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COLOMBO, May 16 2011 (IPS) - Suresh Sundaram and Wilfred Wickremasinghe live 350 kilometres apart, and have never met each other. But their lives ran parallel for over a quarter of a century, as war ravaged their tear-shaped country Sri Lanka and changed their destinies forever.
Sundaram and Wickremasinghe represent the two communities at the heart of that conflict—the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils—who lived apart and distrusted each other for so long.
Sundaram, a minority Tamil, arrived in the capital Colombo in the last week of July 1983 with his new wife. But even before they could unpack, Colombo erupted in one of the darkest moments in the island’s history – the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots. They sought refuge in a hastily set up camp in an airport hangar, where they first listed their names as “Mr. and Mrs.”
He still keeps the yellowing registration card given at the camp. “It is a souvenir of my honeymoon,” he said.
Wickremasinghe was a newly resettled farmer when the riots broke. Hailing from the majority Sinhala community, but living in an area bordering Tamil villages, he fled for his life. As for tens of thousands of others in Sri Lanka, there was no permanency to anything in his life after that. The uprooted life of those forced to flee the fighting became his.
That all changed on May 19, 2009, when the war finally ended. By then the conflict had consumed every bit of Sri Lankan life, leaving at least 70,000 dead, and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes in fear. The end came when Sri Lankan government forces killed the leader of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Both men agree that life is easier now.
Sundaram, now 60, a father of two young men and living in Colombo, admits there has been a huge change for the better. “We were happy that the war ended,” he told IPS.
Wickremasinghe, 70, returned in 2009 to Kithuluthuva, a remote village in Trincomalee District in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, and is encountering a problem that was very common before the war erupted – keeping marauding wild elephants away from his crops.
“I can deal with that; I am used to them,” he told IPS.
But the end of the war does not mean peace, both men concede.
“We have a long way to go,” said Sundaram, who decided after the riots to stick it out it in the capital while many other Tamils fled overseas and some, mostly men like him, joined the nascent militant Tamil groups.
Wickremasinghe told IPS that so many of his relatives and friends had been killed in the war that he still found it difficult to trust Tamil villagers living close by. “I know not all of them were involved in the bloodletting, but two years can’t wipe out the horrors of 25 years, it will take time.”
Even the ongoing talks between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest Tamil party in parliament, are moving slowly.
“It is a very slow process,” said Suresh Premachandran, who took part in the talks for the TNA. So far six rounds of talks have been held since January without much headway. The U.S. recently termed the government TNA dialogue as vital to national reconciliation.
In areas in Sri Lanka’s north popularly known as the Vanni once dominated by the Tamil Tigers, those who were detained under suspicion of links with the Tigers and their families recently told researchers that they face added obstacles.
A report titled “Threats, Harassments and Restrictions on Former Detainees and Their Families in Vanni” said that families of detainees and released detainees still faced harassment and stigma. The report was compiled by Fr. Jeyabalan Croos, a catholic priest from the Mannar District in south western Vanni, Deanne Uyangoda and Ruki Fernando from the Colombo based advocacy and research organisation Law and Society Trust.
Fernando told IPS that persons interviewed had expressed an inability to connect with the majority Sinhala community because of the restrictions placed on them.
“They said all the threats, restrictions and harassments they face from the military and the Criminal Investigation Department prevent them from developing better relations with Sinhalese people in general and the military and the government in particular,” he told IPS.
While reconciliation has been slow, development and economic growth, by contrast, have galloped ahead since the end of the conflict.
Overall, the island is better off since the guns fell silent. Economic growth is projected above 8 percent this year, and tourist arrivals were up 66 percent in April compared to 2010 and are likely to maintain the impressive growth for the second consecutive year.
According to the World Bank, wages are on the way up and unemployment down. The roads in Colombo, once a maze of checkpoints, are lighter on security. There are fewer armed security personnel around. On many roads leading to the capital, there are high iron canopies, large railings hastily shoved to one side and empty security boxes, all once used as checkpoints.
Travelling north now has never been easier, though foreigners need special clearance to travel by land. Buses ply overnight between Colombo and Jaffna, the cultural and political nerve centre of the Tamils. They speed through the Vanni, along the A9 highway, once dubbed Sri Lanka’s highway of death.
For those like Sundaram and Wickremasinghe, who stood by silently as the conflict robbed them of the best years of their lives, there is at last hope.
“May be our children will live as Sri Lankans and not as Sinhalese or Tamils,” Wickremasinghe said.
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