Page last updated at 23:57 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 00:57 UK

Life as a Sri Lankan war refugee

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Trincomalee


Refugee Tirumagal: "We moved from place to place"

Tirumagal is sweeping the yard. The yard of an ordinary house in the palm trees.

She, her husband and their three-year-old daughter are back home in Trincomalee from their war-time suffering and from Menik Farm.

The largest and most controversial of Sri Lanka's refugee camps, Menik Farm holds about a quarter of a million Tamils who fled the war zone in the final weeks as the government finally vanquished the Tamil Tigers or LTTE.

No-one is automatically allowed to leave the camp. But Tirumagal's family were among the first few hundred sent home by the authorities in early August to four districts in the east and north.

Like others at Menik, they had earlier been caught in the Tiger-held zone during the war's final spasms - a shrinking sliver of land between a lagoon and the sea.

Life in the zone of hostilities was a nightmare.

Hospital shelled

"One day I was getting ready to get some high-nutrition food for my daughter," she told me.

"Then I changed my mind and didn't go that day. But I saw people queuing up to get it from the clinic, several hundred of them.

"They were shelled. Just in that shelling 75 people were killed and many more injured. I only escaped because I'd changed my mind."

Sri Lankan family in Trincomalee
For many Tamil people, the past few months have been highly traumatic

The UN says that the Tigers forcibly stopped people from leaving and that the army shelled civilian areas.

The dignified young woman says she does not know who did what. She did, however, hear stories of the Tigers shooting people and of a hospital being shelled.

She looks calm throughout our interview but her voice constantly breaks with emotion, betraying her trauma.

"Because of the fighting and shelling we moved into the no-fire zone. But we got shelled there.

"People got killed and injured. We wanted to get back to the place we'd come from. We just moved from place to place, taking nothing but the tent and a few utensils and some rice to cook, if possible.

"We started digging bunkers. But where the sand was too soft we couldn't."

Out on the beach near Trincomalee, Tamil fishermen prepare their nets for the day's outing, the sun's rays fierce even at 7am.

Their colourful boat is heaved into the water.

It is a reassuring everyday scene, not very far down the coast from the former war zone where catastrophe reigned until May this year.


We meet another refugee who also left Menik Farm last month, 61-year-old Sadasivam.

He and his wife were trapped in Tiger-held land while visiting their children there back in 2006. As the war restarted, the rebels would not give the family a pass to leave.

We all lived under their [the Tamil Tiger] regime, you couldn't avoid having some kind of participation in their activities

"Life there was terrible," he recalls. "We had no idea what would happen."

From January onwards, constant shelling forced them to move their shelter five times.

"Wherever we dug bunkers, there was the smell of dead bodies."

In April their injured grandson and his mother were evacuated in a ship by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Then, on 9 May, Sadasivam was wounded.

"A shell landed. There was fire. My son-in-law's auto-rickshaw was parked and it caught fire.

"Then I saw the blood on my thighs. I was injured.

"I managed to come to the place called Mullivaikkal with the help of others. We started digging another L-shaped bunker and we put up a tent and stayed there.

"As we were putting up our tent, I saw dead bodies lying around. I saw the wounded people being loaded into a tractor and taken somewhere to be treated."

Extraordinary exodus

In mid-May the army arrived. It evacuated them in the endgame of the war.

Sri Lankan Tamils in displacement camps look for transport to get back to their villages after being released by the authorities in Vavuniya on Sept 11, 2009
Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in makeshift camps

Tirumagal had left a month earlier when the armed forces breached a Tiger rampart.

The extraordinary exodus of thousands across the lagoon was captured by cameras on unmanned air force planes, the images beamed around the world.

On the ground, outlandish rumours were swirling around, says Tirumagal.

"There was one story that men and women would have to walk naked for one kilometre before they got into the hands of the military. Hearing all this we were scared to cross over.

"But on 20 April we heard an announcement: 'Come to our area.' We weren't sure who was saying it but we decided to leave.

"There had been continuous shelling for two days. I wondered whether we would be able to cross the lagoon and get to the government area alive. We were lucky. Three of us managed to leave and cross the lagoon."

At the house in the coconut grove, Tirumagal's kindly elderly relatives - who themselves were war refugees earlier - give us tea.

Life is getting more normal. She tells the BBC about Menik Farm, the vast complex of camps to which she, Sadasivam and countless other Tamil refugees were taken.

'Things improved'

"When we came to Menik Farm there was no water. Then my daughter had diarrhoea and she and I both had flu for six weeks.

Trincomalee town
Trincomalee was once at the centre of the Tamil Tiger insurgency

"I used to stand in the queue every day but there were thousands of people queuing up for the hospitals. I couldn't get a number for a doctor."

Tirumagal says that for the last two days in the war zone there was nothing to eat. At the camp, the army fed them but food remained in short supply at first.

"But later on we were given cooked food, then vegetables and rations to cook. So things improved."

Sadasivam agrees that is true, but only from a starting point where there were no basic facilities.

There have been uncorroborated accounts of some refugees being "disappeared" or abducted from the camps by shadowy paramilitaries. But he says he has not heard of any such thing happening.

I asked him about the screening process. The government says it has weeded out 10,000 former rebels and is still working on the exercise.

"When we all came to the big camp they made announcements, saying that if anyone had connections with the LTTE we should be separated and queue up separately," the elderly man says.

"They wanted to register those people and gave them numbers. They got separated."

Since July the Red Cross has had no access to these people, or indeed to Menik Farm. It is not clear how many of those detained are alleged fighters or those who, in the government's words, are simply "mentally" connected with them.

Tirumagal says it is a fact that many were entangled with the Tigers - but not necessarily through choice. For instance, her own husband was severely injured years ago in an LTTE bomb.

"So he's disabled. But we also had to pay money to the Tigers saying we couldn't take up arms or be part of their operations because he's disabled.

"When we all lived under their regime, you couldn't avoid having some kind of participation in their activities."

As screening continues, hundreds of thousands remain inside Menik Farm.

Many of those who have left still have close relatives inside and are not sure when they'll get out. They live in hope.

After years and months of indignity and trauma, Sadasivam and the other returned refugees display dignity above anything else.

They have returned to their homes in a still volatile corner of an unstable island.

At least the war is over, and they are no longer fugitives.

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