Tamil Tigers guerrillas advanced closer to the centre of Jaffna city in the far north of Sri Lanka yesterday, threatening government forces with a defeat which would throw the entire island into turmoil.
The government claimed to have killed seven guerrillas for the loss of three soldiers, and insisted: "Life in Jaffna town goes on as usual. Residents are not showing any sign of panic and continue their day-to-day activities."
Four days ago the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) seemed poised to seize the city within days. Their victory last month at Elephant Pass, the key to control of the Jaffna peninsula, had thrown Sri Lanka's government into panic. But the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga sent troop reinforcements into the fray and the rebels' advance was checked.
The longer the battle for Jaffna goes on, however, the stronger the risk that it will turn into a humanitarian disaster. This has long been a war without witnesses: it is many years since the media were allowed into the war zone by the Sri Lankan army. The Tigers video all their battles, but the cameramen - as daredevil as the fighters themselves - are members of the Tigers and cannot be expected to film anything that would embarrass the organisation.
Even here, on a finger of southern India stretching towards Sri Lanka, only 11 miles away, no one knows what really happens on a Sri Lankan battlefield. When that battlefield happens to be a city with a population of about half a million, the chances of civilians being trapped and slaughtered in crossfire are horribly high.
The people with the best knowledge of how bad things can get in Jaffna city are those who have already fled. Some 6,500 Sri Lankan refugees are crammed into Mandapam Transit Camp on the Indian side of the Palk Strait. Many of them fear the worst.
"I came here one-and-a-half years ago," says a middle-aged man called Batidinek. "I escaped with my wife and son because there were many problems in Jaffna. Rice was short, it was impossible to find medicine, there was no electricity supply. I still have relatives in the city, but communication is impossible. I can't get through on the telephone, and if I send a letter the Sri Lankan authorities tear it up."
Most terrible of all, for the hundreds of thousands remaining in the city, there is now no means of escape. "It's no longer possible to leave Jaffna," Batidinek continued, "because the Sri Lankan navy is closely guarding the harbour. They've got it blockaded, so no ships can enter or leave. I'm very worried about what's going to happen to my relatives who are trapped there."
A student named Kaannan who fled the city two years ago echoed that fear.
"The LTTE were in control of the city, but then the Sri Lankan army took over, and we fled," he said. "The way to escape was to take a ride in a lorry south to the district of Mannar, the point on the Sri Lankan coast nearest to India. From there we paid a fisherman to bring us to India. But because of the fighting, people can no longer get out of Jaffna city. They are trapped there."
From the broad, sandy flats at this extreme south-eastern tip of India, the Sri Lankan coast is plainly visible on a bright morning. The crossing takes only three hours in good conditions, and until the onset of the civil war in 1983 there was a ferry service. Smuggling, too, has been a traditional occupation here for centuries, and probably still is, although the military situation has the Indian authorities in such a state of nerves that it must be considerably more hazardous.
Last week, amid the battle news from Jaffna, came word of one human tragedy of the war. A three-year-old girl, fleeing Sri Lanka with her parents and three brothers, died of starvation when the boat bringing them to India abandoned them on a deserted spit of sand far from the coast. No help arrived for three days.
The girl's name was Tehrindra and her father, Mahendra, is in the Mandapam camp. In his shopping basket he carries a crumpled copy of the newspaper with an article about his daughter's death. "When I saw a ship of the Indian navy at anchor I swam to it and begged them to rescue us," he said, "but by the time they came Tehrindra had died."
Fishermen on the coast confirm that the Indian authorities are discouraging rescues. Handi, the grizzled headman of Danuskodi, a hamlet of straw huts perched on the shore, said: "The navy stops us from helping. They say, if you go there and help those people we will shoot you."
When Mahendra and his family crossed they left at 5pm, but did not arrive until 2.30am, as their captain sailed this way and that to avoid detection.
"Many refugees are coming out now," Handi said. "We see them stuck on the spits of sand. They hail us and plead with us to rescue them, but if we did we'd be arrested and have our boats confiscated."
Already India provides shelter for more than 100,000 refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war. The more that arrive, the stronger grows the pressure on the government from the 60 million people of the southern state of Tamil Nadu to intervene on the side of the Tamils, their cousins across the water. Yet that is the last thing the Indian government wishes to do. For the time being, both the Sri Lankans and the Indians are keeping the hatches battened down and the grim news from Jaffna strictly out of sight.
Traditionally the flow of people in this part of the world has been from India to Sri Lanka. Both the Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese, with whom they so discordantly share their beautiful island, originated in India. But today the flow is the other way.
"There were 27 people squashed into one fishing boat," said Mahendra, the man whose daughter died. "We all left because we were terrified by the fighting and India offered the only hope of safety. We want to go back, but only when the problem is solved."Reuse content