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Refugees tell of butchery and rape

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The last time Sinnathurai Kandasamy saw his wife, Thiraviyam, was a little over two weeks ago, when she left home for a hospital check-up in the east coast Sri Lankan town of Trincomalee.

Hours later Sinnathurai found his wife dead in a mortuary. A bullet had blown her left cheek away. Her eye was missing. Gone too were her ear lobes and fingers - chopped off for the gold jewellery she adored.

The 59-year-old was a victim of the violence that swept through the town’s main market just over a fortnight ago. It began with a bomb blast that the authorities blamed on the Tamil Tigers - a group that wants a state for the country’s 3 million Tamils carved out of Sri Lanka, which is dominated by the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population.

What followed in Trincomalee, say its residents, was murderous retribution. They tell of how the town square filled with Sinhalese mobs armed with knives and pistols. The town’s Tamils say this was a premeditated killing spree.

“The market is next to an army camp. There are armed police and soldiers there. Yet they just stood by. What had my wife done to deserve this?” asked Sinnathurai, between tears.

There are tales of butchery and rape. Shops owned by Tamils were burnt. Later the Tamil Tigers slaughtered five Sinhalese farmers in retaliation.

The trouble, say Tamils, started last November when a statue of Buddha materialised overnight in the square, a provocative religious act for the mainly Hindu Tamils of the town. Local Sinhalese claim that after Tamils won control of the council, there were overt displays of support for “terrorists”.

This reaction and, sometimes blatant, discrimination by the Sinhalese authorities has fed separatism among the local Tamils.

“They are trying to provoke us into becoming terrorists,” said Murugaiah Anandan, the nephew of Sinnathurai. “My aunt lay on the road for four hours. No one cares what happens to us. Why should we not join and fight?”

Trincomalee’s centre is now deserted, save for the heavily armed Sri Lankan soldiers at every crossing. Along the main drag, the shops are either shuttered or charred wrecks.

Concentrated mostly in the north and east of this small island nation in the Indian Ocean, these spasms of destruction punctuate daily life. They are some way from the full-scale conflict that the country witnessed for two decades since 1983, which claimed over 65,000 lives.

But in parts of Sri Lanka today the scene is of daily assassinations, abductions and gunbattles between armed groups.

At the heart of the matter is the refusal by both sides to adhere to the peace agreement signed in February. The Tigers promised to abjure from violence and in return the government agreed to rein in “armed groups” operating in its territory - a reference to a new Tamil paramilitary outfit led by the breakaway Tamil Tiger commander Karuna. Neither has happened.

Five hours drive from Trincomalee is Batticaloa, a palm-fringed town which straddles a blue lagoon that has become the frontline of a brutish battle between government-backed Karuna fighters and battle-hardened Tigers.

Large red letters daubed on lampposts proclaim that Batticaloa is under the control of the TMVP, initials in Tamil that stand for Karuna’s Tamil People’s Liberation party. The word on the street is that Karuna’s party is being built up as an alternative, more cooperative Tamil force capable of taking over administrative and police functions in the east of the country. Karuna’s troops are sheltered in the army’s barracks.

Batticaloa’s streets are now segregated into pro-Tiger and pro-Karuna fiefdoms. On the day the Guardian arrived in Batticaloa the Tigers killed 18 Karuna fighters, an act which was followed by the army spraying the town with bullets in hot pursuit of LTTE soldiers.

Report filed from Trincomalee Monday May 1, 2006

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