A visit to Batticaloa reveals that ordinary citizens are caught in the crossfire between the LTTE and the military.B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Batticaloa
MARCH 25. It was 9 p.m. No sight of a single unarmed soul on the main streets of the sleepy town of Batticaloa. It was an undeclared curfew. We, three Colombo-based journalists who had arrived in the town for a feel of the ground situation, ate our dinner at the only star hotel there, which was filled with national and international aid workers, and set out in a van to the nearby lodge to catch some sleep after a tiring day.
The driver, a Colomboite, took a wrong turn and began going in circles. He halted for a minute in the hope of seeking the right direction from anyone in sight. Within seconds men in camouflaged uniform emerged out of the blue, armed with menacing weapons, and circled the van. It was a team effort of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and cadre of `Col.' Karuna, the once powerful Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) commander of the east who broke ranks with Tiger chief V. Prabakaran in early 2004.
Searching questions followed a hard look at our government-accredited identity cards and a penetrating search inside the vehicle. A little fumble here and any forgetfulness there vis-a-vis documentation would have meant an invitation to the trigger. It was a tense 10 minutes before we regained our composure and zipped off in the dark.
They cannot be faulted. After all, they were in the heart of the battle zone of the east. The invisible enemy could be lurking anywhere and could manifest in any form.
Since the launch of `fight to finish' (operation to oust the Tigers from the east) by the Sri Lanka military in the aftermath of the fall of Vaharai on January 21, the once-prosperous and picturesque district of Batticaloa has been reduced to a theatre of war. The 24/7 shelling, bullet-ridden dwellings and terror-stricken faces are reminiscent of Afghanistan of the 1980s. The chaos in the lives of ordinary people could be gauged from a single statistic - almost 40 per cent of the population in the district has fled their homes, leaving behind everything.
The plight of the people worsens with each passing day as a desperate LTTE and a determined military fight an unrestrained war. The only visible method in the madness is the unbelievable camaraderie between the military and Karuna's boys and the cockiness of the latter. Deployed along with the military at all important points in the district, Karuna's boys move around as if they are the masters of all that they survey.
The bond between the military and the Karuna group is not just confined to cooperation on the ground in the hunt for LTTE cadre. The once-senior military commander of the Tigers has virtually been given the status of the "sole representative of the east". In a candid interaction with foreign correspondents, a senior Defence Ministry official spoke with admiration and affection for Karuna and the "causes" he championed. The official said, "Recently we received through courier from Karuna a videotape of a conference of top LTTE leaders, presided over by Prabakaran at his hideout in the jungles of Wanni, weeks after the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Ceasefire Agreement. In that, he is telling the leaders to treat the CFA as an occasion for brief rest and to prepare for the next round of military confrontation. This is precisely the contention of the Rajapaksa government. We will soon go public with the tape."
Earlier in the afternoon, our first stop in the town after getting past innumerable checkpoints erected right in the middle of the highway that connects Batticaloa to the Sinhalese-majority district of Polannaruwa was the `political office' of the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Puligal, or TMVP, of Karuna. In the middle of our trip to the office, we received a text message from the public relations office of Karuna. It said: "Welcome to Batticaloa. Our leader and party has great respect for The Hindu group of publications. For any assistance, contact us."
Outside the massive iron gate of the office, a young man sporting a `rifle' taller than he was greeted us. The Karuna faction claims that it does not employ underaged soldiers as the LTTE does. After the customary checks, we were ushered into a gaudily decorated but impressive conference hall where we meet two local leaders. More questions are made on our identities, the newspapers we represent, and their ideologies.
A request for a possible face-to-face interaction with the leader sparked off a debate between the two on the pros and cons of granting an `interview' to English dailies from India as opposed to the Tamil ones which are read by the Tamil masses. One of them ranted about a particular pro-LTTE daily in Tamil Nadu and talked of the need to neutralise its impact. It took a bit of persuasion before they agreed to convey our desire for an interaction with the leader. "We would get back to you before 10 a.m. tomorrow," was their parting shot. Thanks to the tumultuous events later in the night in the wake of the LTTE air raid, we could not wait for the promised tryst and had to rush back to Colombo.
