Families Hurt by Sri Lanka War View Army Offensive With Hope

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 7, 2009

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Feb. 6 -- When Margaret Nanayakkara heard Friday that the Sri Lankan military had seized the headquarters of a rebel detention camp, she sent a prayer of thanks to Buddha. Her son, an army major, had been captured by rebels 15 years ago when his tank was ambushed.

"My heart is saying he's still alive," said the 74-year-old mother of three, who wore a brown, swirl-print house dress and her gray hair in a braided bun.

For every year that he's been missing, she has donated a bull to her temple. On each of her son's birthdays, she has sponsored breakfast and lunch for disabled children. She hopes her good deeds will bring him home. "I pray every morning and every night," she said. "I don't do anything to hurt others. I believe he will come home."

Like Nanayakkara, thousands in this busy seaside capital are following the television coverage as the Sri Lankan military destroys the last outposts of the Tamil Tiger rebels, potentially ending a quarter-century of civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people. The Tamil Tigers, whose full name is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have been fighting for a separate Tamil nation in the northern tip of the Sinhalese-majority country.

Almost every family in this island nation has been touched by the war: victims of Tamil Tiger suicide bomb attacks, civilians caught in the crossfire, mothers and wives of missing servicemen in a political conflict that suddenly became personal.

As a mother, any news was hope enough for Nanayakkara. She desperately wants to see her lanky, 19-year-old son -- a man now -- home from war.

News reports quoted a military spokesman as saying that among the items left behind in the rebel camp Friday were Sinhalese-language newspapers. It was a sign that perhaps the rebels had been holding Sinhalese-speaking soldiers. Maybe her son was among them, Nanayakkara said. She and others in the group Mothers of Missing Servicemen were planning to present a list of the missing to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombo.

"The newspapers are there," she said, displaying photographs of her son in a military uniform. "I want to see him walk through the door. Even if he comes in the middle of the night."

In the bright family sitting room of a home nearby, Sudarshinie Fernandopulle's wedding photo sits beside a framed picture of her husband that she dusts carefully every time she picks it up.

Like the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka itself, bordered by coconut palms, Fernandopulle's home at first looks like a happy place. On a recent school night, her two teenagers were studying while several family dogs barked playfully on the front lawn in the balmy breeze. But the more than two decades of war have left a deep pain.

Her husband, Highways Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, was killed in April while hosting a marathon and celebration to mark the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year at the Kanthi playground, 18 miles outside Colombo.

He was about to wave a flag to start the race when a ball of fire rushed toward him, visible on television footage. K.A Karunarathne, a former top marathon runner, was among those killed, along with 13 others, in what the government called a suicide bomb attack.

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