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Most people detained in the welfare centers had no intention of becoming refugees. They all have their documents, families willing to take them in and the means to support themselves. The men worked as fishermen or shopkeepers, and those who fled the fighting by boat paid at least 100,000 Sri Lankan rupees per person (about $876) to escape. "We told all these things to the army commander," says a detainee, who also describes losing count of the number of letters he has written asking to be released. Fearing reprisals by the army, those in the camp ask to remain anonymous. They say they have enough to eat, clean water and latrines, but they just want to leave. "I feel like I'm going crazy," says another detainee. "I want to tell people that we are being kept without any reason."
The Sri Lankan government insists that its human-rights record is excellent compared with that of the Tigers. "In a war situation, you can't stop violating human rights in small ways," says Lakshman Hulugalle, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan Defense Ministry. "In Iraq, how many innocent people were killed?" Hulugalle says any concerns raised about the army's practices should also acknowledge the abuses of the LTTE and that there are many. Indeed there are. People from the Vanni say they left home not just to escape the fighting but also to get away from the forced recruitment of their children and from forced labor, which the Tigers used to build a massive, booby-trapped trench around parts of their stronghold in the jungle.
The detention of civilians serves a strategic purpose for the army as well. In the past, the Tigers were often able to recapture territory by sending guerrilla fighters into the general population. That's still a potent tactic. On Feb. 9, a female suicide bomber killed 28 people, including 20 soldiers, at a screening point for IDPs. This kind of asymmetrical warfare--the LTTE was the global pioneer in the use of suicide bombers--allowed a few thousand fighters to hold their own for decades against the Sri Lankan army's 50,000 soldiers. So the most recent army offensive uses a new strategy. The military clears people from every stretch of territory it captures. Those displaced must either seek shelter deeper in Tiger territory or surrender to government forces, which move them into camps. The result is a sort of scorched-earth policy that has helped the army capture and keep control of territory that the Tigers have held for more than a decade.
Facing the Gauntlet
Keeping those areas may prove more complicated. In the district of Mannar, for example, which the army has considered "liberated" since last July, people live under an unofficial curfew that turns the end of every workday into a race to get home before dark. Checkpoints are everywhere--in some cases within 165 ft. (50 m) of each other--and can turn a 15-minute trip into an hour-long ordeal, as soldiers question anyone whose identification papers mark him or her as an outsider or a possible LTTE member. Few people outside Mannar are aware of the extent of the militarization. Journalists are not allowed free access, and it is forbidden to take pictures of any military personnel or installation--not even the 16th century Portuguese fort at the tip of Mannar Island, which is used as an army camp.