Refugees trek to escape Sri Lanka fighting | india | Hindustan Times
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Refugees trek to escape Sri Lanka fighting

A group of refugees trekked for three days through the jungles of eastern Sri Lanka to escape fighting between the government and Tamil rebels.

india Updated: Dec 23, 2006 09:07 IST

A group of refugees trekked for three days through the jungles of eastern Sri Lanka to escape fighting between the government and Tamil rebels before reaching a refugee camp near the township of Punani.

Exhausted, they fell to the ground, dropping the few belongings they were able to carry with them. Dehydrated, the children gulped down bucketfuls of water.

"At least you are safe now," a Belgian Red Cross worker told a woman whose face still reflected the terror she had experienced.

Not far away, artillery thundered as the government fired shells into rebel-controlled territory.

Shortly before the New Year, a refugee drama is unfolding in Sri Lanka. According to government reports, 1,500 to 2,000 ethnic Tamils are fleeing the region surrounding the town of Vaharai every day.

The town that was badly afflicted by the Indian Ocean tsunami two years ago is now seeing a second disaster.

Fighting is raging as the government seeks to take the town from the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group fighting for three decades for an independent country in northeastern Sri Lanka for the country's Tamil minority. If the government succeeds, it would control nearly all of Sri Lanka's east coast.

International aid groups have repeatedly accused Sri Lanka of denying help to civilians trapped by the fighting to starve and force them to leave the rebel-held territory.

"There is no food left in Vaharai," a refugee reported.

Apart from withholding food aid, the army is constantly pounding Vaharai with artillery. The government justified the shelling as revenge for mortar attacks carried out by the LTTE on government positions.

The army estimated 20,000 civilians remain in Vaharai, and once they have fled the city, the army intends to "clear" it, military spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe said.

The true meaning behind this phrase is that Vaharai is to be occupied by the army. But an offensive to take control of Vaharai would be a breach of the truce between the government and LTTE.

But Samarasinghe said the agreement has become "practically non-existent" anyway because, amid heavy fighting earlier this year, the LTTE declared it "dead".

The government is not the only side in the conflict to be accused of abuses of the ceasefire and civilians. It has accused the LTTE of using civilians as human shields and to mine refugee trails to force residents to remain in the area.

Several refugees seeking another way out of the area recently drowned after they boarded a fishing boat and attempted to flee by sea during a storm.

Refugee Alfred Vijasingha opted for the only other way out, a jungle trail that meant two to three days of walking.

"The LTTE advised us not to flee," the 19-year-old said, adding that he then decided to secretly escape together with his wife, his six-month-old daughter, his siblings and mother.

They trekked through the jungle in constant fear and in incessant rain while artillery shells exploded nearby, he said.

They had to sleep in the open and had no food because what little food they had in Vaharai had already been eaten before they decided to flee.

"We drank dirty, muddy water from shallow jungle pools," he said of their flight.

The family carried a few pieces of clothing in a blue plastic basket because that was all they could manage to take during their hurried departure.

"My wife and I took turns carrying our daughter," Vijasingha said.

During their trek, an elderly couple who had joined them strayed into a swamp and drowned. Another young woman in the group gave birth in the jungle. Both she and her baby survived.

A few days ago, Vijasingha and his family arrived, exhausted, in Punani.

Buses eventually carried him and his family on to a refugee camp in Kiran, just north of Batticaloa, where they now live in a humble tent.

Vijasingha does not know what the future will bring for him and his family.

"I cannot think about that right now," he said, because his hopes for a better future had been shattered all too often.

His Singhalese father died when he was still a child, he said, and his Tamil mother was left to bring up him and his siblings on her own.

Shortly before the ceasefire agreement took effect in 2002, the family's home was destroyed during an attack.

After it was rebuilt, the tsunami hit, levelling it again. An Italian aid group erected the house once more.

Today, Vijasingha is uncertain whether it still stands or whether his family will encounter ruins if they are one day able to return.