Monday, January 3, 2005

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka — Veterans of a long guerrilla war, the Tamil rebels who control northern Sri Lanka moved with military precision to help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

The speed and efficiency of the massive humanitarian operation showed an administrative capability that underscored the rebels’ demand for Tamil independence from the Sinhalese-dominated southern part of Sri Lanka.

Within minutes of the disaster, soldiers of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were evacuating survivors and pulling bodies from the still-roiling water, villagers and aid workers said.

In a well-practiced drill, squads set up roadblocks to control panic and prevent looting. Others requisitioned civilian vehicles to move the injured to hospitals. Many donated blood.

Teams with digital cameras and laptops moved into disaster zones to photograph the faces of the dead for later identification, then swiftly cremated or buried the corpses.

Sathinathan Senthan, the village mayor of Kallappadu, said boats of the elite Sea Tigers, the LTTE naval arm, which had a base in the neighboring town of Mullaitivu, arrived even as the tsunami floodwaters were receding. Other sailors arrived on bicycles, he said.

By the end of the first day, the first refugee centers were set up. Women in the Tigers’ camouflage uniforms began registering the survivors and recording the relief items they received — ensuring no one received more than he should.

“They applied a very efficient military machine. All they had to do was give the command,” said Reuben Thurairajah, a British doctor who watched the maneuver in amazement.

Meanwhile, in the south, the government was struggling to cope while politicians argued over who was in charge. From the field came isolated reports of corruption and hijacking of relief trucks.

Dr. Thurairajah, a volunteer public health officer who was in the area several weeks before the tsunami, said the Tigers were scrupulous in ensuring equal distribution of aid.

“If they have 100 bars of soap and 800 people, they’d rather not give it to anyone,” he said.

Relief operations in the rebel-controlled areas are guided by regional and local task forces comprising a government representative, an LTTE political officer, an aid official of the LTTE-financed Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, and a representative of an international charity group or U.N. body.

The tsunami brought an equal measure of disaster to the Tamils of the north and the Sinhalese of the south. Nearly 30,000 people have been killed, a crushing toll for a nation of 19 million.

Yet that is fewer than half the number of casualties from this island’s 20-year ethnic war.

Tamil nationalists have been fighting for independence for the north and east, where the minority group is concentrated, since 1983. A shaky cease-fire has held since February 2002.

“Both sides are acutely aware that the way the relief efforts are being handled can affect their political status,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives.

The Tigers are likely to showcase their smooth handling of aid as they argue for autonomous authority. Sri Lankan hard-liners counter that only a central government with authority over the whole country can administer international donations.

Both the LTTE and the government have signaled the tsunami could bring them closer together — “brothers in misery,” as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse put it — and help revive the peace process.

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