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A Priest's Death in Sri Lanka


Now, a war that has been waged for two decades with little attention from the outside world.

In Sri Lanka, hundreds of people die or disappear each month in a civil war. Several hundred thousand people have been driven from their homes. And for the past few months, the highway leading to one city, Jaffna, has been closed, cutting off hundreds of thousands more. NPR South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves has this story of one victim of a vicious conflict.

PHILIP REEVES: His eyes brimming with tears, Latchmi Kamptan(ph) shows off his dead father's identity cards.

Latchmi is 13. The card has a tiny picture of his father. Suddenly, it has become a treasured keepsake. The boy's too distraught to say anything more. He just stands there surrounded by grieving relatives, clutching the card and staring at the floor.

There are many ways for a young boy to lose his dad to Sri Lanka's civil conflict. Disappearances, assassinations and bombings are so commonplace on this divided tropical island they often don't make the news. But the death of Latchmi's father was different.

Ms. RANJANI KAMDAN(ph): (Through translator) My husband was a highly respected priest.

REEVES: This is Latchmi's mother, Ranjani.

Ms. KAMDAN: (Through translator) He used to visit many temples. A lot of people used to come whenever he performed his religious activities and we never had any enemies.

REEVES: The priest's name was Parameswar Krukul(ph). He died because he carried out a simple religious ritual, a blessing that lasted just a few months. He was a Hindu and a member of Sri Lanka's minority Tamil population.

For more than two decades, Tamil Tiger rebels have been fighting off and on for a homeland for that same Tamil population. But as Ranjani explains, the man her husband blessed was not a Tamil and not Hindu.

Ms. KAMDAN: (Through translator) He never had any idea whether he is going to bless the president. The last woman, (unintelligible) he realized that he's the leader of this country.

REEVES: Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is from the island's Buddhist (unintelligible) majority. Analysts say it's become clear in recent months Rajapaksa believes military force will help solve the island's conflict.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

REEVES: Earlier this month, Rajapaksa flew by helicopter here to the island's east. This stretch of palm-fringed beaches and lagoons is part of the Tamil heartland. It's also an area ravaged by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The president came to mark what he considers an important victory.

After weeks of hostilities, government forces have taken control of the place called Bihari(ph), coastal terrain previously in Tamil Tiger hands. The president's advisers are keen to create the impression Rajapaksa's popular among local Tamils.

That's why the Tamil priest was brought in from his nearby home to do the blessing. That's also why the ceremony was then repeatedly shown on TV. It took the priest's assassins only a few days to act. When they arrived at her front door, Ranjani, his wife, confronted one of them.

Ms. KAMDAN: (Through translator) I told him, please don't harm or harass my husband. He's very innocent.

REEVES: They ignored her. The priest was led away and shot dead not far from his temple.

Bishop KINGSLEY SWAMPILLAI (Catholic Bishop, Sri Lanka): This is non-permissible. It's not permissible, acceptable into a society.

REEVES: Kingsley Swampillai is a Catholic bishop. The killing happened in his diocese.

Bishop SWAMPILLAI: This is a very sad situation and a sad incident. And being religious, we know the difficulties of a religious person who had to be neutral. There's no saint or sinner for us. When he's in trouble or when he is asked to come and do his religious duties, he has to go.

REEVES: The Sri Lankan government blames the Tamil Tigers for the priest's killing, though there are other suspects. Government officials also denied the priest was placed in danger by being made publicly to bless the president. Lakshman Hulugalle is director of the government's Media Center for National Security in the capital of Colombo.

Mr. LAKSHMAN HULUGALLE (Director, Media Center for National Security): First not by force (unintelligible), the president has won the hearts of Tamil people.

REEVES: Back on the east coast, there's not much evidence the president has won many hearts. In the priest's home, the family no longer feels safe. Only one man really matters and he's no longer there. The priest's wife, Ranjani, says their three children, including the boy Latschmi, can't comprehend what's happened.

Ms. KAMDAN: (Through translator) You see, my husband is very close to my children, always he's being with the kids. Actually, it's very sad and my son, every time he's asking where is my father and still crying.

REEVES: She has one further point to add.

Ms. KAMDAN: (Through translator) It should never happen to another person. And today we pray the same thing would not repeat to another.

REEVES: That prayer will go unanswered. More than 60,000 people have so far died in Sri Lanka's civil war and there's no sign of an end to it.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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