Pinning their hopes on success of peace process, Tamil refugees return home to Sri Lanka
Sat June 19, 2004 10:20 EDT .
JULIA DRAPKIN - Associated Press Writer - PESALAI, Sri Lanka - (AP) As day breaks in northern Sri Lanka - , a small boat slips onto the beach near the tiny fishing village of Pesalai. Despite political uncertainties, some of the 60,000 Tamil refugees living in camps in neighboring India are returning to their homes in Sri Lanka - , hoping that the peace process between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels will hold.
Their plight and those of millions of other refugees around the world will be highlighted Sunday on World Refugee Day.
More than 6,000 Tamil refugees have voluntarily returned home in the two years since Norway brokered a truce between the government and the rebels, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
UNCHR offers to assist the refugees who want to voluntarily return home by air. But most reject the offer because the process takes several months.
Instead, they hide for days in the bushes along India's southeastern coast waiting for smugglers to take them home by boat, a six-hour journey across the Palk Strait that costs nearly US$60 each two to three years of savings.
Along the way, the Sri Lankan navy sometimes tries to intercept the refugees before they can reach home in the Tamil-dominated north to prevent them from coming under rebel control.
Those that do reach home must register in the office of the Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam, who effectively control the north's administration.
The Tigers have fought the government since 1983 to create a separate state for minority Tamils, accusing majority Sinhalese of discrimination.
About 65,000 people were killed in the conflict before a Norway-brokered cease-fire halted the violence in February 2002.
Peace talks were suspended in April 2003 after the rebels insisted on wide autonomy. The truce has largely held despite the deadlock, making some refugees feel it's safe enough to go home.
In Pesalai, Malla Lingweswamam walked into her house for the first time in 14 years to a tearful welcome from her mother, who had stayed behind in Sri Lanka - .
But 11-year-old Sadarshini Rajaseharam, setting foot in Sri Lanka - for the first time, felt like a stranger.
``India was all right, but now I feel like a refugee,'' she said as her family was detained overnight in a police shed waiting for their bags to be searched and their documentation to be processed.
Published: Sat Jun 19 12:07:01 EDT 2004