Clothes, suitcases on Sri Lanka beach recall war's bloody endgame

PUTHUMATHALAN, Sri Lanka Fri Nov 15, 2013 10:33am EST

File photo of a Sri Lankan soldier silhouetted against the sun as he jumps off the top of a battle tank in the northwestern town of Madhu March 23, 1999. REUTERS/Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi

File photo of a Sri Lankan soldier silhouetted against the sun as he jumps off the top of a battle tank in the northwestern town of Madhu March 23, 1999.

Credit: Reuters/Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi

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PUTHUMATHALAN, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Scraps of clothes, rusting cooking pots and broken medicine bottles are scattered across Puthumathalan beach, the litter of 300,000 civilians who crowded into the hamlet in the final days of Sri Lanka's civil war.

Ethnic minority Tamil rebels made their last stand on the beach in 2009, after 26 years of fighting to set up a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka's north and east.

With the rebels were more than 300,000 civilians, squeezed for five months into what the government said was a safe area but which increasingly came into range of the army's artillery as government forces closed in.

The result was a massacre though the numbers are disputed.

The United Nations estimates 40,000 civilians were killed, most from army shelling, in the months leading up to the defeat of the rebels. The rebels used some villagers as human shields.

The strip of beach, wedged between a salty lagoon and the Indian Ocean's pounding breakers, is still guarded by 800 soldiers of the Sri Lankan army.

Residents say some of the dead lie buried beneath the sand, which is marked by small indents, all that's left of trenches people dug to try to escape the exploding shells. Faded suitcases and water pots lie half buried by the sand.

"It was a terrible time, we had no food, this beach was packed full of people for five kilometers," said Sivaratnam, 70, who was among the masses who retreated to the beach as the army advanced trough territory the rebels had held for years.

On Friday, what happened at Puthumathalan will be at the forefront of the minds of leaders of the Commonwealth group of about 50 mostly former British colonies meeting in Colombo.

The government is under mounting pressure to accept an independent inquiry into the bloodshed.

It rejects the U.N. estimate of 40,000 dead and dismisses complaints from some in the Tamil community of rights abuses since then. The government says it is promoting reconciliation with economic development.

After the summit opens, British Prime Minister David Cameron is due to visit Jaffna, the capital of the ethnic minority Tamil-dominated north, a two-hour drive from Puthumathalan.

He will meet Tamil politicians whose landslide victory in a provincial election in September signaled festering resentment of the central government and its army, which many Tamils see as virtually occupying the north of the island.

"NOT HAPPY"

Jeyanthan T. was born in Puthumathalan when it was just a cluster of huts and said he welcomed the influx of people in 2009.

"They are Tamils, all are family, so we welcomed them."

At the end of the war he was evacuated by boat to a refugee camp, along with thousands of other survivors. Last year, his family moved back with 415 others and they are now rebuilding their lives.

It is not easy. He now has almost no fishing equipment, and says the catch is small anyway - the result of rampant poaching by trawlers from India and boats from southern Sri Lanka.

Last year, Jeyanthan made his living from collecting thousands of abandoned bicycles and scrap metal left behind when the hundreds of thousands of displaced were evacuated.

"I'm not happy with my life, we don't get enough support," he said, standing in front of huts the returnees have built in the palm groves.

There is some progress. A school is under construction, concrete electricity pylons are slowly making their way to the village. Wells have been dug.

For miles around, new houses are being built and roads laid among the bombed and bullet-riddled buildings.

But it will be years before Sri Lanka can move on. Thousands of people displaced by the war have still not returned to their lands. Deep divides between the Tamil community and the central government seem no closer to being resolved - with no agreement even on how many people died, and how many were civilians.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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