New York Times August 17, 2001

As Sri Lanka War Brings Ruin, Villages Live Off It


ADUGAHAWATTE, Sri Lanka In this lush and placid village, no mortar fire disturbs the breezy nights, and only stars and a plump moon light up the sky. Trees are heavy with bananas, coconuts and jackfruit. But bounteous nature is matched by hard times. Good jobs are so scarce that many poor young men like K. W. Perera have gone to war for a paycheck.

His mother, a petite, careworn woman, said he had enlisted against her wishes. "He tried the garment factories, construction sites, road work," she said. "He joined up when he found nothing else."

The 18-year ethnic conflict that has set Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan has become enmeshed in the economic fabric of village life. It has brought a better standard of living to families of many of the more than 200,000 men and women, mostly from the Sinhalese majority, who have signed up to fight rebels seeking a separate Tamil homeland.

There are now more than five times as many people employed in the security forces as there are in the tourism industry of this island nation off the southern tip of India.

And as military spending has grown from 1 percent of the economy before the war began in the early 1980's to 6.8 percent last year, more and more people are making a living from the conflict.

"The war has become an institution," said a Western diplomat based in Colombo, the capital. "Rich people are making money on commissions, kickbacks, selling supplies to the army. The soldiers are fairly well paid too. Everybody seems to be making money. It's a highly democratic system."

Though the war has killed 62,000 people in a country with a population of 19 million, there is no mass movement of people taking to the streets to demand that the government and the rebels make peace.

Many reasons are offered for this, among them the ruthlessness of the rebels, the despair of a war-weary people, the isolation of the Sinhalese south from the carnage of the northern battlefields. There is also the very intractability of the conflict between a government that insists on holding the country together and a rebel force that seems determined to divide it.

But some say the crucial economic role of the military as employer is another factor that has sapped organized opposition to the war in the countryside, where most people live.

"It diminishes the potential to mobilize rural communities against the war, because they are deriving substantial economic benefits, though at tremendous human cost," said Jehan Perera, a spokesman for the National Peace Council, a group that favors a negotiated settlement.

And the numbers in service are large. Though the army has had trouble at times attracting new recruits for the minimum 12 years, and though it has a chronic problem of deserters, the security forces, which include the army, air force, navy and police, still number 215,000, according to the United States State Department.

The Sri Lankan military declined to say how many people served, citing security concerns.

The villagers offer their own twist on explanations of what is prolonging the war. With no universal draft, they say, it is the offspring of the poor, not of the elite, who are volunteering to serve.

"The children from the villages are fodder," said Lance Cpl. Gamini Premaranthna, who joined the army 11 years ago when he was 19. "None of the bigwigs' children go. All the politicians shouting that we must have a military solution don't have sons in the war. It's only the village boys. The war would end sooner if the rich were dying too."

This peaceful village in the south, home to 50 or so families who have sent 25 men into the security forces, seems utterly distant from the war- ravaged Jaffna Peninsula in the north.

The soldier, K. W. Perera, a native of this village, stood alone under the baking sun with a gun slung over his shoulder one recent morning, a grim sentry in the northern war zone, yearning for home.

As he gazed at the ruined town of Chavakachcheri, wrecked by shelling, he said, "This destruction is a national crime."

But the war is helping his village to prosper through the money that young soldiers like him send home.

They are paid quite well by local standards, and the job security is unmatched. While garment factories in the area often fold, the war goes on. A soldier posted to Jaffna, in the war zone, earns about $140 a month, two to three times as much as a typical garment worker. And if he is killed in action, his family will be paid his salary until he would have been 55, and a pension after that.

K. W. S. Lakshman Perera, K. W. Perera's second cousin, joined the police force just days out of school and had the lower part of his left leg blown off four years ago when he stepped on a mine in a town near rebel territory.

He said he had no regrets about his service. He seems to be surviving nicely on his salary, which he continues to earn though he has never gone back to work.

He and his wife recently had a second child and have built a spacious home in the shade of towering palm trees. There is glass in the wood- frame windows and a studio photograph of his 2-year-old boy in the living room.

One recent afternoon, he hobbled playfully after his son. Later he bathed outside, pouring big buckets of water over himself, then hopped back to the house to get dressed and put on his leg.

He led the way to the nearby homes of neighbors who had sent their sons and husbands to war.

Corporal Premaranthna was on leave to visit his wife and 3-year-old son in a new house they were building. His childhood home, built by his father, a day laborer, was a mud hut with coconut fronds for a roof.

The son's new place is made of bricks. The roof is tin topped with tiles. The interior is decorated with flowered curtains. And his wife has planted a papaya tree and pink roses in the front yard.

He said he is determined to return to duty in Jaffna. Though it is in the war zone, the hazard pay is worth the risk. "It's very difficult to survive on the salary you earn in the south," he explained.

The last stop on K. W. Perera's tour of the village was the saddest. Night had fallen and the moon shone gently on K. W. Gunesekera, an old, shirtless man in a plaid loincloth who came out on his step to talk. Both his sons joined the army. A year ago, his youngest boy, just 22 Lance Cpl. Mahinda Dayawansa was killed in an ambush.

Mr. Gunesekera's wife was lost after her son's death.

"She had no more desire to live," he said. "She was forever lamenting our son. She went to sleep one night and didn't awake. I lost my son. I lost my wife."

The young man never married, so his family will collect his salary for the next 32 years. But the money is no comfort to Mr. Gunesekera. He brought out the framed certificate the army sent after his son perished, clutching it to his bony chest.