Mark Seneviratne speaks movingly about families that are poor and hungry - the result of a war that has torn his beloved Sri Lanka apart for 15 years.

But the product of war that brings tears to his eyes - and that has sent him around the world to educate people - is the sexual exploitation of children.In a country that the former wing commander describes as "beautiful, surrounded by the sea," pedophiles are destroying a generation, he laments. And he believes the United States and other governments could put a stop to it by calling for an end to the ethnic war.

Seneviratne has been in Utah for several days as an "international peacemaker" for the Presbyterian Church. Peacemakers are selected from different parts of the world and brought to the United States, where they meet together before dispersing to tell their stories in churches and schools across the nation.

The peacemakers are not necessarily Presbyterian; Seneviratne is Catholic. They are chosen because they have something to teach about peace, or the lack of it, across the globe.

Modern-day Sri Lanka's story is a heart-breaker, he said - a story that can only be understood in the context of its history.

Sri Lanka is an 80-degree paradise year-round, he said. "Two distinctive cultures have long prevailed. In the northeast corner of the country, which is now under attack itself, the Tamil people worked hard, trying to make up for the extreme heat and poor soil conditions."

Their neighbors to the south, the Sinhalese, took it easier, blessed with soil and weather that will grow nearly anything. Seneviratne is Sinhalese, as are 70 percent of Sri Lankans.

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), located in the Indian Ocean southwest of India, has a rich culture that is thoroughly documented back to the year 500 B.C. Today, 18 million people live on the 25,000-square-mile island. In 1505, the Portuguese colonized the island, followed by the Dutch and later the British. The earlier colonizers wanted only to trade with the small nation and had no interest in dominating it. The British, however, set out to rule, folding indigenous people into the government.

But when they looked at the people, they chose representatives from the Tamil - the hard-working minority, he said.

That set the stage for what seems to be centuries-long distrust and anger between the two ethnic groups.

It all flipped in 1948, when Sri Lanka became independent again and the Sinhalese were voted into office because they were the majority. A few years later, the government declared Sinhalese the official language, further alienating the Tamils, who because of language barriers couldn't be part of the administration or even get a college education.

They protested. But it didn't become a full-scale war until 1983, according to Seneviratne. That was the year the Tamil youths formed a rebel army, trained and armed in India, where 55 million Tamils live.

War brings many things to a country, Seneviratne explained. Death, of course. Hunger and unemployment and poverty. What no one foresaw was the complete devaluation of children, who are now viewed as a form of currency in the country's bizarre economic times.

Many parents have been killed, their children left to survive as best they can. And many parents have been left so impoverished that they have sold their children into prostitution.

What was once a "small problem" has come to define a whole generation of children, Seneviratne said.

Pedophiles come from around the world to take advantage of the situation. Until recently, laws didn't do a good job of protecting Sri Lankan children. For one thing, by law anyone over 12 wasn't considered a child. And if someone was actually punished for sexual crimes against children, the maximum sentence was "two years in prison, invariably suspended."

In 1996, the parliament yielded to pressure from child advocates and raised the age of childhood to 18, then enhanced penalties so a sexual-abuse conviction could mean 20 years in prison. But apparently the law is still not taken seriously by some. Flesh traffickers continue to come, said Seneviratne.

The exploitation of children continues largely because corrupt officials make money from it, he added. They don't want change that will affect tourism.

And that's all happening in areas somewhat removed from the battles.

In the war zone in the northeast, Tamil portion of the island, "children are used in all sorts of ways." They are trained as soldiers as young as age 8 or 9. They are given dangerous errands. They are abused sexually. And they are neglected, denied nourishment and medicine.

More than 55,000 have died in the war; 900,000 children have been affected by it. At least 875,000 Sri Lankans have been displaced, most of those now in refugee camps where they lack family and often hope. The camps themselves lack water, electricity and sanitation. And they teem with disease, Seneviratne said.

Since government administration in the area has collapsed, many births are never registered. One consequence of that is children don't officially exist, making them very easy prey for those who would exploit them.

"That's seen as an ideal situation by pedophile organizations," said Seneviratne, who works with PEACE - Protecting the Environment and Children Everywhere. "We've seen an explosion of children of Sri Lanka being advertised for pedophilia and child pornography on the Internet."

Now PEACE and other organizations are investigating claims that young children are being "adopted" as part of an insurance scam. They are taken to various countries, using forged documents, Seneviratne said, then exposed to the cold and allowed to die so that insurance can be collected.

"The feeling is the children will die anyway. Why not make money off it?" he said.

What will the future of Sri Lanka be if children's lives are so devalued and injured? Seneviratne asked.

"There's a dim future looming over us. And the only way the war will stop is if governments pressure our government and rebels to stop the fighting" because funding for the war comes from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, he said.

"The moment the fighting stops, more than 90 percent of the population would support peace."