Tamil Tiger Guerrillas Directing Relief Effort

In Ruined Town, Rebels Outperform Officials

By John Lancaster, Tuesday, January 4, 2005

MULLAITTIVU, Sri Lanka, Jan. 3 -- The beachfront road is gone, along with all the neighborhoods behind it. The Catholic church is a shattered husk. On the buildings left standing, a grimy ring six feet above the ground records the depth of the water when the wave first crashed upon the town.

(photo courtesy eelavision.com)

By Monday afternoon, however, destruction was not the only story in Mullaittivu, which lost an estimated 3,000 of its 5,300 residents to the Dec. 26 tsunami, according to local officials. The other story was the gradual return of order.

Most of the corpses had been burned. The ground had been sprayed with disinfectant. The streets had been cleared of rubble. Volunteers were erecting makeshift utility poles. And down the road a few miles, 1,500 displaced residents were being sheltered in the classrooms of a college, complete with medical clinic, outdoor kitchen and adequate supplies of donated clothing and food.

While international aid agencies, and to a lesser extent the Sri Lankan government, have each played a role in reviving this part of the country, aid experts say that most of the credit for the surprisingly well-organized relief effort goes to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla movement of the ethnic Tamil minority that controls large chunks of the north and east.

From 1983 until early 2002, the Tamil Tigers fought for an independent homeland in a conflict that claimed more than 60,000 lives. Known for suicide bombers and fanatical teenage fighters trained to swallow cyanide capsules in the face of capture, the Tigers are regarded as one of the world's most formidable guerrilla armies, equipped with long-range artillery, surface-to-air missiles and a small navy of gunboats and supply ships.

They also pride themselves on self-sufficiency, operating a de facto state-within-a-state, with its own police force and judicial system -- and now a relief effort that in some ways appears to be outperforming government recovery operations to the south.

"These people have been displaced a lot, so they're quite good at banding together," said Ryan Anderson, a field coordinator for the U.N. World Food Program in the area, who said the Tigers organized search-and-rescue operations in the first hours after the waves struck.

For all their emphasis on independence, the Tigers maintain some contact with the rest of the country -- the government pays the salaries of schoolteachers in Tiger-controlled areas, for example -- and in recent days there have been tentative signs of cooperation on relief efforts, such as easing barriers to the shipment of supplies through government and rebel checkpoints.

That has raised hopes for a peace process that began with a cease-fire agreement nearly two years ago but only last month appeared to be on the verge of collapse when the Tigers' leader, Velupilla Prabhakaran, warned that the movement might have no alternative but to resume the war.

Neither the Tigers nor the government "can repair this unprecedented damage without some kind of political settlement," said A.T. Ariyaratne, the founder and president of the Sarvodaya Movement, Sri Lanka's largest nongovernmental organization. "Both sides can't go to war. That is definite. This is a very great opportunity we have where both sides should come together first for relief, then for rehabilitation, which can be followed with reconciliation."

That outcome is far from certain, however. Because of the unresolved conflict, the government has never directly provided development funds to the Tigers and is not likely to start doing so now, according to Jehan Perera of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council, a Scandinavian-funded group. The Tigers, in turn, are unlikely to allow the government to perform reconstruction work independently out of concern that doing so would weaken their claim to legitimacy.

"They don't want the government delivering big benefits to the people," Perera said. "I'm not very optimistic."

Daya Master, a spokesman for the rebel group in Kilinochchi, its main administrative center, said in an interview Monday that government aid to the stricken coastal areas could help "build up the atmosphere" for rapprochement. But he also accused the government of favoring the country's ethnic Sinhalese majority in its distribution of aid and confirmed that the Tigers would insist on controlling reconstruction funds themselves.

Eric Fernando, a spokesman for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, said the government was "most definitely" interested in improving the coordination of relief efforts and had just appointed a task force for doing so.

The needs are plain enough. At least 5,000 people are confirmed dead in Tiger-controlled areas, according to Master, with thousands more missing. One of the hardest-hit areas was Mullaittivu, once a picturesque fishing village backed by rice paddies and thick jungle about 175 miles northeast of Colombo, the capital, and an hour's drive over potholed roads from Kilinochchi.

In some respects, the area was relatively well prepared for a natural disaster. Because it is a war zone, it has been starved of resources relative to the rest of the country, and U.N. aid agencies and other humanitarian groups had a sizeable presence here before the wave struck. They were therefore able to assess the situation quickly and begin shipping in supplies with relatively little delay.

Moreover, said Anderson of the World Food Program, "we have better freedom of movement than ever before" because both sides have eased inspection procedures for relief convoys. The government has trucked modest supplies of rice and other dry rations to the Tiger-controlled areas, although most of the aid has come from Sri Lankan individuals and charities as well as international humanitarian organizations, aid workers said.

In Mullaittivu and elsewhere, Tigers have been out in force collecting and burning bodies for the past several days. With that job largely complete, the rebel movement is turning its attention to restoring electricity and other basic services, said P. Ambigai Seelan, a local official who was supervising the effort here Monday.

"All the activity that's been going on here has been guided or sponsored" by the Tigers, he said. "The central government hasn't given anything, really."

The Tigers have also been taking the lead in sheltering refugees, establishing an emergency task force along with representatives of international aid organizations and the central government, which maintains a low-key administrative presence in the area. In Mullaittivu district, which includes the town and surrounding areas, the tsunami drove about 24,000 people from their homes; about 11,000 of them are now living in 19 camps scattered throughout the area, local authorities said.

The camp at the college seemed well organized. At the medical clinic, boxes of antibiotics and other medicines were heaped on the floor. R. Thayaparan, 28, a medical student volunteer, said the camp has not experienced any serious outbreaks of disease. Nearby, cooks prepared a meal of lentils, potatoes and bread. Around the corner, people waited patiently in a line for bags of new clothing provided by a Danish charity. Children played marbles in the dirt.

Tamil Tigers were much in evidence. Though none wore a uniform and most kept weapons and other trappings of the insurgency under wraps, women wearing military-style canvas belts over long shirts saw to the needs of other women and children. Directing the overall effort was E. Maran, 28, a former guerrilla whose forearm bears an ugly scar from a bullet wound he suffered while fighting government forces in 1995.

"Government bureaucracy is lethargic -- that is natural in Sri Lanka -- but it is more so when it comes to the north and east," said Maran, who speaks flawless English that he learned at a Tiger-run training academy. "When it comes to emergencies like this, we are well aware they are not up to the demands."

Washington Post, page 08

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Posted January 4, 2005