COLOMBO // At the Swiss Embassy in Colombo, an old Tamil woman fumbles with a flashy mobile phone as it rings. For several seconds, she does not know how to switch it on or off until a younger woman, seated next to her, shows how it is done.
The old woman grins sheepishly, flashing a frustrated expression. For many years now, thousands of people, young and old, have crowded in front of European embassies in Colombo, waiting to collect visas to visit relatives, most of whom had fled the violence in Sri Lanka and sought refuge or work in the West, where more than 500,000 Tamils now live. Will these familiar scenes now fade away after nearly three decades of fighting between government troops and Tamil guerrillas has ended?
"Most Tamils will come back only if there is absolute peace and the community is left alone," said a middle-aged man, holding on to a file with all his documents for visa processing, at the Swiss Embassy, this week. "My son is abroad and I try and visit him as much as possible. He sends me a free ticket." The priority for the country's minority Tamil community, many of whom did not share the rebels' passion for an independent homeland, is to settle down into their own homes and hope that lasting peace has finally arrived.
"Freedom of movement and being able to return to our homes," said a newspaper journalist speaking by telephone from the northern, Tamil-dominated town of Jaffna, when asked to describe his people's immediate priority. Tamils are the second largest community after the majority Sinhalese and make up 10 per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people. However, half of these are Tamils of Indian origin, brought to work on tea plantations by the British during the colonial rule. They live mainly in the central region of the country and do not usually share the nationalist sentiments more common among "native" Tamils.
Indigenous Tamils have complained of discrimination in education, land use and jobs for more than half a century, and at first resorted to non-violent means to express their frustration. But in the 1980s, young Tamils became disillusioned with this approach and resorted to an armed struggle to achieve the goal of separation and an independent homeland for their community in the north and east of the country.
That dream has finally come to an end - not only because of a devastating campaign by government troops to crush the rebels, but also because ordinary Tamils were tired of the constant fighting, during which they were repeatedly displaced and watched their loved ones die in the crossfire or as combatants, forced to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels. During a visit to the rebel-controlled north-east coastal town of Mullaitivu soon after the tsunami in December 2004, a middle-aged woman, who was cooking in a post-tsunami camp for the homeless, said bitterly: "I have been displaced more than 10 times now in the past few years. I don't know a place called home."
Journalists at a Jaffna newspaper who fled with civilians to other areas to escape intense fighting during the 1990s, took along with them a mobile printing press and published the newspaper while on the run. "There was no other option," one of the reporters said. Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), said the priority right now was to resolve the problems of people living in camps. "There should be a quick screening, registration and separation."
While the screening is to separate civilians from rebel infiltrators, the government has said at least 80 per cent of the nearly 300,000 displaced people will be returned to their homes by the end of the year after reconstruction and rehabilitation gets under way. A government task force is overseeing the rebuilding of the north. "The other aspect is moving towards a speedy political settlement. This is imperative," Dr Saravanamuttu said, adding that "the Tamils will want their insecurity taken care of first".
A Jaffna academic who wished to remain anonymous, speaking by phone, paused, before saying: "peace, peace, peace. Nothing can replace peace; not economic development, not jobs, not education, not health needs. We need to take care of ourselves. We need to be left alone. We don't want the Tigers nor government soldiers." Other residents said opening the main motorway between Colombo and Jaffna, nearly 400km away, would alleviate many of the northern Tamils' problems. The motorway, which was the scene of huge battles and at various times fell under the control of the rebels or government forces, has been closed for most of the past 30 years.
"The A9 [motorway] should be open. This will allow the people and trade to move freely from the north to the [Sinhalese-dominated] southern part of the country," a trader in Jaffna said. It will be a tall order for the government to reach out to the Tamils and show that they are sincere after a bloody campaign to crush the rebels in which thousands of civilians were killed in the crossfire or while held hostage by the rebels.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, has said the fight was against the militants and not Tamil civilians, who are "our people". Yet if the Tamils still feel worried about their future and hundreds of them continue to wait outside embassies to visit relatives or migrate, "our people" will remain a community on the move, unsure of their place in Sri Lanka, and a sign that smouldering fires may reignite.