In northern Sri Lanka , a once-vibrant Tamil city prepares for war
Thu June 22, 2006 15:17 EDT .
BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI - Associated Press Writer - JAFFNA, Sri Lanka - (AP) Judging by the scenes in the Tamil heartland the tanks, the armored personnel carriers, the soldiers digging bunkers this is a place preparing for battle. When the British left Sri Lanka - in 1948, Jaffna was a city with graceful colonial buildings, elegant Christian churches and Hindu temples. The city's main library was, before the civil war reduced it to little more than ruins, a world-famous repository of Tamil history and writing.
The Tamil uprising, fueled by years of alleged discrimination by the island's majority Sinhalese, began in 1983 on the Jaffna Peninsula. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who by then had eliminated most other Tamil militant groups seized control of the peninsula seven years later, running their own 1,000-square-mile virtual state.
After five years in power, the Tigers were pushed by government forces off most of the peninsula and into the jungles of Sri Lanka - 's north and east, where their now-fragmented de facto state is now based. The long, bloody series of battles destroyed parts of Jaffna city.
From their new capital, in the city of Kilinochchi, the rebels insist they are not getting ready for war.
``We are in a cease-fire now we are pursuing peace,'' senior rebel leader Seevaratnam Puleedevan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday.
But asked whether Jaffna could become a theater of war, he said: ``In fact, the whole northeast is important for us as it is the homeland of Tamils.''
Across Jaffna, signs of preparations for combat are everywhere.
The region is dotted with bunkers protected by sandbags and nets to deflect grenades. Tanks and armored personnel carriers are kept in 24-hour readiness in areas vulnerable to rebel attack. Heavily armed soldiers guard key intersections.
Jaffna's residents desperately try to hold onto a semblance of normalcy: Most schools are open, offices do business and Internet cafes have opened.
But the undercurrent of fear is everywhere.
``We all are hoping for peace. We don't want war,'' said the Rev. Roy Ferdinandz, a Catholic priest.
The civil war ground to a halt in 2002 with the signing of a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire. But talks to build on the truce faltered, and rising tensions in recent months peaked following a June 15 bus bombing that killed 67 people the bloodiest attack since the cease-fire.
The government, diplomats and many Sinhalese blamed the Tigers who denied a role in the bombing and the military responded by bombing rebels' positions.
Since then, nearly every day has seen some sort of violence.
Mark, the army brigadier, said Tamil fighters have infiltrated the city posing as civilians.
``We have to be very alert, as Tigers are throwing hand grenades and using pistols and other small weapons to attack us,'' said soldier Gamini Piyatissa, speaking inside a cement- and sandbag-lined bunker.
``They attack us and run and mingle among civilians, making it difficult for us to track them down,'' he said.
Beyond preparing for war, the military is also trying to win Tamil loyalty with free medical clinics.
It's difficult to gauge how much popular support the Tigers have among the Tamil population. Their intelligence network is thought to be everywhere and the punishment for people they see as traitors death is believed to be carried out regularly. Few people living in Tiger-controlled areas dare to criticize them.
But, the army said, people find ways. Residents often leave scribbled notes near checkpoints, fingering undercover rebel fighters or weapons caches, said army Maj. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya.
For most Tamils, life now is just about getting by.
Chandrapalan Gopinath, a 23-year-old fisherman, suffers from shooting pains from gastritis that often force him to keep off his boat which means going hungry. He was lined up on a recent day at a free military clinic in Point Pedro, a small port town.
His desires were few, but seemed impossibly distant.
``I wish that peace would return to my country so that we can enjoy our lives,'' he said.
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Published: Thu Jun 22 16:48:50 EDT 2006