Terrified residents fleeing Sri Lanka 's battered Jaffna Peninsula
Thu September 21, 2006 10:33 EDT .
ANTHONY DEUTSCH - Associated Press Writer - JAFFNA, Sri Lanka - (AP) Artillery thundered into the night as hundreds of people waited in a darkened security zone for a ferry that would take them away from this island nation's isolated northern front. The Asian Human Rights Commission, in a report this month, said Sri Lanka - was headed for ``a period of terror'' with more than 400 ethnic Tamil youths having been reported missing since December, all from the Jaffna area.
The government, which denies any involvement, last week appointed a retired judge to look into the disappearances.
The only way to leave Jaffna now is by boat but those are rare and some people feel trapped.
On Wednesday morning, Sowmithan and seven friends were among about 800 people to leave on a navy ferry heading for the eastern port of Trincomalee, the third boat in recent weeks. Their families were to remain behind, along with 15,000 others on a waiting list.
Jaffna, which is mostly Tamil, has long been a key target of both sides in Sri Lanka - 's long-running dispute. Considered the cultural heartland of the Tamils, control of the peninsula and Jaffna city changed hands twice during the island's 19-year civil war, before falling to the government dominated by the majority Sinhalese in 1995.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been fighting the government since 1983 for a separate homeland in the north and east, citing decades of discrimination. They have created a de facto state in the land under their control.
The Tigers launched an assault on Jaffna in August, but the army pushed them back.
This week, journalists were allowed into the area for the first time since then, taken by military escort to the battlefield littered with decomposing bodies, burned-out vehicles and unexploded ammunition.
While the fighting is around 10 miles (15 miles) from Jaffna city, life for the estimated 500,000 people of Jaffna peninsula is a struggle.
A curfew bans movement for 12 hours every night, mobile phone service and many regular phone lines have been cut, the price of food has skyrocketed and residents are now forced to cook what they have over open fires.
People line up at government-regulated distribution centers for rice, bread, sugar and flour.
Bunkers and checkpoints have been erected at nearly every corner and at least 40,000 troops are stationed on the peninsula, military officials said.
``It has been terrible,'' said Samorajan, 60, who was escaping the troubles on the ferry with his extended family of 9, including 2 young children.
``There has been little food and the price of what there is very high. We will go to Colombo and stay there. There is no other solution,'' said Samorajan, pausing momentarily for the thud of artillery fire.
The military and Jaffna's political leaders are trying to reopen supply lines, and say the situation has improved in recent weeks because of a lull in fighting.
But it doesn't sound like a lull.
On any given day, the army fires 40-50 rounds of 130mm artillery shells at rebel positions. Casualties are reported daily on each side.
Pradeep Gama, 24, has fought with a Sri Lankan artillery unit for six years. He said he has lost four friends in the past six weeks.
On Tuesday night, he loaded shells into a cannon, aiming for a stretch of rebel-held territory around 20 kilometers (12 miles) away.
``The LTTE doesn't really want peace,'' he said, brushing off a coating of dust from the gun's tremendous kick. ``Attacks with the heavy weapons will bring them back to the negotiating table.''
More than a thousand combatants and at least 60 civilians have been killed since the latest fighting began in July, though a four-year-old cease-fire remains officially in place.
More than 65,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka - 's civil war.
Discuss this story
Published: Thu Sep 21 11:31:04 EDT 2006