Strangers in familiar land

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Photos: Senthil Kumaran

AS SAHAYA Malar’s feet touched Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, her heart felt lighter. It didn’t matter that she had left her home behind and that she was now in a foreign land — a refugee. She and her family would soon be herded into a camp, where they would live the life of a refugee, like thousands of others who had come before them, and forced to survive on petty government doles. Yet, there was a sense of freedom. This was Tamil Nadu, where the people spoke her language. There was no way the Sri Lankan army could harm her husband here. Her family had been on the run for days, hiding from the army, moving from town to town, before they finally took a boat to India. “We may be refugees in this country, but our lives are secure here,” she says.

The 37-year-old woman from Vavuniya was among the 26 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who landed in Dhanushkodi, a coastal village on the southern tip of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, on January 20 this year. Malar arrived in India with her husband, and six little daughters. Her story captures the plight of the Tamils, who live in the government-controlled areas of war-torn Sri Lanka, where the insurgent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is fighting for an independent Tamil nation. Malar’s family lived in Poovarasankulam village in the government- held Tamil majority district of Vavuniya in north Sri Lanka. Her husband, Sivalingam, was a farmer.

‘The army had accused me of supplying food for the LTTE. They would have killed me if I had remained in Sri Lanka’
Selva Kumar
Refugee from Vavuniya

Abductions and disappearances of Tamils was common in Vavuniya. The LTTE often sneaked in through the jungles and launched attacks against the army, which would turn its ire on the local Tamils. “We lived in constant fear of the army. Tamil youth would be rounded up and taken to the army camp. They would be let off after questioning, but ‘unidentified persons’ would abduct them later. They would never be seen again,” says Malar.

One morning, the army came for her husband. Sivalingam was on his way to the field, when he was whisked away, by a man claiming to be from the LTTE. People gathered around when they heard Sivalingam screaming. The man asked him if he knew Sinhalese. Sivalingam lied. He said, “No.” As they reached a waiting army vehicle, Sivalingam understood the conversation in Sinhalese between his abductor and those inside the van. His captors decided that since many people had witnessed the abduction, Sivalingam should be let off now and taken at another time.

Days later, Sivalingam and his family were heading for Mannar district. Mannar, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, was the preferred place to hire a boat to flee to India. Under normal conditions, a fishing vessel from Thalaimannar town in Mannar can reach Dhanushkodi in India in less than three hours. It would take few more minutes from other towns like Pesalai and Thalvapadu. Till last year, parts of Mannar were under LTTE control. Now, the whole district is under the control of the Sri Lankan Government.

‘We used to live in constant fear of the army. We may be refugees in this country, but at least our lives are secure here’
Sahaya Malar
Refugee from Vavuniya

According to refugees who recently arrived in India, the Lankan navy has increased its coastal surveillance in these parts. It has become difficult now to hire boats from Mannar to make the dangerous trip to India. The going rate for a ride from Mannar to Dhanuskodi is anywhere between (Sri Lankan) Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000, they say. According to them, there are many more Tamils there, hoping to cross over to India at the opportune moment.

But Mannar fishermen are not too eager to undertake the trip. The reasons are obvious enough. “If the Lankan navy seizes the refugee-laden boat, its owner would be produced in court and sent to jail. His fishing permit will also be cancelled. The refugees would be handed over to the army at some camp in Sri Lanka,” says Johnson, a volunteer at the Mandapam camp office of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR), an NGO run by and for the refugees in Tamil Nadu. OFERR works closely with the estimated 80,000 refugees housed in about 100 camps across the state.

If the Indian navy intercepts the boat, the refugees are sent to a camp in Tamil Nadu. The boat owner would either be arrested for entering Indian waters without valid documents, or sent to a special camp in the state where Tamil militants in custody are kept.

‘The police used to beat me up regularly, asking me to identify LTTE men who attacked the Lankan army in my village’
Boominathan
Refugee from Mannar

So far this year about 130 refugees have arrived in India. The influx of refugees from Sri Lanka first began in the 1980s, when the ethnic conflict flared up on the island nation. There was a significant drop in the number of arrivals during the ceasefire period that began in 2002. But after the conflict escalated in 2006, the inflow of affected people resumed.

