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Tamil Tigers failed to learn from tsunami tragedy

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Five years ago, two sad-looking teenagers carrying Kalashnikov rifles waved me past a checkpoint on a beach road in northern Sri Lanka and allowed me to visit the top-secret refuge that this weekend became the final stand of the Tamil Tigers, and possibly the resting place of their charismatic leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Here, in waterlogged jungle pocked with land-mine warnings, was the stretch of land where this tightly controlled, completely militarized guerrilla society kept its secrets, raised the children of its martyred people to become zealots and soldiers, and hid the bunkers where its most committed suicide-soldiers and top leaders would wage their ultimate battle.

To get there, I had driven for hours across jungle and swamp on deeply cratered roads. There are long stretches of shack housing roofed with plastic bags, each one adorned with a large colour picture of a uniformed Mr. Prabhakaran. The road was punctuated with palatial graveyards of child soldiers, the only real infrastructure built by a movement that had turned everyone into a fighter. Then I reached Mullaitivu, a beachside fishing village that had become a chaotic city after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam evacuated tens of thousands of Tamils there as Colombo's soldiers retook the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1990s.

I had been allowed into this high-security enclave because the refugees who populated it had become homeless again after their houses, and a very large number of their children, had been washed away in the Boxing Day tsunami. Their lives were odysseys of unimaginable loss: children given away, and in some cases taken away, to join the LTTE war, then forced out of their homes to this ideologically pure encampment on the shore only to have their remaining children swept from their arms by a mysterious wave.

Most were Hindu, a good number were Christian. All were, officially, strict adherents of the LTTE's code, worshippers of Prabhakaran. Earlier, a group of teenage girls in crisp blue military uniforms, perhaps 16 years old, had stopped me, loaded me into a van, and taken me to yet another checkpoint to be questioned.

They giggled constantly as I spoke English to my translator, and quietly confessed that foreign movies and music were forbidden. In school, history was Tamil-nationalist, and an hour each day was devoted to weapons training.

Alcohol was banned across the Tamil paradise. The only Internet connection in all of Tamil Eelam was in the LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi. I had used it, after being welcomed into the headquarters by a colonel, to file an article chronicling the terrible repression of the population by the LTTE.

The girls had never heard of Canada, though I passed a large billboard bearing Mr. Prabhakaran's image, whose only English words were “asymmetrical federalism.” The Canadians had come, delivered a lecture on peace, and left, leaving a hopeful phrase in their wake. The concept had not caught on.

Along that beach strip there were side roads I could not enter, guarded by bigger men with more serious weapons. I could feel the mood of panic among the Tigers. They had all manner of weapons, but nothing to deal with a humanitarian tragedy. Death was everywhere, brought by the wave, and soldiers glumly harvested the child corpses from the beach, sent patrols to shoot all dogs, and held rapid-fire funerals.

They would not learn from this tragedy. Over the next five years, as their world collapsed around them, the LTTE would force its people here, onto this beach strip, into tent cities that would be strafed, shelled and bombed by Colombo's forces. This bit of miserable sand has served as a platform for gruesome sacrifice in a closed society that has made death its only currency.

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