JAFFNA CITY, SRI LANKA — Bullock carts and bicycles loaded with possessions line the roads from Palaly Air Force Base to Jaffna City in northern Sri Lanka as tens of thousands of Tamil civilians return to their homelands.
Most had left more than six months earlier for territory held by the separatist-minded Tamil Tigers. They were escaping a government offensive that ended in the December recapture of the rebel stronghold of Jaffna City.
Another big military push in recent weeks has left them in government hands and out of rebel control for the first time in more than six years.
"We are poor people," says Sampath, an elderly farmer returning to his land. "Few of us really care whether it is the Tamil Tigers or the government who are in control of us. We just want peace."
War weary, most are now moving back to their bullet-scarred homes, turning their backs on rebel rule.
The en-masse return to government-held areas is a major boon for the Sri Lankan government. Until now, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting for an independent state, has had the upper hand; most ethnic Tamils had been living under their control. Now the government is in a better position to marginalize the Tigers and prose limited autonomy for Tamils.
"This is a major victory for the military," says military spokesman Brig. Sarath Munasinghe. "The Tigers have been dealt a crushing psychological blow," he told journalists who were recently allowed to visit Jaffna for the first time in more than six months.
Although the return of Tamil civilians may have more to do with a desire to go home than any political motive, the country's politicians are likely to benefit - none more so than Prime Minister Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Her attempts to find a political solution to the civil war center on plans to grant limited autonomy to the Tamil majority areas. The mainly Hindu Tamils number about 3.5 million out of a population of 18 million. They say they are discriminated against by the majority.
Now that there is a significant Tamil population under government control to whom power could be "devolved," the proposals for Tamil autonomy will seem more relevant.
More than 400,000 Tamil civilians still live under rebel administration, mostly in refugee camps on the northern tip of the mainland. The hope is that they, too, can be attracted back to areas now controlled by the government. "This is the government's golden opportunity to prove to the Tamils that life under [government rule] would be better than living under a Tiger regime," says P. Saravannamuttu, a professor at Colombo University. "If that can be done with these civilians returning now, then others still in Tiger areas will follow."
But the atmosphere between the returning civilians and the soldiers is tense, with neither side sure of what to expect. Troops here are wary of infiltrators, and the civilians themselves harbor reservations about how they will be treated by the Army, which has been known to be brutal.
"We are keen to get back to our homes, but ... most of the people are frightened. We have been under the impression that the government soldiers would mistreat us and even shoot us," says one civilian.
Rights groups have expressed concern at the plight of at least 60 boys detained by security forces because of suspicions that they could be Tigers. They were then taken to Colombo for questions.
"We know very little about them, except that they are there," says K. Sritharan of the Jaffna University Human Rights Group. "Anything could be happening to them: torture, intimidation. We just do not know. We have not been given access," he said. Details of the arrests emerged after eyewitnesses spoke of the teens being loaded onto an Army bus before setting off for the capital, Colombo.
In Jaffna itself, journalists were shown soldiers handing out food and water to the returning civilians.
The city, a former rebel stronghold, has been savaged by war. At least 80 percent of its buildings have been seriously damaged.
Before government forces finally recaptured the city, the fleeing rebels stripped. Anything that could not be taken was booby-trapped and mined.
Every other sign that this was the headquarters of a Tamil Tiger de-facto state has been erased. Shrines that once stood to commemorate rebel suicide bombers, or "martyrs," have been destroyed. Billboards celebrating the separatists' cause have been shot to pieces by troops representing a government eager to reassert its authority.
"The government is keen to promote the idea that the Tigers are no longer a force to be reckoned with," says one diplomat. "But the fact is that they are still a military force. And as long as they retain that capacity to cause damage, they are still very much in business."