Page last updated at 11:41 GMT, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Fear and defiance in Sri Lanka

As Sri Lanka's military takes control of key territory held by the Tamil Tiger rebels, Chris Morris in Colombo reports on a deepening mood of determination and defiance on both sides of the conflict.

Getting through to the Tamil Tigers isn't easy these days. Their world is getting smaller.

Surreptitious messages. Crackling phone lines.

"Can I talk to him now?"

Sri Lankan soldiers in Vishwamadu in Mullaittivu district
The rebels say the loss of territory is a temporary setback

"It's difficult."

"Why?"

"There's heavy shelling. Please call again later."

Eventually I make a connection with the Tigers' political leader, B Nadesan.

He sounds remarkably calm for the spokesman of a group which has lost most of the land and all the main towns it controlled a year ago.

In fact he makes it sound like a little local difficulty.

"It's not a big deal for us," he says. "We're a liberation movement. We have full confidence that we will regain our territory. You just wait and see."

And what about the people they claim to liberate? As the shells rain down, and the number of dead goes up, there are growing international demands for the Tamil Tigers to let civilians leave rebel-held areas.

But the Tigers aren't stupid. If all the civilians weren't there the outside world would turn a blind eye and let the army finish the job.

"Of course our people can move wherever they want," Mr Nadesan says.

But everyone knows that isn't true.

Even in better days when the Sri Lankan military wasn't hammering on the door, anyone travelling out of rebel held areas had to leave a relative behind as a kind of bail to ensure their return.

And now escape from the war zone is almost impossible.

The few who do manage to get out are detained in camps run by the military in government-controlled areas.

And after more than 25 years of war, Tamil civilians are scared of the Sri Lankan army. They have nowhere to run.

Stop at nothing

As I'm writing this in Colombo, I have two reminders to hand as to why the Tamil Tigers have been pushed back into a shrinking pocket of territory.

Outside, the massed ranks of the military are rehearsing for the Independence Day parade in a few days' time.

Map

There are marching bands and heavy weapons stationed on the seafront.

The ceremonial army of days gone by has become a huge fighting force.

"I can't understand why we didn't do this before. Crush them with numbers."

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's combative defence secretary, is the man running the war against the Tamil Tigers.

"Eliminating them is the only thing I'm interested in," he says. "I won't let anything stand in the way."

We were talking in his colonial style bungalow surrounded by multiple checkpoints and high rise metal screens.

The Tamil Tigers have already tried to kill him once. And if they ever get the chance, they will try again.

The second reminder of why the Tamil Tigers have their backs to the wall is in the newspaper on my desk.

There are notices of remembrance for several people who died 13 years ago today.

On 31 January 1996 a member of the Tamil Tigers named Raju drove a truck containing more than 400 pounds of explosives into the main gate of the Central Bank just down the road from here.

Ninety-one people were killed. But the group which introduced the modern world to the chilling concept of the suicide bomber may be on the wrong side of history.

"Peace is not far away," reads one of the memorial messages. "The traitors may not wag their tails again."

Fearful

The Tigers have haunted this country for years. And the majority want them gone.

And so the prevailing mood in the south - well away from the war in the north - is a curious mixture.

They are hungry, homeless, traumatised and under fire

Triumphant, febrile, a little bitter and absolutely intolerant of any kind of criticism.

People are reluctant to speak openly; they talk in code on the phone.

One diplomat told me they hold their serious conversations in the garden.

When our Tamil driver lost his identity card for a few hours he was shaking with fear.

Statistics produced by the Red Cross or the United Nations are trashed. There are no civilian casualties. Foreign forces are trying to spoil the victory party.

Most of all, showing concern for civilians trapped in the war zone seems to be equated with supporting the Tamil Tigers.

Why is that? These are citizens of Sri Lanka, after all.

A quarter of a million of them, according to the UN. Although the government, as ever, disputes the figures.

They are hungry, homeless, traumatised and under fire.

They are rather more than a little local difficulty.

They are Sri Lanka's inconvenient truth.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 31 January, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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