The day after a bomb blew apart a crowded bus station in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last week, police were still picking human body parts from the rubble. In a grisly ritual, they stacked the remains in piles amid the smoking ruins. And by week’s end they had pieced together evidence that a total of 106 people had died in the powerful Tuesday rush-hour blast. The killers, according to the Sri Lankan government, were Tamil terrorists seeking an independent homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the island. The indiscriminate nature of the bomb attack was in chilling contrast to the deliberate and precise massacre four days earlier, when Tamil guerrillas selected ethnic Sinhalese passengers from buses waylaid on a country road on the east coast and machine-gunned 126 of them to death. With similar precision on Monday, April 20—the day before the bomb blast—gunmen
slaughtered 15 more Sinhalese men, women and children in another part of the same district. By the time Sri Lanka’s week of bloodshed had ended, terrorists had claimed 247 lives—and the Sri Lankan air force had killed at least 100 more in retaliatory air raids on suspected rebel positions in the North.
Ordering the raids on the rebel bases, Defence Minister Lalith Athulathmudali characterized the Tamil militants as “the most brutal terrorist group in the world.” And indeed, last week’s incidents—born of the long-standing ethnic and religious conflict between the 12-million-strong Sinhalese majority and the three-million-member Tamil minority—were reminiscent of Beirut at its bloodiest. To halt an escalation into a full-scale pogrom against the predominantly Hindu Tamils by the Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist, troops across the island were under orders to take preventive measures. But despite a 20-hour curfew in Colombo,
police had to open fire to disperse a crowd attacking Tamil property in the bazaar district of Pettah. They used tear gas to break up another anti-Tamil rally led by Buddhist monks. And in Colombo’s central prison, troops were called in to protect more than 200 Tamil political detainees from attack by Sinhalese prisoners.
Authorities were clearly seeking to prevent a repeat of the race riots that raged through the summer of 1983 and sparked the factional war that has since devastated the once-peaceful island paradise. The grievances of the Tamils date back to 1948, when Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, won its independence from Britain and the minority group slowly began to lose influence. In the 1983 riots, Sinhalese mobs killed an estimated 2,000 Tamils in revenge for the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers in an ambush by Tamil separatists. Although the authorities appeared to have succeeded last week in sup-
pressing another outbreak of mob violence, the latest terrorist incidents seem to have scuttled hopes for an early settlement of the island’s ethnic strife, which has claimed 5,500 victims in the past four years. “We are a nation of idiots,” said one government official. “We have destroyed paradise.”
Because Easter week was a period holy to all three of the island’s major religions —Hindu,
Buddhist and Christian—a government-declared ceasefire was in effect when the latest orgy of destruction began on Good Friday. On a country road near the eastern port city of Trincomalee, a group of about 50 Tamil-speaking youths dressed in fatigues stopped three buses and two trucks loaded with civilian passengers, many of them on the way home following holiday festivities.
According to survivors, the youths first robbed passengers of their valuables, then ordered all Tamils to disembark before methodically lining up the Sinhalese in a jungle clearing and spraying them with automatic fire. When the hail of bullets subsided, the youths walked calmly among their victims, finishing off all those they suspected of being alive. Only 64 survived, some having smeared themselves with the blood of other passengers to feign death.
Two days later in a village near Trincomalee, rebels dragged 15 people, including five women and five children, from their beds and shot them to death. Sri Lankans were still in shock over those two massacres when Tuesday’s bomb blast reduced the crowded bus station in downtown Colombo to
blood-soaked disarray. The bomb was timed to detonate during rush hour while homebound commuters thronged the station. The powerful car bomb simply blew many victims apart. Others died in the burning buses, while rescuers hurried more than 300 injured to local hospitals and clinics.
The Sri Lankan government immediately blamed the attacks on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the largest and most powerful guerrilla group—and its ally, the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students. Eelam is the name Tamil separatists have chosen for the homeland they hope to create one day in the northern and eastern parts of the island, where most of the Tamils live. Although the Tigers denied responsibility, government spokesmen claimed that survivors of the bus massacre identified some of its leaders as having been among the killers.
Maclean's Ottawa correspondent Marc Clark recently visited the guerrillas’ stronghold in the northern Jaffna Peninsula. His report:
For the most part, Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise of palm-fringed beaches and coral reefs, a land where jak trees bear fruit as big as pumpkins. In the narrow valleys, barefoot men sift through beds of wet gravel for moonstones and sapphires. But the cool central mountains hold the richest prize of
all: a carpet of deep-green tea estates that make Sri Lanka the world’s second-largest exporter of tea.
The traditional Tamil homeland in the northern and eastern provinces is not so fortunate, however: it is the only desolate part of an otherwise rich island, and that fact has shaped the
Tamil spirit. “In the South you can push a walking stick into the ground and it will take root,” said Bastiampillai Deogupillai, Roman Catholic Bishop of Jaffna. “But the land here is so poor that we have to be hardworking. Nobody can afford to be lazy.” Under British rule, that work ethic, combined with a traditional respect for scholarship, paid dividends. English-speaking Tamils ran the post offices, the train stations and the law courts—prize jobs of the colonial administration—and wielded influence out of proportion to their numbers.
But that changed after independence in 1948. Sinhalese politicians learned to profit from resentment of the Tamils’ success. In 1956 the Sinhalese-dominated government made Sinhala the one official language. The government also introduced quotas favoring Sinhalese applicants to universities. The civil service, once the preserve of the Tamils, became a patronage-ridden bureaucracy. As their influence ebbed, the Tamils’ resentment and sense of being powerless grew.
