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 Post Posted: Tue Nov 21, 2006 1:17 am 
Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka's civil war are finding refuge in India

Monday, November 20, 2006
@ the Star-Ledger

MANDAPAM REFUGEE CAMP, India -- It was 2:30 in the morning and 20 Sri Lankan refugees were standing knee-deep in sea water a few miles off the coast of India.

The group -- children and all -- had been ditched on the shallow sandbar by a smuggler who promised someone would be by shortly to pick them up.

Exhausted, hungry and dehydrated, they waited another 16 hours before a fishing boat spotted the group of relatives.

"It was the worst experience of my life," said Thangaraja, a 46-year-old tractor driver, who like many Sri Lankans uses only one name, describing the journey earlier this month. "If I had to do it all over again, I would take my chances in Sri Lanka."

This is a decision now facing countless ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Less than two years after a tsunami shredded their south Asian island nation, hundreds of thousands have fled a re-energized civil war that pits Tamil rebels against the Sri Lankan government. Since January alone, more than 16,000 refugees have fled here to southeast India and the state of Tamil Nadu, appropriately translated as "Land of the Tamils." Here, they fan out in refugee camps across India's sixth-largest state and receive basic support from the Indian government.

"It is an expensive and difficult journey to the Tamil Nadu coast," said Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization following the civil war and diaspora. "These are people who are so terrified that they believe survival is impossible back home."

The cost of being smuggled to India is anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees, or the equivalent of $55 to $140. The trip often requires families to sell jewelry or property.

Manoharan, 49, has made the journey three times now, most recently in September. As a union activist for Tamil fishing cooperatives in eastern Sri Lanka, he said he was shot seven times in an attempted assassination earlier in September. He said he still has dull pain around the pink 20-inch vertical scar below his left arm where a bullet lodged.

"They want to wipe out us Tamils," he said during an interview this month in one of the refugee camps. "There is no solution through military means, nor through dialogue. UN peacekeepers must come to Sri Lanka."

Such peacekeepers are nowhere in sight, and newly arrived refugees said they see little end to hostilities.

The civil war began in 1983 with demands by ethnic Tamils. This group accounts for about 18 percent of Sri Lanka's population, and the rebels want to form an independent state in the northeast of the country. In addition to hundreds of thousands of people who have fled, more than 60,000 have been killed.


The official conduit for Tamil refugees in India is the Mandapam transit camp, a fenced-off series of dilapidated one-story cement apartment blocks with communal water faucets. The camp is about 12 miles from the flat Arichalmunai beachfront, the point of India that is closest to Sri Lanka and is often the first port of call for refugees brought in by smugglers.

Mandapam originally was established and controlled by the British. Until 1964, it was used as a transit site for thousands of poor Indians being sent to sprawling tea estates in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the commonwealth.

Today they come in the other direction, and there are some 5,000 residents, most of whom stay for months, waiting to relocate throughout Tamil Nadu. Although conditions are substandard, Sri Lankans "do not complain ... because just next to us there are Indian citizens who don't get even what we get," said S. C. Chandrahassan, an officer with an organization that helps run the 130 refugee camps throughout Tamil Nadu.

The Indian government provides the refugees with about $9 a month for each head of household and a little less for every other member. It also supplies cooking materials and subsidized rice.

Refugees carry ID cards and many hope to join the informal economy, taking jobs in rural areas poor Indians don't want as this country's economy surges. Although their means of entry is essentially illegal, India has accepted the refugees' plight and welcomed them into the camps. This is due at least in part to the close ties between the Tamil groups on either side of the water.

"This protection available once in India is essential," said Carol Batchelor, chief of mission at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in New Delhi.


Vikram Raja, 36, a mason who arrived in early September with his wife and three young children, said he sits by the highway daily looking to be picked up for work. He has worked only two days in two months, but he said he doesn't regret the move.

"My life was in danger there," Raja said. "The army will arrest anyone without any grounds."

He said his home was destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and, with few possessions, he sold his wife's jewelry to pay for the journey.

In another corner of the camp, Subramaniam Karisuthan, 18, explained that he arrived the week before with his 17-year-old sister. They were, he said, sent by his parents.

Wearing baggy jeans, a thin gold chain and a U2 T-shirt, he bides his time until his parents save up enough to make the journey themselves.

"We were afraid to leave the house," he said. Twice he had seen tortured, headless bodies dumped along the side of the road near his home. He didn't want to become another anonymous victim.

"The army targets the youth," he said. "They suspect that we support the (rebels)."

He said he had heard stories of the rebels grabbing young Tamils off the street or snatching them from school.

So, Karisuthan explained, "I'll stay here until the war is over."

Daniel Pepper is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi, India. He may be reached at daniel_pepper@hotmail.com.

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