Riding Sri Lanka's A9, a passage between two worlds

The bus from Anuradhapura to Vavuniya sits empty in the weak dawn sunlight, until Kapila Hemantha boards. Slender, smiling, and bespectacled, Mr. Hemantha looks more like an accountant catching a commuter bus than a lance corporal heading to his army's frontier.

It's a peaceful morning, and Hemantha, a member of Sri Lanka's Singhalese ethnic majority, says he loves the calm that has come from a two-year cease-fire between the Singhalese-dominated government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers. But does he think peace will last?

"Oh no," he laughs. "No, no, no."

"Something will happen and the Tigers will fight again," he continues.

In a bid to head off a return to war, Norway tried again this week to restart talks over a conflict that has left some 65,000 people dead here over the past two decades.

Jan Petersen, Norway's foreign minister, carried a message yesterday from Sri Lanka's president to the Tiger chief: "Come to talks." But it quickly appeared neither side would budge: The government wants to negotiate a final settlement that would keep the country unified; the Tiger rebels want autonomy first.

Different buses, different worlds

The long-running conflict has been a test of patience for the international community, especially after negotiators came tantalizingly close to a deal before talks collapsed last year. The problem goes deeper than recalcitrant leaders. Traveling on the A9 highway from the modern capital of Colombo to the Tamil- dominated northern city of Jaffna, Singhalese and Tamils held very different worldviews, agreeing only that the uneasy truce was living on borrowed time.

Heading north, Vavuniya is the last outpost of government control and the beginning of LTTE-administered territory. This was the war's front line, and the first in a series of checkpoints before entering "Eelam," the "precious homeland" for the island's Tamil minority.

Here passengers switch from government buses to LTTE private vans. Hemantha gets off to be replaced by K. Rageeswaran, a Tamil insurance broker. The road grows bumpier, the landscape drier, as the vehicle rolls north into Tamil country.

"Look at this area," says Mr. Rageeswaran, gesturing at the surrounding scrub. "Affected by years of war. And mines everywhere. No wonder it's so poor."

Many of those mines were laid by the Indians, who sent peacekeepers to the island in 1987. By 1990, after battling Tiger guerrillas for three years and losing 1,000 soldiers, the world's fourth-largest army went home. The venture was dubbed by many to be India's Vietnam.

In 1991, Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber acting under orders from LTTE head Velupillai Prabakharan. Now Gandhi's widow, Sonia, leads India's ruling Congress Party, and some think her desire for justice could lead Sri Lanka back into a conflict which claimed some 150,000 lives here. Just last week, Sri Lanka and India agreed to ink a defense cooperation agreement that has been vociferously criticized by the LTTE.

"The Indians may try their hand in Sri Lanka again and attempt to either capture or even kill Prabakharan," says Kingsley De Silva, director of the International Center for Ethnic Studies based in Kandy.

Tigers with pigtails

But on the face of things, the Tigers snarl defiance. As the bus pulls into the first Eelam checkpoint, where 16-year-old girls in pigtails and white uniforms process identity papers, foreigners are interrogated by a baseball-capped Tiger officer who will only identify himself as "Arun."

"So what if India signs this pact?" he says, walking by a sign bearing the LTTE's emblem: a tiger roaring over crossed guns. "You think me and my boys have been living like animals in the [expletive] jungle for 20 years to give up now? We will have an independent country in the north."

In the tiny interrogation shack is a map of Sri Lanka. In red are the areas claimed by the Tigers, extending from the north to a full two-thirds of Sri Lanka's coastline. Does Arun want the east of the country for the LTTE as well?

Unconsciously, he fingers the cyanide capsule necklace that every Tiger wears, a suicide precaution against capture.

"Yes," he says. "We have interests there, too."

Those interests have been a major sticking point. Many Singhalese say they're willing to give up the north in the name of peace - but not the east, where the Tamils are a minority.

Deep prejudices

R. Ratnayaka is a Singhalese tea trader, corrections officer, and a 250-pound ex-commando of the government army. He has a ready smile and a love of arrack, the local firewater.

"I fought in the north for six years. I mastered 85 types of firearms. I can tell you anything you want to know about the Tamils. We could all get along together, us and them," he says.

But another shot of arrack, and the old soldier lets his tongue - and prejudices - slip. "But you know something? We had - we have - a beautiful culture on this island. Muslims, Christians, Singhalese, all together, all living together. But they [the Tamils] can't have that. They must have everything, the whole island, or nothing."

P.D. Balaratnam, a gentle, pudgy, Catholic Tamil confectionery supplier, says he just wants a home for his people.

"We are not greedy, we Tamils. We only want a home, a place to do business, a place to be secure. We can only have security with our own country," he says. Security is an issue close to Mr. Balaratnam's heart; in 1983 he was in Colombo during a wave of vicious anti-Tamil riots. He, his family, and 12 others survived by spending the night nose to nose sweltering in a toilet stall.

He's the type of man who walks half a mile to help a foreigner find his hotel in Kandy, but because of his politics, he also indirectly supports the recruitment of 14-year old LTTE cadres who check the truck heading up the A9.

Cubs draw criticism

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch in New York issued a new report saying the Tigers are still forcibly recruiting underage fighters.

Rageeswaran regards these child- soldiers with resignation. He points at the bombed out husk of Kilinochchi Central College, where Tamil students attend class under a roofless classroom, and the empty Bank of Eelam building.

"There's no one doing any business there. But what to do; the Singhalese won't develop the north or the east," he sighs.

Mr. De Silva calls it a case of an "insecure majority dealing with an insecure minority." Most trace the problem to the institution of Singhala as the national language in 1956, which led to government cuts of Tamil students from state universities and a mandate in the 1972 constitution to "protect and foster" Singhalese Buddhism. The education-oriented, largely Hindu Tamils seethed and finally rebelled.

In recent years, more and more Tamils have been seeking opportunities outside the disputed north and east, and in Colombo at least, Tamils seem well integrated.

Those who stayed behind, however, have long and bitter memories. V. Selvaratnam is a retired Tamil postmaster who has remained in Jaffna while most of his family has emigrated. In a Jaffna hotel which had its roof blown away by the Sri Lankan Air Force in the late '90s, he says he will remain in his hometown.

"In the west, you still see the Tigers as terrorists. Well, I do not agree with their policies or tactics, either. But I accept they are fighting against a real oppression," he says.

"Maybe the younger generation can live in peace. I hope so. But I am an old man, and I remember everything that happened here," he concludes, looking at the clouds through the roofless ceiling.

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