THOUGH THE refugees have come to India in different groups, and from different places in Sri Lanka, their stories have a common theme — their nightmarish tryst with the Lankan army. Most seem to have fled their homes, unable to bear the army’s pressure. Nearly all of them landed in Dhanushkodi or one of the tiny islands near Rameswaram, from where they were ferried to Arichalmunai — the narrow strip of land at the southeastern end of Dhanushkodi — by the Indian navy or local fishermen.

At Arichalmunai, on an uninhabited stretch of beach, some of them may have run into Muniyamma, or Thola, who often come there from their homes in Dhanushkodi, about 5km away, to collect shells, which they sell at Rameswaram for a living. “I have seen the refugees landing, the women hugging their infants, and the children crying in fear. It is a heartrending scene,” says Muniyamma.

From Arichalmunai, the refugees normally trek to Dhanushkodi on the sandy terrain, past the ruins of what was once a bustling town. Dhanushkodi turned into a ghost town after it was hit by a cyclone in 1964, when gigantic waves swept over it, flattening everything that stood in its way. The railway tracks, the station, and all those who lived in the town were washed away in the floods.

There are few surviviors: around 300 fishermens’ families who still live in Dhanushkodi, without power and basic amenities. The refugees receive their first food on Indian soil from them. “People here give them food and water. We also give them whatever little money each of us could,” says 16-yearold Vinoth.

From Dhanushkodi, the refugees are taken to the Indian Navy outpost at Moonram Chathiram by van for registration. After a thorough grilling at the Dhanushkodi police station by the state and Central intelligence agencies, they are taken to the Mandapam transit camp, about 20 km from Rameswaram.

‘Army men would come at night wearing masks and abduct young men. The only way I could save my sons was to flee’
Chitra Devi
Refugee from Chettikulam

At Mandapam, the refugees recount horrific tales of the atrocities of the Lankan army. Thirty-four-year-old Boominathan came to India last November with his four-year-old son. He was separated from his wife and living alone with his son in Pannaivettuvan village in Mannar district. In August last year, Lankan soldiers ransacked the grocery shop he owned and set it on fire, following an LTTE attack nearby. “Nearly Rs 2 lakh worth of goods were destroyed in the fire and I never recovered from the loss,” says Boominathan.

He reported the incident to the Lankan police, hoping he would receive justice. Instead, it brought the army to his doorsteps. He was taken to the army camp along with his son. Two weeks later, they released Boominathan on the condition that he would report to the police station every week.

“During my weekly visits, they used to beat me up, asking me to identify the LTTE men who attacked the army,” he says. As the torture continued, Boominathan says he had no option but to flee the country.

FOR SUSIANTHRA Rajan, and his wife Thirukalanidhi, from Chettikulam in Sri Lanka’s Vavuniya district, the signals from the army were too ominous to ignore. Early last year, the couple had sent two sons to India. But the army suspected they had joined the LTTE and continued to harass the family. Their third son, who worked as a carpenter, was frequently taken for questioning. “We took the hard decision to flee to India to protect my son’s life,” says Rajan. They were cultivating on a leased 33-acre land and expecting a few lakhs of rupees worth from the bumper harvest this season. The family though, decided saving their lives was more urgent and took the boat to India on January 19. They left behind all their assets including two ploughing machines, some poultry and a herd of goats. But they have no regrets. “We may have lost many things, but we can sleep peacefully here. Back home, a barking dog or the sound of a passing motorbike would keep us awake the whole night,” says Thirukalanidhi.

Chitra Devi and Chandra Chandrasekaran tell similar tales about the army. The men in both their families were routinely picked up by the army and beaten up. With three sons, aged 18, 21, and 22, Chandra’s family lived on the edge. Having heard several stories of Tamil youth disappearing without a trace, Chandra and her husband felt the only way to save their sons was to flee the country. “Army men would come in the night wearing masks and they would abduct young men. Many youth have disappeared without a trace from our area in the last one year. We left before our sons were next.” says Chandra.

Not all refugees come with all their family members. Take the case of Selvakumar. He came along with his two elder daughters. His wife and two other young children are still in Vavuniya. “I fled for my life. The army had accused me of supplying food to the LTTE. They would have killed me if I remained there.” Broken lives. Broken families. Broken dreams. In a few words, it sums up the lives of the refugees.

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