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Price of Sri Lanka’s army expansion is paid in grief

The white tattered strips line the main road to Kuliyapitiya, hanging off telephone poles and fence posts, each one signifying another funeral, another loss, another hole punched in the heart of a family. A few miles away, in the center of town, ribbons of another sort decorate the chest of a commando at a recruiting post working to impress a group of teenage boys.

A recent surge by the Sri Lankan army, boosted by an aggressive expansion of its forces, has prompted the government to predict that victory is just around the corner in its 25-year war with the Tamil Tiger rebels who have sought to carve out a homeland in the north and east of this island nation.

Amid the rising euphoria, however, some question whether these hardened fighters will go away that easily, whether the human toll will really end, whether the white ribbons will stop fluttering at every turn.

Sri Lanka has paid a huge price, in economic loss, social and political strain, destroyed infrastructure and human lives, for its long civil war. Almost everyone in this nation of 20 million has been touched.

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But it’s the rice- and coconut-growing areas such as Kuliyapitiya district with its 150,000 population that have paid the highest toll. The government’s all-volunteer army has found fertile ground for recruiting in rural areas where job prospects are limited and the army offers adventure, a uniform and a decent paycheck of about $200 a month. “Join the winning side,” says a nationwide radio advertisement.

Recently, funerals in these parts have been running about two or three a week, said Chandana Bulathsinhala, an aide to the local opposition lawmaker, adding steadily, relentlessly, to the area’s estimated 5,000 casualties since the war’s inception -- a staggering one in 30 people.

Bulathsinhala estimates that 99% of the recruits sign up for economic reasons, with many schoolchildren now wanting to be soldiers rather than doctors or lawyers.

“War is always cruel, but the media has promoted good war news, so more people are encouraged to join,” he said.

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As families in the community confront the human toll, the war machine continues to draw in new recruits. At the Kuliyapitiya Urban Council complex in town, a bus ringed with loudspeakers and posters of fighting men lures new enthusiasts.

“When you come to the interview, bring your stuff and be ready to go,” advises a nearby poster showing a soldier in a Rambo-style pose.

A few miles away, Kusuma Gunawardana sits on a hard bed trying to make sense of it all, a cat curled at her side, tears running down her worn face. Her son, a soldier in the Sri Lankan army, has been missing since mid-January. Nationwide, the missing number in the thousands, the result of desertions, front lines that have shifted repeatedly and dense jungle that can decompose a body in rapid order.

Nor is she sure she can believe what the government news channels say. Her older son, also in the army, told her the situation is often significantly different from the rosy images beamed on the channels. She just wants her family back. “I can’t think about what happened to my son,” she said. “I believe he’s still alive.”

Down the road, Jayantha Perera, 33, has doubts about a quick end to the war, but for different reasons. It’s been going on so long that to him the wrapping-up seems too fantastic. As he talks in a living room decorated with a military calendar and the family’s foot-powered sewing machine, he remembers the pride he felt when his older brother Samantha left for the war.

Samantha hasn’t been heard from in more than a decade and is presumed dead, one of the 4,000 soldiers and 12,000 Sri Lankan civilians and fighters with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam missing in the war, according to estimates by the Assn. of War Affected Women, a civic group based in the city of Kandy.

As he talks, Perera’s aging father suddenly erupts into a wail of grief. It happens two or three times a day, Perera says; he’s been on a downward slide since his son’s disappearance. The family no longer keeps pictures of Samantha around, except for one fading shot of his regiment, to avoid upsetting his father even more.

Farther down the back roads of the community, posters glorify those who died as placards urge citizens to donate blood, using pictures of neighbors who have already signed up and shipped out as an incentive. “Brother you have not died, you bloom as a flower among us,” reads a poster marking the death of a commando who died recently at Elephant Pass.

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A few feet from the commando with a chestful of ribbons, Koolitha Manchanayaka, 19, waits by the recruiting bus talking to friends after signing up. The teenager is accompanied by his father and a cousin and is ready to fulfill a dream he’s had since he was 17.

His parents were reluctant to let him go, he said, but he eventually persuaded them after promising to be careful. For added security, he wears a pirith cord, a string worn around the wrist, blessed by monks at a nearby Buddhist temple.

Sure, there is a risk that he will be captured or killed, he said. “It could happen to anyone, but I’m not scared,” he said, his eyes alight with excitement. “This is the right time to go. If I’m not involved at this decisive time, there’s no point.”

The military added 40,000 recruits in each of the last two years, said Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, to reach the current 180,000 level for the armed forces.

Those with missing family members receive a death settlement after one year of about $750 for single soldiers and $1,500 for married, along with other pension and insurance payouts.

Laborer K.G. Salen Fernando, 63, of Galkapuyaya village, said his family didn’t receive anything from the government when his son disappeared 17 years ago.

A decade or so back, the family finally conceded that their boy wasn’t coming back, he said. But without ever seeing his body, the realization was very difficult to accept. “He died for the sake of the country, so I’m proud,” the father said, through a toothless jaw. “But they didn’t even give us 5 cents. We’d be happy if they paid us something.”

Visaka Dharmadasa, the founder of the Assn. of War Affected Women, said the disappearance of one of her sons eight years ago was the catalyst for starting the group, which aims to make the government and the International Committee of the Red Cross more accountable on MIA issues.

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The association now numbers 2,000 members. Even though it’s been nearly a decade since she last saw her missing son, she said she still waits expectantly. “There’s always hope,” she said. “It’s not going to help anyone when you deny the existence of a person.”

Gunawardana’s agony is still fresh, as she reflects on Tamil mothers on the other side who must be experiencing some of the same pain.

“In the north, they’re going through the same suffering we have,” she said. “We are running out of boys in this country. We don’t need a war with the north to lose more children.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com


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