In tiny blue chairs set up in rows, a group of young children begin their lessons at a makeshift preschool in northern Sri Lanka. They listen to stories, learn their colors, giggle, fidget and cry. The children are among thousands of Tamils who have fled their homes in the past 12 months, as the Sri Lankan army has surged toward the end of a 25-year war against an armed separatist movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Government officials and the aid agencies that help maintain the camp where these children live call them "internally displaced persons" (IDPs).
Their parents call them prisoners.
"We ask, but they don't release us," says a resident of this camp, in the Mannar district on the northwest coast. His family left their home by boat, only to be intercepted by the Sri Lankan navy and then handed over to the army, which brought them to one of several "welfare centers" set up to house Tamils fleeing the Vanni, the jungle areas at the heart of Tiger territory. "We were told, 'Two or three months, and then you can go,'" he says. "But now it's almost one year." There are about 450 people in this camp, including 39 children under the age of 5. The families live in shelters made of palmyra thatch and corrugated iron, while single folk make do with tents. They are kept behind barbed wire near a road lined with baobab trees and bunkers and are under the constant guard of soldiers. "They are suspected because they come from the Vanni," says an aid official. "They could be LTTE."
The Politics of Refugees
Sri Lanka's civil war began in July 1983, when more than 1,000 Tamils were killed in Colombo after a Tiger ambush of 13 army soldiers--though the LTTE's grievances go back much further, to what it says were decades of discrimination against ethnic Tamils, who are mainly Hindu or Christian, by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Few families in the island nation have been untouched by the violence--more than 70,000 people have died since the war began--yet Sri Lanka has managed to preserve its stunning beaches and lush hills, as well as a cosmopolitan outlook dating back to its history as a stop along the Spice Route.
In the past few weeks, hundreds of civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to the Red Cross, during an assault by the army, which is determined to finish off the Tigers once and for all. An estimated 250,000 civilians are still trapped inside a rapidly shrinking war zone--the last remaining 40 sq. mi. (103 sq km) held by the Tigers--and the army is preparing to expand the camps to house them. The Defense Ministry says more than 6,000 new IDPs crossed into army-held territory in just a few days in mid-February.