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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Sri Lanka's uneasy peace
Charles Haviland goes to Sri Lanka and meets Sinhalese people who are crossing into land that's been enemy territory for the last two decades.Thousands make this journey in the shade of the current ceasefire.

Charles Haviland
Reporting from Sri Lanka

"I'm really happy that I'm able to come here again after 19 years," Mohan Goonasekere, a middle-aged man from the capital, Colombo, told me.

Charles Haviland interviewing on elephant-back
A Sri Lankan outside broadcast

He was in euphoric mood, having come to the north of the island, into land still controlled by the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE), to attend a major Catholic festival.

We were at Madhu Church, a grand old blue and white basilica in the midst of the jungle.

It's said to be a place of miracles performed by Our Lady of Madhu.

And among the pilgrims I met were sick and disabled people, not only Christians but also Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

Most tellingly, among the thousands were people like Mohan, from the island's Sinhalese majority.

Throughout the war years, Sinhalese were unable to leave government-controlled territory. Now, thanks to the six-month-old ceasefire, the road to Madhu has been reopened.

"All are together, Tamils and Sinhalese - like brothers and sisters," says Mohan. He's brought 45 of his friends and family to attend this Mass of reconciliation.

I met the Bishop of Mannar, the Right Reverend Rayappu Joseph, whose diocese includes Madhu.

Always guided by his sense that "peace can be a reality in Sri Lanka", he has played a key role in getting the government and Tamil Tigers to talk to each other and open up roads.

Meeting him, and mingling with the pilgrims gathered under the shade of Madhu's massive trees, I got a palpable sense of peace.

But it is a fragile peace.

At Madhu, I also talked to a former fighting member of the Tamil Tigers, now a policeman in the Tigers' self-declared state.

The LTTE police were presiding benignly over the religious gathering. But the former fighter told me that, if the LTTE leader so instructed, he would return to battle.

Consolidating peace here was always going to be a tortuous task. The ethnic and political splits are profound. The mainly Buddhist Sinhalese make up nearly three-quarters of the population, while the mainly Hindu Tamils are split between Sri Lankan Tamils and those of Indian origin, who originally came to work on the tea plantations.

There is also a sizeable Muslim minority, mostly Tamil-speaking.

The British gave the well-educated Tamils a disproportionately high number of top jobs. But after independence, a backlash by the dominant Sinhalese led to Sinhala being declared the official language at the expense of Tamil.

It remained so from 1956 right through to 1987. Tamils felt marginalised by this and other measures, and by 1983, intercommunal clashes had deteriorated into full-scale war.

I was struck by how the whole island has been touched by conflict. There have been atrocities on both sides; near the former frontline tens of thousands of people have been driven from their homes and still live in camps.

The Tamil community has been split - many Tamils do not recognise the LTTE's claim to speak on all Tamils' behalf.

The Sinhalese, in turn, were riven by appalling violence in the late 1980s, which pitted Maoist guerrillas in the south of the island against the government.

Among the people I met who are working for peace was the charismatic Sunethra Bandaranaike.

Both her parents were early Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka, and her sister is the current President.

Sunethra Bandaranaike is patron of a theatre group - the Butterflies Theatre Group - which is all about bringing people together.

Disabled and able-bodied people, Tamil and Sinhalese, act and even dance side by side.

Some have been disabled by the war. These are people who've been sworn enemies in the past, but not here. "From the beginning, they bonded beautifully" says Sunethra.

Sri Lankans now await the start of full peace talks, which are being arranged with Norwegian mediation.

There are many possible pitfalls ahead.

But ordinary Sri Lankans, I felt, are sick of war. And many are doing their best to shut the door on it once and for all.

Crossing Continents: Sri Lanka's uneasy peace will be broadcast Thursday 15th August 2002 on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 BST

Repeated on Monday 19th August 2002
on BBC Radio 4 at 2030 BST

Reporter: Charles Haviland
Producer: Adele Armstrong
Editor: Maria Balinska

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