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Suspicion stalks Asian capital Terrorism: Sri Lanka was once regarded as a tropical paradise in the Indian Ocean. But the nation's civil war has come to the capital, Colombo, casting a pall of fear and suspicion over the city.


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- It would be fair to say that Nora Janake is a normal office secretary who lives in a city under terrorist siege.

Janake, 18, is not diagnosed as a paranoid or a schizophrenic, but she hurries home at sunset, avoids crowds and becomes tense at the sight of strangers.

"I just can't help wonder if the person is not carrying a bomb," she admitted.

Janake has stopped reading or watching the news. She chews her fingernails, has stopped caring about her appearance and overeats.

Her condition, dubbed "the bomb siege syndrome," is not unusual in this capital, where steel-helmeted soldiers peer from sandbagged bunkers over walls topped by barbed wire, where police with assault rifles slung over their shoulders patrol intersections and the pavements outside public buildings.

Once a tropical tourist paradise, Sri Lanka has become ravaged by a cruel 13-year-long civil war that has cost 43,000 lives. The island's Tamil minority, mainly Hindus, want a separate state on the northern Jaffna peninsula. The Sinhalese majority, mainly Buddhists, refuse to consider the idea.

The war is 175 miles to the north of this capital. But Tamil terrorist bombers -- many of them on suicide missions with explosives packed into coconuts and belts -- have attacked Colombo mercilessly for the past eight years.

Today, troops line the main avenues, hotel porters wheel mirrors under cars to check for chassis bombs, security guards open car hoods and trunks, and hotel guests pass through airport-style security scanners.

After sunset this once-lively metropolis with its palm tree boulevards becomes a ghost town patrolled by security forces taking cover behind oil drums filled with sand and cement blocks painted white.

During the day, traffic meanders around a maze of checkpoints, detours and wire barriers. The city's commercial center remains cordoned off, its gutted buildings a stark reminder of the two suicide bombers who drove a truckload of explosives into Central Bank in January, killing 88 people and wounding 1,400 others.

Last month, two bombs on a commuter train killed 79 and maimed or wounded 450. In retaliation, Sri Lankan troops launched yet another assault on northern strongholds of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The government offered an olive branch, holding out the prospect of peace talks if the rebels abandon their goal of independence and lay down their weapons. There was no immediate response from the rebels, but even the government appeared to hold out little hope that the new offer would prove fruitful.

"It is clear as far as the [rebels] are concerned they have only one agenda: a separate state. That is not negotiable," said Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

In this terrorized city, the cost of years of bomb attacks is measured not only in human lives but also in the dramatic change to residents' lifestyles and behavior patterns.

"A tremendous sense of insecurity and fear bedevils the people," said Professor Bertram Bastiampillai, Sri Lanka's ombudsman and leading academic. "You don't have trust in other human beings anymore.

"You go into a cafe or supermarket, and people will look at you with the unspoken question: 'Is this a man of good faith?' "

Each time another bomb goes off, the security noose is tightened a little more in this city. Sociologists say people now move about warily. They say Sri Lankans have lost their charming, boisterous nature and developed a ghetto mentality.

"Living with the bombers is now a way of life," said Janake, the secretary. "I hardly notice my changed behavior, and my little brother thinks it was always like this."

Access to public buildings is through small side entrances manned by security guards who frisk workers and visitors. Visits have to be arranged ahead of time. Security personnel check the name against a list.

Media censorship has imposed a limit to freedom of expression in a country proud of its democracy. Police have a right to impose curfews anytime, anywhere. Residents feel they are unjustly harassed by what many complain has become a police state.

Censorship has added to the suspicion the public is not told the truth about the war. "We are like Frenchmen living in occupied France," protested opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe.

And each time a bomb goes off, commodity prices go up. Fish, rice, fruit and vegetables have become scarce.

"What people are hungering for is to be left in peace," Kadirgamar said. "The government is absolutely committed to restore civilian life."

But the minister added: "I cannot see it [terrorism] winding down soon. But I do see it winding down finally."

It means the restrictions will continue.

One of the adverse byproducts of the periodic bomb attacks and assassination of leading politicians is a sense of fatalism, which academics consider a dangerous signal that people are beginning to accept terror with an attitude of helplessness.

"That's a dangerous trend," said Bastiampillai, a Tamil. "The moment you come to live with it, you accept racism, fascism and terrorism. We must continue to voice righteous indignation. That is very important."

Another unsavory product is the emergence of phoned-in bomb hoaxes. More than 1,000 have been arrested under a new edict imposing jail sentence and no bail for false bomb scares. There is even a plan to send offenders to the front line in the war.

One private television-station executive was arrested this month after he made an anonymous phone call to an opposition station with a bomb warning.

But the good news of this city under siege is that it has brought local Tamil and Sinhalese communities closer. There have been no ethnic backlashes to the Tamil Tigers' bombs.

"People have realized we are fighting a militant group, not a minority, and that anti-Tamil riots would be detrimental to the country. Sure the ordinary Sinhalese is frustrated, but he does not vent his anger on the helpless minority," said Bastiampillai.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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