KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka - In her 12 years as a medic for a rebel Tamil army, Meera saw the worst that war has to offer. Her hands and face, heavily scarred from burns and skin grafts, are testimony to that. But now she has seen what nature can do in minutes.
"I have not seen worse than this," said Meera, who like many Tamils goes by only one name. "It's much more lost than on the battlefield."
The president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, says that on Dec. 26, nature "mocked" the country's nearly two-decade civil war by killing tens of thousands of people and destroying whole communities in less than an hour. However, by all but forcing a guerrilla army and its hated enemy - Sri Lanka's central government - to offer humanitarian aid, the tsunami has also created a turning point in a long, bitter conflict.
Whether that turn will be toward a lasting peace or more bloodshed is not clear. For now, the Tamils of northeast Sri Lanka are rebuilding their lives yet again.
What is striking is that both sides have come to their rescue: the central government that had historically discriminated against Tamils, and a notorious rebel group, the Tigers, who rule them by force. United Nations relief agencies and foreign monitors who have been active since a cease-fire began nearly three years ago are hoping that the disaster will bring the government and rebels closer to peace.
"An event like this is something that changes history. History will change from this. In what way, we don't know yet," said Hans Brattskar, Norway's ambassador to Sri Lanka, on a visit last week to Tiger-controlled territory. Norway is trying to restart peace talks that had deteriorated into a standoff before Dec. 26. "You have a lot of distrust and suspicions on both sides, ... and I don't think that will go away, but I think you have a feeling of reaching out and trying to work together, and I think that's something you have to try and build on."
The opportunity created by the disaster became obvious almost immediately. Government troops who view the Tamil Tigers as terrorists donated blood to help victims in Tiger-controlled territory, said Harim Peiris, a presidential spokesman. Government and Tiger checkpoints on roads into Tiger-controlled territory let supplies and aid workers through without the usual hours-long delays. And for the first time in more than a decade, the Sri Lankan president's office has written to the leadership of the Tigers, to invite their political chief to join the government in the official national recovery effort.
The Tigers, meanwhile, began to reshape their international image by responding speedily and efficiently to the destruction, in stark contrast to the more chaotic first week of relief in southern Sri Lanka. Beginning in the 1980s, the Tigers - more formally the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE - earned a reputation as a vicious guerrilla force, best known for suicide bombings and the 1991 assassination of the former Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi; the group is on the United States', Britain's and India's lists of terrorist organizations.
They are trying to shed that reputation and prove they can govern their corner of Sri Lanka as reasonable bureaucrats in white-collar shirts.
By taking advantage of their well-trained, well-organized troops in camouflage fatigues to respond swiftly to the tsunamis, they achieved at least a public relations success. Cadres like Meera fanned out to relief camps throughout their territories, conveying to the oft-exploited Tamils a measure of Tiger compassion.
But the relief effort has also shown that the potential for enmity and cynical political stances remains high. Yesterday, the government asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to turn down an invitation from rebel leaders to visit disaster-stricken Tamil areas. Sri Lankan officials said on condition of anonymity that Annan was told that his safety in rebel territory could not be guaranteed, and that there was no precedent for a U.N. chief to make such a visit without negotiated agreements.
Previously, anti-Tamil factions spread rumors that the Tigers were blocking or refusing government assistance in some places, which the Tigers deny. Tiger officials, in turn, accused the government of blocking or delaying substantial aid to the northeast and directing the bulk of assistance to the south, populated mostly by the Sinhalese ethnic majority of Sri Lanka, an accusation the government denies.
"There is suspicion and fear and trepidation on the part of the Tamil people for many reasons," the Tigers' political leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, said in an interview in the Tigers' political capital, Kilinochchi. He expressed concern that some in the government, especially in the pivotal fisheries ministry, will continue to discriminate against Tamils during the recovery. "But national emergencies sometimes make statesmen. People, good people in governments, rise [above] politics and rise to the occasion."