The first Portuguese fleet commanded by Lourenço de Almeida, landed in Sri Lanka in 1505. They disembarked in Galle, a fortified city situated on the Southern part that was devastated by the tsunami in 2004.
May 2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government. Not all wounds are closed.
Thousands of people live with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to their missing loved ones and if they are alive or dead. There is neither a clear death toll and the narrative about the last months of the conflict is blurry.
The divisions in government, the block on social media during unrest and the increase of violence against minorities that has followed the recent terrorist attacks show remains of pending issues. Outriders has travelled through the 26 years conflict in the paradisiacal island where the suicide belt was popularised.
Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s far north, 2019. A golden statue of a bare-chested man who wields a sword on horseback recalls the last King of the Jaffna Kingdom King Sankili-II. “The Portuguese invaded Jaffna by land and sea and defeated Tamil forces and captured the King, ousted him from the throne in 1619,” a board explains visitors, on a lively street of motorcycle men, women in colourful sari, groomed families coming out of mass, goats and cows. The trumpets and drums of a nearby Hindu temple are heard in the distance. The imprint of the war is inscribed like scars on the numerous ruined houses and walls with bullet impact across the city.
Until 10 years ago, in these lands, the separatist militant organization called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or commonly known as the “Tamil Tigers” fought for an independent homeland for Tamil minority in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The feared guerrilla pursued with blood their aspirations, becoming a sophisticated organization that even had a naval fleet (Sea-Tigers), a suicide squad of people willing to die for the leader (Black Tigers) and that was pioneer in the prominent role of female fighters, the institutionalization of suicide attacks and the invention of the suicide belt. For their cause they carried out 137 suicide bombings between 1983 and 2009.
To understand the conflict it is necessary to rewind several centuries.
It was not just cinnamon’s fault. But, for centuries, Sri Lanka was the main source of the golden and aromatic spice and that seasoned the wishes of Portuguese, Dutch and later English for the succulent island at the Bay of Bengal.
The island in the Indian Ocean, called “The Tear of India” because of its geographical location, was also a strategic point in the main maritime routes from East to West. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Indians, Malays and Chinese traded here, transporting from spices to elephants.
Several legends imagined Paradise on this tropical island. One Thousand and One Nights tales refers the island, called "Serendib" by the Arabs, as the place “to which Adam was banished out of Paradise” and mentions a mountain that is “the highest mountain in the world”. The story refers to is Adam's Peak, a 2,243 sacred mountain and an important pilgrim site by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians who believe the impression on the summit is the footprint of Buddha, Adam or Saint Thomas.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the island was divided into several kingdoms. Sometimes, in separated territories, sometimes unified. Parakramabahu VI (1412-67) was the last native sovereign to unify all the territory of Ceylon in the Kotte Kingdom after conquering the kingdom of Jaffna. But in 1477, only 10 years after his death, two powerful kingdoms, the kingdom of Jaffna, in the north, and the kingdom of Kandy, in the centre, thrown off the suzerainty of Kotte. Then the Portugueses arrived.
Sri Lanka lived four and a half centuries under European colonial rule (Portugal, 1505-1638, Holland 1638-1795 and England, 1796-1948). The wounds left behind closely resemble those of other post-colonial conflicts such as those in Rwanda or Sudan.
The first Portuguese fleet commanded by Lourenço de Almeida, landed in Sri Lanka in 1505. They disembarked in Galle, a fortified city situated on the Southern part that was devastated by the tsunami in 2004.
1543, the king of Kotte agreed to pay tribute of cinnamon to Portugal in exchange for protection. But the north resisted. After several instigation of Christian missionaries, the Portuguese also managed to settle in the kingdom of Jaffna in 1619 and they killed the king, the warrior of the golden statue. The king of Kandy was killed by the British, in 1815.
Paradise, sometimes, can become hell.
Sri Lanka is a mosaic of 21 million people that is usually accompanied by the word "multi": a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious state.
The Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group, comprising over 15 million or 74.9% of the population, according to the last Census (2012). The Sinhalese speak an Indo-Aryan tongue, the Sinhala and they are mostly Buddhists. The following ethnic group is Tamil, with 3,2 million people (15.3%) who speak a Dravidian language, Tamil language. The third group are 1,9 million of whom census calls “Sri Lanka moors” (9.3%), whose ancestors are Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka from the 8th century and they also speak Tamil and are mostly Muslims.
Theravada Buddhism is the majority religion in Sri Lanka (70,1%), most of them of Sinhalese ethnicity, followed by Hindu (12.6%), Islam (9,7%) and Roman Catholic (6,2%). Tamils are mainly Hindu but they are also Christians and Muslims.
