Fear is driving Sri Lanka, as it stands on the edge of a precipice.
Tamils accuse the army of killings and abductions. A year ago, there
was some hope that the tsunami which wrecked the island would bring
the Tamil Tiger rebels and the government closer. Many thought that
the two sides could work together, perhaps through an aid-sharing
deal, and try to overcome years of mistrust. Instead, the deal fell
through, relations soured even further, and now the country is the
closest it has been to conflict since a ceasefire was signed in
Talks are deadlocked. The past month has been the bloodiest since a
ceasefire was signed almost four years ago. The military has been
targeted. Tamil civilians are being killed and abducted. The
northern peninsula of Jaffna has seen some of the worst attacks.
Like all young men preparing to fight their first war, soldiers here
are scared and nervous. But their commanders, who fought the rebels
in the last conflict, say they are ready for any eventuality. At
their camp in Palaly, the soldiers are preparing to be deployed
around Jaffna. Fresh-faced young men are already facing an invisible
front line. Every time they leave this base they confront the
possibility that a claymore mine attack will blow up their convoy.
Tamil Tiger rebels are blamed for the attacks but they routinely
deny any role, describing them as a "popular uprising" of the Tamil
people. Few here believe them. The army says only the rebels have
the capability to carry out such sophisticated attacks.
The Tamil people are, however, the worst sufferers - there are
increasing reports of them being harassed, kidnapped and killed.
Mudiyappu Ramedius, a lawyer at the Human Rights Commission office
in Jaffna, says the number of such complaints has risen
dramatically. A couple walk into the office to report the abduction
of their son. A woman reports the "kidnapping" of her son in Jaffna.
They describe how masked men entered their house in the middle of
the night. They say they were soldiers accompanied by pro-government
militia. Mr Ramedius says it is impossible to say who is responsible
for the kidnapping. "They are saying that army officers came
there [to their house]. Whether it is the army or another group, we
cannot tell. This is happening every day. It is the state's
responsibility to protect them," he says.
Tamils are being killed regularly by what officials say are
"unidentified gunmen". However the public perception here is that
the military is behind these incidents. That in turn creates anger
and more violence. Take, for example, Yogarajah's son, who was shot
dead with a friend while on the way to a mechanic. Three men in an
auto rickshaw stopped and gunned them down. "The army shot my son.
We have to go and join the Tigers and fight," Yogarajah says.
All along the Tamil-dominated coastline, joining the Tigers has
become a common cry. Hundreds of families have already fled, and
these incidents are fuelling fear, anger and ultimately violence.
Many people along the coast have been trained to fight by the
rebels, Although no-one admits it openly, many here have been
trained by the rebels to build up a so-called civil defence force.
One fishermen who does not want to be identified describes the
training. "The training is for day and night offensives, and how to
use different types of rifles," he says.
The government denies the killings and disappearances of Tamil
people. However, officials are adamant they will do whatever it
takes to keep control in the Tamil areas. On both sides the balance
is one of fear. The military are terrified of attacks, the civilians
are terrified of reprisals. They have seen it before and they are
afraid of seeing it again. It is no wonder that this fear
perpetuates the violence - but it could also be the spark that
returns Sri Lanka to the dark days of conflict.