Mannar, Sri Lanka — For three miles from the village of Pesalai to Talaimannar, the dense and twisted groves of palmyra and coconut palms resemble Vietnam's defoliated villages after saturation with napalm. Charred black, their branches falling off, vast stretches of the trees have already been chopped to the ground.
One is somewhat skeptical of the government's claim that the palms are routinely cleared this way each year, especially when the claim is challenged by Mannar's community leaders, fishermen, and priests.
They say that the Sri Lankan Army, engaged in a harsh and often arbitrary campaign of terror here in the north, is intent on transforming Mannar Island into a huge sand dune. The Army wants to deprive it of any cover, they say, so that the forces can establish a front line of defense and block the ``Tigers'' -- an assortment of six major Tamil separatist groups -- from easily penetrating this sensitive strip of land.
This island is the closest point of entry into Sri Lanka from India, only 22 miles away. The Tigers, or ``the boys,'' as they are called, can sprint across from south Indian training camps in a one-hour journey by high-powered boat.
Hope is in short measure here in the predominantly Tamil north as the battle between ``the boys'' and the ill-disciplined Sri Lankan Army slides into civil war. Civilians throughout the region live in fear. More than 160 have been killed in Mannar District by rampaging security forces since Dec. 4. The district's economy is a shambles. There is no longer any civilian authority or writ of law.
As the excesses of the largely Sinhalese Army continue, the lines between the community which it represents -- the 75 percent of the island's 15 million people who are Buddhist Sinhalese and the 20 percent who are Hindu or Christian Tamils -- appear irrevocably drawn.
The land is already physically divided as the growing number of ``boys'' -- an estimate 5,000-man, well-trained, well-armed ``hard core'' -- carry their battle for a separate Tamil nation well out of the Jaffna peninsula to the other northern districts and into the east. With the city of Anuradhapura as the Army's last line of guaranteed defense, the war is moving slowly southward. Even to a casual visitor, it is clear where the lines are drawn.
As the road inches between Anuradhapura and the island of Mannar, the pot holes become larger, generally from lack of maintenance but sometimes because of mines. In every village one passes there are burned-out homes and shops.
Arrogant soldiers, some camouflaged in sniper positions atop trees, brandish their automatic weapons (some of them the highly sophisticated AK-47), pulling passengers roughly off trucks and buses for a crude body search. In eight hours of driving, this reporter did not see another private car on the northern province's road.
The Army's presence in the Tamil north now numbers 3,600 men -- more than 25 percent of the forces -- but they are ill-trained and ill-equipped.
``The authority of the Army is confined to the frontiers of our camps,'' Brig. Salin Seneviratne wrote his superiors in a confidential memorandum last month. Brigadier Seneviratne, Jaffna commander and a respected Sandhurst officer, is about to assume command of the Army. ``The only areas which we control in the northern province end at the perimeter fences of the Army camps,'' he wrote.
``We are despised here,'' said one of the northern commanding officers, himself a serious, soft-spoken man, also a graduate of Britain's Sandhurst Royal Military Academy. ``We just cannot cope with the situation. Every week soldiers go amok. For the first time in all of my years of service, I've literally had to slap men from the ranks, and I've had to lock up large numbers to prevent their going on a rampage.''
The tiny marketplace of Mannar City stands in eerie testament to the soldiers' whims. Barricades, barbed wire fences, and burned-out oil tins litter the center of the market, which soldiers burned to the ground in August in retaliation for a strike by the Tigers on an Army convoy more than 30 miles away.
Today, half the shops remain empty. Some are shuttered and locked, others are charred ruins their owners could not rebuild. Fishing boats are tied up in the harbors, and most schools and government offices are closed. By 5 p.m. the streets are deserted, even though the curfew is not in effect for the moment.
``Everyone lives in dread here,'' says the Rev. Hilary Joseph, a Catholic priest who is vice-president of Mannar's citizens' committee.
``No one is sleeping at home at night. They're all in the jungle. Some of the priests sleep at the bishop's house. Two priests have been killed by the Army since the end of December. It's a regular priest hunt.''
The Dec. 4 massacre began early in the morning, when the first in a convoy of three Army jeeps hit a land mine, killing one soldier and injuring three others. Thirty enlisted men went on a six-hour rampage through a seven-mile radius in and around Mannar.
They attacked the town's central hospital. They stopped vehicles traveling north to south and shot the occupants dead on the spot. They lined up the 15 employees of a nearby post office and shot eight dead. They opened fire on scores of peasants in paddy fields.
In another village they shot more people in the fields and attacked a convent, stripping the nuns of their wrist watches, gold crucifixes, and chains.
In the end, 140 to 150 people lay dead. More than 20 people are still missing, mostly young Tamil males whom eyewitnesses say were taken to nearby Army camps.
At Talaimannar, 250 fishing boats, all flying white flags, were tied up by 11 a.m. The day had already ended for this impoverished fishing community.
Its livelihood ended nearly two months ago, when the government prohibited fishing off a wide swath of the north, from Mannar in the west to Mullaitivu in the east where a naval ``surveillance zone'' is now in effect. The area's 25,000 fishermen can go no farther than the near water's edge.
Today, Talaimannar's 1,200 fishing families have become destitute. A young woman in a bright purple sari told me she had sold all of her bangle bracelets just to buy food.
A fetid smell rose from the open sewers. The labyrinthine streets were oozing mud. No one has been permitted to leave the village since November; this reporter was in the first group of visitors to be allowed in.
``We are living in a state of siege,'' said one fisherman. ``We are being terrorized. But it doesn't matter. We will do whatever is necessary to continue to help the boys.''