- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

MANKENI, Sri Lanka — They slipped out of the village and into the jungle after dark, whole families abandoning prized fishing boats and what little else they had to escape forced military training at the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

In many ways, the 69 men, women and children sheltering this week at the Mankeni Roman Catholic Church in this fishing village are the lucky ones — they’ve gotten away, for the time being.

Dozens of others haven’t made it across this seaside sliver of eastern Sri Lanka, where aid workers and villagers say the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and a renegade rebel faction are abducting children and young men. The Tigers are also openly training civilians to fight.

The result: People here are struggling to keep from being sucked into Sri Lanka’s ferocious ethnic conflict. Classrooms stand empty, fishing boats beached and streets deserted.

Guarded by soldiers, the people at Mankeni’s church explained that they fled their village, Panichankerny, in rebel territory, after the Tigers began forcing able-bodied people between 14 and 55 to undergo military training.

“We’re not soldiers, we’re fisherman — even firecrackers scare us,” said Nadarasa, a 28-year-old who asked that his last name not be used for fear of rebel retribution. He said dozens of others remained in the village, but “they may join us if they can slip away.”

As violence surges across Sri Lanka, the abductions and forced training of civilians are seen as a sign that insurgents are preparing for a potential return to a vicious civil war that for nearly two decades pitted rebels from the Tamil minority against the government dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

Tensions are perhaps highest in this eastern region of fishing villages, rice paddies and groves of coconut palms, a predominantly Tamil area split between government and rebel zones.

It’s also the region where two years ago, the renegade Karuna faction broke away from the Tigers, sparking a murderous crackdown by the mainstream insurgents.

The few hundred Karuna fighters now left regularly attack the Tigers and are widely thought to get government protection. UNICEF says they have pressed at least 50 children into service since March.

The Tigers have a well-documented history of using child soldiers, and UNICEF says they abducted 64 children in April and May.

Aid workers also say both the Tigers and the renegades have abducted dozens of young men over age 18 in recent months.

Everyone feels the fallout. “Teachers aren’t going to schools, doctors aren’t attending health centers — it’s having an overall impact on life in the communities,” said Yasmin Haque of UNICEF.

In the nearby village of Pasikuda, one mother said she pulled a teenage son from school and asked another son, a contractor and the family’s sole breadwinner, to stay away from work.

“Even going to the shop is scary,” she said, asking her name not be used for fear of attracting attention to her fighting-age sons.

The rebels are also openly readying civilians for war. A pro-rebel Web site last week claimed that 6,000 civilians already had been trained in regions they control.

Faced with such a frightening prospect, the fisherman of Panichankerny fled, most carrying the only valuables they could — the intricate gold jewelry Hindu women are given when they marry.

“Everything else is lost,” said Selvaseram, 20, who slipped into the jungle after midnight last Saturday with his wife and baby daughter. He also asked his last name not be used.

Kamawadipillai Balasubramaniam, 46, who was among those who escaped, said that in the past two weeks his 15-year-old son and at least two other children in the village had been pressed into joining the Tigers, abductions that helped spark the exodus.

Leaving wasn’t an easy decision — abandoned were two new fiberglass fishing boats, pricey replacements provided by international aid agencies for ones lost to the 2004 Asian tsunami, which devastated this region.

But, he said, “I fish for my family, to earn them money. I am nothing without my family.”

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