|Civilians Fleeing War Describe Forbidding Terrain, Killings|
|Friday, 13 February 2009|
In Sri Lanka, Tales of Jungle Terror
Washington Post Foreign Service
Trying to quiet her crying infant son, the young mother grabbed her 11-year-old's hand and told him to follow her. Starting out at dusk, they spent hours hiding in the jungle terrain, crouching amid the crossfire between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels.
Members of Sri Lanka's Tamil ethnic group gather in Vavuniya to bury relatives who were killed while trying to flee territory controlled by the Tamil Tiger rebels. (Associated Press)
Like thousands of other civilians stuck in the epicenter of the seemingly final battles of this civil war, Sashi Kumari Selvarajha's family was struggling to flee through marshlands and across the front lines, hoping for safety, she said through tears. But just as they crossed the line, she said, rebel forces open fire.
"We started running on Monday night. But we didn't think it was safe. So we stopped to sleep in the jungle. As the sun rose, we fled. But my husband and mother-in-law got killed," said a distraught Selvarajha, 31, as she unloaded her bags at a crowded camp for the war-displaced in government-held Vavuniya District, where 2,000 haggard and dehydrated civilians arrived Wednesday. "I'm never going back to that place."
Hers is a rare firsthand account of the harrowing flight of thousands of civilians to this heavily fortified frontier town. It came as the Sri Lankan army said it would end a largely ineffective "safe zone," which health officials and diplomats said had been shelled by both sides. Instead, troops would set up a new safe zone on a 7.5-mile-long strip of land on the northeastern coast where civilians were already seeking refuge, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, said Thursday.
Most civilians who flee the fighting are put into military-run camps that officially do not allow outsiders. Stone-faced and red-eyed relatives line up behind sandbags, coils of barbed wire and machine-gun nests as soldiers check their identity papers before they can find missing loved ones.
A brother and sister stood weeping inside the camp and told how their 41-year-old father was shot dead when they attempted to cross into government-held areas. Their mother and sister are fighting for their lives in Vavuniya's hospital.
"We lost our father. We lost everything," said Rasendran Nitha, 17, who huddled with her brother, Rasendran Radanraj, 20. "We don't know what to do. We desperately need peace in Sri Lanka."
As the army continues its offensive to end the 25-year-long rebel war, the Sri Lankan government has come under increasing international pressure to halt its offensive and allow an estimated 250,000 civilians trapped in the northern Wanni region safe passage.
The government has refused and also says the number of trapped civilians is lower. It argues that the Tigers, known for their frequent use of suicide bombers, are using civilians as human shields, a claim that rebels deny but that diplomats and human rights workers here agree is taking place.
Letting up on the fighting would allow the rebels to escape along with the displaced, President Mahinda Rajapakse's government has said. The United States has labeled the Tigers a terrorist group. The government says tens of thousands of civilians have fled the ever-shrinking coastal strip controlled by the Tigers, now estimated at less than 61 square miles.
Here in Vavuniya, many traumatized civilians said the past few weeks of fighting have left them confused about where to find safety. John Manni, 38, spent a harrowing Monday trying to decide on which side to stay in Vallipunam, a forested area between the army and rebel lines. He believed the government side would be safest, but as his family crossed over the front lines, his 12-year-old niece, two uncles and an aunt were killed. He isn't sure who did the firing.
"Army said to come to their side. The LTTE said to stay with them," said Manni, using the abbreviation for the rebel group's official name, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. "We thought we should come to army side. Then someone fired on us. We had to leave the bodies so we could run away. There were so many bodies lying in the jungle."
The government has largely sealed off the war zone to journalists, so reports have been impossible to verify. The refugee camps have also been closed to journalists, although in recent days more aid workers and visitors have been given short periods of access.
The Tamil Tigers accuse the government of waging a genocide against ethnic Tamils -- who make up about 18 percent of the island nation's population of 21 million people -- in the north and east of the country. They say the international community should be aware of the "false propaganda of the Sri Lankan state," according to TamilNet.
"People wander from place to place seeking refuge and are forced to lead a life worse than animals in the marsh and jungles," the LTTE's political division said in a statement. "They are being shot."
Several diplomatic sources in Colombo said the Tamil Tigers have prevented civilians from leaving for three reasons. First, the civilians act as a human shield for the rebels. Also, they are a potential pool of conscripts and the rebel group's only real hope of survival now that large numbers of their own people have been killed. Finally, the civilian suffering could embolden the Tamil diaspora and others to force a cease-fire on the government.
The conflict has also raised a problem for those trying to help fleeing civilians, international aid workers in Vavuniya said. Some in the government worry that rebels are mixing among the civilian population.
The Tamil Tiger rebels are accused of forcibly recruiting at least one member of each family in their de facto state in the north, which until recently occupied 5,600 square miles of land. Those entering one of five camps in Vavuniya go through a series of screenings to make sure they are not fighters for the rebel group, aid workers running the camps said.
But checkpoints have become dangerous. On Monday, a female suicide bomber blew herself up and killed 30 people while pretending to be a refugee.
At the same time, aid workers and some Tamil activists are concerned about government plans to create long-term "welfare villages," where civil war refugees would live for up to three years. The government has said it needs that much time so troops could clear mines and finish fighting, but experts warn of alienating an already fearful Tamil population.
"Yes, we have a problem since the population has for so long been under the Tigers. But Sri Lanka also has a real opportunity here to reach out to the Tamils in the camps and not turn them into cages," said Kumar Rupasinghe, chairman of the Foundation for Co-Existence in Colombo. "We urge the government to ensure that people are resettled quickly and given a good livelihood. Otherwise they will be angry and dependent on aid. It could . . . increase ethnic tensions."
From this town, where Sri Lankan flags fly from every shop and armored personnel carriers are driven through the main shopping district, civilians said they were too exhausted and terrified to move.
In Vavuniya, soldiers jump in and out of auto-rickshaws, machine guns in hand. Many families in surrounding villages have become members of the patriotic civilian paramilitary force, armed with AK-47s "to protect their villages" from Tamil Tigers. The defense ministry last summer sent a nationwide text message: "Young Patriots, come join with our armed forces and be a part of a winning team."
Some here worry about how a transition can be made from war to peace with so many guns around. Others wonder whether it's all really over.
Mari Maththu Raman, 51, is a fisherman who attended a wedding 12 years ago and was caught behind rebel lines. He started a new life. But during the recent fighting, he decided to escape. On Tuesday, his 17-year-old son was killed at Vallipunam. Raman said he wasn't sure which side to blame. He is thankful for this camp, although he fears more danger lies ahead.
"There are still some Tigers left," Raman said, his hands shaking. "We don't know when the war will be over."
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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