Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Wednesday, 23 July 2008 12:33 UK

Sri Lankan families count cost of war

Roland Buerk
BBC News, Veruppamkulam

It was 25 years ago this week that a minor insurgency in Sri Lanka began to turn into a full-scale civil war.

Sri Lankan soldier
The army is advancing in the north

An attack by Tamil Tiger rebels in the north sparked rioting across the country targeting members of the Tamil minority. The events came to be known as Black July.

More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict. Now the army says victory is finally in sight.

In recent weeks the pace of the advance has quickened, but the Tigers deny they are facing defeat.

The army is recruiting hard, especially from rural areas.

Not long ago the Defence Ministry sent out a text message to mobile phones nationwide.

"Young Patriots," it read. "Come join with our armed forces and be a part of a winning team."

Earnings and tragedy

Over the years war and the army has become a way of life for many families.

KB Leelawatti
KB Leelawatti had two sons in the army who died in action

Take the village of Veruppamkulam, midway between the capital, Colombo, and the Tamil Tigers' northern stronghold. Some 125 families live here and all but a handful have at least one person in the armed forces.

The war has brought them some relief from the poverty of rural Sri Lanka.

There are brick houses, complete with colour televisions. Some have shiny new Bajaj three wheeler scooters parked outside, others have Indian motorbikes.

Last week the roof was being put on a house being built by a military family. The man overseeing the work said 47 of his relatives were in the forces. When the conflict began, he said, they were living in shacks.

Fighting has become the best career option for young men. There is little other work in the village.

Nuwan Charmara Dinepala, 18, planned to go to the army camp to join up the next day.

"I can't stay at home. I have nothing to do, no job," he said as he took a break from a game of cricket with his friends, many of whom were soldiers at home on leave.


The war has also brought tragedy to Veruppamkulam. There are graves of fallen soldiers in the village. One headstone features a map of the island and a Sri Lankan flag.

KB Leelawatti has only photographs as reminders of her two soldier sons. They were killed within months of each other, aged 22 and 23, and their bodies were never recovered from the battlefield.

"I am happy because they sacrificed their lives for the country," she said tears steaming down her face.

"On the other hand I am so sad to have lost them. And it's not only my children, so many young Sri Lankans have joined the forces to go to war."

'Houses burning'

This month became known as Black July back in 1983 because the explosion of violence was so bitter.

The Tamil Tigers attacked an army convoy in the Jaffna peninsula, killing many soldiers. The next day rioting broke out in Colombo and mobs attacked members of the ethnic Tamil minority.

Kaderaveil Sunder
Kaderaveil Sunder was rescued from Sinhala mobs by other Sinhalas

The violence quickly spread. No one really knows how many Tamils were killed before the situation was brought under control. Estimates range from 400 to 3,000.

Many thousands of Tamils left the island. Others stayed, including Kaderaveil Sunder, a shopkeeper in Colombo.

"Houses were burning, everywhere there was fire," he said. "We were hearing the sounds of the fire brigade going here and there. Police... we couldn't see and we were very frightened because we thought we might get killed.

"Thank God [Sinhalese] people came to help us who were known to us. And that's how we escaped from the situation."

Tamil arguments

Twenty-five years on much has changed as the war has ebbed and flowed across the island.

A ceasefire signed in 2002 was finally abandoned after breaking down on the ground two years ago.

Evening prayers in Veruppamkulam
Villagers in Veruppamkulam pray for peace

The government says its forces, which are advancing into the north, have already driven the Tigers from the east.

Provincial elections have been held in the east that the government says will be the basis for limited devolution intended to end the conflict.

They were won by a government alliance including a breakaway faction from the rebels which still hasn't given up its guns. A former Tamil Tiger child soldier is now chief minister of the Eastern Province.

"The fact that the present chief minister in the Eastern Province is a Tamil doesn't resolve the Tamil question," said R Sampanthan, the leader of the pro-Tiger Tamil National Alliance grouping in parliament.

"The Tamils want political power in their hands. Tamils want the principle of self-determination accepted in the areas of historical habitation.

"There may be Tamil militants, or ex-militants who are under compulsion to make common cause with the government, to appease the government, to placate the government. This is no solution to the Tamil question."

Back in Veruppamkulam, as evening drew in, people gathered at the Buddhist temple for prayers that would last all night.

Some mourned lost sons. Others worried about their loved ones on the frontlines.

The government says an end to the conflict is coming soon. But people in the village have heard that promise before.

KB Leelawatti believes the war should stop. Otherwise, she asks, how many more mothers will have to mourn?

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