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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 22:44 GMT
In the Tamil Tiger heartland
Tamil refugees
Civil war has made thousands of people refugees
By the BBC's Anna Horsburgh Porter in Vanni

The Tamil Tiger stronghold in northern Sri Lanka known as the Vanni is a region cut off from the rest of the country.

Access to it for civilians, particularly journalists, is largely denied.

But to mark the Sri Lankan government's easing of economic sanctions in the Vanni, the Tamil Tiger leadership allowed a group of journalists in to see for themselves what life there is like.

There is no public transport... there are no shops apart from roadside shacks, and no electricity

When our car crossed the front line into the Vanni, we left behind the last government controlled checkpoint, patrolled by heavily armed, uniformed soldiers.

On the other side we were met by their enemy, Tamil Tigers, conspicuously dressed in casual clothes and unarmed.

In the two days I spent in the Vanni, I saw no guns, nor any indications of military activity there.

Only subtle signs betrayed who was a soldier.

Young guerrillas

Some of the girls bicycling past wore their hair in a distinctive plait crossed at the back of their head, and a tight belt around their waists, which showed they were Tamil Tigers.

And two young boys who said they were 18, but looked much younger, pulled out glass cyanide capsules hanging around their necks, which all Tamil Tigers wear so that they can commit suicide if captured.

The overriding impression being inside the Vanni is one of isolation, of being somewhere so remote that it is entirely cut off from the rest of the country.

There are hopes of a ceasefire

The roads are no more than dirt tracks full of craters, which make any journey torturous.

We took seven hours to cover 80kms.

Every few miles there are signs on trees warning of land mines in the fields and jungle.

There is no public transport, very few cars, and everyone travels by bicycle.

There are no shops apart from roadside shacks, and no electricity, so that when darkness falls, only a few dim kerosene lamps provide any light.

The people I talked to say they lack even basic amenities like running water and toilets, and are living at subsistence level.

Still, they were all hopeful that this latest peace initiative would be successful and end this war that has lasted 20 years and cost over 65,000 lives.

See also:

16 Jan 02 | South Asia
Tamil Tigers want ban lifted
15 Jan 02 | South Asia
Sri Lanka eases rebel embargo
11 Jan 02 | South Asia
Optimism over Sri Lanka peace
10 Jan 02 | South Asia
Norway opens Sri Lanka peace talks
10 Jan 02 | South Asia
Norway peace team in Sri Lanka
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