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No refuge for Lankan refugees

world Updated: Apr 25, 2009 00:55 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
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The word Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK), the name of a town located some 380 km north-east of Colombo, means a new settlement in Tamil — a settlement for people about to begin a new life. On Friday, as the strong sun beat down on their emaciated and dehydrated lives, thousands of displaced Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka’s war zone could only hope and pray that beyond this battle-scarred town lay a better future.

But the future does not look promising. A surge of over 1.5 lakh displaced Tamils moved to PTK and adjoining areas from the “no fire zone” since Monday. Thousands were screened and registered before being dispatched to camps across central and northern Sri Lanka.

But thousands more remain in the town, which has now begun to look like a slum with open, stinking drains and little facilities. Men and women were seen defecating in the open.

Natural channels of water were clogged with rubbish. The stench was unbearable.

At one place, a group of men, women and children were bathing together near an open drain. Sri Lankan army (SLA) troops were dousing them with water from a tanker with the refugees furiously scrubbing themselves with soap, as if that could change their identities. To me, it looked the displaced had to let go of their privacy along with their homes.

A long row of refugees, with no shoes and little clothing, were standing at a junction when a group of military-escorted journalists stopped to talk to them – the first to visit the area after the exodus.

They were waiting with their hollow, listless eyes and meagre belongings to board buses that would take them to an IDP camp in the northern district of Vavuniya. Not many able-bodied men were among them.

“Water is no problem. Food is a problem,” said a reed-thin man, holding on to a bag full of cream-cracker biscuits.
“I am happy,’’ said an old woman, her dry, cracked face scowling. “What do we do? LTTE was pointing the gun. Now we are here,” said a woman in a dirty, ragged nightdress.

The conversations, translated from Tamil, were cut short by the military. It could be dangerous, the SLA personnel said. Not all have been screened yet. They could be suicide bombers, we were told before being whisked away.

Less than a kilometre away from PTK is the Mathalan lagoon, on the other side of which lies the NFZ. This was the lagoon that thousands of the displaced had crossed, braving bullets and grenades from the LTTE, to come to government-controlled areas this week.

The LTTE had put up “earth bunds’’ on the other side, breached by the SLA to cut a passage for the displaced to move out. Dull thuds of shelling were heard from the southern side of the NFZ, which is still under LTTE charge. Black plumes of smoke swirled to the sky. Will PTK live up to its name? I think we know the answer.