There are controversies between the dates and the place in the history of the different ethnic groups of the country. Both Tamils and Sinhalese, everyone thinks that they were first on the island. Sinhalese believe that they belong “to a superior ethnic group called ‘Aryans’ who trace their descent from northern parts of India” and Tamil population believe “that Sinhalas lack pedigree and that Tamils once ruled all of Sri Lanka”, explains Sasanka Perera in the document The Etnic Conflict of Sri Lanka: A historical and sociopolitical outline’, published by the World Bank in 2001.
British Colonia seasoned the mixture even a little more. The British, who had occupied the island since 1796, in 1815, captured the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe and the island was incorporated into the British Empire until 1948.
During that time, the British built a rail network and roads and established extensive plantations of coffee, rubber and tea. To work the land they needed labour force and they brought in thousands of Tamil workers from India.
Today the green and staggered tea fields of central Sri Lanka where Thomas Lipton (Lipton Tea) gave birth to his tea empire, women with small hands carefully choose the greenest leaves and put them in big bags on their backs. Tamils who were brought by the English to work these lands are known as Indian Tamils. Thousands of them returned to India after the independence of the country.
During their tenure, the British gave Tamil a disproportionate number of posts in the civil service. Once independence was achieved, the Sinhalese tried to level the differences with discriminatory conditions for the Tamils.
“The colonial roots of conflict are important to understand,” explains in statements to Outriders, Rajesh Venugopal from the London School of Economic and Political Science’s South Asia Center and a fellow of the Sri Lankan Verité Research think tank. “Similar to Rwanda or Sudan, ethnic identities and rivalries formed and took shape in the colonial period, often in response to the rapid socio-economic, educational, and political transformations”, Mr Venugopal continues, and “in some cases, colonial powers created and exacerbated inter-ethnic differences”, he adds.
As the second half of the twentieth century approached, several ingredients that had been prepared in previous years were cooking frictions on low flame. Language was one of the elements in discord. Another contended issue was the public posts.
Ceylon became independent from British colonial rulers on February 4, 1948. The new government decided that, if during colonial times, Tamils, the largest minority in the country, had occupied the best positions, now it was the turn of the Sinhalese community who formed the majority of the island population.
THE LANGUAGE. If during the Colonial times the official language was English, one of the first things the new government did was replacing English by Sinhalese passing the “Sinhala Only Bill” in 1956. “Sinhalese speaking job-seekers thought that the language would help them gain employment which was previously denied to them", Mr. Venugopal explains in an interview with Outriders. Making Sinhala the official language was “deeply resented by Tamils, who sought equality of status for their own language”, he adds. In the 1950s, about ⅔ of the country spoke Sinhala, while ⅓ of the population spoke Tamil.
PUBLIC JOBS. One of the important reasons for the rise of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka in the 1950s was the competition for public sector jobs. “The Sinhalese felt that Tamils were over-represented in such jobs since the colonial period, while Tamils felt that the Sinhalese would use their political dominance to favour themselves”, Verité Research analyst says. “This problem continued to grow into the 1970s, and played an important role in ethnic tensions and the rise of the conflict", he adds.
DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES. There were other ingredients that had nothing to do with the conflict but that caused demographic changes that fueled the frictions. On the one hand, free education, which was introduced in 1945 and that made in 15 years (from 1945 to 1960) almost tripled the figures. On the other hand, the increase in life expectancy thanks to Sri Lanka becoming a world leader in success story in malaria eradication. The combined effect of free education and the population increase during the so-called “malaria survivor generation” after 1945, caused an increase in expectations from more qualified people who could not find a job, Mr. Venugopal explains. So young people from poor, rural backgrounds who were given the opportunity of a school education sought better forms of employment, “and this became a source of tension for those from Tamil versus Sinhala backgrounds, he adds.”
Velupillai Prabhakaran (1954-2009), the leader of the militant organization Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the “Tamil Tigers” was born here, in Valvettithurai, a coastal town of Jaffna District.
A decade after his death and the end of the war, the road that leads to his town is an ode to the best and the worst of this world. The waves of the Indian Ocean break on a beach in front of the pieces of wall of a destroyed house. The birds screech. There are houses with banana roofs leaves and tin. Dogs in the shade, two cows cross the road. Women wearing piercing on the nose and long braid ride a bike. Tamil inscriptions are read on the tombstones in an improvised cemetery. It is hard to imagine bombing on palm trees.
At first, Prabhakaran, who dropped out of school when he was 15 years old, joined the Tamil Students League (Tamil Manavar Peravai), a student organization created in 1970 that demanded the rights of Tamil youth to have fair enrolment. In 1973, a fraction of the Tamil Students League along with Prabhakaran and another militant, Chetti Thanabalasingam, teamed up to create Tamil New Tigers (TNT) and endorsed that which the end justifies the means. Their first violent action was the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah by placing a bomb in the Duraiappa stadium in Jaffna.