By the mid-1970s small bands of Tamil guerrillas had begun attacking government officials—and Tamil moderates—in the north and east. Many victims were dragged from their homes, tied to lampposts and shot. In reprisal, undisciplined Sinhalese soldiers and policemen tortured and killed Tamil vil-
lagers. In 1982 police burned the 90,000volume Jaffna library, one of the flowers of Tamil culture. Said Bishop Deogupillai: “They behaved like an army of occupation.”
The Tamils responded like an occupied people. Support for the militants increased slowly until the July, 1983, ambush and murder of a truckload of soldiers by Tamil guerrillas sparked island-wide revenge attacks. Many Sri Lankans said that they believed the attacks were condoned by the government and the Buddhist clergy. An estimated 130,000 of them fled to refugee camps in southern India to escape the violence, while others who could afford to do so went to Western nations, including about 5,000 who emigrated to Canada. But many of those who remained behind flocked by the thousands to join the militant Tamil bands.
One of the new recruits to the Tigers in 1983 was a 16-year-old student. Now 20 years old, Selvaratnam Kanagaratnam, better known as Raheem, became the Tigers’ local commander in Jaffna last month. Raheem does not command a spit-and-polish army. He himself favors blue plastic sandals, grey slacks and a striped sport shirt with the tails left out to cover a .38-calibre revolver. Guns make people nervous, he said. Dangling from a cord around his neck is a slender glass ampul bearing a lethal dose of potassium cyanide. The Tigers carry the poison to allow the mercy of a quick death by suicide should they be captured—and their leaders say that some 200 of them have chosen to take the cyanide rather than submit to torture.
Raheem’s quiet voice and gentle manner belie the bloody record of the Tigers. In addition to their strikes against the security forces and Sinhalese civilians, they have over the past few years largely eliminated several competing militant organizations. The first to go was the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization, which Raheem said was engaging in “antisocial behavior”—stealing cars and kidnapping—to finance itself. He says that the Tigers killed about 70 members of the rival gang. Other diplomatic sources put the figure at over 100.
More recently, the Tigers killed off most of the members of the hard-line Marxist Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front. The Tigers have no political ideology other than nationalism. Said Raheem: “We are not fighting a class struggle. We are fighting for the
rights of our people.” The only other significant militant group remaining is the Revolutionary Organization of Students, which concentrates its activities in the Eastern Province—site of the Good Friday bus massacre—and in the central mountains.
The Tigers’ overall leader is the shadowy commander-in-chief Velupillai Pirabakaran. According to a Western diplomat in Colombo, he is “utterly rac-
ist and ruthless, a study in authoritarianism.” Pirabakaran controls a disciplined force of about 7,500 fighters. Many of them are simple, poorly educated young men from small villages on the north shore of the Jaffna Peninsula, an area particularly hard hit by brutal army and police reprisals before the Tigers took control. Raheem says that his men average 22 years of age, but the visible militants in Jaffna are younger—some of them barefoot teenagers in cotton Iungis, a traditional garment, who are known locally as “the boys.” But despite their youth, they are treated with fierce loyalty and fearful respect. “The people are afraid of them,” said Bishop Deogupillai. “If you oppose them, you end up on the lamppost. But the people are grateful to the Tigers because they have kept the soldiers bottled up.”
Indeed, the Tigers’ control of the area is unquestioned. Since May, 1985, they
have kept troops confined to a 200-yearold fort in the city of Jaffna—where they can only be resupplied and relieved by helicopter—and a series of fortified camps in the peninsula. Young Tigers, most of them carrying Chinese-made T56 assault rifles stolen from the army, man checkpoints on all roads leading out of the camps. Much of the Tigers’ ability to fight the army is financed from abroad. Sri Lankan Tamils are
just a fraction of an estimated 60 million Tamils worldwide, about 50 million of whom live in Tamil Nadu in southern India, just 35 km away across the Palk Strait. The Tigers also levy taxes on wholesalers in the Jaffna Peninsula: six rupees (approximately 30 cents) on a bottle of liquor, three rupees on a pack of 20 cigarettes and two rupees on a bag of cement.
The city of Jaffna itself has clearly suffered from four years of almost continuous war. Along the streets are the crumpled shells of homes rocketed by military aircraft or hit by army mortar fire from the camp. The main hospital shows the scars of four mortar attacks. In the Rolex Cafe, sandbags line the floor. The proprietor says that before 1983 he took in about $500 a day; now he earns about $25. But the cafe owner says that he would rather have the smaller income than go back to Sinhalese rule. Indeed, most of Jaffna’s 100,000 residents appear to hold that sentiment.
There are few prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Some Western diplomats say that a set of proposals advanced by the government in
Colombo last December could provide a good starting point. But the Tigers rejected the proposals, and in the wake of this month’s brutal attacks and reprisals there is little likelihood of a fresh round of talks.
Sri Lanka’s anguished decline into civil war is one of the tragedies of the postwar era. When Britain granted independence to Ceylon, the country was a model of civility. But now, even moderate Tamils appear convinced that Sri Lankan democracy is a failure. Geyaratnam Wilson, a leading Tamil political scientist, acted as a mediator for 11 years of fruitless talks between Tamil and government leaders. He said recently: “The Sinhalese government is thoroughly unreliable. It is better for the Tamil people to have a war to the finish, even if it means untold suffering. The island must be partitioned.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.