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Sri Lankans Find Death on a Voyage to Safety

[NYTimes, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 17:18 No Comment]


Fleeing the bitter end of a quarter-century long war, the refugees’ boat was first a shelter from artillery shells, then a frail craft to safety. Finally, it became a coffin.


Adrift on the Indian Ocean for 9 days, Jaya Niranjana’s three-year-old daughter died. M. Yesudas lost his father, sister, nephew, brothers, and uncle — six in all. Eight-month-old baby Kuberan survived only because his mother somehow managed to breastfeed him until just hours before she died.


By the time these refugees fleeing the war in Sri Lanka reached Indian shores last Wednesday, 10 of the 21 original travelers had died or jumped overboard. They had nothing to eat and only saltwater to drink. Diarrhea struck. The first child died on April 24, then the others.


“One by one. Dead babies, children. No food. No drink,” is how S. Indira Meenan, 25, recalled it in halting English. “24th, dead. 25th, 26th. One by one. Dead.”


This is the story of their boat, and their country’s civil war, seemingly endless even as the Sri Lankan government closes in on the last stronghold of the Tamil Tiger rebels.


In the dead of night, the boat left the sandy spit of land where fighting raged between government and rebels troops. Its captain had apparently steered the vessel far out into the sea, in an effort to evade the fighting, and then lost his way. He had promised his passengers a journey of nine hours, roughly 125 miles to the closest point on the Indian coast, which is shorter than the distance between Miami and Havana. But the boat’s outboard motor gave out after a few hours. By day 9, the captain jumped into the sea — whether from guilt or delirium, no one will ever know. The testimony of these refugees in an Indian government hospital is a rare glimpse into Sri Lanka’s war zone; the government bars journalists and most aid workers from anywhere near there. It is also a measure of the desperation of its survivors, the latest among an estimated 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils who have taken refuge in India over the last 20 years. These refugees said they did not want to be quarantined in a Sri Lankan government-controlled camp, where tens of thousands of displaced ethnic Tamils have fled in recent weeks.


Instead, they took the risky journey across the water. They considered themselves lucky. Unlike many others, they had a boat, an outboard motor, kerosene for fuel.


For two months, their boat, a fiberglass vessel no more than 20 feet long, first served as a bunker on the last bit of coast in Mullaittivu district on the northeastern corner of the island. The boat belonged to Mr. Yesudas. He and his relatives had dug it into the ground, covered it with palm tree trunks for a roof, and hid inside when artillery shells rained down.


The area, a village called Mathalan, had been designated by the Sri Lankan government as a “no-fire zone.” But the refugees said in separate interviews that it was shelled everyday, sometimes so much that they had to relieve themselves in buckets rather than venture outside the boat-bunker.


On one side of the sandy spit was the sea. On the other stood the front line of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, exchanging artillery fire with the Sri Lankan Army across a narrow lagoon. Those shells landed in the no-fire zone. For nearly two months, according to United Nations estimates, more than 150,000 civilians, including these refugees, were trapped inside. About 50,000 remain there now, the United Nations estimates. It has repeatedly pressed the Tamil Tigers to let their people go, and the government to stop firing on civilians. Both sides rebuffed those calls, denying the charges.


On April 20, the refugees said, they witnessed the most intense fighting. The Army that day broke through a broke through a mud embankment that shielded a portion of the last rebel-held spit of coast, allowing tens of thousands of civilians to flee into government-held territory. The Tamil Tigers said later that 1,000 civilians had been killed as the military advanced. The military, for its part, released satellite images that showed rebel fighters firing on civilians trying to flee.


The refugees here recalled that both sides shelled indiscriminately that day, and that those among them who hid in their bunkers had no time to count the dead.


At about 1 a.m., after the shelling had stopped, they dug out the boat from under the sand and quietly took it out into the sea. Had the Tamil Tigers detected them trying to escape, Mr. Yesudas said flatly, they would have shot the boat. “If we didn’t get out that day, we wouldn’t have gotten out at all.”


They had all fled fighting before. Mr. Yesudas’s family filed out of their ancestral village in Jaffna Peninsula in 1996. The family settled into a new village, prospered, saved their sons and daughters from being forced to fight with the guerrillas. When the war resumed last year, they ran from village to village, hoping that a cease-fire would soon come.


Rebel-run radio had convinced the baby Kuberan’s father, Sivadasa Jagadeeswaran, that President Obama would come to their aid.


Mr. Jagadeeswaran said that for the last nearly 10 months, his family had been on the run too, living mostly in makeshift tents using bedsheets and palm fronds. There were not enough tents to go around, not enough food. A month before he fled, his father had been killed, he thinks by shelling, in the main market in the no-fire zone. They found his body at the hospital, the back of his head blown out entirely.


On the night of April 20, he stepped into the boat with his wife and their two sons. Their eldest, age four, was among the first to die. They threw the child into the sea. Then, his wife’s father died. Her two brothers jumped overboard, lured by the twinkling lights of what may have been a fishing trawler. His wife held on until the last day. She complained of thirst, but vomited when he gave her sea water. Soon, she was gone.

This afternoon, a single father to an only child, he cooed softly to the baby on the hospital bed. He gave him a bottle of milk. He checked to make sure his diapers weren’t wet. The baby giggled, oblivious to the misery around him.


Indira Kumar and his wife, Jaya, watched him from the next bed. He said he decided to leave that night to save his daughter, Prasambavi. She too held out until the last day on the boat. The night before, she had begged them for a cold drink.


Their boat was first noticed by an Indian fisherman, K. Srinivas Rao, who had gone shark-hunting that day, roughly 150 kilometers from shore. In the distance, he saw two men waving their arms frantically. One of them was holding up a baby. When he got closer, he saw that most of the passengers were so weak they could hardly move. He drew the boat to the shore. The strangers could barely explain their circumstances. They spoke only Tamil.

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