Sri Lanka’s government says it is nearing victory in its 25-year conflict with the Tamil Tigers, but as Roland Buerk explains the war will leave a bitter legacy.
Flares thumped out of tubes on the helicopter’s side, bright red sparks trailed thick white smoke into the jungle just below, a defence against being shot down.
We were being flown to meet soldiers taking part in the military’s offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Not too close to the battlefields though: Sri Lanka’s government carefully controls access by journalists.
But it was still a chance to meet commanders on the ground. Lt Col KNS Kotuwegoda said the fighting was like Vietnam, bunkers and booby traps in the jungles.
Only a day or so before, one of his men lost a leg when he stepped on a landmine. But the Lt Col said morale was high and the troops were confident of inflicting a final crushing defeat on the Tamil Tigers, and soon.
For supporters of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority Sinhalese-led government these are the best of times. They scent victory after a generation of bloodshed and loss.
They now seem poised to capture Kilinochchi from which the separatist rebels have administered areas under their control.
The fall of the town would be a hugely symbolic moment, although it would not mean the end of the war, not yet.
The government has pursued victory against the Tigers hard since fighting resumed in mid 2006 after a ceasefire failed. Perhaps too hard.
There are allegations of human rights abuses, abductions, killings and disappearances, especially in the east. There are an awful lot of guns there for a province that was, to quote the government, “liberated”, from the Tamil Tigers last year.
As we drove down the main A15 road that runs parallel with the coast, but just inland, we were flagged down every few minutes by heavily armed soldiers and police officers at checkpoints.
They looked at our identity documents and sometimes poked around in the back of the van.
A breakaway faction of the Tamil Tigers, they still have guns too. We could see the barrels of assault rifles poking over the top of their look out towers.
Sometimes their men, wearing check shirts and rubber sandals, and a gun slung casually over the shoulder, would stand openly in the street.
One mother went to the local TMVP camp to ask for her son’s release, and saw him with his hands tied and bearing marks of a beating
The TMVP’s defection weakened the Tigers, who are themselves accused of serious human rights abuses, and helped government forces to drive the rebels from the east.
And even though they were still armed, the TMVP were allowed to run on a government ticket in provincial elections earlier this year.
They won, and a former Tamil Tiger child soldier is now Chief Minister of the East, but they have been accused of carrying out abductions and killings.
The woman we went to meet in her small bare concrete house outside the town of Batticaloa did not care much about politics, she just wanted her son back.
‘Mothers of the disappeared’
As did the mothers of two boys who were taken with him, who we also met.
Mangy stray dogs leapt up, barking, from their dozing places under the trees of the otherwise bare sandy garden as we approached, before the lady of the house saw them off with a few well aimed stones.
But she was sent away after being told the young men would be released in the morning. However they were not and the women described going back fruitlessly again and again, as the days turned to weeks, then months, with no word on their fate.
Human rights groups say there have been hundreds of such cases reported in Sri Lanka in recent years, blamed on paramilitaries and elements of the security forces.
The government insists almost all are fabrications intended to discredit it and its new found allies, that alleged victims did not disappear at all, but have gone abroad, or eloped.
So Sri Lanka’s war may be drawing slowly to a close but it seems bound at least to leave in its wake a legacy of fear and deep distrust.