The streets around
city's downtown bazaar are filled with
bicycles, trishaws and sari-clad women
carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from
the harsh tropical sun.
There are also a lot of soldiers. They
patrol the streets with automatic rifles and
stop buses to check the identity cards of
In this northern city, the population is
almost entirely Tamil - which to the
soldiers means that any of the people on
these streets might be Tamil Tigers
city was once the second-largest centre in
after the capital, Colombo, but the rows of
empty, bullet-pocked houses on the outskirts
of town are a reminder that the civil war
has hit hard here.
The Tamil Tigers controlled
until the Sri Lankan forces retook it in
1995, but more than a dozen years later,
daily life could hardly be described as
Troops are everywhere; a curfew remains in
effect; nobody dares step outdoors without
their National Identity Card; and residents
cannot leave without the army's permission.
Locals say the military routinely cordons
off neighbourhoods, takes everyone to a
school or a playground and holds them
overnight for questioning.
Getting out of
Jaffna means a two-week wait for military permission and a
24-hour boat trip.
That's because the region is cut off from
the rest of the country by the war zone.
"It's like an open prison," says Gajen
Ponnambalam, the Member of Parliament for
Jaffna and a member of the country's main
Tamil opposition party, the Tamil National
Even though he is an elected representative
for the region, Ponnambalam lives 400
kilometres away in Colombo. Jaffna is too
dangerous. Two TNA MPs were assassinated in
2005 and 2006.
"There is absolutely no security. All the
TNA members of parliament from Jaffna have
been threatened. the government uses
paramilitary groups to carry out these
He says his phone calls to
are monitored, and when the discussions turn
to topics considered sensitive by the
government, the line gets cut. "It's a
police state, so everything is being
Journalists considered sympathetic to the
Tamil cause live in constant fear. Bullet
holes mark the walls inside the
office of the Uthayan newspaper. A stack of
computers sits idle, their screens blasted
Editor M.V. Kaanamylnathan thumbs through a
book filled with photos of his reporters and
staff, all killed in recent attacks. The
newspaper continues to publish regardless.
"We have decided that despite what happens,
we have a duty to our readers," he says. "We
are just speaking for the rights of the
people. This is a newspaper's function."
Both sides accused
The civil war that has torn apart Sri Lanka
and driven tens of thousands of refugees to
has been notable for its horrors. Both sides
have been accused of abuses.
The list is long: Suicide bombings,
abductions, recruitment of children,
torture, ethnic cleansing, political
assassinations, unlawful killings and
arbitrary arrests and detentions.
Ethnic Tamils can be arrested for
"suspicion," which requires no more than a
belief they are linked to the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas
waging a separatist war against the
government. Some are released. Some are
never seen again.
"Outside of the war zones, Tamils are very
vulnerable to human rights violations, which
come in the form of their houses being
raided in the night or being searched in the
night," says Jehan Perera, executive
director of the National Peace Council of
Sri Lanka. "They have to prove their
innocence, that they are not LTTE."
Disappearances and killings have occurred in
Colombo, but they are said to be worse in
Jaffna, he says, although he adds that there
are no reliable statistics. Adding to the
concerns is the sense that nobody is ever
brought to account for the abuses, he says.
"There is a problem of terrorism, people
need to be arrested, but this can't be done
arbitrarily," he says. "It is happening
enough that all Tamils are frightened."
Since the collapse of Sri Lanka's ceasefire
in January, international human rights
groups have become increasingly alarmed as
government forces drive north in an attempt
to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and the
guerrillas resume their random terrorist
Deaths of civilians have reached "appalling
levels," according to a February report by
the International Committee of the Red
Cross, which says almost 200 civilians died
in the first six weeks of 2008.
A Human Rights Watch report released in
March blamed pro-government forces for
abductions and disappearances of suspected
rebels as well as clergy, aid workers and
In April, Amnesty International accused both
the government and the guerrillas of
intentionally targeting civilians and
conducting indiscriminate attacks. "Since
2006, the conflict in Sri Lanka between
government forces, the LTTE and other armed
groups has escalated and has continued to be
marked by widespread human rights abuses and
violations of international humanitarian
law," Amnesty wrote.
A young Tamil man, too afraid to allow his
name to be published, spoke nervously about
the August night his life was turned upside
It was after dark and he was with a friend.
They went to meet another friend. All were
Tamils. Someone saw them together and told
"I didn't expect they were going to put me
in jail," he says, but the next thing he
knew, he was taken to a cell. "They took us
to a bad ward. There were 250 people staying
in a single hole."
The cell was full of hard-looking men, some
of whom were smoking ganja. Until that
night, he had never even seen the inside of
a police station. He was held for a week
before being released without any charges.
Now he is uneasy. He believes the police
will be watching him. He says if police pick
him up again, he will never get out. He says
he will no longer venture outside after 8
pm. "Earlier, I never thought about these
things. But now I am afraid."
