Tsunami Disaster & Tamil Eelam
Tamil Tiger Guerrillas Directing Relief Effort
- In Ruined Town, Rebels Outperform Officials
John Lancaster, Washington Post,
4 January 2004
""All the activity that's been going on here
has been guided or sponsored by the Tigers"... "The central
government hasn't given anything, really." The Tigers have
also been taking the lead in sheltering refugees,
establishing an emergency task force along with
representatives of international aid organizations and the
central government, which maintains a low-key administrative
presence in the area."
MULLAITTIVU, Sri Lanka, Jan. 3 -- The beachfront
road is gone, along with all the neighborhoods behind it. The
Catholic church is a shattered husk. On the buildings left standing,
a grimy ring six feet above the ground records the depth of the
water when the wave first crashed upon the town.
By Monday afternoon, however, destruction was not the only story in
Mullaittivu, which lost an estimated 3,000 of its 5,300 residents to
the Dec. 26 tsunami, according to local officials. The other story
was the gradual return of order.
Most of the corpses had been burned. The ground had been sprayed
with disinfectant. The streets had been cleared of rubble.
Volunteers were erecting makeshift utility poles. And down the road
a few miles, 1,500 displaced residents were being sheltered in the
classrooms of a college, complete with medical clinic, outdoor
kitchen and adequate supplies of donated clothing and food.
While international aid agencies, and to a lesser extent the Sri
Lankan government, have each played a role in reviving this part of
the country, aid experts say that most of the credit for the
surprisingly well-organized relief effort goes to the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla movement of the ethnic Tamil
minority that controls large chunks of the north and east.
From 1983 until early 2002, the Tamil Tigers fought for an
independent homeland in a conflict that claimed more than 60,000
lives. Known for suicide bombers and fanatical teenage fighters
trained to swallow cyanide capsules in the face of capture, the
Tigers are regarded as one of the world's most formidable guerrilla
armies, equipped with long-range artillery, surface-to-air missiles
and a small navy of gunboats and supply ships.
They also pride themselves on self-sufficiency, operating a de facto
state-within-a-state, with its own police force and judicial system
-- and now a relief effort that in some ways appears to be
outperforming government recovery operations to the south.
"These people have been displaced a lot, so they're quite good at
banding together," said Ryan Anderson, a field coordinator for the
U.N. World Food Program in the area, who said the Tigers organized
search-and-rescue operations in the first hours after the waves
For all their emphasis on independence, the Tigers maintain some
contact with the rest of the country -- the government pays the
salaries of schoolteachers in Tiger-controlled areas, for example --
and in recent days there have been tentative signs of cooperation on
relief efforts, such as easing barriers to the shipment of supplies
through government and rebel checkpoints.
That has raised hopes for a peace process that began with a
cease-fire agreement nearly two years ago but only last month
appeared to be on the verge of collapse when the Tigers' leader,
Velupilla Prabhakaran, warned that the movement might have no
alternative but to resume the war.
Neither the Tigers nor the government "can repair this unprecedented
damage without some kind of political settlement," said A.T.
Ariyaratne, the founder and president of the Sarvodaya Movement, Sri
Lanka's largest nongovernmental organization. "Both sides can't go
to war. That is definite. This is a very great opportunity we have
where both sides should come together first for relief, then for
rehabilitation, which can be followed with reconciliation."
That outcome is far from certain, however. Because of the unresolved
conflict, the government has never directly provided development
funds to the Tigers and is not likely to start doing so now,
according to Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council, a
Scandinavian-funded group. The Tigers, in turn, are unlikely to
allow the government to perform reconstruction work independently
out of concern that doing so would weaken their claim to legitimacy.
"They don't want the government delivering big benefits to the
people," Perera said. "I'm not very optimistic."
Daya Master, a spokesman for the rebel group in Kilinochchi, its
main administrative center, said in an interview Monday that
government aid to the stricken coastal areas could help "build up
the atmosphere" for rapprochement. But he also accused the
government of favoring the country's ethnic Sinhalese majority in
its distribution of aid and confirmed that the Tigers would insist
on controlling reconstruction funds themselves.
Eric Fernando, a spokesman for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, said
the government was "most definitely" interested in improving the
coordination of relief efforts and had just appointed a task force
for doing so.
The needs are plain enough. At least 5,000 people are confirmed dead
in Tiger-controlled areas, according to Master, with thousands more
missing. One of the hardest-hit areas was Mullaittivu, once a
picturesque fishing village backed by rice paddies and thick jungle
about 175 miles northeast of Colombo, the capital, and an hour's
drive over potholed roads from Kilinochchi.
In some respects, the area was relatively well prepared for a
natural disaster. Because it is a war zone, it has been starved of
resources relative to the rest of the country, and U.N. aid agencies
and other humanitarian groups had a sizeable presence here before
the wave struck. They were therefore able to assess the situation
quickly and begin shipping in supplies with relatively little delay.
Moreover, said Anderson of the World Food Program, "we have better
freedom of movement than ever before" because both sides have eased
inspection procedures for relief convoys. The government has trucked
modest supplies of rice and other dry rations to the
Tiger-controlled areas, although most of the aid has come from Sri
Lankan individuals and charities as well as international
humanitarian organizations, aid workers said.
In Mullaittivu and elsewhere, Tigers have been out in force
collecting and burning bodies for the past several days. With that
job largely complete, the rebel movement is turning its attention to
restoring electricity and other basic services, said P. Ambigai
Seelan, a local official who was supervising the effort here Monday.
"All the activity that's been going on here has been guided or
sponsored" by the Tigers, he said. "The central government hasn't
given anything, really."
The Tigers have also been taking the lead in sheltering refugees,
establishing an emergency task force along with representatives of
international aid organizations and the central government, which
maintains a low-key administrative presence in the area. In
Mullaittivu district, which includes the town and surrounding areas,
the tsunami drove about 24,000 people from their homes; about 11,000
of them are now living in 19 camps scattered throughout the area,
local authorities said.
The camp at the college seemed well organized. At the medical
clinic, boxes of antibiotics and other medicines were heaped on the
floor. R. Thayaparan, 28, a medical student volunteer, said the camp
has not experienced any serious outbreaks of disease. Nearby, cooks
prepared a meal of lentils, potatoes and bread. Around the corner,
people waited patiently in a line for bags of new clothing provided
by a Danish charity. Children played marbles in the dirt.
Tamil Tigers were much in evidence. Though none wore a uniform and
most kept weapons and other trappings of the insurgency under wraps,
women wearing military-style canvas belts over long shirts saw to
the needs of other women and children. Directing the overall effort
was E. Maran, 28, a former guerrilla whose forearm bears an ugly
scar from a bullet wound he suffered while fighting government
forces in 1995.
"Government bureaucracy is lethargic -- that is natural in Sri Lanka
-- but it is more so when it comes to the north and east," said
Maran, who speaks flawless English that he learned at a Tiger-run
training academy. "When it comes to emergencies like this, we are
well aware they are not up to the demands."