Saturday, February 14, 2009

Washington Post: In Sri Lanka, Tales Of Jungle Terror

By Emily Wax, Washington Post Foreign Service

Trying to quiet her crying infant son, the young mother grabbed her 11-year-old's hand and told him to follow her. Starting out at dusk, they spent hours hiding in the jungle terrain, crouching amid the crossfire between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Like thousands of other civilians stuck in the epicenter of the seemingly final battles of this civil war, Sashi Kumari Selvarajha's family was struggling to flee through marshlands and across the front lines, hoping for safety, she said through tears. But just as they crossed the line, she said, rebel forces open fire.

"We started running on Monday night. But we didn't think it was safe. So we stopped to sleep in the jungle. As the sun rose, we fled. But my husband and mother-in-law got killed," said a distraught Selvarajha, 31, as she unloaded her bags at a crowded camp for the war-displaced in government-held Vavuniya District, where 2,000 haggard and dehydrated civilians arrived Wednesday. "I'm never going back to that place."

Hers is a rare firsthand account of the harrowing flight of thousands of civilians to this heavily fortified frontier town. It came as the Sri Lankan army said it would end a largely ineffective "safe zone," which health officials and diplomats said had been shelled by both sides. Instead, troops would set up a new safe zone on a 7.5-mile-long strip of land on the northeastern coast where civilians were already seeking refuge, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, said Thursday.

Most civilians who flee the fighting are put into military-run camps that officially do not allow outsiders. Stone-faced and red-eyed relatives line up behind sandbags, coils of barbed wire and machine-gun nests as soldiers check their identity papers before they can find missing loved ones.

A brother and sister stood weeping inside the camp and told how their 41-year-old father was shot dead when they attempted to cross into government-held areas. Their mother and sister are fighting for their lives in Vavuniya's hospital.

"We lost our father. We lost everything," said Rasendran Nitha, 17, who huddled with her brother, Rasendran Radanraj, 20. "We don't know what to do. We desperately need peace in Sri Lanka."

As the army continues its offensive to end the 25-year-long rebel war, the Sri Lankan government has come under increasing international pressure to halt its offensive and allow an estimated 250,000 civilians trapped in the northern Wanni region safe passage.

The government has refused and also says the number of trapped civilians is lower. It argues that the Tigers, known for their frequent use of suicide bombers, are using civilians as human shields, a claim that rebels deny but that diplomats and human rights workers here agree is taking place.

Letting up on the fighting would allow the rebels to escape along with the displaced, President Mahinda Rajapakse's government has said. The United States has labeled the Tigers a terrorist group. The government says tens of thousands of civilians have fled the ever-shrinking coastal strip controlled by the Tigers, now estimated at less than 61 square miles.

Here in Vavuniya, many traumatized civilians said the past few weeks of fighting have left them confused about where to find safety. John Manni, 38, spent a harrowing Monday trying to decide on which side to stay in Vallipunam, a forested area between the army and rebel lines. He believed the government side would be safest, but as his family crossed over the front lines, his 12-year-old niece, two uncles and an aunt were killed. He isn't sure who did the firing.

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