Separation by suicide

In Sri Lanka, children as young as 11 are being recruited as soldiers to the fanatical Tamil Tigers. Tim McGirk reports from Batticaloa on a war without end

It has the makings of a grotesque parable: on Sri Lanka, one of the most splendid islands on earth, two races that are virtually identical - the Sinhalese and the Tamils - are trying to exterminate each other to prove their difference.

Sinhalese and Tamils marry each other. They play cricket together. Some of them worship the same gods. Their languages may be different, and the Tamils tend to live in the north and eastern parts of the island, while the Sinhalese, who are a majority, inhabit the southern coasts and the central highlands, but the two communities also share a peculiar trait: they are quick to kill themselves out of petulance.

This paradisical island of temples, flowering trees and tea gardens must have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The daily newspapers are full of men who drink insecticide because their wives won't lend them 10 rupees to bet on horses, or teenagers who hang themselves because their parents have denied them a motor scooter.

Perhaps the only distinguishing characteristic between the Sinhalese and the Tamils is that the Tamil separatist chief, Velupillai Prabakharan, a brilliant guerrilla tactician and propagandist who likes being called "Big Brother" - has succeeded in channelling this island-wide death wish into the ultimate terrorist weapon: the Tamil suicide killer. His Tamil cadres don't kill themselves because they were jilted by their girlfriends (sex, alcohol and tobacco are prohibited, anyway). It is for the glory of Eelam, an independent Tamil state, that they become human bombs.

Indoctrination began early inside the Tamil mini-state of Jaffna, which the rebels have ruled for the past five years. As Dr Rajan Hoole, a former Jaffna University professor, explains: "From the time they are toddlers, climbing on fake weapons in the playgrounds, to the time they graduate as fighters and are given cyanide capsules to hang around their necks, it is drummed into them what a glorious cause it is to die for Eelam."

Often, the Tigers recruit teenagers. Dr Daya Somasunderam, a psychiatrist at Jaffna hospital, had one young patient who had fought for the Tamil Tigers for four years. He was suffering from aggressive behaviour. "After one attack where he lost many comrades, he was shown a video of murdered women and children and told his enemies had done this," the doctor says. The teenager was then ordered on a raid of a Sinhalese village.

"He recounted how he killed the people, how he held a child by its legs and bashed its head against a wall, and how he enjoyed the mother's screams. Afterwards, his comrades found him difficult to control. He felt anger and contempt when he saw people enjoying themselves at temples and wedding festivals," the doctor says. The boy was 15 when he entered the psychiatric ward, 11 when he joined the rebels.

Such brainwashing is effective. Since 1989, Tamil suicide commandos, called the Black Tigers, are suspected of having blown up a Sri Lankan president, a former Indian premier, an opposition politician in Colombo, a defence minister, several generals and numerous oil depots, navy vessels and army camps. The Sinhalese are understandably petrified of the Black Tigers.

A few racial sterotypes exist. The Tamil is said to be calculating and vengeful, the Sinhalese violently impulsive. But these fail to explain how two peoples who shared this island peacefully for centuries have become so murderously estranged.

The ethnic split was a long time coming. In the Sixties and Seventies, politicians whipped up Sinhalese resentment against the Tamil minority. The Tamil language was denied equal status, and the Tamils, who are hardworking and well educated, were elbowed out of government jobs and universities. Armed Tamil revolt against the Sinhalese began after 1983 riots in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, in which nearly 3,000 Tamils were slaughtered.

At present, the Sri Lankan government - whose president, prime minister and army generals are all Sinhalese - is laying siege to the northern city of Jaffna, hammering the centre of Tamil culture and commerce into a landscape of rubble. Around 400,000 Jaffna Tamils have been made refugees and are camping in the monsoon rains without enough food or medicine. At the same time, Sri Lanka's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was recently forced to leave Colombo for a week because of a threat on her life. One MP remarked: "The president and her cabinet are scared for their lives."

A year ago, it seemed as though this 12-year- old ethnic war, in which nearly 40,000 people have died, might end. Ms Kumaratunga was voted in because she promised peace. Widowed herself by a political assassin, Ms Kumaratunga was supported by Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. But a six month-long ceasefire broke last April when the separatists, who are called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), sent in suicide frogwomen to sink two navy gunboats anchored in Trincomalee harbour. Soon after, the Tigers massacred over 20 Sinhalese fishermen. Ms Kumaratunga felt she had no choice but to unleash a military offensive of 20,000 troops against the Tigers' territory in northern Sri Lanka.

