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SL: Evidence of reconciliation is hard to find

October 3, 2009

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Sri Lanka’s internally displaced: A view framed by barbed wire

KANCHANA asks to go by a false name, but seems self-assured for a teenager. And no wonder. Her experience of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in May after a seaside slaughter of the leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and at least 8,000 people taken hostage by them, would put years on anyone.

For five years she was marooned in the Tigers’ northern fief. Kanchana and her sister had left their village in Thampalagama, an area in the east more loosely controlled by the LTTE, for a holiday with a brother living there. But their travel passes were lost and without these the Tigers let no children of fighting age leave them. In 2007, as the army advanced, the Tigers recruited her brother and sister.

The advancing troops reached Kanchana last April. All belonged to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. Yet they did not rape her as she had been led to expect. Instead they shared their thin rations with her. But then came three-and-half months interned in Vavuniya. Over 260,000 Tamil refugees were crammed into 16 camps there, with poor food, overflowing toilets and, last month, flooding in which at least five drowned. One sibling was imprisoned among 11,000 former Tiger cadres. The other is probably dead.

A cousin of Kanchana’s, his wife and three children were killed, with about 20 others, when an army shell hit their makeshift bunker. That was the main cause of the civilian slaughter, though the Tigers also killed refugees, both in crossfire and deliberately, to stop them escaping. Her best friend, of the same age, and really called Kanchana, was killed after the LTTE gave her a gun and sent her to the front.

Now back in her village in Thampalagama, the surviving “Kanchana” was among the first refugees to be released, in August. With them the truth of the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s 26-year war, which the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has tried to hide by bullying journalists and reporting “zero civilian casualties”, is coming out—at an awkward moment. The government faces human-rights probes from both America and the European Union. The EU’s, to inform a decision on whether to reissue a valuable trade concession to Sri Lanka, said human-rights violations made it ineligible.

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