SIYAMBALANDUWA, SRI LANKA -- War is raging again in Sri Lanka, as it has for seven years, and the conflict again is intense for this village of about 200 families, remote yet a crossroads of the conflicting parties.
Army convoys rumble past the hospital and the handful of shuttered shops at the center of town on their way to the war front, five miles to the east. Sinhalese refugees flow in the opposite direction in rickety trucks, with tables and chairs tied on top.
At night there is the sound of small-arms fire and the occasional thunder of a mortar attack.
The separatist guerrillas known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have launched an offensive against Sri Lankan troops in the north and east of the island, and the government has responded with an offensive of its own. Cease-fire negotiations have failed and hundreds have died. Both sides appear prepared for a drawn-out war.
In Siyambalanduwa, a town of violence and fear in the southeast of the tropical island nation, collective paranoia has become a way of life. On a recent night, mass panic erupted.
"They are shooting! They are killing!" cried farmers as they fled down dark paths toward the town center. In their wake spread a rumor that Tamil Tigers had entered the town and begun to massacre its ethnic Sinhalese residents.
Hundreds poured from their homes and plunged into the jungle, climbing trees or hiding in elephant grass. Led by the town doctor, patients at the local hospital ripped intravenous feeders from their arms, climbed from their beds, and ran.
And then -- nothing. The night passed in silence. A false alarm, it turned out. Before dawn, police and soldiers came down the main street, calling into the jungle, "You can come out! There are no Tigers!" The residents of the village who started the panic had mistaken the raised voices of a domestic squabble for the sounds of a massacre underway, police said.
The mistake was comprehensible: guerrillas fight just to the east of town, Sinhalese revolutionaries plot their insurgencies within the town limits, and death squads roam the area in green jeeps, looking for suspected subversives of all kinds.
An estimated 200 people, or roughly one-fifth of Siyambalanduwa's population, have been killed in three years, according to local officials. Another 50 have disappeared, residents say. Many of those killed have been decapitated, burned, and dumped on the town's byways.
"Panic is the normal pattern of people's living these days," said a government worker. "People are very much scared by sounds in the night. If they hear heavy steps on the road, they think it is a massacre or an invasion."
In the doorjamb of the government worker's house is a large bullet hole, the legacy of a night 18 months ago when security forces posted 200 yards down a dirt lane unexpectedly opened fire. One bullet pierced the door and wounded his sleeping wife in the leg. The soldiers blasted his house, the government worker said, because "they were scared due to a certain sound, so they started firing."
As his wife limped through the preparation of pineapple juice, the government worker appeared calm about the recollected assault. "It was only an incident," he said. "They apologized."
The latest violence, after two months of relative calm, plays like the sequel to a movie whose title nobody can remember. This current war, between the government and the Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is distinct from the one four months ago, between the Tigers and the Tamil national army.
Before that was the one between the Tigers and the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front. And before that, the overlapping one between the Tigers and the Indian peacekeeping force, which started in 1987 and ended when the Indians went home in March.
The Sri Lankan government frames its offensive against the Tigers as a war to end all wars in Sri Lanka's north and east. But the residents of Siyambalanduwa know that the various wars against the Tigers, and the problems of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, which lie behind the wars, constitute only half of the island's violent ethnic and political quandary.
Siyambalanduwa and much of Sri Lanka's south have been devastated in recent years by a separate war between the Sinhalese People's Liberation Front, a Maoist revolutionary force, and the government forces.
In a crackdown launched in 1989, security forces have killed thousands and appear to have defeated the front, but residents say the Sinhalese revolutionaries are still quietly active in the area and will probably stage a comeback within several years.
The impact of so many wars on a place like Siyambalanduwa cannot be measured only by the numbers of people killed. It is compounded by the brutal form of the killings.
When the latest fighting began two weeks ago, for instance, Tiger guerrillas kidnapped an estimated 800 Sinhalese policemen stationed around the north and east. In one incident, two survivors have reported that the guerrillas blindfolded the policemen, herded them onto buses, drove them into the jungle, told them to lie face down on the ground, then sprayed them with automatic weapons fire.
More than 100 policemen may have died in the reported incident, which has not yet been confirmed by the discovery of bodies. They are said to have been burned in a jungle area controlled by the Tigers. Many Sri Lankan military officers and police officials assume that the Tigers of Tamil Eelam have killed the hundreds of other captured police, although the rebels have denied killing any policemen.
In Siyambalanduwa, the story of the reported massacre -- with gruesomely vivid details about how the supposed executions were carried out -- is repeated among the townspeople like some torturous mantra.
Several of the policemen supposedly executed were residents of Siyambalanduwa. But the story seems to be repeated often partly because it helps some residents clarify the rage and fear that dominate their lives.
"Now my son is gone. I have no reason to be afraid anymore," said R.M. Sudanbandi, the mother of a policeman presumed killed in the jungle massacre. "There is no place to go anymore. There is no security. Now I will just stay here until they kill me."
But most of the town's peasant families are not so resigned to their fate. One difficulty, residents say, is that there is virtually no one in the area who can be trusted. Security forces arrayed in camps around the town's perimeter are supposed to protect residents from attacks. But those same forces are suspected by residents of forming the vigilante death squads that still cruise through the area, apprehending suspected sympathizers of the People's Liberation Front.
Even when they flee in panic to hide in the jungle, as much of the town did the other night in response to the false rumor about the Tigers' attack, there are other deadly threats. Wild elephants roam the district and reportedly have killed seven people recently.
A local joke holds that army soldiers around Siyambalanduwa are more afraid of elephants than Tigers. As the town continues to fracture, mirroring the disintegration of Sri Lanka's once bountiful, gentle, and literate society, many residents of Siyambalanduwa find it difficult to sustain a sense of humor. Some 50 families have given up entirely, packing their belongings and leaving town.
Still, for most residents, who lack the money and connections to emigrate as many of the island's educated elite have done, Siyambalanduwa looks to be about as safe as anywhere else.
Rice farmer S. Somasiri said, "Actually, we are all too scared to stay here. The problem is, we have nowhere else to go."