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.

"When I got the call, I didn't want to believe it. I kept calling people to confirm it," said his wife of 21 years, a doctor who heads the country's community health programs. "I was still wishing he would come back for breakfast. Just like he had promised."

Fernandopulle was the second minister to be killed last year. In January, the minister for nation-building, D.M. Dassanayake, died in a roadside blast in the same district.

Sri Lanka's Defense Ministry blamed Tamil Tiger rebels. The Tigers usually deny such attacks, but heavy fighting in the north at the time meant they could not be reached for comment.

The U.S. government has labeled the Tigers a terrorist organization. In 1991, a female Tiger suicide bomber assassinated the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who was campaigning for reelection. He had backed an Indian peacekeeping force created by a 1987 accord. In Sri Lanka, the Tigers also terrorized Tamils in communities they said they represented. The fighters would forcibly conscript people, including children.

The Sri Lankan government has also been accused of human rights abuses, including abductions and unsubstantiated arrests of Tamils, according to rights groups. The government disputes those claims. In recent days, the international community has been pressuring President Mahinda Rajapaksa to find a long-term political solution.

"The point we've made to the government is that once they occupy all the territory in the north, which should be a matter of weeks or less, that will not end the LTTE, because the LTTE still has a large number of guerrillas underground that will continue to rely on the support of the Tamil diaspora," said Robert Blake, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, in an interview in the capital.

Referring to the Tigers by the abbreviation for their formal name, he added: "The LTTE also has a significant network of businesses outside Sri Lanka that generate substantial income for the LTTE. So it will be very important for the government to come forward with a package of political proposals that will really ensure the Tamils of Sri Lanka a position of dignity and respect, and give them some measure of local autonomy in the areas in which they predominate."

Nanayakkara's family and Fernandopulle's are watching the news closely. They both know loss, and that's the same feeling no matter which side of the war a victim is on, they said.

"I really just want the war to end," said Fernandopulle, who added that she took comfort in the fact that the night before her husband died, the family had a big get-together to celebrate their daughter's grades.

She wants to be a doctor, like her mother. Her brother wants to be a lawyer, like his father. But their mother is very clear: Don't enter politics, she tells them. They say they will listen.

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