KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka — Day and night, warplanes roar over this rebel-held town as the steady thump of artillery echoes from afar — a preview, many fear, of a military showdown in Sri Lanka that could leave thousands dead.
“All we hear is war,” says Tavakumar, a 43-year-old anti-government rebel who only uses one name, patrolling a road a few miles from the front. “I’m ready to fight.”
Five years after a cease-fire brought a measure of relief to Sri Lanka, a ferocious ethnic war is again raging between the government dominated by the country’s predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Tigers, separatists seeking a homeland for the largely Hindu Tamil minority.
The signs of a deepening conflict are everywhere: soldiers in full battle gear patrolling Colombo, the increasingly fortified capital; sandbagged bunkers and trenches going up all over the rebel-held north.
Both sides claim to be observing the truce, but it has completely collapsed. The rebels are mounting renewed attacks, including a bus bombing last June that killed 64 persons, and Sri Lankan forces are pushing into rebel territory, with the aim to crush their enemy.
“We want to destroy them, the Tiger bases, all these things,” Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse told the Associated Press in an interview. Mr. Rajapakse, brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse, survived a Tamil suicide bombing of his motorcade in December.
Amid the spiraling violence, the AP secured permission to cross the front lines and make the first visit by foreign journalists to insurgent territory since the war reignited in August.
In Kilinochchi, the main rebel-held city, the cease-fire seemed a distant notion as a pair of warplanes dropped flares to light up a rebel position outside town. Farmers and insurgents scrambled into dank, makeshift bomb shelters as the jets dropped their bombs, obliterating the mortar position.
Nineteen years of suicide bombings, jungle clashes, torture and village massacres from 1983 until the truce was signed in 2002, took an estimated 65,000 lives on this West Virginia-sized island of 20 million people off India’s southern tip.
Since August, about 3,000 more have been killed and 160,000 displaced, most in eastern Sri Lanka where the government has plowed through relatively lightly defended rebel territory.
Next up, officials say, is the rebels’ heavily fortified northern heartland, a would-be Tamil state of about 500,000 people with courts, traffic cops, a forestry department and a legal code that bans adultery and pornography.
It’s territory the rebels say they’ll defend with everything they’ve got.
“The fighting in the north is going to be more intense and the [rebels] probably won’t withdraw,” as they did in the east, said Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council, a think tank. “Battlefield losses will be heavier.”
There’s also growing concern about the rise in human rights violations. Both sides are purported to have abducted — and in some cases killed — hundreds of civilians, and there are well-documented cases of top government officials threatening critics of the war, especially journalists.
The roots of the conflict stretch back to the years after independence from Britain in 1948, when the government gave Buddhism a prominent role and declared Sinhala the sole official language. The result was widespread discrimination against Tamils, until war broke out in 1983.
The 2002 cease-fire negotiated by Norwegian diplomats raised hopes which were reinforced two years later by a belief that the Indian Ocean tsunami would force the warring sides to work together for national recovery. But by late 2005, sporadic shootings and bombings were back. Most — such as the bus bombing last June — were blamed on the Tigers, who many thought were trying to force the government to make concessions at the negotiating table.
If that was their strategy, it backfired spectacularly.
Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president in late 2005 in part by Sinhalese hard-liners who viewed the cease-fire as a betrayal. In August, he opted for all-out war, while claiming to be honoring the cease-fire and only responding to rebel provocations.
He is being cheered on by hard-line Buddhist monks who see themselves as guardians of the island’s Sinhalese culture, and, increasingly, by many ordinary Sinhalese. A recent poll by Colombo’s respected Center for Policy Alternatives found nearly 60 percent of the Sinhalese supported a military solution.
It highlights the changing mood in a country that a few years ago was hoping to ride the coattails of India’s economic boom and nurture its own blossoming tourism and garment industries.
But while any glitch in India’s rush forward is apt to be felt internationally, Sri Lanka’s war rages away from center stage.
There are no peacekeepers — just a team of cease-fire monitors from Nordic countries with no powers to intervene. The U.S. and European governments regard the Tigers as terrorists but are pressuring the government to stop attacking rebel territory, pressure that has largely been ignored. India, the regional power, is loath to repeat its disastrous 1989 military intervention in the war.
The not-an-inch attitude of the government and its growing ranks of supporters was evident at a well-heeled dinner party in Colombo, where Jaya Dayananda, a Sinhalese housewife, told a guest: “These Tamils, you must understand, only know how to kill.”
“We tried peace. They didn’t want peace,” she said. “War is our only solution.”
That war is a day’s drive north.
At the last checkpoint in government territory, a soldier warned: “You can get killed up there. We can do nothing.”
On the other side, visitors are welcomed to “Tamil Eelam,” made to fill out an immigration form, and are thoroughly searched for guns, pornography and booze.
Kilinochchi, the rebels’ de facto capital, is another hour up a bumpy road patrolled by armed farmers and laborers.
The rebels, formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), assign minders to accompany visitors almost everywhere. There’s little opportunity to speak with ordinary people or venture beyond the crumbling main strip of Kilinochchi, a town of one- and two-story buildings hemmed in by bush and jungle.
The air raids are “the one thing we’re afraid of,” said a 26-year-old who gave only her nom de guerre, Sita. “There’s nothing we can do against them.”
It’s hard to gauge the sentiments of ordinary Tamils, but the government’s push against the Tigers appears to be strengthening their support for the rebels.
“It’s not that we don’t have problems with the Tigers — we do,” said Father James Pathinathan, a Tamil Roman Catholic priest in nearby Mullativu, another rebel town.
“But if you look at the whole picture, people here know they have more to gain from supporting the Tigers,” he added.
Fresh graves of rebels are filling the cemeteries and every able-bodied adult — along with quite a few children, say aid workers — are being trained to fight.
The Tamil Tigers are now thought to have more than 10,000 men and women in their cult-like army — in which fighters aren’t allowed to marry until their mid-20s and carry cyanide capsules to kill themselves if captured.
They bested Sri Lanka’s 66,000-strong army in conventional battles and waged guerrilla campaigns before the cease-fire, which has given them an opportunity to dig in and rearm.
The rebels have carried out more than 240 suicide bombings; their victims include a Sri Lankan president and a former Indian prime minister. The bombings led the United States and the European Union to label the rebels as terrorists.
In March they launched their first air strike, using a single-propeller plane to drop bombs on an air force base next to the international airport in Colombo, killing three airmen.
The attack sent shivers through the tourism industry, prompted warnings of a new phase in the war, and clearly boosted Tamil morale at a time when stresses are showing in the rebel enclave.
Nonetheless, in a rare conversation with no minder listening, a Tamil named Francis says he’ll settle for no less than a Tiger victory.
“We are asking for our freedom from the Sinhalese people,” he said. “We should live apart.”