Now islanders dare to dream of peace

By Catherine Philp in Mullaittivu, The Times, January 03, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- When the wave struck Mullaittivu a week ago, the first to come  running to rescue survivors were villagers living inland. Next came  the teenage soldiers from the Tamil Tigers, deployed to help the  homeless.

Then came a fleet of unfamiliar lorries, driven by unfamiliar people, and laden with food, medicines and clothing for the swelling refugee camps.

The aid had been collected by Sinhalese from the south who had been at war with the northern Tamils for two decades over the Tamils' struggle for a separate homeland. The homeless Tamils, camped out in a school yard, looked on with astonishment at their visitors bearing gifts.

"We were amazed," Francis Fernando, a fisherman who had lost his home and 15 members of his family, said. "This is the first time that people from the south have ever come here. They have been our enemies for many wars. All we have ever known is conflict but now when help was most needed, it was they who came to help us."

As war-battered Sri Lanka reels under the scale of the tsunami tragedy, one faint hope has emerged: that from this disaster might spring the seeds of a peace that only two weeks ago looked in grave peril.

A ceasefire signed three years ago seemed on the verge of breaking down; Tigers openly recruited, urging people to join for a "return to war". A senior Norwegian mediator who flew in for emergency talks left again, giving warning that the peace process was in "serious jeopardy".

Now amid the devastation of the tsunami, that struck both the Tamil north and east and the Sinhalese south with indiscriminate force, there is cause for hope. When disaster struck, the Tigers called for direct help, saying that the Government was discriminating against their areas over aid distribution. The Government reacted angrily and tensions rose. But as aid has begun to make its way out to all areas, those under Tamil control have seen an unprecedented co-operation between the former enemies at grassroots level and a plea for peace from those most affected.

The Tamil northeast is perhaps Sri Lanka's worst affected area because people here had so little. Mr Fernando was a subsistence fisherman, catching and selling just enough each day to feed and clothe his family. Now his boat and home are smashed.

After the disaster a television company with channels in Tamil and Sinhalese mobilised support from the wealthier south, gathered donations and rushed aid to stricken Mullaittivu. At the camp in Vidyananda College, that help was gratefully received.

"I think we would have died without this," Samadhamaraja, a homeless fisherman, said tearfully as he clutched a clothing parcel. "We don't want war any more, we want peace. We are wondering and hoping that through this we can achieve peace, that both sides will see sense and help us."

Next to the camp a Tiger cemetery stretches away, a reminder of how many lives have already been lost. However, that pain has been no insulation against this latest tragedy. All around are blank, shocked faces; people sit, quietly crying.

What is not known is the Tigers' military losses. Tiger rebels were said by government sources to have set fire to a refugee camp yesterday, causing some 60 families who had defied them and accepted aid to flee to another shelter.