Artillery thundered into the night as hundreds of people waited in a darkened security zone for a ferry that would take them away from this island nation's isolated northern front.
Weeks after government forces fought back an offensive by Tamil Tiger rebels, the Jaffna peninsula, a narrow but fiercely contested strip of land at Sri Lanka's uppermost tip, remains virtually cut off - separated from the rest of the country by militant-controlled territory.
The only road linking it to the capital Colombo was closed in the fighting last month.
Yet, triggered by the relentless artillery fire, snipers, food shortages and a string of daily murders and abductions, thousands of people are trying to flee.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, in a report this month, said Sri Lanka was headed for "a period of terror" with more than 400 ethnic Tamil youths having been reported missing since December, all from the Jaffna area.
The government, which denies any involvement, last week appointed a retired judge to look into the disappearances.
The only way to leave Jaffna now is by boat - but those are rare - and some people feel trapped.
Jaffna, which is mostly Tamil, has long been a key target of both sides in Sri Lanka's long-running dispute.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting the government since 1983 for a separate homeland in the north and east, citing decades of discrimination.