Since during the colony, English was the official language, those who spoke better English benefited from better positions. And Tamils who mostly lived in the North and East of the country, even being a minority group, had access to English teaching through missionary schools. Under the aim of expanding their message, the American missionaries, in 1911, had already founded 1911 schools in Jaffna, according to 'Educational activities of American Missionaries in Jaffna ( 1796-1948) '.
To end the disadvantage, the new Policy of Standardization of 1971 stipulated that the University selection would be calculated based on the percentage of applicants with each different language. In 1972 it was added a “district quota”, so that the system did not benefit the Tamils in the north, where they were the majority. That year only 30% of university places were allocated on a merit basis, according to the Research Network of SciencePo.
To this was added the romantic idea that each one had about their own origins believing Sinhala and Tamil are “two separate distinct civilizations whose ancestry dates back for more than two thousand year", as an article published at Ilankai Tamil Sangam, the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA, in 2006 explains.
In 1972, the island that was called “Taprobane” by Greeks, “Serendib” by the Arabs and "Ceylon" by the Europeans was renamed “Sri Lanka”.
In May 1976, the TNT was renamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The name "Tamil Eelam" referred to the proposed independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Other Tamil thinkers had proposed the idea of a Tamil self-rule before. This is the case of the Tamil lawyer V. Navaratnam, considered pioneer of “Tamil Eelam polity” who in 1969, founded the “Tamil Self Rule Party”, which campaigned for the independence of the Tamil regions.
But the LTTE chose the path of violence. Firstly, they attracted many supporters among disenchanted Tamil youth, “who were dissatisfied with policies followed by successive Sri Lankan governments towards solving various concerns of the country's Tamil community," a document by the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office describes. Soon, in pursuit of their objective, the Tamil Tigers began attacking police and military.
Jaffna Public Library. A group of men of different ages absorbed in the pages of their expired newspapers, spend the morning under the fans of which one day was one of the biggest libraries in Asia, containing over 97,000 books. On the night of May 31, in 1981, the pages of newspapers and historical books, among them manuscripts written in palm leaf and significant literary gems for the Tamil culture, vanished with the flames of a fire caused by a mob of Sinhalese origin people. The arson was orchestrated after the murder of two Sinhalese policemen in the rally of a regional party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The incident was followed by days of riots, destruction of establishments and temples, and the burning of the library.
The cause of an independent Tamil state, “Tamil Eelam”, began to get more sympathizers and several anti-Tamils riots increased support for the cause. The biggest riots took place in 1983, following the killing of 13 soldiers of the Sri Lankan army by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) on July 23, 1983.
The murder of the soldiers by the Tamil Tigers was followed by days of riots against the Tamil population of the country, especially in Colombo. Some pictures of these days show painful scenes of fear, hatred and violence. Among them, the image of a naked man on the floor of the Borella bus station in Colombo, who covers his head with his hands, horrified, in front of a group of young people who mock him. Tamil businesses and homes were burned, and innocent people were beaten. These days are known in Sri Lanka as “Black July”. It left 371 Tamils dead and up to 100,000 homeless, according to the official figure quoted by SciencePo Research Network.
Tamil filmmaker Jude Ratnam was 5 years old when the 1983 riots erupted. His house in Colombo was burned and a family sheltered them. He hid in the bathroom of the neighbours. He was the son of an Anglican priest. That night he was so afraid. That fear has accompanied the award-winning film director throughout his life. After that, his family and he fled Colombo in an old red train to the East, to Batticaloa. That journey by train is a memory that he always reminds. Therefor when Mr. Ratnam decided to make a film about the war, he wanted to talk about the conflict but also about trains.
Jude Ratnam is the director of ‘Demons in Paradise’, a semi-biographical documentary, which includes testimonies of former rebels. Although he is a Tamil, in the film there is no good ones or bad ones but pain, on both sides. That's why his documentary has hurt so many people. He is the first Tamil filmmaker who has openly criticized the Tamil Tigers violence. There was even a time when he wanted the war to end: "They started to justify every act as a revolutionary action,” he explains in an interview with Outriders. “Having seen what the war turned into, you can only wish that this thing ends soon", he adds. He spent ten years filming: "My mother probably worried a little bit for the security reasons but nobody in my family told me to stop. "It was difficult but I would say also necessary. There was a necessity to understand things. "
Three and a half decades later, Ratnam appears in the interview with his son, somewhat older than he was when they fled. The child waits for his father reading a book and drinking juice, distracted in a comfortable chair. They are very similar and it is easy to imagine little Ratnam hiding in the bathroom. “There is a feeling that has been constant in my life and it is the sensation of fear. It started when I was five and it continued until I had my own child”, he says. His mother asked him to prevent anyone from listening to him speaking Tamil and “it was the first instant that I felt as a child that there was something wrong in speaking my language and I could not understand why.”