The Sri Lankan government does not deny that
abuses occur, but says they are not state
policy and that those found responsible are
Attorney-General C.R. De Silva told the
United Nations that a Presidential
Commission of Inquiry was looking into
disappearances, and that police had formed a
Disappearances Investigation Unit.
In the past year, 61 police officers have
been charged with torture, he says, while in
the past decade, 599 members of the security
forces and police have been charged in
connection with abductions and
Gajen Ponnambalam, the Tamil MP, says that
in the past, international pressure could be
wielded to curb government excesses. But
unlike past Sri Lankan governments, the
current administration lacks strong links to
Western countries that have typically pushed
for negotiations to end the conflict.
"President (Mahinda) Rajapakse is someone of
a totally different mindset. He has no such
Gotabaya Rajapakse, the defence secretary
and the President's brother, says some
people reported as disappeared have actually
joined the guerrillas. He cites the case of
a man reported missing by his mother. It
turned out the man had died while committing
a suicide attack near the Colombo Hilton
Searches, arrests and detentions are all
necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, he
"Now we know that each and every Tamil
person is not a terrorist, but unfortunately
98% of the terrorists are Tamil because this
started as a freedom movement, it started
from the Tamils," he says.
"So when you adopt certain control measures,
of course the Tamil population will be
targeted. You go and search where there are
more Tamil people, then you question with a
doubt when you see people coming from the
north and east. So for these things we get a
lot of criticism, but at the end, you save a
lot of lives."
The National Post hitched a ride to Jaffna
on an air force transport and travelled
through the high-security zone to the city
in a Unicorn armoured vehicle before leaving
the company of the military to explore.
Jaffna's roughly 600,000 residents had a
brief respite from the war during the
ceasefire that began in 2002. The A9 highway
that links the region to the south was
reopened for the first time in decades, but
the ceasefire soon collapsed and the road
was closed once again.
The guerrillas and the army face each other
on the eastern edge of Jaffna, where 100
metres of no-man's land separates the
forward line of the Sri Lankan Army from the
Tamil Tigers. Both lob mortars at each other
on a daily basis.
"A lot of skirmishes are going on - last
night there were 12 attacks," says Major
General Gammampila Chandrasiri, Area
Commander for Jaffna. But he insists life in
Jaffna is "coming back to normal."
One prominent Tamil man scoffs at the
positive image painted by the General. He
says the Tamils of Jaffna are treated like
second-class citizens and live in constant
fear of the security forces.
"It has gone to the depths, there is no
freedom," he says. "Whether you are three or
65 years, they will stop and check your ID
card. Now they are suspecting every citizen.
How can you say that we are living
peacefully, how can you say that there is no
problem?" he says, afraid to have his name
"It is 100% occupation."
A life given over to war
WELIOYA, Sri Lanka - Brigadier Mohan K.
Jayawardena is sitting at his wooden
desk, a framed portrait of the President
on the wall behind him, when a loud boom
rattles his office.
He does not flinch.
He is apparently used to the sound of
130-mm artillery guns firing off into
the Mulaithivu jungle, home of the Tamil
Tigers guerrillas he has battled his
entire military career.
Brig. Jayawardena was an 18-year-old in
basic training when the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam started fighting
for independence for Sri Lanka's ethnic
Twenty-eight years later, he is still
fighting Tigers, now as the Area
Commander for Welioya, a northern
district that is experiencing some of
the most intense fighting of the civil
The Sri Lankan conflict is one of the
world's longest-running insurgencies. A
whole generation has never lived in
times of peace. Newspaper articles about
the latest bombings no longer even make
the front pages of the country's
"We have to somehow or other sort out
this problem," says the General, who has
slicked-down black hair, a moustache and
three rows of ribbons on his uniform.
"That is our aim. We want to finish it
The army is pushing hard against the
rebels in this region of rice paddies
and coconut trees northeast of the
garrison town of Vavuniya. The road to
the base begins at Kebitigollewa, a town
centred around a clock tower whose
modern red digital face seems out of
place above the gritty streets.
One of the bloodiest attacks of the war
occurred here in 2006, a roadside mine
explosion that killed more than 60
civilians. From Kebitigollewa, the road
cuts north through open fields and rows
of lookalike houses built to resettle
families displaced by the war.
The countryside is filled with a strange
mix of images: an egret wades in the
flooded farmland and a mongoose darts
into the bush; a woman in a white sari
balances a water jug atop her head; and
there is the red flag of the hardline
People's Liberation Front party
fluttering from a power line.
The town of Parakramapura is very close
to what the military calls the
"non-liberated areas," the misshapen
chunk of territory controlled by the
Tamil Tigers. The road is rutted as it
follows the Welioya river, where a woman
washes her long, gray hair below a
sluice gate, and another dunks her
laundry, wrings it tight and slaps it
onto a rock to dry.
