The Terrible War for Sri Lanka

No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

a film by Callum Macrae
Louis Charbonneau/Reuters
Tamil boys at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the northern Sri Lankan town of
Vavuniya during a visit by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, May 2009

The Nanthi Kadal lagoon, a waist-high body of water extending for four miles along the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, bears few traces of the battle that took place here a little more than five years ago. Herons fly low over tidal flats and islets covered with sea grass. Palmyra palm trees sway over the thick bush that grows along the shore. The only hints of conflict are the strips of yellow tape that cordon off sections of the surrounding jungle, marked with skulls and crossbones and the word “mines,” printed in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil. At the end of a causeway over the lagoon a sign proclaims that this was the site of a “heroic victory” over “ruthless terrorists” by the Sri Lankan army, which rescued “one hundred thousand civilians” in a “Humanitarian Operation.”

In early 2009, the Sri Lankan separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made their final stand at this lagoon. The LTTE—sometimes called the Tamil Tigers—was founded in 1976, in response to Sri Lankan government policies that favored that country’s Sinhalese majority over the Tamil minority. The Sinhalese, who make up about 75 percent of the population, speak Sinhala, a language in the Indo-Aryan family similar to Hindi or Punjabi, and are practicing Buddhists. By contrast, the Tamils, who make up about 10 percent of the population, speak a quite different language in the Dravidian family of languages from southern India, and some 80 percent practice the Hindu religion; the remainder are Christians, descended from those converted by Dutch and Portuguese missionaries.

In 1956, the government made Sinhalese the country’s official language, with no special status for Tamil, a language at that time spoken by 30 percent of the population. And in 1972, it declared Buddhism the country’s national religion—again favoring the Sinhalese. The LTTE’s aim was to establish an independent state in the northeast of the country, where most Tamils live. Civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the LTTE broke out in 1983, when the LTTE ambushed an army convoy, and continued for over twenty-five years, with only brief periods of cease-fire.

By 2009, a three-year offensive by the Sri Lankan army had pushed the rebel forces out of their strongholds in the Vanni, the low-lying mainland region of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. With the LTTE’s dream of a separate state for the mostly Hindu Tamil minority now crushed, the surviving fighters and at least one hundred thousand civilians found themselves trapped along the shore, hemmed in by the Indian Ocean and the jungle, surrounded by government forces.

At the Nanthi Kadal lagoon, a Tamil fisherman casting his net off the causeway told me that two of his children…

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $79.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.