Paradoxically, ‘Demons in Paradise’, which had its world premiere in Cannes in 2018 and was awarded the best documentary at the 2018 Asia-Pacific Film Festival, will not be seen by many people in his country. It was removed from being screened at the International Jaffna Cinema Festival last year. "There are still things that people do not want to hear," he concludes.
In all the confronted territories there are borders. In Sri Lanka, there was a road that divided the country, the A9, which connects the centre of the country, Kandy city, with the north, Jaffna. From 1984 to 2001 parts of the highway were at times under the control of the LTTE. In 2001, the road was reopened up to Kilinochchi.
Today the A9 highway is a journey to a past of destruction that recovers, with both new houses and small businesses and dilapidated walls with bullet impacts along the road and under severe surveillance. Only a few years ago this place on the island was forbidden to foreigners, humanitarian workers and journalists. Some of the small restaurants and stores across the road are still controlled by the military.
© OpenStreetMap contributors
Tamil Tigers did not invent the suicide attacks but institutionalized them. Suicide attacks had been used before by Russian revolutionary bomb throwers, Japanese Kamikaze pilots, during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980’s and later in Palestine (the firsts in April 1994).
LTTE also popularized in Sri Lanka the bomb belt that later would be emulated by terrorist groups in other countries. The Federal Bureau of Investigation of United States (FBI) maintained in an article about Tamil Tigers, published in 2008, that LTTE were also the pioneers using the bomb belt. Some academics, like Iain Overton, interviewed by Outriders, believe that the Chinese military had used the bomb belt before, in the 1930s, against the Russian and Japanese. Anyway, Tamil Tigers perfected the suicide tactics that “have inspired terrorist networks worldwide, including al Qaeda in Iraq”, FBI explains.
But how did a secular guerrilla get to recruit hundreds of Tamils to kill theirselve without promises of paradise? “Tamil Tiger leader, Prabhakaran, was so powerful that people applied to be suicide bombers”, answers in an interview with Outriders, Iain Overton, author of ‘The price of Paradise. How the suicide bomber shaped the modern age’ and Director of Action on Armed Violence, a weapons-related research and advocacy association.
Mr. Overton explains that the cult of personality created by the leader played a fundamental role. People wrote him letters to integrate the list of the Black Tigers, it means they applied to die. “The group dynamics made the notion of being a suicide bomber incredible attractive and this is a thing that we see today with ISIS as well”, he continues. Besides, Sri Lanka like Japan, had traditionally very high suicide rate because the “notion of suicide was not much seen as a moral problem like in n Catholic countries”, he explains. And in addition, “life for many Tamils was so difficult that for some people death was preferable.”
The first LTTE suicide attack took place on July 5, 1987, when a truck loaded with explosives went into an army barracks at Nelliady, near Valvettihurai. It killed 55 soldiers. The suicide attacks were perpetrated by the so-called “Black Tigers” wing of the LTTE. In total, during the war, 137 suicide bombings were carried out by the LTTE.
The neighbour, India, suffered especially the war. On July 29, 1987, the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene signed in Colombo the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord, that expected to resolve the conflict. Under this agreement, the government would return to the provinces, the Sri Lankan troops would withdraw from the north and the Tamil Tigers would surrender their arms. Under the 1987 Accord, it was also added the 13th Amendment to the Constitution whereby Colombo agreed to devolve some authority to the provinces and do both Tamil and Sinhalese official languages.
The agreement also stipulated that the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would be despatched to the North and East of Sri Lanka. The problem was that one of the main actors involved in the conflict, the LTTE, did not participate in the meeting.
Over 1,000 Indian soldiers died in the next years in Sri Lanka.
On August 4, 1987, at the Suthumalai Amman Temple, in the city of Suthumalai, in the Jaffna District, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran addressed to the audience speaking Tamil in his first public speech saying that the accord between Sri Lanka and India would not provide a lasting peace and only a separated Tamil homeland could provide that: “We love India. We love people of India. There is no question of our deploying arms against Indian soldiers,” he warned.
In 1987, the Indian newspaper 'Frontline' published an interview with the leader of the Tigers in which he was asked about the agreement between India and Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran responded that he opposed a referendum as established by the agreement: "It is not a question of the merger of the North and the East. It is our homeland. " In the interview the leader of the Tamil Tigers seemed to predict his end 12 years later: "It is better to fight and die than to surrender the weapons in an insecure environment and die on a mass scale!"
Women played a key role in the LTTE organization. The estimates vary between about 15 and 30 per cent, according to the article ‘Cogs in the wheel? Women in the liberation tigers of Tamil Eelam’ by Miranda Alison published by the University of Sussex, during the war, in 2003. A large number of women could be found in the LTTE's naval force and the suicide squad, according to her research. The LTTE’s special section for women (Women’s Front of the Liberation Tigers) that was founded in 1983 fought for first time in 1986 and set up the first all-women training camp in Jaffna in October 1987.
The presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the north of Sri Lanka bothered the Tamil Tigers and they marked their disagreement with blood. On May 21, 1991, the former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, was in campaign in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu (South India). He was traveling by car but decided to make the last stretch to where he should give his speech on foot and greet the audience. Children and adults were approaching, among them, a woman, who crouched down and activated a bomb belt. She was Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, aka “Danhu”, a member of the LTTE. The camera of a local journalist, who died in the attack, picked up the last frames.
A huge monument, the “War Hero Memorial” in Elephant Pass, next to the military base, pays tribute to the memory of Sri Lanka government soldiers fallen during the war. Several checkpoints monitor this side of the road and make bus passengers get off to check them. In this place, which owes its name to that from here elephants were exported to India by the Dutch, had place some of the key battles of the war.
The Elephant Pass had strategic importance because it connects the northern mainland known as Wanni (or Vani) with Jaffna Peninsula. Wanni is the mainland area of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka that covers Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and some parts of Kilinochchi. Gaining control of it facilitated free movement of LTTE between the mainland and the peninsula. It was also an important node in the network transportation of the island. A-9 Highway, the Jaffna-Kandy road and the railway line run through it. On July 1991, LTTE and Sri Lanka army fought for the control of the military base. Called the “Mother of all Battles”, it was the most violent confrontation between both armies so far. The battle lasted days and there were hundreds of human losses from both sides. On August 9, the LTTE made a tactical withdrawal.
The attacks of the Tamil Tigers were continuous and bloody, specially against high political and military officials but also against civilians. On 1 May 1993, during a First May Day rally in Colombo, on his way through Armor Street, a suicide bomber killed the President of the country, Ranasinghe Premadasa. The suicide bomber left his bicycle near the President’s vehicle, walked towards him and exploded a device strapped to him, killing himself, Mr. Premadasa and several others.
Both sides of the conflict continued to cause pain in the country.
"I was in the kitchen and I heard the explosion," says an old woman into the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Navaly, about 8 km from Jaffna. “A lot of people died,” she adds. “It was in 1995, recalls a young man who accompanies the old woman. “The entire facade was destroyed," adds another neighbor. The attack was controversial because the government had warned civilians to take refuge in places of worship during the bombings. About 100 people died.
On the heart of the financial sector of Colombo took place one of the deadliest suicide bomb attacks perpetrated by the Tamil Tigers, at the Central Bank in Colombo, killing 90 people.
During an election rally, LTTE tried to killed Prime Minister and later the first female president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga. She was wounded but not killed. Mrs. Kumaratunga was a pioneer in a pioneer family. She was the daughter of two former Prime Ministers. Her father, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, was appointed Prime Minister of the island in 1956 and he carried out several left wing reforms until 1959, when he was killed by a Buddhist monk, allegedly for signing an agreement that would give more autonomy to Tamil people. In 1960, her mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, created history being elected the first woman Prime Minister in the world in modern history.
A dirt road next to the A35 and near the coast leads to what was the naval base of the LTTE, between Valayanmadam and Mullivaikkal. Here the Tamil insurgency built their vessels, even homemade submarines. As the guerrilla grew, its artillery was increasingly sophisticated, giving rise to a naval wing called “Sea Tigers”, that included a range of weapons consisting of explosive suicide boats, divers and submarines. Until recently, in the same place, there was a rudimentary museum where the creative artifacts could be visited. It still appears on Google Maps as “LTTE Sea Tiger Submarine and Dockyard.”
The Sea Tigers played an important role in the Second Battle of Elephant Pass in April 2000 that they won. They landed several teams and captured the Military Base. On 23rd April, in 2000, the LTTE organized an event and hoisted the “Tamil Eelam” Flag with a furious tiger surrounded by bullets on a red background. It was the first time in the war that the area had come under the Tamil Tiger’s control.
One year later, in April 2001, not far from this road, the correspondent of Britain’s “Sunday Times”, Marie Colvin, who was reporting in Sri Lanka, lost the sight in her left eye. She was shot by the military after leaving restricted LTTE-territory and entering governmental territory. Since then and until her murder in Syria in 2012 by Syrian forces, she wore her characteristic eye patch.
In 2000, the Sri Lankan government and LTTE invited Norway to take the role of neutral facilitator in the peace process and a Nordic civil observational delegation called the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was created.
A ceasefire between the Tigers and the Government was successfully established in 2002. After the ceasefire agreement, the LTTE opened the key A9 highway and commercial air flights to Jaffna started. But the talks broke down in 2003 and the Tamil Tigers announced its own peace proposal about an “Intern Self Governing Authority” in the North and East of the Island that would be fully controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
The Norwegian former peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, recalls in an interview with Outriders the secret meetings with the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran and the possible reasons why negotiations failed.