"Troops ahead, drive slowly," reads a
The guerrillas in this district are
fighting fiercely to hold their line
against the advancing government forces,
the General says. "It's heavy fighting,
almost every day. Our aim is to move
forward; day by day we are moving
Using a red laser pointer, Brig.
Jayawardena traces the front line on a
map that hangs on his wall between two
spent artillery shell casings. He says
it has been shifting north a few hundred
metres at a time, moving deeper into
territory formerly held by the rebels.
(As he speaks, there is another
eardrum-shattering artillery boom, but
again, he takes no notice.)
Last month, government forces captured a
Tamil Tigers camp called Jeevan Base. As
they took the camp, they found holes
that lead into a maze of underground
bunkers - offices and sleeping quarters
all but invisible from above.
"They have made all these bunkers with
full concrete. This means even an
artillery shell or an air strike, it
won't destroy it," he says. "Maybe the
top leader has been staying there," he
adds, referring to the elusive Tamil
Tigers boss Velupillai Pirapaharan.
Brig. Jayawardena commands Area
Headquarters - Welioya, the rear base of
the 223 and 224 Brigades of the Sri
Lankan Army. Each has three battalions
that patrol the roads, protect local
villages and fight the Tamil Tigers west
and north of here. Welioya is also a
transit point for guerrillas. It lies
between the rebel stronghold in the
North and the Eastern Province where the
Tigers have been trying to reignite
their civil war after losing the area to
government forces last year.
Guerrilla fighters regularly try to
cross through the paddy fields to
infiltrate the east, the General says.
"About 10 days back, a couple of
terrorists infiltrated the FDA (forward
defence area) and we did an operation
and killed all the terrorists and
captured all their weapons."
One of the handful of Generals who
commands troops along the front, Brig.
Jayawardena was trained in India,
Pakistan, Georgia and Hawaii. He has
studied counter-insurgency and
The scar on his wrist shows he has also
done his share of combat duty. He got it
three years ago in Jaffna, where he was
a brigade commander. A mortar shell
landed near him and the shrapnel struck
his right arm.
"In my opinion, they are not strong," he
says of the guerrillas. "What they do is
they find our weaknesses and they do
various things. If we keep alert and
train, they can't do damage to us."
His boss is Lieutenant-General Sarath
Fonseka, who makes weekly visits to the
region to check on the war's progress
and talk strategy.
Over in under a year
In an interview, Lt. Gen. Fonseka talks
candidly about the war, which he
believes will be over in less than a
year, and his views on the militant
Tamil nationalism that has spilled from
Sri Lanka into countries with ethnic
Tamil diasporas, Canada included.
"The national leadership basically is
determined to solve this problem," he
says. "The task given to us is to
eradicate terrorism ... If we have the
same commitment one more year, the
LTTE's destination is, I think,
In the General's view, the war is driven
by Tamils who want a homeland and have
chosen Sri Lanka as the place. But he
says the country's ethnic Sinhalese
majority will never allow the ethnic
Tamil minority to break the island
Lt. Gen. Fonseka is a competitive
swimmer who won the US Green Card
lottery but has remained in Sri Lanka,
heading the army he has served for three
decades. He is lucky to be alive. On
April 25, 2006, a suicide bomber
attacked his limousine in Colombo. He
was seriously injured in the
assassination attempt and nine others
were killed. The Tamil Tigers never
claim responsibility for such attacks
but were almost certainly behind it.
"I strongly believe that this country
belongs to the Sinhalese but there are
minority communities and we treat them
like our people," he says.
"We being the majority of the country,
75%, we will never give in and we have
the right to protect this country.
"We are also a strong nation ... They
can live in this country with us. But
they must not try to, under the pretext
of being a minority, demand undue
He dismisses concerns by international
human rights groups about the conduct of
his forces, saying that while civilian
deaths are inevitable in war, relatively
few non-combatants have died in the Sri
The guerrillas' central problem is
manpower, he says. During the current
phase of the civil war, the Sri Lankan
forces have killed 8,000 rebel fighters
in the north and 2,000 in the east,
while another 1,000 have been killed in
air strikes, he says.
According to the army's calculations,
that leaves the Tamil Tigers with no
more than 4,000 remaining cadres, while
the Sri Lankan forces have 250,000 men
and women, and plenty of weaponry.
"So it's a matter of time," Lt. Gen.
But the Tigers are well-armed; they have
ammunition, artillery, mortars,
rocket-propelled grenades, multi-barrelled
rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and
mines. "Every inch is booby-trapped in
the jungle. De-mining those areas will
take a minimum 20 years," he says.
Brig. Jayawardena does not deny it is a
tough fight; that moving forward is a
slow, painful task, and that he will
lose more soldiers. But he believes the
government's strategy is working and
that the war will be over soon enough.
"It is a big headache for us, for
development, for the economy. War is not
a good thing but we have to fight and
protect our normal citizens."
"That is our duty."
- Stewart Bell