Twenty seven lorries flying Red Cross flags wended their way on 30 September through the thick Tamil Tiger-held Vanni jungles of northern Sri Lanka into government military territory. The lorries were not carrying medical supplies or food. Instead, 600 or so decomposing bodies made up the convoy´s macabre cargo. These were the remains of soldiers that had been handed over to the Red Cross by the rebels following a bloody battle in northern Sri Lanka some days before.
For a government which had been claiming that the civil war was 95 percent won, September´s fighting was a debacle. After a two-day siege, the Tamil Tigers captured Kilinochchi, a key military base in the northern battlefield; the Sri Lankan military had to be content with a consolation prize – the capture of Mankulam, a rebel-held town some kilometres south of Kilinochchi.
The latest wave of fighting began on 27 September when LTTE rebels attacked soldiers near Paranthan and Kilinochchi, two towns close to the northern peninsula. The peninsula was captured by government soldiers in 1995. But the area is isolated, with no road link to the mainland, and the government was forced to send supplies by air and sea. And since May last year, the government forces had been trying to secure a road through rebel-controlled territory in what has become the longest military offensive in the civil war. Mankulam had been hailed for many months as the last rebel bastion on the roadway linking the Jaffna peninsula with the rest, of the island. In reality, though, the “last rebel bastion” had now merely moved to Kilinochchi. How much further it is going to move is a matter of conjecture, but what was blatantly evident during the last round of heavy fighting, and of greater significance than the rhetoric about battle victories, was that more than 1300 people were killed in one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in Sri Lanka´s 15-year-old civil war.
Evident, that is, to everyone but Sri Lankans, for since June the government has begun censoring war reporting by the media. Both local and foreign correspondents are covered by the censorship although news organisations outside the country get around by filing stories using a dateline outside Sri Lanka. Most Lankans, however, know only what the government wants them to know, and what is churned out by the rumour mill.
To the discerning Sri Lankan, however, any good news is bad news, especially when reported by the state. For beneath the hype always lies the gory truth. The day after the first day of the September battle, the state-run print media hush-hushed the fighting and turned its gaze instead on how well Sri Lanka´s electronic exports were faring.
In the end, Colombo touted the loss of Kilinochchi as a “tactical withdrawal”, and stressed the need to go ahead with its power devolution package as a way to end the ethnic conflict. The plan envisages amending Sri Lanka´s constitution to give the nine provinces, including the one dominated by the minority Tamils, more power to handle their own affairs. The move has drawn criticism from many quarters, including the main opposition United National Party, whose support is vital if the plan is to be made law.
Ironically, though, some of the root causes for the ethnic conflict remain unaddressed even as the devolution package is discussed. In Sri Lankan schools, for instance, Sinhala and Tamil children are segregated, with little opportunity to interact. Government textbooks harp on the mythical glory days of yore and hardly deal with contemporary social issues. And even when they do, the ethnic conflict receives but a cursory mention.
In the wake of the fierce fighting in the north, the national hospital in Colombo sent home all but the most serious civilian patients to make room for wounded soldiers. For three days straight, the roads in the capital reverberated with the sirens of scores of ambulances ferrying the wounded and the dying. At the end of it all, with neither side willing to relent, those who survived the battle will just have to wait to fight another day.
Meanwhile, at the end of September 1998, on both side of the barricades, thousands of families grieved for their dead sons.