Trinco citizens prepare for tit-for-tats

By Shimali Senanayake

Ali-Oluwa Trincomalee - The police have offered shotguns to Sinhalese villagers to defend themselves against deadly LTTE attacks but the move appears to have deepened the ethnic chasm.

Taking aim: Villagers in Ali-Oluwa get lessons on how to use guns in self-defense

"I took up the offer purely to protect my family," said Kumara, who declined to disclose his full name for fear of being singled out.

He lives with his wife and two daughters on the fringes of a thick forest that separates this little village from Tamil-dominated ones.

The 46-year-old farmer is among several in Ali-Oluwa, who opted for an 'armed option,' after suspected Tigers attacked a nearby hamlet of Sinhalese villagers hacking a woman to death.

Ali-Oluwa was once threatened by elephants, hence the village name. Now, the threat is different.

It was around 1:10 in the afternoon on April 24, when Pushpa Kumari (28) sat down to feed her 1 ½-year-old daughter on the steps of her mud hut in a village known as Block-C, in Seruwawila, south of Trincomalee.

Kumari's home was situated at an isolated corner. About 50 metres away was thick jungle. Her husband Chaminda, a home guard had left to the field that morning. Fatigued from her morning chores of cooking and cleaning, Kumari fell asleep while her baby suckled at her breast.

Her neighbour Lanka, poked her head out of her kitchen window when she heard her pet dog barking incessantly. To her horror, she saw two men emerge from the jungle toward Kumari's house. The men were armed with a rifle and an axe.

"The Tigers are coming to kill us," Lanka ran out of her home screaming. "Pushpa, Pushpa run." Lanka ran until she reached a few houses about 500 yards away. Most of the menfolk who serve as home guards during the evening were out in the field, except for one.

Hearing gunshots and the screams of the woman, the home guard fired into the air. The attackers evidently deterred by the gunfire were seen retreating into the jungle. The villagers are convinced that many more women would have been slaughtered if not for the presence of the home guard.

When the villagers reached Kumari's house, they found her limp body. Sharp axe stokes had left part of her neck hanging. A blow to her spine, police say, may have been one of the other fatal blows.

The baby by her side lay unhurt.

Tit-for-tat attacks

The attack sent shock waves throughout the area. Two days later the terror spread.

This time it was in Thanga Nagar, translating to city of gold, a Tamil border village, on the outskirts of Ali-Oluwa and Block-C, all situated on a land route that leads to LTTE-held Sampoor.

Joseph Baby (38) was seated on the floor and having lunch with her family, when two men stormed her thatched hut.

They had masked their faces with black-cloth and wore a mauve uniform, similar to those worn by home guards, she said. One man carried a rifle. The other, a knife.

"The guards told us not to shout," Baby said. "I don't know why they came for us, we live on a hand-to-mouth existence."

Baby, her husband, her brother, her uncle and her daughter were forced out of the house. "Your people are hurting our people," the gunmen said before the men were shot dead.

Baby and her two-year-old daughter were spared.

She showed no emotion as she recounted that day's events that left her a destitute and widowed, as if in some eerie way, it was expected and predicted. It may have also been because this was not the first time she was victimized due to the conflict. The attackers subsequently beat some villagers.
"We complained to the nearby army camp and the soldiers bundled the injured in a tractor and took them to the Serunuwara hospital," Baby said.

Homeless and helpless

Baby, nursing her bullet-holed left thigh was seated on a mat, leaning against a concrete pillar under a plastic tent donated by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This was the Kiliveddy village school, converted into a camp after Tamil villagers started streaming in to the aftermath of the violence.

Baby and her daughter shared the premises with 2,201 others from 656 families. They had emptied four Tamil villages; Thanga Nagarm, Barathu Puram, Kumara Puram and Kiliveddy.

The conditions were squalid. The sweltering heat outside didn't make things any better.

The school was not large enough to provide in-house accommodation to all. Babies lay in cloth cradles hanging from wooden beams along outside corridors.
A stones-throw away, some of the displaced burnt fire-wood to cook an afternoon meal. Flies and insects buzzed the area.

Sarvodaya, provides the villagers with three-meals or rations to prepare their own meals. Action Farm had provided a water tank. It looked very much like the situation during the height of the war or the post-tsunami period when thousands sought refuge in schools, temples and churches.

"Some villagers just come to spend the night," said S. Vincent, who runs the camp. "Others just leave their children for the night and go back to guard their homes."

