Tamil refugees in Batticaloa district say that they will not go back to their homes unless the shelling stops completely and lasting peace is brought about.
"We'll go back only when peace is restored. We can't go back when shelling is on," affirmed Thangavadivel a farmer from Mutur East in Trincomalee district, who has been living with his family in the Vettukadu camp in the outskirts of Batticaloa town for the past 11 months
This is a tall order, given the fact that the Sri Lankan government is determined to pursue the LTTE, and drive it out of the Eastern districts.
And clearing the East is going to take time, though the powers-that-be in Colombo believe that the entire North and East can be cleared within three years.
Asked what was the problem when the government had said that people would be rehabilitated only after the designated re-settlement area was cleared of the LTTE, and the mines planted by it were removed, Thangavadivel said that fighting could break out at any time even in the "cleared" areas.
Echoing the refugees' fears, a local religious dignitary, who did not wanted to be identified, said: "The Tigers are bound to bounce back. Fighting will go on if there is no move for a political settlement. I see no light at the end of the tunnel."
Change in weaponry and tactics
Informed sources in Batticaloa attributed the refugees' reluctance to go back to their homes to the change in weaponry and tactics of the Sri Lankan forces.
The nature of fighting has undergone a sea change. Earlier, both sides relied essentially on small arms and mortars, with the security forces using choppers also, and occasionally, aircraft.
Now the state uses long range weapons and the Air Force liberally, making these its main strike weapons. Even the LTTE now prefers long range weapons to ground movement and hand to hand fighting.
The refugees have grown up in the midst of war for close to twenty years. But their previous experience in dodging gun fire proved to be useless this time round.
Sarangapani a coolie from Vavunathivu said that earlier, people had time to take shelter in peace zones like schools, temples and churches. The fighting forces by-passed these shelters.
But now, no place is safe. "We don't know when an artillery shell or an aerial bomb will fall in our area. The attacker can't be seen. There is no warning that he is going to come. There is no escape!" he said.
"We fled carrying nothing with us except the clothes we were wearing," he recalled.
Thangavadivel had moved from one place to another four times because shells would catch up with him wherever he tried to settle.
There was no report of any significant killings as a result of the shelling. No refugee mentioned it.
Apparently, the shells fell on places with no people in close proximity. But death due to shelling had been a constant threat, a real, everyday possibility. That is why the people fled.
A woman inmate in Vettukadu said that people who had been taken back to their villages by the government, had found that there were "no people, only the army" there.
Clearly, the refugees do not like the army breathing down their necks.
The places had also been destroyed and looted, other refugees said.
Nirmalai, a music teacher from the Tamil-Muslim town of Mutur had a different problem. She said that she did not want to go back because there would be too many Muslims there.
"Tamils can't trust them," she said. Muslims are seen as being pro-Army.
Leaders fear Sinhala colonisation
The refugees' refusal to entertain the thought of going back, is worrying Tamil leaders who believe that if they do not go back, their places will be taken by non-Tamils, like Sinhalas and Muslims, especially the former, with the help of the state.
A leading Catholic religious figure is telling the refugees to go back, if allowed to. He is reminding them that the ethnic conflict began in the 1950s with "state-aided colonisation" of the Tamil areas of the North-East by the Sinhalas, the majority community in Sri Lanka.