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Amid misery, seeds of peace sprout

Armed with a mortar launcher, Geetha has fought on the front lines of some of the fiercest battles in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war.

A lean, slight woman of 26, she wears the peacetime uniform of the rebel Tamil Tigers: an oversized blouse belted tightly at the waist, mannish trousers and two long, shining braids pinned on top of her head. She only uses one name, Geetha, her nom de guerre.

These days, though, Geetha isn't fighting. At a camp for survivors of last week's tsunami in the northeastern town of Mulliyawalai, deep in rebel-held territory, she handed out donated clothes and talked with UNICEF officials about how best to counsel traumatized children.

Across a dirt road from the outdoor stage where Geetha sat, an official in a neatly-tied yellow sari gave out payments of 10,000 rupees _ about $100 _ to people whose relatives were killed by the wave. Paramasamy Aarani is an assistant government agent who ultimately reports to the central government in Colombo _ the government Geetha has spent years fighting.

Reconciliation is in the air in Sri Lanka, a country torn apart by more than 20 years of civil war. Since the tsunami roared ashore here, killing some 30,000 people, a sense of shared national suffering has spurred gestures of goodwill and brought fresh hope to a stalled peace process.

At the last government checkpoint before the entrance to rebel-held territory in the northern town of Mugamali, hand-painted cloth banners call for peace and unity. "We hope and pray that the New Year will be free of adversity," says one. "Cohesive action will help rebuild Sri Lanka again," says another.

"The main thought now is picking up the pieces, and there's no time to think about war," said Harry Goonetileke, a retired Sri Lankan air force chief and political analyst. "This is a heaven-sent opportunity. There is a chance with this tsunami to say, "Okay, put your problems to the background and start talking.' "

Since they declared a cease-fire in 2002, the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE, have been talking. But just before the tsunami, negotiations had ground to a halt over how much autonomy the Tamil-dominated parts of the country should have.

The peace process "was in a state of coma," said Dr. John Gooneratne, deputy secretary-general of the government's Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process.

"We were pessimistic," agreed Geetha, who now works for the political section of the LTTE and its Peace Secretariat, and sits in on the negotiations. "There was just a lack of confidence."

The civil war is rooted in tensions between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority, concentrated in the south, and its Tamil minority, mainly Hindus living in the north and east. After the country gained independence from the British in 1948, the government declared that only Sinhalese-speakers could hold official posts, a law that discriminated against Tamils. In 1983, a group of Tamil Tiger rebels massacred an army patrol near the northern city of Jaffna. In response, Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils, killing about 2,000 people.

Before al-Qaida, the LTTE took up suicide bombing. A 14-year-old suicide attacker killed a Sri Lankan president in 1993. The country's current president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, lost an eye when an LTTE bomb exploded at a political rally. At the height of the war in the 1990s, specially-trained Tiger commandos were said to wear cyanide capsules around their necks so they could kill themselves if captured.

The Tigers ran a brutal, disciplined insurgency. Their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is a portly guerrilla who rarely appears in public but whose photograph is displayed prominently in stores and hotels around Kilinochchi, the rebel capital. In the pictures, he wears tiger-striped fatigues and a cautious, watchful look. The LTTE control a swath of land in northern Sri Lanka as well as many areas along the east coast that were hardest hit by the tsunami. They have their own police force and their own time zone.

Their army was their pride, but now there are few armed soldiers on the streets. LTTE loyalists gathered bodies from the beaches in Tamil-controlled areas, and government officials helped identify the dead. Rebel-controlled roads that are normally dotted with checkpoints have been opened to let aid trucks through.

There is still grumbling on both sides. Some LTTE supporters say the government has done little to help Tamils who lost homes and relatives to the wave; some government loyalists accuse the LTTE of hoarding international aid. But hopeful signs seem to outweigh ominous ones.

A few days after the tsunami, Prabhakaran, the Tiger leader, offered condolences to Sinhalese living in the south. President Kumaratunga's secretary wrote to S. P. Tamilselvan, the head of the Tigers' political section. On Thursday, Tamilselvan said that if the government makes use of a joint task force set up by the LTTE to distribute aid in rebel-held areas, "there can be a better chance for peace." And LTTE leaders acknowledge that some government aid is reaching areas they control.

In Colombo, the government set up a hotline so the two sides can talk about what aid is needed. When a group of rebel youths showed up at an aid station run by the Sri Lankan military in downtown Colombo this week and asked for three containers of food and medicine, the officers in charge checked with their supervisors and handed over the boxes. Navy Capt. T. Krishnanand said that wouldn't have happened before the tsunami.

"In the affected areas, even they have saved our lives and we have saved their lives," Krishnanand said. "It's totally different now."

At the camp in Mulliyawalai _ a sprawling, airy high school where hundreds of families hang their laundry from the roof beams and sleep on mats on the floor _ there are signs of cooperation between the government and the separatists.

Government public health workers advise doctors at a clinic run by the rebels on how to prevent outbreaks of disease. A group xof teachers recruited jointly by the rebels' education society and the government education department is being trained to identify children with serious psychological problems.

"This is literally working very closely together, decision making," said Penny Brune, head of UNICEF's field office in Kilinochchi. "It's much better cooperation than we normally see."

The rebels don't carry guns at the camp. In the clinic, they wear white shirts with red crosses on them. Rajendran Thayaparren, a 28-year-old medical student working in the clinic, says he's not a member of the LTTE, just a volunteer.

"The tsunami affected both types of people, Sinhalese and Tamils," he said. "So the political situation can be changed. I think peace will persist for many years."

Geetha says she isn't afraid to fight. If asked to shoot and kill, she will. But she believes the tsunami held a lesson.

"People realized," she said, "that they want peace."