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'Tamil or Lankan bullets don't matter'

May 01, 2009 22:18 IST
While we speak to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees at the Gumidipoondi camp outside Chennai, we are accosted by an inspector of the Tamil Nadu police's 'Q' branch. He asks us to leave the camp immediately and shouts at the refugees for speaking to us. We can see the refugees are intimidated by him, they refuse to let their names be included in this report.

There are 117 refugee camps for Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu. Gumudipoondi Tehsildar S R Balasubramaniam informs us 1,028 families comprising 3,916 people live in this camp. Five hundred and fourteen children study in the camp school which is up to Class 8.

All 16 teachers at the camp's school are Lankan Tamils, assigned by the Lankan Tamil NGO, Organisation For Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation. The school is run by the Tamil Nadu education department.

The nearest hospital is 2 kilometres away in Kottakarai. A nurse comes to the camp once a week to treat minor ailments. The refugees live in houses with tin roofs and cement floors. Water comes from bore wells and is supplied for six hours a day. It has 60 toilets.

The young men at the camp wear colourful T shirts with funny messages. One would think they don't have a care in the world. But when you speak to them you realise their bodies are here, but they appear to have left their hearts back home.

Some of them have been here for so long that they can't remember what their homes in Sri Lanka looked like. Some have been born here and know only of the homes that their parents describe.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam held onto a massive area north of Vavuniya for many years. Many of these Tamils lived there, separated from the majority Sinhala community by LTTE cadres. Those cadres are now on the run and the Tamils, who stayed on, are caught between the fleeing LTTE and the advancing Sri Lankan army, inevitable pawns in a nightmarish conflict.

Every refugee has relatives and friends caught in that deadly tangle. "Two of my sisters are there. The last time I spoke to them they said the Sri Lankan army had killed a few Tamils near their house," one refugee says.

This family arrived in India a few months ago. They had been trapped in the tsunami on December 26, 2004. One daughter was washed away. The government had given the family land far away from the coast and also built a small house for them. The family could not live there long as a brother, who had come to India, kept calling them over. Fear finally drove them to cross over to India.

Their Achilles' heel was their 15-year-old son. His parents were afraid that the LTTE would recruit him into its army or a white van without number plates would come for him. The vans are apparently a creation of the Sri Lankan government. The refugees claim that hundreds of Tamil youth -- both boys and girls -- have been picked up by these vans and never heard of again.

One man asks angrily, "What is wrong with the LTTE recruiting young boys? The Sri Lankan army is going to kill them anyway. By joining the LTTE at least they can kill 50 Sinhalas before dying."

Another man carries a copy of Malai Murasu, a popular Tamil evening newspaper. "See this picture of our brethren walking out of the war zone. The man with the suitcase on his head is my brother. I am seeing him after years." The picture was not clear; clearly, hope was making him see his brother in the photograph.

Others watch the news on television. Every Tamil news channel screens footage of the orphans of war walking on tired feet. The footage lasts seconds, but for those moments, refugees in 117 camps in Tamil Nadu looked desperately for loved ones.

A widow sits with her spastic child. "As a child he had epileptic fits. He almost drowned in the tsunami. The hospital staff saved him. He is 13 now, has the physique of an 8-year-old and the mental age of a 4-year-old," she says.

Another woman tells us about an incident in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka, six months ago. "Three young men disappeared. Half the village said the LTTE took them. The other half blamed the white vans. Either way we were scared and came here. We were rich enough to pay the air fare from Colombo. Others were not so lucky."

The refugees get a sustenance amount from the Indian government and add to that by manual work. A carpenter in Sri Lanka works here as a mason. Most of the young men in this camp work in factories in the area which make steel rods for the construction industry.

There are enough factories in Gumidipoondi to provide employment to inmates of this camp. Blue collar work is always available; white collar jobs are rare.

News from across the sea says the Tamils are now confined to one district of Mullaithivu. The LTTE cadres, who had hidden behind them, have melted away into the jungles. The Sri Lankan army has surrounded the Tamils.

"Those are the images you see on TV," says one man. "Our people knew that staying there meant either death from starvation or death from bullets. Tamil bullets or Sinhala bullets don't matter."

The afternoon grows silent as the refugees wait for news of death.

A Ganesh Nadar in Chennai