Frontline World

Sri Lanka - Living With Terror


Synopsis of "Living with Terror"

34 days in Sri Lanka

Interview and Analysis

Profile of Rajan Hoole


Excerpt from the Novel

Sri Lanka News and Information



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Watch Video The island of Sri Lanka, situated in the Indian Ocean off the southern tip of India, is an exquisitely beautiful and spiritual place. Buddhists and Hindus regard it as sacred ground. But this former British colony, once known as Ceylon, is also home to one of the world's most intractable civil wars. More than 64,000 people have been killed here in ethnic strife over the past twenty years.

The conflict has its roots in the mistreatment of the minority Tamil ethnic group, who are mostly Hindu, by the majority Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhist. When the Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government did not meet Tamil civil rights demands, Tamil grievances festered. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers, emerged on the scene in the 1970s. They are one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups. In their unrelenting drive for a separate homeland on the island, the Tigers have carried out more suicide bombings than Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda combined.

FRONTLINE/World video journalist Joe Rubin felt jittery as he arrived at the Sri Lanka airport in late October 2001. Just three months before, the Tigers had blown up four jumbo jets. On his second day in the country, a suicide bomber attempted to assassinate the prime minister, killing six bystanders. As Rubin arrived on the scene, he quickly realized he was standing in the middle of an intersection littered with body parts.

To a journalist newly arrived in Colombo, the capital city, Sri Lanka can be a bewildering place. Rubin was fortunate to meet a 21-year-old Tamil journalist named King. King's father, an Anglican priest and firm believer in non-violence, named his son after one of his heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr.

King's own belief in non-violence has been sorely tested. When he was just four years old, his family home was burned to the ground in a kind of Sinhalese Buddhist pogrom against the Tamils. Remarkably, King shows little rancor, and he turned out to be an enthusiastic guide to Sri Lankan culture, leading Rubin on a tour of his multicultural, multireligious, multilingual neighborhood.

But as Rubin learned, terror is never far off in Sri Lanka. The Tamil Tigers have twice attacked Colombo's only skyscrapers, the twin-towered World Trade Center. They've also killed one Sri Lankan president, blinded another, and assassinated a former leader of the world's largest democracy, India's Rajiv Gandhi.

Rubin interviewed a Tamil newspaper editor, Manoranjan, who is sharply critical of the Tigers' terror tactics and their use of child soldiers. That kind of reporting can get you killed in Sri Lanka. Human-rights organizations estimate that the Tigers have killed 8,000 fellow Tamils considered to be traitors to the rebel cause. To protect his own reporters, Manoranjan tells them, "If [you write] hard criticism of the LTTE, don't put your name on it, just write it. If anybody asks you, say it's the decision of the editor, and I'll take responsibility."

But that burden takes a heavy toll on Manoranjan. His family moves to a different safe house every six months or so. To avoid suicide bombers, he varies his daily route as he is driven around Colombo. When describing the loyalty of his trusted Sinhalese Buddhist drivers, Manoranjan is overcome with emotion.

From Colombo, Rubin ventures north into an area filled with refugees from the fighting between the government and Tamil guerrillas. Ignoring orders not to photograph, he slips into a refugee camp and videotapes the deplorable conditions. Ironically, the government sees these camps as a way to control terrorism, but the conditions in the camps create potential recruits for the Tamil Tigers.

Recently, the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers declared a cease-fire and announced that they would begin peace talks, promising an end to the 20-year war. But Manoranjan and other moderate Tamils worry about what life would be like in a separate state or autonomous zone ruled by the Tamil Tigers. "What next?," he asks. "Negotiate with the LTTE? What is the position of the 4 million Tamils under LTTE rule? [Is it] going to be a democratic system? Are we going to question their torturing chambers? Nobody's talking about that."

Before leaving Sri Lanka, Rubin finds himself drawn back to the street corner where he witnessed the carnage of the suicide bombing. He discovers a group of artists known as "road painters" for the murals they paint at sites where innocent civilians have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. He encounters the widow of a man who was killed there -- a woman who insists, "We should really work for peace. ... We should not have any kind of differences, whether they are ethnic, religious, because it's useless. We live in this world for a very, very short time."

"Living with Terror" Credits

Reporter/Videographer: Joe Rubin
Joe Rubin is an independent video journalist whose work was sponsored as part of the Pew Fellowships

Associate Producer
Nimmi Harasgama

Jay Hansell

Special Thanks
Pew International Journalism Program