India's beaches are bellwether of Sri Lanka's war

Some 16,000 refugees have fled by boat to India this year to avoid escalating violence.

Early one morning last week, K. Thangaraja, a tractor driver from eastern Sri Lanka, stood knee-deep in seawater fearing his end was near. Surrounding him was the murky confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean – the barrier between his home in Sri Lanka and a new life in India.

Five hours earlier, a fisherman pushed Mr. Thangaraja and 19 relatives, some of them young children, from his 26-foot wooden boat and onto a shallow sand bank. "Someone will be along shortly to take you to the Indian coast," he had said, before hurrying off into the darkness.

No one came. Not until 4:30 the following afternoon, when they were nearly unconscious from exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration. An Indian fishing vessel happened to spot their improvised white flags and brought them ashore.

"It was the worst experience of my life," says Thangaraja. "If I had to do it all over again, I would take my chances in Sri Lanka."

Yet for ethnic Tamils now caught in the crossfire of an increasingly bloody civil war between the ethnic Sinhalese dominated government and armed Tamil rebel groups, staying can be an equally undesirable option.

Fighting since August in the northern Jaffna region – considered the heartland of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils – has left hundreds of combatants dead in some of the bloodiest clashes since the government and rebels signed a 2002 cease-fire that temporarily halted two decades of civil war.

Many fear that the near-daily attacks and killings will drive Sri Lanka back to full-scale war, although the government and Tigers say they are committed to the truce.

Since January, over 16,000 refugees from Sri Lanka have fled to the shores of Tamil Nadu, India's southeastern state, where they fan out in refugee camps across the region and receive basic support from the Indian government. The refugees who have arrived in India constitute only a small fraction of the nearly 200,000 people who have been displaced since April. But they represent some of the most desperate cases – those who have given up hope for a quick end to hostilities and are trying to start anew.

"It is an expensive and difficult journey to the Tamil Nadu coast," says Meenakshi Ganguly, with New York-based Human Rights Watch. "These are people who are so terrified that they believe survival is impossible back home."

The number of monthly arrivals has decreased significantly since August, when over 5,700 arrived here; so far this month, less than 200 have attempted the journey. That is partly because of the weather, with rough seas and thunderstorms making the crossing far more perilous in November and December. Many Sri Lankans had also held out hope for peace talks last month in Geneva. The talks collapsed, however, when the two sides disagreed over whether to reopen the major north-south artery that connects northern rebel-controlled Sri Lanka with the rest of the country.

With the recent surge in violence, aid workers are expecting an increase in the number of arrivals in the coming weeks and months ahead. The cost of being smuggled to India is anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees, or US$55 to $140. Refugees often sell property or family jewelry to fund the trip.

The recent surge is not the first time India has hosted Tamil refugees. Tens of thousands have come in successive waves since the war between the Tamils and Sinhalese majority began in 1983. The official conduit for new arrivals in India is the Mandapam transit camp in the town of Rameswaram, a fenced-off series of dilapidated one-story cement apartment blocks with communal water faucets. The camp was originally established and controlled by the British until 1964 as a transit site for thousands of poor Indians who were sent to sprawling tea estates in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. Today, they arrive from the other direction.

Mandapam has over 5,000 residents, the majority of whom have been there for months, waiting to relocate elsewhere in Tamil Nadu state, but a housing shortage keeps them in the camp for the time being.

Although conditions in Mandapam are substandard, its leaders are reticent to voice their concerns too loudly. "We do not complain about the conditions because just next to us there are Indian citizens who don't get even what we get," says S.C. Chandrahassan, an officer with the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (Eelam is a Tamil reference for Sri Lanka), which helps run the 130 refugee camps throughout Tamil Nadu.

The Indian government provides the refugees with 400 Indian rupees, or about US$9 a month per head of household and a little less for every other member, as well as cooking materials, a refugee ID card, and rice subsidized to 1983 prices, which comes to less than a couple pennies a kilo, far below what Indians receive on the dole. "We always have to keep that in mind and encourage people to work," says Mr. Chandrahassan.

There is a close affinity between the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, and those in Sri Lanka. But it is to find work, and not just the flight from violence that many refugees cite as the reason for taking the perilous flight to India. Here, they can join the informal economy, taking undesirable jobs in rural areas as this country's economy surges ahead at breakneck speed.

Vikram Raja, a mason who arrived in early September with his wife and three young children, sits by the highway each day looking to be picked up for a day's work. He has worked two days in two months, but doesn't regret the move.

"My life was in danger there," he says. "The Army will arrest anyone without any grounds." Mr. Raja's home was destroyed in the 2004 tsunami, and he paid for the journey by selling his wife's jewelry. His mother, father, and sister live in displaced persons camps in Sri Lanka, but Raja wanted the opportunity to provide for his family and not sit idly in a camp, which he considers unsafe.

Young men are often forcibly conscripted by Tamil rebels on both sides of the front line. In government-controlled areas they are also under constant suspicion by the Army and police for working or conspiring with the rebels.

Subramaniam Karisuthan, a teenager, arrived here last week with his younger sister. "We were afraid to leave the house," he says of Sri Lanka. Twice he had seen tortured, headless bodies dumped along the side of the road near his home. He didn't want to become another anonymous victim.

"The Army targets the youth," he says. "They suspect that we support the [rebels]." He had heard stories of the rebels grabbing young Tamils off the street or snatching them from school. "I'll stay here until the war is over," he says.

Wire reports were used in this story.

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