Sri Lanka mass wedding for former Tamil rebels

Former Tamil rebels marry in mass ceremony in Vavuniya

"Tell Vivek to come over here!" the young girls begged us.

They were former Tamil Tiger members and fighters seated in the guest enclosure at a mass wedding of their friends and comrades.

But their main focus was Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi, who had come along with the son of the Sri Lankan president after touring northern Sri Lanka.

"We've seen Vivek in films," said one of the couples getting married.

"We're happy to see him here. We love everyone who's come."

For about half an hour the presence of Oberoi and of Namal Rajapaksa seemed set to upstage the actual weddings.

Like a swarm of bees, photographers and journalists clustered around the VIP guests.

Dust swirled as the winds picked up on this cloudy day. A thousand Sri Lankan flags fluttered.

Taking vows

Soldiers stood guard outside; others, armed, including special forces and commandos, patrolled inside.

In Tamil and Sinhala, through a very loud loudspeaker, two young hosts read out a roll-call of top military men and government politicians who were present.

AFTER-WAR LIMBO

Army soldiers take down the details of families as they return to their homes, after they were released from Manik Farm Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp near Vavuniya, 254 km (158 miles) north of Colombo, May 13, 2010
  • Nearly 300,000 Sri Lankan Tamils fled the war zone in April and May last year
  • According to government figures, 11,696 "former rebels" either surrendered or were screened off by the military and detained
  • About 3,000, including all the children, have now been freed after education or vocational training
  • The remaining 8,000-odd are in 12 "rehabilitation centres"
  • Officials say a few hundred "hard-core" ones are detained separately and may be tried
  • Some of the detainees have been trained in tailoring, computing and beauty care
  • Several people say they had no vocational training at all and did nothing in the camps
  • The government says ex-rebels have been cared for well and released quickly
  • Critics say the process amounts to detention without trial in irregular facilities

This was... a wedding?

But it was.

Under a canopy a Catholic priest from the Diocese of Mannar, backed up by a youth with a crucifix, moved along with a prayer book in the beautiful Tamil script.

Most of the 53 couples who married were Hindus, decked in garlands. About a dozen were Catholics - the young men in immaculate cream shirts and sashes, the women in crisp, brightly coloured saris. They looked expensive.

One by one, the couples took their vows.

Coconuts were broken open and the Hindu couples pairs encircled a holy flame, guided by priests, the scent of burning oil in the air.

The legal documents were signed, the top military men looking on.

Those marrying seemed delighted.

"We are very happy today," one pair of newly-weds, Anbu and Vili, told the BBC.

They had been boyfriend and girlfriend before being forcibly recruited to the Tamil Tigers or LTTE in 2007.

Like many of their fellows, they had suffered severe injuries in the war zone - Vili in her forehead and Anbu in his neck.

The conditions back then were "difficult even to think about", Anbu said.

'Peace village'

They said they would like to have children "but only when we go out - overall it's not a good situation here to have a family", they said.

For they, like the other 52 couples, are still detained and in what the authorities call "rehabilitation".

Now they are married they will move from their current camps to a new one built specially for ex-LTTE families and known as the Peace Village.

Former Tamil Tiger fighters take part in a mass wedding in Vavuniya on June 13, 2010 The couples will move to the Peace Village

Anbu has been studying for his A-levels while Vili said that, unlike many of her fellows, she has had no vocational training because of her injury.

They want to leave the camps and rejoin wider society but have not been given a date.

Many of the couples marrying had family present, though seated rather far away with a security cordon in front of them.

"We're so happy to be here for this occasion," said the mother of a young groom. He and his new wife had been sweethearts but had been separated in the rehabilitation camps.

She has travelled every month from Jaffna to visit her son.

Her main wish is that the couple will now be freed as soon as possible - or at least "for 15 days" so they can meet the wider family.

The military official in charge of rehabilitation, Brig Sudantha Ranasinghe, said they would be released "slowly, slowly and when the time is ripe".

He didn't believe the heavy military presence here was negative for the former LTTE members getting married, as it was the army that had arranged the wedding and that "as long as they are with us they are safe".

He said military officials had been helping the young men and women, who were already sweethearts, to meet at certain times as the single-sex camps had segregated them.

"They had been holding hands and talking so we felt they should be given in marriages, it should be legalised.

"I'm more excited today than my own day of marriage!" he said delightedly.

After a couple of hours, all 53 marital knots had been tied.

A dance troupe of "rehabilitated" former LTTE members - we were told - took to the arena.

The newly-weds headed for their new homes in the Peace Village.

And, to wild cheers, Vivek Oberoi led the crowds in a roaring Bollywood dance routine.

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