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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 September 2006, 04:22 GMT 05:22 UK
Tamils brave risks for better life

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Mandapam transit camp, Tamil Nadu

The refugees are grateful for the sanctuary provided by India

Priyardarshini is holding her eight-month-old baby, Yadushika. They have just arrived on the southern shores of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the journey from Sri Lanka nearly cost them their lives.

"The boat capsized and we thought we were all going to die," she tells me. "Luckily we'd wrapped the baby in polythene, so she floated."

Finding herself once more in Sri Lanka, Priyardarshini had faced a terrible choice. Return to her home surrounded by war and violence, or risk making the crossing again.

"I was very scared and refused to make the journey. But in the end we were forced to. Every day our house was being shelled, the shops were being burnt. We couldn't live there."

Common language

When the ceasefire was signed in Sri Lanka four years ago, some of those displaced by two decades of fighting began to return home.

But the recent upsurge in violence has again forced large numbers of Tamils from the north of the island to look across the narrow Palk Strait to India.

Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation founder member SC Chandrahasan
The refugees may not say it openly but... they don't want their children to be recruited by the Tigers or taken away by the army
Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation founder member SC Chandrahasan

Packed into tiny fishing boats they risk the crossing to Tamil Nadu where they find relative safety, and a common language and religion. So far this year more than 13,000 have made the journey. It's thought at least 10 people have drowned.

There are more than 100 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, providing shelter, food and a subsistence living allowance as well as education for the children. The conditions are basic, but in a poor country they are often better than those endured by many of the locals living close by.

Lucky ones

The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) is a charity that has been providing support for Sri Lankan refugees in India since the early 1980s.

Founder member SC Chandrahasan says the refugees are grateful for the sanctuary that India provides. He says not only are they fleeing the shells of the Sri Lankan army but also the recruiting tactics of the Tamil Tigers, still believed to be using child soldiers.

Priyardarshini with her eight month old baby, Yadushika.
Every day our house was being shelled, the shops were being burnt. We couldn't live there
Priyardarshini, Sri Lankan refugee

"A lot of the refugees are taking their children to safety," he says. "They may not say it openly but confidentially they will say that they don't want their children to be recruited by the Tigers or taken away by the army."

The United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 people have been internally displaced within Sri Lanka. Many are living in areas that the aid agencies find it very difficult to reach. So in some ways the refugees who make it to the white sandy beaches of southern India are the lucky ones.

In the Mandapam transit camp near the town of Rameshwaram a group of more than 100 new arrivals sit in the shade waiting to be registered by the camp officials. They're surrounded by what's left of their lives, a few suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with what little they could carry.

Priyardarshini and her family have lost everything. Her husband, Vinayaka-Murthy, was a successful tailor in Trincomalee. As well as leaving the home and business, they lost all their belongings when the boat capsized. All they have is their tiny daughter. But they're not looking back.

"Anyone who says there is no war in Sri Lanka should speak to us," Vinayaka-Murthy tells me.

"There is a war, we were living in the middle of it. I'm never going back. We will find our future in India."


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