Fleeing war zone, Lankans end up in death traps

Fleeing war zone, Lankans end up in death traps


Fleeing the bitter end of a quarter-century-long war, the refugees turned to a boat. It was first a shelter from artillery shells, then a frail craft to safety. Finally, it became a coffin.

The boat was adrift on the Indian Ocean for nine days. Jaya Niranjana’s 3-year-old daughter died. M Yesudas lost his father, sister, nephew, brothers, and uncle — six in all. An 8-month-old baby, Kuberan, survived only because his mother somehow managed to breast-feed him until just hours before she died.

By the time these refugees fleeing the war in Lanka reached Indian shores last Wednesday, 10 of the 21 original travellers had died. They had nothing to eat and only saltwater to drink. The scorching sun beat down on their heads. Diarrhea struck. The first child died on April 24, then the others. S Indira Meenan, 25, recalled it in halting English: “One by one. Dead babies, children. No food, no drink.”

This is the story of their boat, and their country’s civil war, seemingly endless even as the Sri Lankan government closes in on the last stronghold of the separatist the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The government has trapped the remaining rebel force in a four-mile strip of territory in the northeast corner of Sri Lanka. Pressing its final assault, the government has rebuffed heavy international pressure to suspend the war for the sake of an estimated 50,000 civilians trapped in rebel territory and a no-fire zone between the forces.

In the dead of night, the boat left the sandy spit of land where fighting raged. Its captain had apparently steered the vessel far out into the sea, in an effort to evade the fighting, and then lost his way.

He had promised his passengers a journey of nine hours to the closest point on the Indian coast. But the boat’s outboard motor gave out after a few hours. By Day 9, the captain jumped into the sea — whether from guilt or delirium, no one will ever know.
The testimony of these refugees in an Indian government hospital is a rare glimpse into Sri Lanka’s war zone; the government bars journalists and most aid workers from anywhere near there. It is also a measure of the desperation of its survivors, the latest among an estimated 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who have taken refuge in India over the past 20 years.

These refugees said they did not want to be quarantined in a Sri Lankan-government-controlled camp. Instead, they took the risky journey across the water. They considered themselves lucky. Unlike many others, they had a boat, a motor and kerosene for fuel.
For two months, their boat, a fibreglass vessel no more than 20 feet long, first served as a bunker on the last bit of coast in Mullaittivu district on the northeastern corner of the island. The boat belonged to Yesudas. He and his relatives had dug it into the ground, covered it with palm tree trunks for a roof, and hid inside when artillery shells rained down.

The area, a village called Mathalan, had been designated by the Sri Lankan government as a “no-fire zone.” But the refugees said that it was shelled every day, sometimes so much that they had to relieve themselves in buckets rather than venture outside the boat-bunker.

On one side of the sandy spit was the sea. On the other stood the front line of the LTTE, exchanging artillery fire with the Lankan Army across a narrow lagoon. Those shells landed in the no-fire zone. For nearly two months, according to UN estimates, more than 150,000 civilians  were trapped inside. About 50,000 remain there now, the UN estimates. 

On April 20, the refugees said, they witnessed the most intense fighting. The army that day broke through a mud embankment that shielded a portion of the last rebel-held spit of coast, allowing tens of thousands of civilians to flee into government-held territory. The LTTE said later that 1,000 civilians had been killed as the military advanced. The refugees here recalled that both sides shelled indiscriminately that day, and that those among them who hid in their bunkers had no time to count the dead.

About 1 am, after the shelling had stopped, they dug out the boat from under the sand and quietly took it out into the sea. Had the Tamil Tigers detected them trying to escape, Yesudas said flatly, they would have shot at the boat.

Plight of refugees

Sivadasa Jagadeeswaran, the father of Kuberan, the baby, said that for nearly 10 months, his family had been on the run, too, living mostly in makeshift tents of bedsheets and palm fronds. There were not enough tents to go around, and not enough food. A month before he fled, his father was killed, he thinks by shelling, in the main market in the no-fire zone.

Early on April 21, he stepped into the boat with his wife and their two sons. Their eldest, age 4, was among the first to die. They threw the child into the sea. Then, his wife’s father died. Her two brothers jumped overboard, lured by the twinkling lights of what may have been a fishing trawler. His wife held on until the last day. She complained of thirst, but vomited when he gave her seawater. Soon, she was gone.

This afternoon, a single father to an only child, he cooed softly to the baby on the hospital bed. He gave him a bottle of milk. The baby giggled, oblivious to the misery around him.

Indira Kumar and his wife, Jaya, watched him from the next bed. He said he decided to leave that night to save his daughter, Prasambavi. She, too, held out until the last day on the boat. The night before, she had begged for a cold drink.

Their boat was first noticed by an Indian fisherman, K Srinivas Rao, who had gone shark hunting that day, roughly 90 miles from shore. In the distance, he saw two men waving their arms frantically. One of them was holding up a baby. When he got closer, he saw that most of the passengers were so weak they could hardly move. He drew the boat to the shore. The strangers could barely explain their circumstances. They spoke only Tamil.
Yesudas said he had no interest in going home. He had saved his family for so long, and lost so many. He had no hope that things would get any better anytime soon in Sri Lanka, not even after the war is declared over.

“The LTTE is not going to stop. The army is not going to stop,” he said, referring to the rebel group. “It is an eternal war.”

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