Much to our horror, we discovered that it was easy to get into the strife zone than to get out. After the Tigers targeted a convoy of helicopters carrying top diplomats from Colombo, right near the Air Force base in Batticaloa on February 27, the government had banned all mobile communication in the district. The only means of contact to the outside world was the Sri Lanka Telecom Authority-managed land phones, and they were expensive.
Besides, all vehicular traffic in the district was suspended after sunset and every vehicle leaving the district had to obtain a `special pass' from the police, even vehicles that had come from outside. The pass was granted after the authorities closely scrutinise the details (such as the port of disembarkation, the address and names of the passengers travelling in it) provided in a special application form. The Sinhalese officers manning the post outside the main police station went out of their way to put us back on the road to Colombo.
Inside, the town was full of camps overflowing with refugees, people caught in the crossfire. The oldest camps consisted of people from Sampur in Trincomalee district, which fell to the security forces in September last year. They were well organised. However, the same cannot be said of the mushrooming new camps. Some of them were no more than tarpaulin sheets tied to bamboo sticks.
For some of the refugees from Sampur, it was the fourth or fifth displacement in a span of six months. Worse, a section of them cannot return to their original homes as the government has classified parts of Sampur as High Security Zone (HSZ) on two counts. It does not want a repeat of the situation where the Tigers could infiltrate the place and pose a challenge to the Trincomalee harbour and other vital government installations.
In addition, it appears that the government has received numerous applications from the Sinhalese community asking it not to rehabilitate the displaced from Sampur as they are "illegal occupants", that is, they "occupied" the place after the Tigers drove the Sinhalese away in the 1980s.
Fear and uncertainty were writ large on the faces of some refugees who ventured to voice their angst. Vasanthi Nirmalan (34), a government school teacher from Mutur in the proximity of Sampur, said she and her family would never return to Mutur until normalcy was restored. "We have suffered enough. We can't suffer anymore. The government must give us an assurance that we can settle down peacefully in our own land. Till then we will not return," she told Frontline.
How is it that the situation in Batticaloa has become so pathetic? President Rajapaksa had claimed after the Vaharai conquest that 95 per cent of the east had been liberated from the Tigers?
Informed sources in the town said that it was directly related to the change in weaponry and tactics used in the conflict. There is now an overwhelming reliance on long-distance fighting with artillery, `arty' mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL) and jet-fighter bombers. A prominent citizen said on condition of anonymity: "We wonder at the logic of the incessant firing. Our requests to shift the firing base from the heart of the city have been turned down by the military. Batticaloa has never witnessed anything like this in the two and a half decades of the conflict".
Adding to the woes of the displaced are allegations and rumours of abductions of children by the LTTE and the Karuna group. On March 9, three boys were allegedly abducted by the `Karuna' group from the Kirimuthu camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Batticaloa.
In the camps, the refugees are given two kilograms each of flour and rice, half a kilo of dhal and one kg of sugar every 15 days. The refugees say that this is insufficient and allege that the government is preventing some of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including international ones, from supplying food to them.
There are other controversies as well. According to Kandiah, a refugee from Mutur, the Army took nearly 1,500 people from the camp to the north, promising to resettle them. "But, we know that these people have still not reached their homes. We also know that the Army took them by force and left them in unknown places. This worries us," he says.
Unable to bear the suffering, some refugees have opted to flee to India. The journey is facilitated by an organised group of human traffickers for a large financial consideration. Thavamanidevi (44), a mother of three, has lost contact with her eldest son, who fled with his family to India last October.
"We still do not know how they are faring. When we told him not to go, he told us he would either be killed by the armed forces or be abducted by the paramilitary if he stayed here," she said.
Pakkiawathy (40) worries about her sister who fled to India last year with her four children; she has not heard from her since.
A happy fallout is that a section of the Muslim community is helping out the Tamil refugees. There is a sudden surge of compassion and understanding between these two communities. The campaign to help the Tamil refugees is spearheaded by K.M.M. Kaleel, a leading trader from Kathankudi.
The Sri Lankan Minister for Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services concedes that there were a few cases of forced resettlement. "Now it has stopped. It took place when the influx of refugees could not be handled. We will not allow this to happen again".