By Shelani Perera
For some it was four years, for others as long as eight years, but all in all it was a long wait for the families of the ten Prisoners of War who were released on Monday by the LTTE, as the peace process gathered momentum.
The ten-seven sea men from the civilian ship "Missen" and three soldiers- went back home on Wednesday heralding a new sense of peace and hope not only in their families but all over the country.
The release coincided with a peace mission to the Wanni by a multi racial, multi religious group of about 3000 including the families of service personnel missing in action.
The group which left Colombo in buses and vans on January 19, spent the night in Anuradhapura before resuming the peace march to Madhu and then to the uncleared war ravaged and poverty stricken areas of the Wanni.
For 32 year old Mahinda Dias there were mixed feelings after he was captured from the Missen in 1997. He had been an accounts clerk and had joined the Missen hoping he could sail further in his career development. But he virtually ended up in a shipwreck and does not know how or where to start again.
As for the five years in captivity Mahinda says things were not too bad and he did not even feel like a prisoner except when he thought of his family. His story is more of an insight into how the LTTE generally operates.
"Once we were captured, we were brought to Mannar and then to Kilinochchi and handed over to the intelligence unit. We explained that we were only civilians but they said the government was acting in a similar manner.
"We were kept in about three base camps. First at Mankulam we stayed till they started Jayasikuru operations. Then we were brought to Padiruppu, it is here that the rest of the Army personnel are kept. Thus we were moved to Kilinochchi.
"We were looked after well. Restrictions were few. The base we were kept in was a coconut land of about five acres. With permission we could go to the town hospital or send someone to get food. Generally the wake up time was about 8.am. We had games to play and books to read. The guards were generally friendly and in any event there were only about two.
"At times I wanted to escape but I knew the Army was far away and my chances were weak. We were told before the elections if the UNP came to office we would be released.
"On January 18 the good news finally came of our release," he said.
Mahinda's mother had joined the peace march but he was not taken to meet LTTE cadres.
The ship's Chief Engineer Sunil Perera who had been on the ship for nearly 15 years explaining the capture said, that about 15 minutes after they anchored their ship, 8 LTTE boats had surrounded it.
"I told the crew I believed we would not be harmed because we were helping civilians. But we were asked to get into their boats.
At first they put only about three of us into the boat. While we were leaving I saw three divers coming out of the ship. When I inquired I was told they were planting bombs to blast the ship. I immediately told them that there were more people on board. We went back, got them out and before we went about 100 metres the ship exploded," he said.
E.P Nanayakkara who heads the association of relatives of soldiers missing in action told The Sunday Times that the next step would be for the government to release some of the LTTE suspects in custody.
"I asked again for the remaining seven prisoners, but they said they expected the government to first reciprocate by releasing some of the LTTE detainees.
"I urge the government to release some of the LTTE detainees and hand them over to us. We could then go to the Wanni and handover those prisoners to the LTTE. Mr. Nanayakkara said he was given permission to visit the other PoWs but due to lack of time he thought he would visit them the next time with some good news of their release.
Mr. Nanayakkara describing the dramatic part of their visit where they were taken to meet the LTTE leadership said that after a two kilometre peace march they had been met by an LTTE delegation and the whole ceremony was televised.
"We were planning to meet LTTE leadership the following day but around 6.00 pm the same day an LTTE delegation came and said that the Leadership wanted to meet us immediately. We reached the LTTE office in Mallavi around 3.00 am . We travelled for about eight hours. We were given dinner and told that we will be taken to Kilinochchi where we had to travel another 110 Km.
We met Thamil Selvam at the Kilinochchi office, and talked for about one hour mainly on the peace process.
Mr. Thamil Selvam praised the peace initiative of the new government and said he also believed this was the last chance for peace, Mr. Nanayakkara told The Sunday Times.
From Neville de Silva in London
Sri Lankan diplomacy will be put to the test when Foreign Minister Tyronne Fernando attends the first ministerial meeting of the 10-nation Commonwealth Committee on Terrorism.
The committee meets in London on Tuesday to prepare a Commonwealth Plan of Action to help member countries carry out the terms of a UN Security Council resolution against terrorism adopted shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The meeting takes place amidst growing protests among Sri Lankan living here over proposed moves to lift the ban on the LTTE.
Observers say some Commonwealth governments that have already banned the LTTE and have cracked down on its fund raising and money laundering operations, might be disinclined to do so now, or even ease up on LTTE operations on their soil.
Demonstrations against the current policy are expected opposite the Sri Lanka High Commission in London when High Commissioner Mangala Moonesinghe and staff participate in a flag hoisting ceremony on February 4.