Sri Lanka's Tamils find makeshift camps a refuge from violence

More than 70,000 Tamils from the Colombo area have taken refuge in camps in and around this capital city following the violence between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority.

The Tamil refugees include doctors and lawyers, itinerate laborers and retirees. Beyond their ethnic Hindu identity, what unites them is a shared anger , disillusionment, and fear of further violence.

At the Ratamalan Airport south of Colombo, two huge hangars are packed with people. More spill out onto the runways. The hangers, antiquated as they are, are among the best of Colombo's 16 makeshift refugee camps. They are far better protected than the public buildings, Hindu temples, and schools that are being used to house this once-serene capital's remaining refugees.

The indefatigable Dr. Ahangamage Ariyaratne runs the two refugee camps at the airport, which together house 8,500 people. At least 2,000 Tamil refugees have already left for Jaffna, the Tamil heartland in the north. And, of those remaining, 3,000 to 4,000 more have applied to go north.

The airport refugees know there will be problems in the Tamil sanctuary in the north. There are few jobs available in Jaffna. Housing is insufficient, and water is in short supply. Hospitals are already overcrowded with refugees.

''But, the memories and fears of Colombo still haunt them,'' Dr. Ariyaratne said, pointing toward the thousands of women and children sitting quietly on straw mats on the floor. Most had no more than a straw bag to hold their meager possessions. The fortunate ones had a suitcase. Their men were huddled in groups outside the hangar, anger hardening in their faces.

''I came to the tea plantations from Tamil Nadu (in southern India),'' a white-bearded man told me. ''That was 50 years ago. It was a harsh existence, so I came to Colombo. I worked as a gardener for a Sinhalese family.'' Tears covered his face. ''Then, last Friday (July 29, when the rioting was at its height) my employer chased after me with a kitchen knife. . . .''

''I've seen them all, all the riots since 1958, and this is the worst ever,'' said Dr. Ariyaratne, a Sinhalese Buddhist. ''Because this time, above and beyond the political and economic implications, we have seen a total breakdown of human values. . . . I've never seen human suffering on such a scale, despite all of the pains of our history. Never. Never has it been like this,'' he said.

Then this wiry little man - whose ''Sarvodaya'' organization is Sri Lanka's largest development group - quickly involves himself in the immediate crisis: A van of food has just arrived from the CARE organization; there is a phone call from President Junius R. Jayewardene's office (''Is his security protection sufficient?'' the President asks); a family needs help with the bureaucratic paperwork process of establishing family identities so that they can take a boat north.

The airport site is better protected because Dr. Ariyaratne has insisted on it. He now has 100 men armed with rifles and machine guns ringing the camps. They are from Sri Lanka's army, navy, and air force.

At first, gangs of Sinhalese ''goondas'' or thugs tried to attack the camps. Security was strengthened. Dr. Ariyaratne continues to receive threatening phone calls from fellow Sinhalese. But he also receives food packets, clothing, and medicines from other Sinhalese. Of the 30 volunteer workers in the hangars, only six are Tamils. The rest are Sinhalese.

The airport refugees are fortunate. There is water, although in limited supply. There are no cooking facilities, however. All food is brought in by voluntary organizations, or individuals, from the outside. Temporary toilets have been constructed. A workshop has been established where volunteers hastily stitch together brightly patterned sarongs.

There are three doctors, and ample medicine, some purchased by Sarvodaya, others donated by the government and the London-based Save the Children Fund.

In one instance, tears run down the face of a little girl. She is comforted by a patrician Tamil, wife of a Brahmin tea planter, who has never lived so meanly before. A straw mat and the concrete floor of the hangar provide her only bed. A rectangular hut of corrugated metal and a garden hose are her only means of taking a bath.

''How long,'' she asks, ''how long before people will give up shouting the word 'kill'? ''

A Sinhalese Buddhist doctor, hearing her question, looks up for a moment, shakes his head. ''Once, long ago, the awakened one (Buddha) preached dismissal of that word. Some listened and concentrated. But,'' he added bitterly, ''others obviously did not.''

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