The travellers, resigned to a long delay, had fallen under the spell of noon in the tropics. Drowsy in the heat, they stretched out in the shade of the trees, dozing, drinking from coconuts, slapping at mosquitoes. A vehicle suddenly appeared on the highway. It was an armoured personnel carrier and it moved through the shining marshland at crazy speed, in a panic. Soldiers were piled on top, clinging like survivors on a lifeboat. As the armoured vehicle zigzagged through one road- block after another, so fast that it nearly shook the soldiers off, it seemed that these men were escaping from some nightmarish disaster.
The soldiers were yelling, their faces discoloured by adrenalin and fear. An ambulance van roared behind them. Its door was open, and the arm of a dead soldier dangled out. The corpse was still wearing a helmet.
It had been an ambush, a massacre. These Sri Lankan soldiers were fresh recruits. They had only been out of training camp a single day when their officer ordered them on a foot patrol along the highway. Everything seemed normal. It was late morning and there were a few buses bumping along the highway. But Tamil Tiger rebels had crept out of the jungle during the night and lay hiding in the swamp grass along the road.
Of 35 soldiers, 20 died in the ambush. A bus driver who saw it said: "The Tigers were so close that four of the soldiers had their heads blasted off. Afterwards they came and stole the weapons." In the tall grass along the road were ammunition boxes prised open like long empty sardine tins.
From an army camp in Valaichanai came a blast of artillery fire; one after another for five minutes, the shells arced out across the marshes and scrub palms. It was aimless, frustrated shooting. After the ambush, the Tiger rebels did not linger.
"These attacks are happening every day along the Batticaloa highway," an army captain said from his camp, encircled by bunkers and barbed wire.
The Sri Lankan government may be succeeding in its month- long siege on the Tamil Tigers' stronghold of Jaffna, in the north, but at a heavy cost. To mount the offensive against Jaffna peninsula - which Tigers had ruled as a fortified mini-state for five years - the army had to pull thousands of troops from the eastern provinces. Apart from a few towns, such as Batticaloa and Trincomalee, the government has lost control of 80 per cent of the vital eastern provinces, the rebels claim. They exaggerate only a little. Squeezed by the attack on Jaffna, the main rebel force of 8,500 men and women fighters slipped from the government's grasp and melted away in the jungle in a classic guerrilla manoeuvre.
Now the Tamil separatists are reportedly massing near Batticaloa, a town beside a lagoon, with pastel-coloured churches and a clock tower adorned with fish. The Tigers are big on birthdays, and with the celebration coming up of their chief, Velupillai Prabakharan, the army and police are fearful of attack. The Tigers were so close that in one nearby village, a ferry ride across a lagoon, the Tamils put up bunting and palm decorations for the birthday. A Tiger commander strolled around passing on the wisdom of Prabakharan. "We Tamils are a weak community. Our strongest weapon against the mightier force of the Sri Lankans is the suicide bomber.
"Many want to join the suicide teams. They've had sisters raped by the army, families killed. There's a rush for revenge."
The brazenness of the Tigers so annoyed the Sri Lankan army in Batticaloa that, after first warning civilians to clear off, they began shelling the Tiger-controlled hamlets across the lagoon. But when a few platoons were pushed across, the military found that the elusive Tigers had again bolted into the jungle. The officers know they will be back.
A rumour has spread that a Tiger suicide squad has sneaked into town, so police at the road- blocks keep a grip on their rifles when they peer inside cars and auto-rickshaws. The army has grounded the fishing fleet of outrigger canoes, fearing that some might pilot the rebels ashore.
Most Sri Lankans are Sinhalese. The President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is Sinhalese and so is most of her government, army and police force. Yet in Batticaloa, like Jaffna, the majority are Tamils. Still, many Tamils have bad memories of the time in 1990 when Batticaloa fell under Tiger control. "They were arrogant and domineering. They mistreated the Sinhalese, who are Buddhists. They burnt down the sacred Bo-Tree and gouged the eyes out of statues," said a priest. "When the Tigers were here, we were afraid of them. When the Tigers are away and the army is here, we are afraid of the army."
But President Kumaratunga, who is credited for trying to make peace with the Tamils, is determined to fight a clean war. The security forces no longer run death squads in Batticaloa. A human rights activist says "only" five Tamils have disappeared this year while in the hands of the security forces compared to hundreds in the years before. A priest, Harry Miller, said: "They burnt the bodies in piles. The biggest one I saw had 23 bodies. There was a dead boy on top who must have slid off partly out of the fire, because when I got there, everything was burnt except the boy's little feet."
The Tigers are finding recruitment harder among Batticaloa's disillusioned Tamils, who no longer believe in an ethnically divided Sri Lanka. Fewer students are joining the rebels. Most volunteers are young - some only 12 or 13 - and poor. Many are girls who prove to be better suicide killers than the boys. "They've had their houses destroyed and their fields burnt by the army," said one Tamil. "They have nothing to live for."