Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Tuesday, 24 October 2006 12:45 UK

Civilians' plight in Sri Lanka

Thousands of civilians in rebel-held eastern Sri Lanka have fled their homes in recent months due to intense fighting between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

They are hoping that peace talks in Geneva will yield results.

One man who did not want to be identified, described his experience to the BBC's Ethirajan Anbarasan. His story begins in mid-April.

It was the Tamil month of Chithirai and time for festival in the local temple in Sampur village in the eastern Trincomalee district.

Destroyed houses in Sampur
Most houses in Sampur were razed to the ground

This strategic area was under the control of Tamil Tiger rebels. The Trincomalee harbour and the naval base were very much within the firing range of rebel artillery.

Despite intermittent clashes, thousands of people continued with their life as they had no other option.

On 25 April, we had just finished our afternoon festivities and prayers in the temple and were looking forward to the grand procession of the local deity in the evening.

On the same day, there were reports of a suicide attack on the Sri Lankan army chief Gen Sarath Fonseka in Colombo.

There was some unease listening to the news but we tried to focus on the festivity.

Soon, the familiar dreadful sound could be heard in the distance.

Sri Lankan air force jets thundered over and a ferocious aerial attack ensued.

Soon, intense artillery fire came from the army camps in the area.

It was not only Sampur. Other surrounding villages also bore the brunt.

'No end'

The onslaught was relentless. I have never seen this in the last three decades of ethnic conflict.

Houses, temples and school buildings fell like a pack of cards. The bombings continued late into the evening.

We took shelter in a nearby wooded area and did not have the guts to return to witness the damage.

Some civilians were killed in the attack. My house was razed to the ground.

With no end to the bombing, finally, all of us decided to go to the next village called Pattalipuram, 7km south of Sampur.

Sri Lankan troops fire rockets in Jaffna
Fighting between troops and rebels has displaced thousands

With children, women, cattle and with some belongings, we started walking towards Pattalipuram hoping that we would not be killed in the attack.

People from nearby villages also joined with us.

We stayed in school buildings and other unoccupied areas. The small village could not accommodate everyone.

So, many of us had to stay in the open. There were no toilets or bathing facilities.

Children were crying from the sweltering heat and mosquito bites. Some were suffering from viral fever and diarrhoea.

Food was running out, as the small village did not expect such a huge influx of people.

To our relief, some aid agencies were allowed to bring in some essentials. But it did not last long.

'Deliberately herded'

Within two weeks, government forces started bombing Pattalipuram as well. People had to move on.

All of us, along with the locals, walked for another 4km to the village of Nallur. By now, more than 15,000 people were on foot.

To our dismay, the army started firing at us from nearby camps. The rebels retaliated and as a result we were caught in the crossfire.

So, our next stop was the Ilankaithurai region further south. Now, nearly 20,000 people were displaced.

People were getting used to air attacks and artillery shells. But we could see a pattern in those attacks.

By now it was clear to us that we were being deliberately herded to a particular point by the security forces.

More than 15,000 students were also on the run... I am afraid some of them may be forcefully recruited by the rebels, who are desperately short of manpower

Our long march ended in Vakarai, a coastal region closer to the eastern town of Batticaloa.

Almost the entire civilian population - nearly 45,000 people - living in the rebel-held eastern Sri Lanka had now converged in Vakarai.

But the long walk also took its toll. We do not know how many were killed en route to Vakarai.

In Vakarai, people were living under trees, cardboard sheets and makeshift tents.

'Beg, cajole, cry'

As the bombings intensified many started moving towards government held territory.

By now, we heard that Sampur had fallen to the government forces and the entire area had been flattened due to heavy fighting.

The Tamil Tigers pulled back from Sampur and they were now in Vakarai area along with the displaced civilians.

The Tigers were placing restrictions on who was allowed to go to the government-controlled area.

They feared that once civilians left Vakarai, the military could attack the region without any restrictions.

Many Tamil civilians had to beg, cajole and cry to get permission from the rebels.

Refugees in Vakarai
Thousands walked from village to village seeking safety

At last, aid started trickling in and the situation got somewhat better.

I was among the lucky ones to cross over to the government-controlled town of Batticaloa.

At least, I have a shade above my head, I get some food and more importantly, I feel safe. But I am worried about my relatives who are still caught up in Vakarai area.

'Forcible recruitment'

Fighting erupted once again at the beginning of October. Both sides exchanged artillery and mortar fire and intense fighting went on in the rebel-held Panichchankerni area.

People were not feeling safe anymore. Thousands started walking towards government-held areas.

But there were still many more caught in the Vakarai region. I am afraid many more civilians will die due to the poor sanitary conditions in the camps.

With the monsoons upon us, water-born diseases are sure to break-out in the overcrowded camps.

More than 15,000 students were also on the run with their parents and their relatives.

I am afraid some of those students may be forcefully recruited by the rebels, who are desperately short of manpower.

But the government is also not helping us. We are not sure whether we will ever be allowed to return to our homes in Sampur.

Vakarai is a catastrophe waiting to happen. We hope the world will turn their attention towards us.

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