He says the first meeting started two years before that people think: “We were first involved in 1998 but the first two years were absolutely completely secret.” “There were two people in Sri Lanka, the President and the foreign minister of Sri Lanka, (Lakshman) Kadirgamar.” “Even the Prime Minister at that time did not know it”, he adds.
Mr. Solheim explains it was after President Chandrika Kumaratunga survived to the assassination attempt by LTTE, in December 1999, when she revealed the secret negotiations that she had had with the Tamil Tigers to allow Tamil Tigers political strategist Anton Balasingham to leave Sri Lanka for urgent medical treatment abroad. “He had diabetes”, Mr. Solheim explains.
The first time Mr Solheim met the leader of the Tamil Tigers was in 2000, in the north of the country, in Jaffna: "in a completely secret operation, we were flown to Northern Sri Lanka but no one knew it, neither the Tamil Tiger on the ground, nor the soldiers on the ground, so we flew very low, next to the mountains”. They were accompanied by an interpreter, “which they brought by helicopter.”
In Mr. Solheim words, “the leader was, I would say, easy to deal with and when he promised something it was delivered,” he reminds. “For example, if he had promised to stop killing people, he stopped, so that made it easy to deal with, you could trust his words, that it is not always the case in Colombo", he criticizes. “On the other hand, it was hard for us as foreigners to understand why so many Tamils saw him as a semi-God”, he adds.
On 26 December, 2014, an earthquake with epicentre in Sumatra, Indonesia, caused the deadliest tsunami in History killing 226,000 people, in 14 countries. One of the most affected countries after Indonesia was Sri Lanka, where about 35,000 people died and many lost their houses. Also India and Thailand suffered serious human and material losses. The magnitude of the disaster was such that reached the East coast of Africa leaving dead even in Somalia and Tanzania. In the south of Sri Lanka some cities disappeared completely. “The force of the water lifted me to a coconut tree and I held on there for a while," recalls the owner of a family restaurant in Talalla , 9 km from Matara, one of the municipalities that was particularly damaged. “Everything you see here is new,” he adds, pointing to his restaurant.
The distribution of aid in a country at war made the situation doubly difficult. Following the disaster, some media reported LTTE-controlled areas were not receiving aid and that rebels did not allow foreign aid agencies to help. After a panel to coordinate relief operations, in 2005, both sides worked together in distributing aid, according to UNHCR, and it seemed the tsunami had created a “temporary rapprochement between ethnic groups”, as Inter Press Service published. It was an illusion, according to Reuters, the Tamil Tigers saw the tsunami “as an opportunity to re-arm.”
Only some months after the catastrophe, the Tamil Tigers made clear that the peace agreements faltered. The Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, of Tamil origin and who openly condemned the LTTE's actions, left the pool of his house in Colombo when he was shot several times by sniper.
After several attempts to restart the talks in February and October 2006, they failed and the LTTE officially suspended the peace talks indefinitely.
After dozens of talks, the Norwegian negotiations failed. Mr Solheim attributes it to two reasons: the first one is, he says, there was only one potential point to negotiate that it was a federal state, “because the dominated state opposed to separate states for Tamils in the north. The second problem, he says is that “the politics in Sri Lanka were completely divided in the two majors parties”. For the first time in the island's history the President and Prime Minister belonged to two different parties. “And these parties spent more time fighting each other for positions in Colombo than making decisions for the main issues of the country," Mr. Solheim says.
The local press of Sri Lanka has published rumors that Mr. Solheim received and delivered gifts to the Tamil Tigers during negotiations. He assures that “there were not absolutely any gifts for anybody.” “The only controversial issue is Norway was supporting the communication equipment of the Tamil Tigers, something that the Sri Lanka government knew because communication was essential," he assures.
In 2008 the Sri Lankan government cancel ceasefire. The Nordic delegation left the country and the government launched a massive offensive. The conflict would end in 2009 with weapons instead of words.
The former Norwegian negotiator sees “unlikely” that somebody faces the court, “because it has never happened after a war.” And consider "more likely that we could achieve and more important for the victims” to clarify what happened to their loved ones. “Where is my husband who disappeared in 2009, what happened to him.” Mr. Solheim also believes that there are three needed steps for a lasting peace: "make information available that people know what happened with the dear ones, secondly “settle the main problems in Sri Lanka” that means “to create a state which is fair to everyone, to all the ethnic groups” and thirdly, “to pursue development for all groups.”
The last months of the war were especially bloody and there are many lines without writing about it.
On January 2, 2009, by then Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, announced Tamil Tigers’ de facto capital, Kilinochchi had been captured. Kilinochchi had been used as LTTE administrative and military headquarters for a decade. Now, the guerrilla had only Mullaitivu to operate.
