For two decades, Sri Lanka lived with war, as the Tigers fought for a Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island. Now, after a four-year cease-fire, many fear it is drifting back into full-blown conflict. Norwegian facilitators have persuaded the Sinhalese government and the Tigers to meet in Geneva later this month, the first time the two sides have come together in three years. The sole item on the agenda is to discuss better implementation of a cease-fire agreement, signed in Feb. 2002, but which is now on life support. "There will be some pretty important people from both sides there," says a Western diplomat in Colombo. "And the hope is that if you get them together in a room, they'll move onto the big picture." But the Tigers have already threatened to pull out of the Geneva talks after suspected paramilitary death squads kidnapped eight Tiger social workers on Jan. 29. For its part, the government wants to amend the truce, which it claims gives the Tigers too much freedom of movement. On that point, the Tigers won't give an inch.
Nobert lives with the consequences of such mutual intransigence. Mullaitivu, at the end of a spit off Sri Lanka's northeast coast, was once a village of red-tiled bungalows, purple bougainvillea and powdery white shores, where Tamil boatmen lived by shrimp-fishing and smuggling coconut whisky to India. But when civil war broke out in 1983 between the Sinhalese-dominated government to the south and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.) based in the north and east, Mullaitivu wound up on the front line. The village fell first to the Sri Lankan army. Then in 1996 the Tigers took it back, wiping out a garrison of 1,200 government troops and losing 800 of their own in a single day. After the two sides stopped fighting, Mullaitivu enjoyed three years of peace. Then came the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, which killed 3,323 people in the village.
Today, those left in Mullaitivu fear that war is returning. In the past two months, rebels and their proxies have carried out assassinations and deadly mine attacks on military convoys. On Jan. 7, a speedboat laden with explosives was driven into a Sri Lankan navy pursuit craft anchored a few hours south of Mullaitivu, killing 13 sailors. The Sri Lankan army and its paramilitary allies behave little better, raping, abducting and executing civilians thought to support Tamil nationalism. Both sides accuse the other, explaining any killings carried out by their side of the divide as forgivable retaliation. The violence over the winter prompted the new international effort to prevent a lurch back into all-out war. But Erik Solheim, Norway's International Development Minister and the chief mediator in the conflict, warns that the Geneva talks are unlikely to produce quick results. Sri Lanka, he says, won't be "sorted out in a few months."
Sri Lankans seem to have quickly forgotten the spirit of cooperation that flickered briefly after the tsunami. Across the Indian Ocean in Aceh, the disaster persuaded guerrillas and the Indonesian government to declare a truce and work together. Sri Lanka had a similar opportunity. International donors pledged more than $7.5 billion in development and tsunami aid—that's $375 for every person on the island. But bitter squabbles over how to share the cash—last summer, nationalist Sinhalese and Buddhist monks claimed giving aid to the Tigers legitimized terrorism—only aggravated divisions. Hagrup Haukland, Norwegian chief of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, can barely contain his frustration over the recent fighting. "It's madness," he exclaims.
Yes, but hardly new. The civil war killed 64,000 people from 1983 to 2001. Tamil rebels—who run their own shadow government, with courts, traffic cops and a national anthem behind their heavily defended borders—have long demanded that leaders in Colombo recognize their sovereignty. The rebels say that if this is granted, they are willing to discuss the establishment of a federal state. The government in Colombo still insists on a unified state. Even if some sort of compromise is reached in Geneva, President Mahinda Rajapakse, a Sinhalese nationalist elected last year, might be hard pressed to sell it to the south. Rajapakse was elected on a hard-line platform that promised to do away with the cease-fire agreement. By agreeing to the talks, he risks alienating extremist Sinhalese parties who want the Tamil uprising put down with force and whose backing helped him win office.
The Tamil side has its own die-hard brigades. In a late-November speech, rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran admitted he had intended to launch a new offensive last year before the tsunami made it impractical. Prabhakaran warned Rajapakse that he would attack within three months unless the government recognized Tamil self-determination. "The Tigers didn't even allow me to breathe," Rajapakse told TIME. "They attacked within days [of the election]. They are trying to force us into war."
The Tigers deny responsibility for recent attacks on the army, blaming them on spontaneous Tamil uprisings. Tiger political chief S.P. Tamilchelvan says the Sri Lankan army and its paramilitary squads have provoked such unrest. The Northeast Secretariat on Human Rights, which receives some funding from the Tigers but is reputed for its independence, has recorded the death of more than 70 Tamil civilians since Rajapakse's election, killed by the army or plainclothes death squads. The killings include the execution-style shooting of five Tamil students, the assassination of a Tamil parliamentarian in church on Christmas Eve, and the murder of a Tamil actress, her sister and mother at home in Jaffna.
Should war return, its impact will be severe—but probably less so on the southern beaches that are Sri Lanka's main attraction. Foreign aid and investment will fall, as will tourist numbers. But Sri Lanka's economy kept growing during the earlier years of war, and is in better shape today than it was, now that a collection of boutique hotels has made the island the favored destination of the long-haul travel crowd. Although tourists may continue to enjoy Sri Lanka, if war is renewed, those who live there year-round will continue to have their aspirations for peace thwarted. Haunting the island is the possibility that neither side in the conflict is able to rise above its worst instincts, and that two decades of ferocious conflict may have brutalized the island beyond repair. Says a European diplomat in Colombo: "Killing is how Sri Lanka does politics." Father Gnanapragasam Peter, who runs a mission for the Catholic aid charity Caritas, concurs. "Neither side," he says flatly, "cares for the people."
It could have been so different. Dayan Jayatilleka, a former visiting scholar of South Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C., says he was amazed in the days after the tsunami to see soldiers donate blood for Tamils. "I thought, 'My God. There is hope. Underneath all this hate and suspicion, there is a humanity to us.' It was a magical moment. Then it was gone."