In this July 25, 2011 photo, Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils walk past a beheaded statute of a prominent Tamil social leader in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The road blocks have been dismantled, the sandbags removed, and Sri Lanka is again a palm-fringed tourist paradise, the government says. But for ethnic Tamils living in the former war zone in the north, it is still a hell of haunted memories, military occupation and missing loved ones. The roadblocks have been dismantled, the sandbags removed, and Sri Lanka is again a palm-fringed tourist paradise, the government says. But for ethnic Tamils living in the former war zone, it is still a hell of haunted memories, military occupation and missing loved ones. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, and no effort has been made to reunite families separated two years ago during the final bloody months of the war between the now-defeated Tamil separatists and the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government. A power-sharing program that President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to enact after the quarter-century war has gone nowhere.
The International Crisis Group castigated the government in a July report that said “the country is yet to see any semblance of compromise or inclusiveness.” In the meantime, the government has worked hard to project an image of peace and redemption to the world. It insists Tamils have embraced its plan to rebuild homes and shattered lives. It is playing up the Indian Ocean island’s reputation as a tourist destination, building airports, seaports and new roads. It’s even ordered an army headquarters to be converted into a luxury beachside hotel.
But in the ethnic Tamil heartland in the north, resentment has been building.
From the school where he sleeps at night, principal Asirvatham Soosainathar watches the troops who are still living in his house in the village of Murikandy. On weekends, he visits his family in the home they have rented 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.
More than 100 families in the village were displaced by troops and the government has promised to soon return their homes. But in two years, Soosainathar said he’s seen no evidence of it.
“I have 106 coconut trees on my land, but nowadays I have to pay for my coconut,” Soosainathar, 44, said in a telephone interview. “The army has been telling me for two years that it will leave my house, but they are still cultivating my land.”
Visvalingam Komathy has also been ousted by the army from her home in the former rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi, where she lived off the chicken and cattle she raised. She has pawned her jewelry for living expenses and legal fees in trying to free her son detained on charges of helping the rebels.
“We only want the house that is rightfully ours,” said Komathy, 52.
Many Tamils fear that the soldiers in their homes are the vanguard of a government plan to send majority Sinhalese settlers into their area to dilute Tamil power and prevent any new push for a separate homeland for the minority. Tamil lawmakers say the military is seizing land that was in private hands before the war.
“The army is doing everything to be there permanently,” said lawmaker Suresh Premachandran, of the Tamil National Alliance. “They are putting up permanent camps, cantonments and of course they are very much part of the entire administrative system in the northern province.”
Electricity has been restored and roads repaired. Supermarkets, banks and Internet cafes have opened outlets in areas closed to business during the war. But many people whose homes were destroyed continue to live under tents or in small huts covered only by tin sheets. Many families who lost their belongings and breadwinners remain in extreme poverty.
On the other hand, military camps have mushroomed and grand monuments have been erected to honor the fallen soldiers. The army also runs roadside restaurants catering to Sinhalese tourists who have flocked to see areas recaptured from the rebels.
Ahead of local elections in the north last month, the government painted the polls as a referendum on its development-oriented reconciliation efforts. But the ruling coalition was crushed, and Tamil politicians in favor of self-determination won 20 of 25 seats on local councils. Officials have since played down the results, and the local positions are unlikely to change the government’s policy.
The government insists it is pursuing reconciliation and taking care of the victims.
“Rapid resettlement and economic empowerment is taking place … though obviously much more needs to be done,” said Rajiva Wijesinha, a lawmaker and adviser to Rajapaksa.
He denied that the military was taking over private land, and said it would pay compensation for any land it acquires.
Ananthi, a mother of three who goes by only one name, is still searching for her husband, Sinnathurai Sasitharan, a political leader for the Tamil Tigers whom she last saw being escorted away by the military after surrendering on May 18, 2009.
“He was not going to surrender. He wanted to send me off and commit suicide by swallowing cyanide,” she said, recounting the final moments of the war. “But I cried and begged him to surrender so that he could live the rest of his life for his family.”
The whereabouts of her husband, known by the nom de guerre Elilan, and scores of other rebels who mounted the last stand against the government forces, as well as a Catholic priest who mediated their surrender, are still unknown, she said.
Ananthi says she appealed to the government, the Red Cross, the national Human Rights Commission and the United Nations to no avail.
Though the government announced that it had rehabilitated many of the 11,000 former rebels it captured at the end of the war, the relatives of many rebel fighters last seen accompanied by soldiers say they have never been told the whereabouts of their loved ones. Families have searched in hospitals, camps and detention centers.
Sandana Murugaiah, a father of seven, is awaiting news about a son and daughter forcibly conscripted by the Tamil Tigers and not heard from since the war ended.
“I do not know if they survived the fighting,” Murugaiah said.
The Tamil Tigers, long seen as one of the world’s most effective and brutal insurgent groups, had fought to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
The militants, who ran a de facto state in the north, sent suicide bombers into crowded train stations, while the military was accused of shelling civilians and hospitals in the war zone. Footage allegedly taken by front-line soldiers and aired on Britain’s Channel 4 television appeared to show blindfolded prisoners being shot at close range.
A U.N. expert panel report in April accused both sides of potential war crimes and recommended an independent international inquiry.
The government has denied the accusations, though it did acknowledge for the first time last week that some civilians were killed in the final offensive in 2009. The U.N. panel has said tens of thousands of civilians were killed in that offensive.
Jehan Perera, an analyst with activist group National Peace Council says true reconciliation requires a “heart and mind strategy” after a brutal war. Entrenching the military will not serve the purpose, he said.
“A great deal of transparency is required in terms of who is held in custody and what happens to them.” Despite promises to Tamil lawmakers to give such a list, the government has not done so, Perera said.