The last battle for the strategic Elephant Pass was on January 9, 2009, when Sri Lanka Armed Forces recaptured it.
Mullaitivu, on the north-eastern coast of the island and where the LTTE had its main base, was scenario of some of the bloodiest battles of the end of the war.
On January 25, 2009, Sri Lankan troops captured Mullaitivu town and General Sarath Fonseka announced the war was “95% over.” The Tamil Tigers had only the jungle left and they headed for long-prepared fortified areas deep in the jungles, “taking many civilians with them”, according to Human Right Watch.
2009 avanzed and Sri Lanka’s army continued advancing towards the north. Thousands of civilians fled battle zone. On April 20, 2009, Sri Lanka gave LTTE 24 hours to surrender. 115,000 people flee from their houses, in just one week, according to Reuters.
“The massive displacements in April and May created significant challenges in addressing the needs of the more than 280,000 people accommodated in 42 sites”, UNHCR explains. Civilians were trapped for months without adequate food, shelter, sanitation and medical care, or access to humanitarian aid, according to Amnesty International.
“People were desperate to come to their village because all of their belongings were looted by military. They were to start their lives from zero”, says father A.J. Javis, 53, a Christian Priest who served as Director of Caritas in Jaffna, in 2009, when the war ended “and many people settled in the villages, so we did a lot of work.” During years of “killing and destruction” in Jaffna he had to say goodbye to many people, “including relatives, not immediate relatives, but my aunt’s daughter, a step brother died in a bomb blast.” He reminds, they, priest, “were with the people during the war that is the great support for them in their losses”. He says, “a lot of people, especially the parents of disappeared persons, visited us.”
While the reverend speaks of the 10 years of the end of the war, a black flag flutters in the church facing the sea in Point Pedro, Jaffna, and two fishermen unravel networks in the shade. Rev. Javis receives Outriders only some days after the chain of coordinated attacks in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday this year who killed over 250 people. Attacks that have nothing to do with this story, but that recall past nightmares and have reopened wounds among minorities in a mostly Buddhist country.
10 years after the attack, he assures: “We the Tamil community are still waiting to experience real peace with Rights.” Father A.J. Javis believes “a lot of unwanted things and habits have come to our society” and thinks: “Sinhalese majority, especially the politicians are purposely doing a lot of damage to our Tamil community by their secret agendas.” “I firmly believe that there is no peace without justice”, he concludes.
After months of bloody battles, on May 21, 2009, Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed to parliament, saying the country had been “liberated” from terrorism. The army has taken control of the entire island and killed LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. On May 25, 2009, Tamil Tigers confirmed his death.
After 26 painful years (1983-2009), with a death toll that varies between 80,000 and 100,000 people, including the murders of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (in 1991) and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa (1993), the ambition of the independent state “Tamil Eelam” with a tiger in its flag, defended by a sophisticated guerrilla who invented the suicide belt and made secret submarines, vanished. “The government's victory, however, had come at the cost of serious violations of the laws of war by both sides”, Human Right Watch says.
Some controversial images exhibited in the recent documentary No Fire Zone by Callum Macrae shows disturbing evidences of war crimes and torture recorded by both victims and perpetrators. The footage also shows that Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, Charles Antony, who bore the name in memory of a loyal LTTE fighter, were also killed. In the pictures the child appeared eating some snacks, apparently in the custody of Sri Lankan troops and just later, the pictures show the body of the child killed by several bullet impact. It contradicts the authorities' version that says Prabhakaran's son were killed in cross-fire. The United Nations believes that at least 40,000 civilians “could have been killed in the final weeks of fighting.”
In 2011, a UN report found “credible allegations” that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of the conflict in early 2009, and that both Sri Lanka government forces and Tamil Tigers violated international law, including committing war crimes.
Besides, during the 26 years of the conflict and after, thousands of Tamils were forced to leave their homes in Sri Lanka. One of them is V. S. (modified name), 30, who moved to Australia being a baby with her parents. She says: “The saddest part for me is I will never be able to go back and feel safe in Sri Lanka, being a Tamil”.
The conversation reveals a feeling that part of the Tamil diaspora has taken in the suitcase. When Outriders asked her about “how does she find her country now”, she firstly clarified: “I see Australia as my country.” “And if I were to refer to my country of birth is in the north, where the traditional lands of the Tamils are which are being occupied by the Sri Lankan military”, she adds. Talking about the future, “I do not believe it is just one government or regime that is responsible but consecutive governments are and the mindset of the country is that it is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation”, she says. She believes “true peace can only be achieved with justice” and “Sri Lanka has to accept its past mistakes and take action to deal with the overwhelming grief and suffering of the people.”
