Sri Lankans displaced by war face bleak future

Sheltering from the burning sun under a ragged awning in one of dozens of cramped refugee camps in Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged east, 18-year-old Sharmila Rahim dreams of being a teacher and should be studying.

But her village was wrecked, her house damaged and her school books burnt as the military and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels began a new chapter of a two-decade civil war earlier this month.

She and her family are now among tens of thousands of people facing an uncertain future with no possessions, no money and living on food handouts.

“I am a village girl. I was studying general knowledge, Islam, Tamil and general English for my exams in 2007,” the teenager said in her native Tamil, standing in one of the few dresses she was able to salvage before fleeing on foot.

“Everything is destroyed by this life as an internally displaced person,” she added. “I wanted to be a teacher, but it is God’s will.
The Army and LTTE do the fighting and in between we are the ones who suffer”.

Her mother Nafeena is too scared to resettle in their village, despite a lull in fighting in the east. She says Tamil Tiger fighters shot her neighbour dead in front of her.

So instead they remain with more than 1 800 others crammed into 108 modest tents, each shared by up to seven families.

But many camps are situated on low-lying ground or slopes, and the imminent arrival of monsoon rains has prompted several hundred people to gradually try to resettle in their villages.

Already forced to spend most of the past year-and-a-half in a tent after his house was battered by the December 2004 tsunami, 58-year-old fisherman MCK Mohamed would rather take his chances back in his native town of Mutur.

‘We can’t live here’

“We are going back now,” Mohamed said, clutching the hand of his grandson and standing beside a pile of plastic bags containing clothes and odds and ends, waiting for a bus. “I don’t know whether the house I was rebuilding is still standing.”

“We are afraid, but next month is Ramadan and I want to be back there for that. Besides when it starts raining, we can’t live here,” he added, his sarong dragging in the dirt and a fake Rolex on his wrist.

“All this is the Tigers’ fault. I want to be rid of them.”

Behind him, weary camp residents peek out from beneath tarpaulins watching a pot of water boil on an open fire as aid workers prepare a meal of rice and curry.

Children play in litter-strewn corners and messages blare over a loudspeaker.

Aid staff have avoided epidemics so far, but they and government officials alike worry that the heavy rains will cause havoc amid mounting pressure from Kantale’s original mostly majority-Sinhalese community to empty schools of displaced people so that their children can resume lessons.

“We have two major problems. One is heavy rain will make these tents unusable,” said Ahmed Zairak, project coordinator for local Muslim aid group Community Trust Fund, gesturing to some peppered with tears and gaping holes.

“The other is we don’t have enough tents in the first place.”

Local Muslim leaders are discouraging people from returning to conflict-hit areas until they have security guarantees from the government and from the Tigers, who each blame the other for continued sporadic fighting and show no signs of backing down.

The United Nations estimates that more than 180 000 people have been displaced in the north and east in the past month, on top of around 315 000 long-term displaced left homeless by shelling in previous years.

There are also tens of thousands of others who are still displaced after the tsunami.

The fighting is badly hindering aid distribution, particularly to thousands of people still behind rebel lines.

“Over the past four weeks we have consistently had our requests for provision to transport food and other things across the line of conflict [to LTTE areas] denied, in particular by the Ministry of Defence,” said Paul Risley of the World Food Programme.

“There are many thousands of displaced persons who are living on the other side of this conflict, and we are having great trouble reaching those,” Risley said. “There have also been great troubles posed to us by the LTTE. Neither side is without fault.” - Reuters

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