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Sri Lankans are giving peace a chance

If fragile talks fail, countless more will die in a war that has killed at least 30,000 Tamils, writes Tim McGirk in Jaffna
When a Sri Lankan army helicopter clattered down in Jaffna recently to unload peace envoys preparing to negotiate a ceasefire in the government's 12-year ethnic war with Tamil guerrillas, a throng of Tamil onlookers pushed forward to crush the pilot withhugs and kisses.

Such effusive displays of friendship towards the enemy stunned the Tamil Tiger commanders, who expect total discipline from the 800,000 Tamils living in this besieged peninsula on the island's northern tip. In their newspaper, Tigers' Voice, the crowd received a scolding. "Don't forget, a week before, this same helicopter pilot had been shooting at you and your families."

It is not possible for the Tamils to forget such things. More than 30,000 have been killed in the fighting and, until the ceasefire took hold three weeks ago, this city was routinely bombed and strafed by aircraft, while the big guns of naval vessels arched in shells from the sea. Churches, homes, schools and hospitals were blasted, and statues of saints and angels left headless. For Tamils wanting to leave there was only one exit: across a broad, shallow lagoon where small ferries, moving in darkness, frequently ran on to shifting sandbars.

Stranded boats, often crammed with women and children, made perfect targets. A Roman Catholic nun, Sister Annaclette, recalled: "As soon as the bullets started flying, everyone would panic. Some would stand up and get shot, tipping the boat this way and that, while others jumped out and drowned. It's shallow, but there's quicksand." When I travelled with the sister and several other nuns across the lagoon in a speedboat, the truce was on; they felt brave enough to sing Tamil hymns under the starry sky.

For the first time in this vicious war, both the Tamils and the government believe peace stands a chance. But in Colombo and in Jaffna, officials involved in the three rounds of negotiations over the past few months said worriedly that if these talks break down, it could be many more years - and countless deaths - before another opportunity arises. n What gives optimism is that the new Sri Lankan president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, swept to victory on a pledge to end the war. She has partially lifted an economic blockade around the rebel stronghold in the north. The Tamil Tigers went a step further: they agreed to a ceasefire earlier this month and dropped demands for a separate independent state.

Anton Balasingham, the Tigers' chief spokesman, who once taught sociology at a London university, said: "For the first time, we're making a clear statement that we want autonomy through federalism. There's no need to change the name of this island from Sri Lanka."

The Tamil rebels are demanding that the government lift its ban on several crucial items, such as fuel and fertiliser. Four years of an intense blockade have turned the Tamils into canny inventors. They run cars on kerosene and vegetable oil, sparking the carburettor with eau de cologne. When the army's spies found out about eau de cologne and banned it as a military weapon, the Tamils found a spray of paint thinner worked as well. Ingenuity is not the only reason why the Tamils have held out for so long against the better-equipped and far larger Sri Lankan army and navy.

Their enigmatic and ruthless leader, Prabakharan, has whipped his boy and girl soldiers - most still in their teens - into a fanatical force ready to die for Tamil liberty. After guerrilla training, all Tigers receive a string necklace with a phial of cyanide which they are expected to take if faced with capture. "You just bite into the glass, that's all," said one youngster with a Kalashnikov, barely old enough to shave.

Every square in Jaffna has large cut-outs of Prabakharan and Tamil martyrs, though the guerrilla leader rarely appears in public. At his secret headquarters, he meets his battle commanders and performs such duties as swearing in three new judges - formerTiger fighters, aged 22, 22 and 25 - who can issue the death penalty.

Prabakharan is also known to share a last supper with his Black Tigers, his suicide commandos, who are accused of blowing up India's former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, the Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and many Sri Lankan generals and politicians. "It's not a last supper, like Christ's," said Mr Balasingham. "But yes, he meets them to say good-bye." Such fanaticism is fanned by the various Tamil churches. Father Emmanuel, from the St Francis Xavier Seminary, said: "The church used to deny suicides a Christian burial. But we don't call them suicides. We use terms like `martyr'. They are soldiers who die for a cause." Electricity has been cut off in Jaffna for four years, yet the Tigers find the means of keeping lit the war cemetery, known as the Martyrs' Resting Place, as though death were nothing more than a happy, neon-lit fairground. n Even though most Tamils are Hindus - as opposed to the majority of Sri Lankans, who are Sinhalese Buddhists - the Tiger chief insists that all Hindu guerrillas be buried, as Father Emmanuel explained, "so that all those who fall in battle become the seeds for the future Tamil homeland". By contrast, the Sri Lankans do not honour their dead so publicly; the generals know the war is unpopular and minimise the national grief.

In Jaffna, I could not find any Tamil who dared to speak openly against the Tiger guerrillas. Treason is punished by execution in a public square.

Although most Tamils may fear Prabakharan and his zealous teenage commandos, they fear the Sri Lankan army even more. "We are grateful for the Tigers' protection," one priest said.