'Like a Tsunami That Won't End'

Displaced twice by fighting, Sara Waeathi, 46, her family and her sister's family share a small tent in a barren field outside the Sri Lankan city of Batticaloa.
Displaced twice by fighting, Sara Waeathi, 46, her family and her sister's family share a small tent in a barren field outside the Sri Lankan city of Batticaloa. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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Sri Lanka
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 12, 2008

ALUM KULAM, Sri Lanka -- As gray-bellied clouds started to blot out the scorching sun, Sara Waeathi, 46, and her sister Kannaga, 30, called their seven children inside just as a light rain accelerated to a downpour.

The family huddled under their shelter, a tiny tent of frayed plastic sheeting and stitched-together burlap sacks that leaked rain into cooking pots set out to catch it.

For this family, any shelter is better than nothing.

The Waeathi sisters, their day-laborer husbands and their children have been running from the front lines of a 25-year war, one of the world's longest conflicts. Their tent on this shadeless field has been home for a year, since they fled the latest surge in fighting between Sri Lanka's army and the separatist rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. Before this, they spent nearly two decades in a squalid camp for people displaced by the conflict.

"For us, the war in Sri Lanka is like a tsunami that won't end," whispered Sara Waeathi, a wiry ethnic Tamil who used to fish and harvest honey in her original village in the country's restive north. Today, in this camp near the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa, she and her family depend on international food handouts. "The fighting keeps coming. Only God knows what will happen to us. We are scared."

Sri Lankans have endured sporadic war since 1983, fueled by tensions between the ethnic Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, whose militant separatists want to claim part of the Indian Ocean island's north and east as their homeland. The conflict has left Sri Lankans in an often terrifying cycle of violence: suicide bombings, abductions, extrajudicial killings and deadly attacks on aid workers.

New fighting has left a 2002 cease-fire in tatters, shattering hopes that peace could help this nation of about 20 million people, renowned for its surfing beaches, palm trees and highland tea plantations, lift its villages out of poverty and thrive as an idyllic holiday destination. Despite international pressure for a lasting peace deal, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that killed tens of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands, many here fear the worst is yet to come.

Ethnic tensions are running high, residents say, comparing the mood to that just before the 1983 riots. Following a rebel attack that year on an army patrol, roving Sinhalese militias attacked thousands of Tamils, plunging the nation into all-out war.

"Every Sri Lankan is worried," said Gayani Udeshik, 24, a Sinhalese hairdresser in Colombo, the capital, who was born one year after the war started. "There isn't a single family I know that hasn't been affected by terrorism or fighting. We are all just hoping it will end. But somehow, it never does."

That's also what the Waeathis want. As mosquitoes collect after the rain, members of the Tamil family swelter under their tent, two generations touched by war. Kannaga Waeathi's 12-year-old daughter is so malnourished she looks like she's 7.

Sara Waeathi says she is unconcerned with the ethnic hatreds that caused this war, then prolonged it. And she doesn't care who wins. Like many, she just wants it to end. But that hope seems as fleeting as the afternoon rainstorm.

Not far from their fields are reminders of the conflict. Many of the houses in Batticaloa are burned down or marked with bullet holes and mortar fire.

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