Nowhere to Run
By Dexter Creuz
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.
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,”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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 is a freelance Sri Lankan photojournalist.
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