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Tamil 'Terrorism' Not So Simple

Among a war's roots, and recruits, in Sri Lanka.

Jared Ferrie 1 Sep

Jared Ferrie is a writer based in Vancouver.

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Funeral near Kilinochchi for a Tamil Tiger killed in battle. Photo Jared Ferrie.

Off the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent, the island nation of Sri Lanka is sliding back into civil war. Over the past half a year, almost 1,000 people have died, and a peace agreement has disintegrated.

The conflict was noted sporadically in the Canadian media until last week when the arrests of six young Tamil-Canadians burst onto the front pages. They are accused of trying to buy military supplies in the U.S. to send to the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The Tigers, shorthand for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), have been fighting for an independent state since the riots in 1981, when thousands of Tamils were massacred. They've sometimes used brutal tactics, including suicide bombers.

But roots and complexities of the conflict were glaringly absent from the coverage. Instead, stories zeroed in on the possibility of terrorists in our midst.

"Student club held events to celebrate terrorists," the National Post revealed on Tuesday's front page. Some of the men attended the University of Waterloo.

"As far as shopping for terror, Canada seems the place," offered The Globe and Mail a day earlier.

While procuring weapons for an armed movement is obviously illegal, it should be noted that the only other country the Tigers have ever attacked was India, which was militarily engaged with the LTTE.

The rhetoric of the war on terror has hijacked the headlines.

That's frustrating for some in the 300,000-strong Tamil-Canadian community, like Usha Sri-Skanda-Rajah, who lost her cool last week at a press conference held by the Canadian Tamil Congress.

While the media is obsessed with Tamil terrorists in Canada, it virtually ignored the recent bombing of an orphanage by Sri Lankan armed forces, she fumed.

"The prime minister of Canada and his government should condemn this act of state terrorism. I ask the Sri Lankan army to vacate the Tamil homeland," she yelled.

Forgotten victims

The Sri Lanka Army is now fighting the LTTE on three fronts, including the northern Jaffna Peninsula, the cultural homeland of the Tamils.

When I visited Jaffna almost three months ago, an uneasy calm prevailed, weighted down by the heavy presence of troops stationed there to hold off a Tiger advance.

Residents have lived with this standoff for decades. Some have become casualties, caught in the middle, like a group of internally displaced people I visited.

They were removed from their village when the army created a security zone around the airport 16 years ago. One in five was affected by leprosy. They lived in partially built, temporary shelters, some with only thatched roofs and dirt floors.

The children were shy at first and then exuberant, running around barefoot and partially clothed along dirt paths between the ragged structures. When the cameras came out, one girl sped off and returned wearing a flower-print dress, which she proudly displayed. A young boy demonstrated his kite, made from sticks, a plastic bag and fishing line. A teenage girl studied her lessons in a partially built hut, bemused by the children's antics.

I was with Father Rubin, the leader of Jaffna's Catholics, a small community amongst the mostly Hindu Tamils. The church was helping these people, providing medical treatment. There was even a project to buy land to resettle some of them -- but only those who had not owned land in their original village near the airport.

Why were previous landowners ineligible?

They were pawns in the power struggle. To take new land would be to capitulate to the Sri Lankan government, and such a move would inflame the Tigers' grievance about the matter. There was fear of repercussions.

More casualties

There were more casualties further south in the LTTE-controlled zone. On the outskirts of Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the rebels' pseudo-state, I visited a children's home.

The children had been orphaned by the war, the 2004 Tsunami and by poverty. They were now in the care of the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization. Money donated by Canadians, members of the largest Tamil diaspora in the world, helped feed, clothe and house them.

The grounds were leafy and well kept, and the buildings were bare and clean. We disturbed naptime at the young children's quarters, and they jumped up and bounded all over the place, laughing and singing. In one corner, those who came in malnourished rested listlessly. One stood up in his crib with his arms outstretched. He felt brittle and frail.

Homelands and checkpoints

One of the men being held by Canadian police, Suresh Sriskandarajah, completed a co-op term for his engineering degree at Waterloo in the LTTE-controlled area. What did he make of the poverty and repression he witnessed?

A history of domination by the Sinhalese majority has pushed many young Tamil men and women to pick up a gun. Others have been recruited as children to fight with the Tamil Tigers for an independent homeland, a dream that has scarred a landscape and a generation.

Heading north again between minefields and barbed wire, I passed through LTTE security, a buffer zone manned by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and finally, a string of Sri Lanka army checkpoints.

There were more checks and thorough searches that afternoon as I made my way to the airport to catch my flight to Colombo, the cosmopolitan capital of Sri Lanka. Our bus passed through the remains of a village, possibly the one formerly occupied by the internally displaced people I had visited. Soldiers hunkered in some of the bullet-ridden buildings.

A young man in a blue tank top next to me muttered, "That's the school I went to as a kid."

He had a worldly air about him and I'd noticed him while our documents and luggage were being slowly and painstakingly checked before boarding the bus.

He was from Toronto.

What did he do there?

"Real estate."

Jared Ferrie is a Vancouver-based journalist.  [Tyee]

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