Passage to Mandapam

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST


THE story of Vasanthan is perhaps the story of almost every one of the 8,000-odd refugees from Sri Lanka who are now lodged in the transit camp at Mandapam, about 150 km from Madurai.

Vasanthan, 50, reached the camp early this year along with his wife, son and daughter. He had paid Sri Lankan Rs.50,000 to boatmen to be ferried across to the Indian shore from Talaimannar. For him and his family, it was a great escape from 10 years and more of fear of death. In 1991, his family was uprooted from their native village, Poongudi, 30 km from Jaffna, when the area was in the thick of a battle between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lanka Army. From then on the family began a nomadic life. With the periodic intensification of the war, the family moved from place to place in a long southern trek to reach Mannar district two years ago.

Vasanthan, a carpenter, said the family decided to leave Mannar when the militants demanded that his son and daughter join the struggle for Eelam. When the "conscription order", which they had managed to evade for many years, became almost a reality, the y took the hard decision to leave. They mobilised all their resources and paid for their travel across the sea.

The Sri Lankan fishermen who transported his family and other refugees in their motorised FRP (fibre-reinforced plastic) boats, deposited them at Ainthamthittu, one of some 10 patches of loose sand in the sea between Talaimannar and Arichamunai at land's end on the Indian border, about 60 km from Mandapam. From Ainthamthittu, the refugees were taken to Arichamunai by Indian fishermen in boats. At Arichamunai, the refugees underwent security checks for weapons and interrogation meant to find any links th ey may have had with militants. They were then taken to the Mandapam camp, from where they may be shifted to any one of several camps in various districts of Tamil Nadu. This is the arduous route the refugees have to take before reaching the highly prote cted camps.

Vasanthan said that his family was being provided 12 kg of rice per head a month at a heavily subsidised price of 57 paise a kg at the camp. Clothes and vessels were supplied free of cost on their arrival, and the accommodation was free. He takes up odd jobs in the area and now earns Rs.50 a day. (In Sri Lanka, he recalled, he used to earn as a carpenter not less than Sri Lankan Rs.200 a day.)

The refugee-children are provided free education in the two schools (one primary and the other higher secondary) inside the 100-hectare camp. The State government allows deserving refugee children to attend college elsewhere.

THE refugee arrival chart at the Mandapam camp shows that there has been a regular influx from Sri Lanka, irrespective of the conditions of war or peace in the island. The camp was opened in 1984. The complex, which once served as the quarantine camp of the Sri Lankan government when there was regular sea traffic between India and Sri Lanka, was bought by the Indian government to locate a transit camp for Sri Lankan repatriates under the Shastri-Sirimao accord of 1964.

The refugee arrivals, which stood at 26,365 in 1985, crossed the one-lakh mark in 1990 when hostilities between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army peaked. In the last 15 years, 1,62,415 persons belonging to 47,150 families have passed through the camp. Dur ing the same period, 7,312 persons belonging to 1,723 families have returned to Sri Lanka. The names of 5,950 refugees belonging to 2,242 families have been removed from the rolls for having left the camp without permission, according to a document furni shed by the government.

A little over 8,000 refugees are now lodged in this bustling camp, to serve which, interestingly, there are at least half a dozen long distance telephone booths outside the main gate.

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