The school gate closes at 7:30 pm, daily.

Living on the edge

For most of the villagers at the camp, this was not the first time that they were driven out of their homes. But it was the first in 16 years. The memories it brought back were chilling.

"It feels like war," said Lakshaman Balasubramanium (55), a labourer, now out of work. He said the Sinhalese and Tamil villagers had interacted peacefully for many years now. There was an exchange of labour during cultivation time and with masonry and carpentry work.

"There were no problems, there was no tension," Balasunbramanium said. "Even if there was fighting between the army and the LTTE, it didn't upset the relations between the communities."

But since the beginning of the year, the situation started to deteriorate, he said. The stark difference was the increasing attacks targeting ordinary men and women from both communities. The result is distrust and fears of an anti-Tamil pogrom similar to 1983.

"Every time there is an LTTE attack now we shudder, as we know retaliation will be on us."

"Now, the Sinhalese villagers are being given guns, so how can we feel safe to go back home?"

Simmering tensions

Some villagers in Ali-Oluwa as well, had fled for a few day after the violence. Kumara was among them. He returned only after visiting the police station and picking up a shotgun and ten cartridges.

"The gun gives me some mental strength against the thought of my family being chopped, like Pushpa Kumari," Kumara said.

He had never used a gun before. But was convinced he will be able to figure it out. "How difficult can it be to learn?"

Kumara vowed the weapon was to fight off an LTTE attack and not to be used against Tamil civilians in neighboring villages.

"We need them," he said, recollecting that it was only a few weeks ago that Tamil farmers from the neighboring village helped him in the field. "It's common, we need each other to survive."

Kumara said the offer to Sinhalese border villagers was made soon after Kumari's neck was slit by suspected Tigers. That was a bloody week.

A day before Kumari's killing, six villagers were shot dead by suspected Tigers while tilling a field in Gomarankadawela, a remote village, north of Trincomalee.

The butt and barrel

This was not the first time in Sri Lanka's bloody history that civilians living in villages bordering areas controlled by the LTTE were provided with fire-arms.
After attacks on Sinhalese villages following an outbreak of ethnic clashes in 1983, an act was passed in Parliament in 1985, known as the Supplementary Forces Act.

It allowed a volunteer force from villages to enroll and train to guard their own villages, and thus the institution of a 'home guard system.' As violence spiked, civilians in villages where there were no border guards were also issued shotguns.

However, with the exception of some sporadic incidents, post 1990 violence on border villages plummeted and there was no distribution of fire-arms to villagers, according to a senior police official in Trincomalee, who requested anonymity.

That changed two weeks ago. Some police stations in the eastern region had shotguns that were distributed shortly after the attacks. Some were rusty but still could be used. Police said 210 guns were distributed in the Serunuwara area. Some 800 other guns were flown to the east from stocks in Colombo.

The security forces used a village network and peace committee system to pass the word around.

"Civilians have been given guns for protection during cultivation and also to protect themselves," Police Chief Chandra Fernando told The Sunday Times.

He declined to say if there was a fresh large scale distribution in recent weeks, but said there was an increase in home guard recruitment, deployment and villagers had been provided with sirens. Police posts were also increased in border villages.

"Earlier we had to protect the villagers against four-legged animals, now we have to protect them from two-legged animals," Mr. Fernando said.

Asked why Tamil border villages were not similarly armed, the police chief said, some Tamil villages were, but could not immediately name them. He said more Security forces personnel had been deployed along with sirens.

However, he pointed out that there was a danger of the LTTE mingling with these villagers and intimidating them to hand over the weapons.

"This would amount to us arming the terrorists," Fernando said.

The LTTE for months have been systematically training Tamil civilians for what they call, the final war.

"In a way, these innocent Tamil are caught in between," he said. "The LTTE is using the Tamils they say they are protecting, as a platform to attack Sinhalese villages."

Crucible of war

Evidently, these tit-for-tat attacks were among several that have soared in recent weeks, polarizing communities as the 2002 cease-fire appears to be all but non-existent.

Sinhalese villagers are either packing-up and moving to what they consider safer spots or looking for some temporary respite by huddling together for the night in a few homes close to a military camp.Tamil villagers seem to be moving out in droves.

However, both communities seem to agree on one aspect. This was the first time in 16 years that the communities were being so sharply torn apart amid increasing fears that a war was inevitable.

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