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Tamil Poet, Held Captive, Wins Award

September 24, 1992 GMT

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Poet Thiagarajah Selvanithy seemed to be foretelling her own future when she wrote: ″My heart hangs on a split thread/ That could snap any time.″

Selvi, as she is known to her friends, is a 28-year-old Tamil student. She wrote the poem last year, before she was taken captive by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas who control her home town of Jaffna.

The Tigers are fighting the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of this Indian Ocean island. The 9-year-long war has claimed 17,000 lives.

Selvi was a third-year student in dramatic arts at the University of Jaffna when she was abducted from her boarding house in Jaffna city on Aug. 30, 1991.

Though no reason was given for her kidnapping, she was to have acted the next day in a play that could have been interpreted as criticizing the Tigers.

In the Jaffna Peninsula, the northern tip of the island off India’s southern coast, few dare to openly reproach the Tigers. Newspapers and journals are subjected to strict censorship.

The last time Selvi was seen was two months ago, by a former prisoner in Jaffna, her friends said.

She is one of four university students among an estimated 2,000 people being detained by Tigers. Among them reportedly are 50 writers, artists, and playwrights.

Selvi was the 1992 recipient of the Freedom-to-Write award by PEN, an international literary association that has championed the cause of hundreds of writers whose works have jeopardized their safety.

The prize, shared with Haitian journalist Jean Mario Paul, was awarded six months ago but the announcement was withheld until Sept. 2 on the advice of friends who feared what might happen to her

PEN, whose name stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists, is a nonprofit London-based group with a worldwide elected membership of 10,000. It sponsors literary events and works on behalf of imperiled artists.

Selvi’s friends said the writer was sometimes disapproving of the rebels when speaking in private. The friends agreed to be interviewed if their names were not disclosed, for fear of endangering relatives in Jaffna.

″Her poems were first-person accounts of imaginary people in situations of conflict,″ said one friend. ″She is part of a generation of feminists fighting for women’s rights since the early 1980s.″

Her poem, ″Rama Turns Ravana,″ is taken from an ancient Hindu legend about the abduction of Sita, the wife of the Indian god, Rama, by the Sri Lankan king Ravana.

In the poem, the wife discovers she has been kidnapped by her own husband. She laments: ″When I happened to see Rama changing his mask to Ravana,/ My heart shattered./ Who is going to release this Sita?′