10 April 2007
Batticaloa district in 2007 has acquired a reputation which it did not have in the last 25 years of the military conflict in North East Sri Lanka.
This relatively peaceful Eastern Sri Lankan district has become a very dangerous place to visit, making even seasoned journalists wonder if it is safe.
The reason is the change in weaponry and tactics used in the conflict. There is now an overwhelming reliance on long distance fighting with artillery, 'arty' mortars, Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRL) and jet fighter bombers.
And the shelling from the ground and the air is incessant, like it never was ever before.
However, one decided to go. The situation was getting worse and not better. And it was feared that the roads might be closed indefinitely if the government pursued its plan to take over the entire East, on a priority basis, for pressing political reasons. A "now or never" situation had arisen.
After zipping through the lush green landscape of the blissfully peaceful Sinhalese-majority district of Polannaruwa, one entered Batticaloa district.
In a trice, the landscape had changed. The barrenness of Western Batticaloa was as depressing as it was striking. There was no sign of any economic activity for as long as the eye could see.
And soon, the other aspect of the grim reality in Batticaloa presented itself. Signs of war appeared in the form of checkpoints, searching questions by a motley mix of Sri Lankan police commandoes, regular troops and Karuna's men, all armed with T-56 assault rifles, bullet proof vests and huge ammunition pouches.
Karuna, who was one of the ace commanders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) till March 2004, had broken away from LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, and had since been functioning as an adjunct of the Sri Lankan armed forces in Batticaloa and Amparai.
As one went further in, one could hear the sound of shelling by a wide variety of long range area weapons - 81 mm 'arty' mortars, 122 mm artillery and the most dreaded and the noisiest of them all, the Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL).
The towns in Batticalao district like Chengalady and Eravur, looked battle-scarred, with half demolished buildings and shops, pock marked houses, road blocks and diversions.
Steel helmeted and armed men were evident every few yards. Road intersections were manned by callow Tamil youth with deadly weapons.
Clearly, these were recent recruits of the Karuna faction. Some of the gun-toting boys were so small that they were dwarfed by the T-56s they were carrying.
One dreaded the thought of a child soldier pulling the trigger in a fit of excitement. The boys were also small enough to be playful with that instrument of death.
Karuna's presence was ubiquitous, though locals said that the extent of the presence did not match popular support. "Support for him may be about 5 per cent," said a school teacher," who did not wish to be named, for obvious reasons.
"If Karuna had … helped the Tamil refugees, we would have embraced him. But he is doing precious little," said a Christian priest, involved in relief work.
There was not a town in the government-held areas which was not dotted with Karuna's offices or camps, which significantly, were almost always close to the camps of the government forces.
The TMVP's offices are located in opulent houses, many owned by Tamils who had fled to the West apparently.
"The TMVP has the ability to acquire any property it fancies!" said a resident with a mischievous smile. Locals alleged that houses are commandeered and rents are not paid.