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Nowhere to Run


By Dexter Creuz
Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have sought refuge in foreign lands, but over half a million are displaced at home. For them there's no escape from the cruelty of conflict.

Many of Sri Lanka’s children have known nothing but war. For the past 14 years their country has been torn apart by a bloody conflict which has killed thousands, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and affected millions more in one way or another. Yet the suffering in Sri Lanka is rarely an issue in the Western world.

Although the government took control of the northern town of Jaffna last year, and a semblance of normality is slowly returning to its peninsula, the crisis is by no means over: the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate Tamil state, have merely been pushed out, mainly southwards into the dense jungle region of Vanni, and the fighting continues. It may well be out of the media limelight, but the “forgotten conflict” in Sri Lanka is one which gravely concerns the ICRC. As a matter of fact, its Sri Lanka operation is its second biggest in Asia.

One of the ICRC’s main preoccupations is the plight of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced within the country. Fleeing the fighting but remaining in the same war-torn context entails complications that do not necessarily apply to refugees leaving a land entirely: you are never in neutral territory and thus you are never really out of the conflict.

Over half a million people are displaced within Sri Lanka, having fled their homes in search of a safer existence. For many of them, flight was a long and difficult process, hampered at every stage by poor communications and bureaucratic red tape. A teenage boy and a businessman told Red Cross, Red Crescent of their arduous experiences.

 

 

Flight delayed

Riding his rusty old bicycle beside a three-wheeled taxi that carried his mother and grandfather, 18-year-old Saravanan joined the tens of thousands of civilians fleeing their homes in November 1995 as government troops launched an offensive to capture the town of Jaffna. After a 20-kilometre journey, the three found shelter in a friend’s home, before leaving the peninsula by boat to reach the mainland.

On they travelled to safety in the northern town of Kilinochchi, and a house already shared by seven other fleeing families. His mother and grandfather then crossed into government-controlled territory and continued their journey to the capital, Colombo, where his doctor father was living. But Saravanan himself was forced to stay behind, and when the military moved to capture Kilinochchi in July 1996, he sought refuge in a crowded church. It was a brief respite. A week later, he abandoned his faithful old bike and joined relatives in hiring a van to reach the north-eastern town of Mullaittivu where the LTTE had overrun a major military base. There he lived with his relatives in an abandoned house.

It took him a whole month to obtain permission from the LTTE to travel to Colombo. He set off on the back of a truck, heading for a town which lay just beyond the line separating rebel-held and government-controlled regions. Restrictions on the numbers allowed to cross over meant that Saravanan was repeatedly turned back by government soldiers.

Once, as the boy waited to see if he could cross, soldiers began firing artillery shells to stop LTTE efforts to infiltrate. “I was really scared, women and children were screaming,” he said.

On 22 October, when the government lifted restrictions on civilians moving in from LTTE-controlled regions, Saravanan was among thousands who were housed in schools converted into makeshift transit camps in the northern town of Vavuniya. The 40 days and 40 nights he spent there were as long to the boy in real time as the biblical eternity. On the morning of the forty-first day he was allowed to go on to the capital.

It had taken him more than a year, but the teenager wasn’t complaining. “I am fortunate,” he said, “because my father is a doctor and has been living in Colombo for a long time. Many others who want to flee the fighting are still in the camps.”

Neutrality passes

In Jaffna life goes on despite the conflict. People go about their daily lives as best they can. Their children go to school. But after years of isolation from government-controlled Sri Lanka, you might think there would be a generation without qualifications, one with precious few prospects. Not so. ICRC intervention as a neutral intermediary has allowed children in opposition-held territory to sit their exams. Just like their fellow students around the country.

During national exam periods, the ICRC accompanied Ministry of Education officials when they delivered exam papers. As soon as the exams were finished, the scripts were brought into the town of Jaffna and flown under army auspices to Colombo for marking.

University entrance exams were also held in the rebel-controlled peninsula. Last year some 1,500 completed papers were transported out of Jaffna on the ICRC's ship to Trincomalee, where the Ministry of Education collected them. Neutrality can be useful in a country at war.

Christophe Martin

Hanging on

Jeyakumar is a case in point. Seated in a school that today is a crowded Vavuniya camp, he tries to comfort his crying eight-month-old daughter. Tired and anxious after spending the last six years fleeing the fighting, Jeyakumar is left with one simple aim: for his wife Irene and daughter Juddeke Elka to be reunited with his mother and sister who are nearby in another camp.

A month ago, carrying only a bundle of clothes, the 33-year-old Tamil businessman and his family had crossed a thin strip of no-man’s-land into government territory, amid a stream of humanity. “I thought my troubles were over,” he said. Now his future remains uncertain, as he and his family hang on in the camps, waiting for the authorities to give them permission for onward travel.

 
 

Where next?

Up on the Jaffna peninsula, people look on sadly. They remember their appalling conditions during the government offensive. Scores of thousands of people trudged through the monsoon rains to reach dismal makeshift camps on the north-east of the peninsula. Thousands more braved gun battles to make the dangerous boat-crossing over the prohibited Jaffna lagoon to the mainland, where they found shelter in schools, temples and churches. Life was so dreadful that as soon as the government claimed Jaffna and the fighting abated, hundreds of thousands of Tamils streamed back to their homes.

Now, as they begin to pick up the threads of their lives once more, they see the cruelty of war not eradicated but, ironically, displaced internally as they once were themselves. In the meantime, the conflict drags on, affecting families further down the country.

Dexter Cruez
Dexter Cruez is a freelance Sri Lankan photojournalist.


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