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For Sri Lanka's Civilians, It Feels Again Like Civil War


Hundreds of people have died in Sri Lanka this year as the government and rebels of the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group slip back into what some are calling an undeclared civil war. Leaders from both sides say they want to resume peace talks and save a cease-fire agreement that has all but collapsed. But in Eastern Sri Lanka, where much of the violence has occurred, people are bracing themselves for a return to full-blown hostilities.

Jainudeen Jemeeila sifts through the remains of her house. A single room made of plywood and metal sheeting, it was simple to begin with. Now, it has all but collapsed.

In April, a Sri Lankan Air Force jet accidentally dropped a bomb on her village of Muttur, outside the eastern town of Tricomalee. The Air Force meant to target positions held by the Tamil Tiger guerilla group, just a few kilometers away, in retaliation for a suicide attack in the capital that wounded a senior army commander.

The bomb killed Jemeeila's son and his wife, who lived next door - leaving Jameeila, a widow, feeling especially vulnerable. The fact that the bombing was an accident makes little difference to Jameeila. For her, Sri Lanka's civil war has returned.

"We are scared to live here," she said. "I don't have a husband, or any other place to live. Now we're living with neighbors. I'm afraid, and I lost my son. We're living by the grace of god."

Trincomalee and surrounding areas have become a flashpoint for hostilities as tensions increase between the government and the rebels.

Norway brokered a cease-fire between the two sides in 2002. But despite repeated attempts by Norwegian facilitators to return the government and the rebels to the negotiating table, the process has become bogged down in minutia - such as finger pointing over cease-fire violations, and arguments over procedural details. In recent months, violence has resumed, at times on a daily basis.

Jehan Perera is with the advocacy group the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He says the peace plan itself was flawed, because it failed to set a goal both sides could work towards.

"The weakness in this peace process is that two parties at the outset itself didn't agree on the goal," he said. "There was no agreement as to the final destination. That was left open on the grounds that the two parties were too far apart. So there's been a reluctance to discuss the final solution, the large picture, the broad parameters, and instead [there is] the preoccupation with details."

The Tamil Tigers first launched their violent campaign against the government in 1983, demanding independence for the predominantly Tamil areas in the North and East. They said the government, made up primarily of ethnic Sinhalese, discriminates against the Tamil minority. More than 60,000 people were killed before the cease-fire took effect.

In 2003, the rebels gave up their demand for independence, instead putting forward a plan for self-rule in their areas. But the government rejected that demand, calling it a blueprint for eventual independence. Talks aimed at resolving the conflict have been stalled ever since.

Jehan Perera and others say violence has not yet reached the level that constitutes a return to civil war. Fighting so far remains isolated and restrained. Neither side has attempted to seize territory belonging to the other.

But the cease-fire is tattered at best. More than 800 people have been killed in tit-for-tat incidents in the past six months. The United Nations has said the rebels continue to recruit teenagers into their ranks.

A few kilometers up the road from Jemeeila's shattered home in Muttur, about 75 young men stand in military-style formation. Some hold wooden models of assault rifles, others just sticks. They are being trained by the Tamil Tigers to fight.

Maran, the rebel supervising the training, says these men are not soldiers, and have not been forcibly recruited. He says they are volunteers, who want to learn to protect their villages, because of what he says is constant attack by the Sri Lankan military.

"The army camps are located close to our area, so whenever the army launches an attack against us and our civilians, we have to be prepared for self-defense," added Maran. "So we are now giving them training to protect themselves."

Analysts say the rebels are angry, and not just over violent incidents in the countryside. Last month, the European Union joined the United States in branding the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization, leading to the rebels' recent demand that Norway remove any cease-fire monitors who come from EU countries.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is an analyst at the Centre for Policy Alternatives. He says it is unlikely the peace process will resume if the rebels (also known by the initials LTTE) feel that they are not receiving respect from the Sri Lankan government or the international community.

"The LTTE has always wanted to make very clear that they consider themselves to be much more than any kind of mere organization, and certainly they don't consider themselves to be a terrorist organization," he said. "They want to make clear that they consider themselves to be a national liberation movement. They have achieved a political status which needs to be recognized and acknowledged."

The government has said it is willing to meet with the rebels at any time to put the peace process back on track. The rebels have threatened to do whatever it takes to defend themeselves in the event of war, including the use of suicide bombers, a common Tamil Tiger tactic. But they, too, continue to say they want the peace process to resume - a prospect that, as civilians like Jainudeen Jemeeila know all too well, is looking increasingly far off.

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