Sri Lanka conflict spurs demonstrations in France


PARIS — Black posters depicting bloody images of Sri Lankan war victims — dead and wounded, young and old — have been plastered on the windows of just about every storefront in a vibrant neighborhood of the French capital throughout the past week.

Thousands of miles from the violence gripping the northeast part of the island nation, the signs were in protest of what many expatriates here called apathy toward the suffering of Tamil civilians.

“It’s like our brothers and sisters they are killing over there; it’s our family that’s over there,” said 20-year-old Jenitha, who declined to give her last name on the basis that supporting her people was not an individual act but on behalf of an entire community. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Tamils live in France, a majority of them in Paris.

In recent weeks, the Sri Lankan government has overtaken territory long held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers, whom the European Union calls terrorists, have been in a bloody and decades-long fight for independence. As the fighters have retreated into a remote region, about 300,000 civilians have been trapped, according to Amnesty International. While some of the injured have been allowed to cross the front lines, NGOs have not been allowed into the Tamil Tiger-held areas.

Words such as “genocide” and “massacre” figured prominently on the signs, which ask people to act during five “black days” leading up to a demonstration near the Eiffel Tower on Feb. 4. Fliers urged businesses to close early that day so people could attend the protest.
Those loaded words figured in conversation with people who crowded the sidewalks in front of restaurants, grocery stores, fabric shops and hair salons, flanking the Saturday traffic. Hundreds took part in the late afternoon rally meant to raise French awareness about the faraway conflict, which is deteriorating into a humanitarian crisis, according to news reports.

Benjamin Alosos, 59, who has lived in Paris for 26 years, said he was concerned about his 94-year-old father still living in Sri Lanka. “There’s no medicine, there’s nothing, nothing,” he said in exasperation. “Soon all the children will die.”

Both French and Tamil Tigers flags fluttered against the backdrop of an elevated railway. Mothers with strollers and grandmothers stood shoulder to shoulder with stylish teenage girls and young men. The young people were visibly in charge of mobilizing the community, the adults following their lead. Youth organizers handed out (and later collected) flags and banners, while others weaved through traffic to distribute fliers to passing drivers and pedestrians.

“Our parents don’t speak French,” said Kani Kamalanathan, 22, who studies management. “We’re obliged to come into the street.”

With call and response chants, the demonstrators beseeched the French government to help end the war, specifically calling on President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to act. One man, Jeyasoory, 31, lamented an apparent double standard, noting that when there’s a problem in Israel and Palestine, “Europe goes. No one cares about the Tamil.”

In a Jan. 27 statement, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was following the developments in Sri Lanka “with great attention” and said that humanitarian organizations should be granted access in order to provide care and protection to affected civilians.

“We’re asking the international community to recognize our territory,” said Sutharsan Ravithas, a 26-year-old youth organizer who works for an electric company. “We know we can’t live under the control of the Sri Lankan government.”

He said he would fear for his safety, and accused the government of drawing civilians away from the Tamil Tiger-controlled areas in order to bomb them as they flee, a belief many echoed.

In Sri Lanka, journalists have not been able to travel behind the front lines, and some have been killed, leaving a void of independent reporting about the conflict and its effect on civilians. Far away from the front lines, anger has rushed into that void.

Protesters in Paris expressed frustration at not being able to do more. They said their efforts so far had fallen on deaf ears in France. The French media, they said, either ignored them or were being manipulated by one-sided information provided by the Sri Lankan government.

When there is news of killing, “they say it’s the Tamil Tigers [but] it’s the Sri Lankan government,” Kamalanathan said. “Everything is reversed. We want to live in peace but the Sri Lankan government says we are terrorists; you have to make the difference between terrorism and resistance.”

One man, trying to counter the perceived government bias, handed GlobalPost a DVD titled “Exodus,” which he said was filmed by humanitarians on the ground and depicted what was really happening.

Viewed later, the 40-minute video purportedly showed footage of decapitated and dismembered bodies littering the streets, wailing women mourning their dead, fleeing villagers forced to step over and abandon loved ones in the dirt where they lay. The video’s sound was in the Tamil language with a few French subtitles, and it was credited to Media House TV.

Tales of personal tragedy are abundant in Paris. One middle-age hotel employee, Kamalasi Kanapathipillai, a widower whose wife was killed during a previous bout of fighting, said through an 18-year-old interpreter that it had been three months since he last heard from his brother, who was living in Kilinochchi, once a Tamil Tiger stronghold that was recently captured by the Sri Lankan army.  

Kamalanathan said less than two months ago a cousin was raped and dismembered and “her parents found the bones.”

“What’s happening is a genocide of the Tamil people,” the 22-year-old student said.

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