In Colombo, the Sinhalese have been buying up fireworks to celebrate the day when Jaffna is conquered. Newspapers have been predicting "imminent" victory in Jaffna every day for three weeks. Even though the Tiger chief on Monday admitted that the military may "hoist the flag in Jaffna and gloat over the capture of the Tamil kingdom", the 1,000 Tiger defenders still holed up in the city are making the troops pay in heavy casualties. The Sri Lankans admit to losing over 450 soldiers, but military spokesmen put the rebels' toll at above 1,700 dead.

Although Jaffna's capture is being seen as a great psychological gain for the government, the Tigers are ensuring that it will achieve little beyond that. The Tigers have laid mines and booby-traps, so the troops may only be able to take Jaffna by destroying it first.

To keep the Tigers at bay, the government has been forced to raise a military of over 100,000 men, which is larger than Britain's even though Sri Lanka is a much smaller, poorer country. To mount the assault on Jaffna, the government had to close down 35 army and police camps in the eastern provinces. Following textbook guerrilla tactics, the Tigers left some units behind to defend Jaffna but moved most of their fighting force into the eastern districts emptied by the security forces.

In the east, the remaining army commanders found to their alarm that the size of the enemy forces had increased dramatically. "The other day we had 38 men in a patrol wiped out," says one senior officer, shaking his head in disbelief. "They were attacked by 500 Tigers." The LTTE may lose Jaffna, but they now control most of Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts along the coast.

My first sign of the Tigers occurred on the highway to Batticaloa, just an hour's drive beyond Polonnaruwa, where coaches filled with German tourists had stopped to view ancient Buddhist pagodas beside a shimmering lake. The war was not so far away. That morning, a Tiger force had crept out of the jungle of scrub palms and waited in the tall marsh grass beside the highway for an army patrol. The soldiers were fresh recruits, their first day out of boot camp, and they blundered into the Tigers' ambush. Invisible in the tall grass, the Tigers cut down 20 soldiers in minutes, stole their guns and ammunition, and disappeared into the jungle. I saw the dead and wounded being carted back in a speeding armoured personnel carrier, the survivors' faces wild with fear.

In Batticaloa, a town beside a lagoon where church steeples are silhouetted against a grey, liquid sky, police at the roadblocks were edgy. A Tiger suicide team was rumoured to be in town. From an army base near an old colonial stone fort, heavy artillery boomed out at suspected rebel positions hiding on the far side of the lagoon. It was Prabakharan's birthday, and the army brigadier had been told that the Tigers, in celebration, would try to raise an LTTE flag from the clock tower.

The big bash was on the other side of the lagoon, in Tiger country. There, villages were decorated with buntings and palm leaves, yet the Tamil songs crackling over the loudspeakers sounded like dirges. They were. "Prabakharan prefers that we celebrate this not as his birthday but as martyr's day, when one of his wounded comrades died with his head in our leader's lap," explained one young Tiger, sharp and clean as a boy scout. He carried an AK-47, but he looked like a boy who would help an old lady carry her firewood, not like a child-soldier capable of butchering sleeping mothers and babies.

A group of us were taken to a schoolhouse to meet a Tiger deputy commander, Karikalan. In his mid-thirties, he was a warrior turned ruthless bureaucrat, whose array of pens in his breastpocket seemed more dangerous than his pistol. He grinned - giggled, actually - only once. That was when asked if the president was on the Tigers' death list. He replied: "Our leader says that anyone who causes the death of Tamils in large numbers must be eliminated."

The Tiger commander denied government reports that Prabakharan had fled to India. Prabakharan is said to be a shy man. He is seen only by his bodyguards, his deputies and Black Tigers. The suicide assassins are given a last supper by Prabakharan before their fatal mission. "Prabakharan is not a runaway leader. He's there in Jaffna telling the cadres what to do. He's prepared to shed his life for the cause," the commander said.

Commander Karikalan said the Tigers would never accept the government's ceasefire offer, which comes attached to a devolution package giving the Tamils considerable autonomy over the north and eastern provinces. "The LTTE will never agree to a deal offered at the point of a gun, as long as the army occupies Jaffna," he said.

A Tamil gave me a ride on the crossbar of his bicycle along a path that led out through rice paddies and salt flats to a lagoon. A small boat ferried us across. Some soldiers challenged us on the other side. "Who did you see? The Tigers?" It seemed best to say no. "How could you not see them?" a sergeant insisted, exasperated. "The place is crawling with them. There are thousands out there." His gesture took in the entire horizon of water and grey marshes. He let us go, and later that night his camp was attacked.

Many Sri Lankans, Sinhalese and Tamils alike, are being led to hope that with the collapse of Jaffna the Tigers will be defeated. The military knows better. "This war will go on for months, maybe years," says one senior officer. The soldier at the ferry landing was right. The Tigers were everywhere.

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