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.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game