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A long road

February 20, 2012

The final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka were brutal. Two years later, there has been some social progress in the north, but equality for Tamils is still a long way off.

A tank captured from the Tamil Tigers at Elephant Pass
The Tamil Tigers' tanks are no longer being used to killImage: Monika Nutz

After almost 30 years of civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Hindu Tamils, which caused 100,000 deaths and 300,000 displaced people, there is a glimmer of hope in the north of Sri Lanka.

Only after massive international pressure did the government accept to allow in aid organizations after crushing the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and putting an end to their dream of creating an independent Tamil state in the north.

Aid has helped prevent a humanitarian disaster and given some prospects to the victims of the brutal civil war.

Sulthakaren Santhakumary is a mother of four who was herself a child when the war began. Despite all the adversities - of being forced to flee, to return, of living in constant uncertainty - she always supported her family and community when they were caught between the lines of fire. But the last two years were too much even for her. She can barely control her emotions remembering one day: "I was cooking for the whole family when the bombing began. We ran to the bunker and when we came back I found the parts of bodies in the food - the people had not been as lucky as us. It was terrible."

The poster of a Sri Lankan soldier flies beside the country's flag
Soldiers are being portrayed as heros in the national discourseImage: Monika Nutz

When the 39-year-old returned to her village last year, she found devastation and three mango trees. She was given seeds to plant onions, chilies, beans and cabbage. Now the family has enough to eat and can sell the surplus crops on the market.

Lakshi Abeyasekera is a Sinhalese aid worker who spent over half of the war living near the front. Her office is on the border with former Tiger territory. "I have been living here for about 18 years and I’ve seen different developments. That's why it surprised me how fast the reconstruction was. Normally people would have been housed in temporary accommodation to begin with but this time the government insisted on building permanent housing."

Sulthakaren Santhakumary
Sulthakaren Santhakumary survived the war with hope and courageImage: Monika Nutz

The north seems to be booming, with new roads and buildings emerging from the ruins. Everywhere there are billboards talking about national reconciliation and celebrating the end of the Tigers in Sinhalese, Tamil and English.

However, there is a sinister side. The government, which refuses to investigate the atrocities committed by the army, is building monuments to the soldiers and their heroic deeds. For the Tamils, this has more to do with humiliation than reconciliation.

Buddhist temples are also cropping up. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks supported the army's "humanitarian" campaign and gave commanding officers their blessings.

Time will tell whether social achievements will win over the hearts of the Tamils or whether the majority's quest for supremacy will create another generation of Tigers.

Author: Klemens Ludwig (act)
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan