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
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
Rubin is an independent video journalist whose work was sponsored
as part of the Pew