Not so long ago, you would have been courting death by trying to drive from Colombo to Kilinochchi. Now aid convoys are rolling all the way from the capital to the nerve center of Sri Lanka's rebel army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Even so, the 250-mile journey is like a visit to another universe. A disintegrating highway leads through a gauntlet of Army emplacements as far as the Sri Lankan government's control extends. Behind the Tigers' lines, the landscape abruptly changes. The road threads its way through lush greenery and signs warning of land mines. Many houses are roofless ruins. They're miles inland from where the tsunami hit. This damage was done by the island's civil war.

Will peace emerge from the coastal destruction? Although both sides say they hope so, reasons for skepticism abound. Decades of tit-for-tat ethnic cleansings and atrocities have deepened the hatred between Tamils in the northeast and the Sinhalese majority in the south. The LTTE has been on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997. The group's fighting forces and suicide bombers have killed thousands of civilians. But now the Sri Lankan president's office has reached out to Sippiah Paramu Tamilselvan, head of the LTTE's political wing, seeking top-level policy talks. "National emergencies sometimes create statesmen," Tamilselvan told NEWSWEEK last week. A hot line between the government and the rebels, inoperative for years, is back in service. And, almost incredibly, the two sides have linked up to coordinate their disaster efforts.

Kilinochchi's inland location saved it from the tsunami, although an estimated 3,000 people died in Mullaittivu, a coastal district scarcely 15 miles due east. The destruction there is a numbing sight. Entire villages have been reduced to patches of rubble in a vast stretch of white sand. The LTTE's tough military discipline enabled cadres to mobilize quickly and effectively, combing the area for survivors and providing those in need with shelter, basic first aid, even some trauma counseling. The Tigers' "swift and efficient" response won praise from no less a figure than the president's official spokesman, Harim Peiris.

Kilinochchi itself is a dilapidated but orderly town. Most of it seems to have no electrical service for at least half the day. In the absence of working traffic lights, an immaculately uniformed police force keeps the intersections from getting snarled. The LTTE provides many trappings of civil society: a police headquarters, a local bank, forestry protection officers, even a system of district and appeals courts where cases are tried by judges in robes and lawyers in Western suits and ties. The Tigers emphasize discipline, and serious crime is rare.

The LTTE's administrative offices occupy both sides of a quiet street of palm trees and scrawny stray dogs. In a formal sitting room with its furniture arranged in strict, symmetrical order, Tamilselvan met with foreign reporters. The fresh-faced 38-year-old wears stylish rimless glasses and carries a black-lacquered cane. He walks with a slight limp--an old battlefield injury, he explains, from his days as a battalion commander. He says he joined the LTTE in 1983, the year the war began, after an outbreak of anti-Tamil violence across the island convinced him he had to defend his people. Now he says he's looking for a breakthrough to reopen peace talks, which collapsed after a 2002 ceasefire.

An estimated total of 30,000 Sri Lankans died in the tsunami, and 1 million or more were left homeless. The survivors need help, regardless of whether their land is held by the government or the Tigers. Washington is moving as cautiously as possible to provide it. "Yes, USAID officials representing the U.S. have met with Tamil representatives," says a senior administration official. But participants in those meetings have been acting "very carefully," focusing on logistics and security issues only. "These are not political meetings and we are not giving aid directly to the Tigers. That would be against the law," says the administration official, who is managing the U.S. response to the tsunami. "But we also need to make it clear to them what we are doing, so they don't mistake our presence there as anything more than humanitarian." After the flood damage is cleaned up, a big question will remain: can the hot lines and diplomatic channels remain open, or will Sri Lanka's long misery continue?