The Sri Lanka Conflict Mapping and Archive Project established by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) from Australia has reviewed information from over 60 sources about violations of human rights between 1983 and 2009 in Sri Lanka and have preserved it in a database and a report. The database contains over 4,000 atrocities and reveals key violation patterns in each time period: raids on Sinhalese villages, attacks on Tamil civilians, Muslim-Tamil violence, bombings, suicide attacks, virtual, bodies dumped - "bodies were often left in public places in the South and West", they explain--, attacks on journalists and the media, attacks on politicians and serious mass.
“Processing and analysing this information is crucial to constructing a balanced, accurate and inclusive picture of the conflict that contributes to reconciliation, rather than reinforcing selective or prejudiced narratives”, explains Daniela Gavshon, Project Director of PIAC.
The number of deaths during the war is also a blurry figure. Thousands of miles away, in San Francisco, California, a geek is using machine learning to discover abuses of human rights. Dr. Patrick Ball is currently working on the Counting the Dead Project, counting the missing dead in Sri Lanka. He began to use his knowledge of statistics to find the dead that were missing, 28 years ago, in San Salvador, and has worked in similar projects in Guatemala, Kosovo, Colombia, Peru and Timor-Leste. Mr. Ball explains in an interview with Outriders, that they are collecting the information with local partners in Sri Lanka and later they “will use Maths to find patterns.” For example, in Guatamela, using statistics to analize the figures of the civil war, they concluded that the indigenous population of a certain region of the country was eight times more likely to die, which seemed to indicate a genocide.
Today, 10 years since the end of the war, nobody knows how many people died in Sri Lanka during the 26 years conflict.
In October 2015, United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the Resolution 30/1 entitled “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka”, and the Sri Lankan government formally committed to embarking on a transitional justice process. In this context, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) was set up in in 2018, in order to “investigate that disappearances and abductions of persons and ensure accountability and responsibility on missing persons”, says its website.
Sri Lanka is the country with the world's second highest number of disappearances after Syria, according to Amnesty International, “with a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 alleged disappearances since the late 1980s.”
10 years after the end of the conflict there are still many unanswered questions.
The worst thing is not knowing. Not knowing if they are still here. If they died and how. And if they are not here anymore, where are their bodies? The worst thing is to live with the anguish and the hope of seeing them again. Not being able to close the door by constantly being watched if the house door opens. And if it is him. And if it's her. In Sri Lanka, thousands of people still live waiting to say goodbye.
“For people who have no information about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, the conflict never ends”, explains a spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in her office in Colombo. “We advocate for broad measures to be taken to provide families of missing people with an answer about the fate and whereabouts of their relatives,” she says.
While there answers do not arrive, ICRC is implementing a support program around the country called “Accompaniment Program” to support families of missing people to live with loss. Like Jeyanayaky, 58, who always meets a new woman, looks for her missing daughter in their faces or Ranjinithevi who still believes his husband will return.
In 2014, ICRC conducted a research, the ‘Families’ Needs Assessment’ (FNA), in order to understand the needs of the families of missing people. “The results showed five common needs of most of them”, explains Arundathi Abeypala, a psychologist working in the Accompaniment Program in Sri Lanka. The first one was to know what happened to the missing person, the second was, a psychosocial need, thirdly the economic needs, “because often, the missing is the breadwinner”, the fourth point was the legal and administrative needs and of course, they wanted justice, the fifth one.” A program called “the Accompaniment Program” was designed in base of these results.
Mrs Abeypala explains this program is carried out by “accompaniers” who are like “a helpful friend who assists them in all their social, medical, legal and administrative needs during six months”. She says they conduct “specific psychosocial intervention” consisting in support groups and individual sessions. After that, ICRC has a microeconomic initiative for some families who need it. She explains they are working with about 16,000 families of the missing ones, “they are mostly women but there are also men.” “Their age goes from some 12-years-old daughters of a missing one to some 80 years old parents”, she says.
“We help them to live with the uncertainty of not knowing”, Mrs Abeypala continues. “It is what we call in Psychology: ‘ambiguous lost’, that is when the lost is not certain,” she specifies. She gives the example of when a person passes away: “The moment you see the dead body is the closed point but here, one day you think he is going to come back, the other day you think he is not, so you have to live in the limbo of not knowing.” “The greatest achievement that we got with the program so far was the reduction of their levels of distress” and “one of the main challenges is the social stigma,” she concludes.
The ICRC has been working in Sri Lanka for 30 years now. The ICRC spokesperson explains, nowadays, they support government authorities to address humanitarian needs that still prevail, mainly focusing on the Families of the Missing and also on people deprived of their freedom supporting prison authorities to provide humane conditions of detention.
The wounds of war have many shapes.
Author: Lola García-Ajofrín
Photos: Lola García-Ajofrín
Design: Tina Xu
Web development: Piotr Kliks
Proofreading: Grzegorz Kurek