Batti, the refugee city

by Arthur Wamanan

The town does not look like a war zone. People from as far away as Trincomalee have come to Batticaloa to seek shelter from the shelling.

Though the place has not been touched by the recent violence in the east, people already have got used to the situation.

Isolated events such as abductions and shootings indicate that Batticaloa is not 100% safe. “The situation in Batticaloa is slightly better than in the surrounding areas. There have been isolated incidents in the area recently. But, you cannot say what will happen,” said K. Satheesh, a security guard in Batticaloa.

According to civilians, the security situation in Batticaloa is almost the same as in Jaffna. However, people are able to move out of troubled places relatively easily than in the north.

Only difference

Satheesh said that the only difference was that there was only one road connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the country, whereas there were several roads connecting Batticaloa with other areas.

“We can get out of the town through many routes avoiding the problem areas. That is why we are in a slightly better position than the people in the north. However, the security situation is almost the same,” he said.

The town is also frequently haunted by the booming sounds of artillery fire from the military base in Batticaloa.

Civilians say that the shelling usually goes on for half an hour until the LTTE fires one or two from the other side.

Got used to it

“The LTTE fires one or two shells to the military target, which silences them for about 45 minutes. Then the military starts firing again,” Satheesh said.

The people however seem to have got used to the sound of shelling and behave as if the booms are an alarm from a clock tower every 15 minutes.

“We are used to it. We know that the civilian areas would not be targeted by the LTTE as it has not happened so far,” he said.

The refugees who have moved to Batticaloa had a very different story to tell. Many of them had been continually displaced for the last 10 months due to frequent attacks.

Santhirakumar Maheswaran (19) lost two of his cousins due to the shelling in Kathiraveli last November. His right arm was also severely injured by one of the metal pieces after the blast.

Shells in the yard

“I was at the doorstep of my house when one of the multi-barrel shells landed in the yard. My cousins were in the yard and were killed instantly. There were others who were killed in the incident as well.”

Maheswaran and his family had stayed inside their home until the shelling had stopped. “We did not know where to go at the time. The only safe place was the house. We left a week after the incident, as there was no shelling for some time,” he added.

Maheswaran and his family are now in the Thalankuda refugee camp, where there are 416 families. The camp was earlier situated inside the premises of the Thalankuda school, but had to be shifted for the benefit of the students in the area.

A member of the camp management, Eliyathambi Mehala said that the displaced persons came from places as far as Trincomalee.

No shortages

“The people were displaced from Trincomalee to Kathiraveli and then Vaharai. We are working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in providing them with the essential items,” she said.

She said that there were no shortages in any of the items for the displaced persons and they were looked after by the government agents and the NGOs working with them.

The civilians had moved from LTTE-controlled areas to the government areas.

The refugees said they were forced to move away from the LTTE areas due to continuous shelling by the Sri Lanka military.

“We had no place to run in the LTTE areas because we knew the military would target every place. Therefore, we moved out because we thought the best way to avoid shelling was to go to the place where they were firing from,” said Sinnathambi Laganatha (34).

Worried

Loganathan lost one of his daughters in the shelling when they were in the Kathiravely school.

His other daughter had lost one of her arms while his son was seriously injured in the back.

Now, the only worry for Loganathan is his family. “I am a farmer. I had my own land and was satisfied with the income I got. Now I don’t know what would befall my family if something happens to me,” he said.

The displaced persons also faced the problem of mental depression due to the continuous hardships they face. “I have gone through enough. One of my children is no more, another one has lost an arm. My wife was also injured. Sometimes I feel like thrashing someone to bits. But, I have to think of my family,” he said.

Only wish

Maheswaran on the other hand said that all he wanted was an environment where he could study and enjoy his youth as other youngsters in the country.

He said that it was the government’s responsibility to provide help for the displaced persons.

“It is partly because of the government that we have moved out. They say that we have been liberated. Now they have to look after us since we have no hope and no future,” he said.

The refugees said that they had not received any help from the government so far.

“We don’t hate the government. But, the government looks at us and treats us differently. We are not in a position to hate them. All I want is normalcy where I can be with my family and friends,” he said.

Though they seem to be in a safer place, their thoughts and minds are in the homes they have left and the loved ones they had lost on the way to safety.

They do not wish to go back to their homes unless they are assured of their safety. “There have been radio announcements asking us to go back to our homes. We will not go unless there is a peace process going on. Who knows whether the fighting would start after we go back?. We just want to go back home,” they said.

Official announcement

The Batticaloa Government Agent, S. Arumainayagam told The Sunday Leader that the government had not officially asked the displaced persons to go back to their homes.

“We are still preparing the ground work in these areas,” he said.

These displaced persons, like all of those in the rest of the country are waiting for a permanent solution to go back home and live with no fear.

“It is far away,” said the 19 year-old boy looking across with his eyes full of questions that cannot be answered.

The scorching sun and the heat inside the tents are no match to the suffering and anguish in their minds.

The rest of the town is waiting for something to happen and continues to live with the booming sounds made by the artillery firing. [Courtesy of theSundayleader.lk]

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