In eastern Sri Lanka , families struggling to stay out of war many fear is coming
Mon July 3, 2006 13:42 EDT .
MATTHEW ROSENBERG - Associated Press Writer - MANKENI, Sri Lanka - (AP) They slipped out of the village and into the jungle after dark, whole families abandoning prized fishing boats and what little else they had to escape forced military training at the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels. Dozens of others haven't across this seaside sliver of eastern Sri Lanka - , where aid workers and villagers say the Tigers and a renegade rebel faction are abducting children and young men. The Tigers are also openly training civilians to fight.
The result: people here are struggling to keep from being sucked into Sri Lanka - 's ferocious ethnic conflict. Classrooms stand empty, fishing boats beached and streets deserted.
Guarded by soldiers, the people at Mankeni's church explained that they fled their village, Panichankerny, in rebel territory, after the Tigers started forcing every able-bodied person between 14 and 55 to undergo military training.
``We're not soldiers, we're fisherman even firecrackers scare us,'' said Nadarasa, a 28-year-old who asked that his last name not be used for fear of rebel retribution. He said dozens of others remained in the village, but ``they may join us if they can slip away.''
As violence surges across Sri Lanka - , the abductions and forced training of civilians are seen as a sign the government, Tigers and renegades are preparing to renew the vicious civil war that for nearly two decades pitted rebels from the Tamil minority and against the government dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebels' formal name, took up arms in 1983 to fight for a homeland for Sri Lanka - 's 3.2 million Tamils, who have faced decades of often-violent discrimination. The resulting war on this tropical island of 19 million people nearly three-quarters of them Sinhalese left more than 65,000 people dead before a 2002 cease-fire.
But peace talks faltered, and rising violence in the past four months has killed some 700 people, more than half of them civilians.
The violence continued Monday when at least eight people were slain in a series of explosions, including a blast south of this village that killed two government commandos.
Tensions are perhaps highest in this eastern region of fishing villages, rice paddies and groves of coconut palms, a predominantly Tamil area split between government and rebel zones. Gunfire rings out nightly from the fortified front lines, and fresh bodies turn up nearly every morning in the jungles beyond.
It's also the region where two years ago, the renegades, known as the Karuna faction, broke away from the Tigers, sparking a murderous crackdown by the mainstream insurgents.
UNICEF says the few hundred Karuna fighters now left who regularly attack the Tigers and are widely believed to get government protection have pressed at least 50 children into service since March.
The Tigers, who have a well-documented history of using child soldiers, abducted 64 children in April and May, UNICEF says.
Aid workers also say both the Tigers and the renegades have abducted dozens of young men over age 18 in recent months.
The fallout is felt by everyone ``teachers aren't going to schools, doctors aren't attending health centers it's having an overall impact on life in the communities,'' said Yasmin Haque of UNICEF.
That was certainly the case in the nearby village of Pasikuda, where one mother said she had pulled a teenage son from school and asked another son, a contractor and the family's sole breadwinner, to stay away from work.
``Even going to the shop is scary,'' she said, asking her name not be used for fear of attracting the attention to her fighting-age sons.
The rebels are also openly readying civilians for war a pro-rebel Web-site last week claimed that 6,000 civilians already had been trained in regions they control.
For the fisherman of Panichankerny, joining such training was a frightening prospect.
Selvaseram, 20, said he slipped into the jungle after midnight Saturday with his wife and baby daughter, arriving here late that night. His wife's thin gold necklace and earrings were the only valuables they had left.
``Everything else is lost,'' he said, also asking his last name not be used. The Tigers often kill those who cross them.
Another of the escapees, Kamawadipillei Balasudramuniam, 46, said that in the past two weeks his 15-year-old son and at least two other children in the village had been pressed into joining the Tigers, abductions which helped spark the exodus.
Leaving wasn't an easy decision abandoned were two new fiberglass fishing boats, pricey replacements provided by international aid agencies for ones lost to the Asian tsunami, which devastated this region.
But, he said, ``I fish for my family, to earn them money. I am nothing without my family.''
Discuss this story
Published: Mon Jul 3 15:25:05 EDT 2006