I will only see my husband again if there is peace and the war ends," she said.