From Paranthan, the road to Vallipuram is rich and green. Great expanses of paddy stretch out before you, clumps of palmyrah dot the land and little streams of water trickle by. As we near the fighting, paddy fields give way to broken buildings and blasted vehicles. Twisted trees and uprooted trunks line the way. Here, in an area formerly controlled by the Tamil Tigers but now in the hands of the Sri Lankan army as they besiege the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a last assault to end a 25-year-old civil war, everything is covered with a layer of brown dust. An occasional boat lies stranded on either side of the road, reminders of a last desperate attempt by the Tamil Tigers to hold back the tide. Blasting a reservoir in the path of the advancing Sri Lankan army, Tiger cadres counterattacked in boats, riding upon a wall of water. The water however, has receded and the Tigers have retreated.
As you enter the Kanishta High School, Vallipuram, the first thing you see is a brightly coloured board. Written at the top in vivid blue letters, is an inscription in Tamil.
"Our students (Our Lifeblood ), Those who Sacrificed their Lives
For the Freedom of this Land"
Listed across the board are the names of the students of Kanishta High School who have died in the fighting. We are told where each student was from, what his LTTE code name was, when he died, where and in what operation.
The school is now occupied by the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan army. It is the first stop for those fleeing the conflict and they are brought here straight from the line.
A huge compound lies before us, lined on three sides by ramshackle buildings. In the middle is a vast empty space, a small open tent at its centre. Nearby stands an ambulance, a Land Rover without wheels and two red buses. There is a roar of engines. The buses start up and trundle away.
At 8.45am they roll back in again. Out stumble a ragged line of people, mostly women, children and old people. Tense and fearful, they look drawn and dehydrated. Nearly everybody is clutching bags and sacks loaded with goods. Their clothes are filthy, stained and spattered. Nearly all the children have sores and rashes. Strangely enough, barely a handful out of 128 who arrive are young people.
Women soldiers lead the civilians towards a long thatched arc. They distribute biscuits, fruit drinks, bags of dates and sachets of glucose.
Snatching at the biscuits, the hungry people tear at the wrapping, spooning the glucose into their mouths with their hands. A man in a yellow T-shirt begins an address in Tamil. There is hardly a murmur, even the children are quiet. Craning their necks to listen, they pause only to dip into their bags of food and guzzle water, slowly nodding their heads.
Once the address is over, we begin to hear their stories. Maria Kumari, a young woman of 29, had come all the way from Mannar, the north-western tip of the island and ended up at Pudumathalan. She has her three-year-old son Dinesh Kumar and baby girl Thireeshika with her. At first her eyes are closed and she just leans back against the chair. Gradually she begins to speak. As she talks, a smile lights up her fine features. For three days she had had no food, only gruel.
"I was starving, my children were starving. Every day people are falling sick and people are dying. No food, no medicines, no water."
She fled at night with her husband, wading across the Pudumathalan lagoon, the water chest high. Hearing their noises, the Tigers had fired. So they stayed in the water till dawn. She stops talking to pour glucose down her throat. "All I want now is to go home, to lead a normal life without fear."
By her side, an aged woman, gazes adoringly at a picture that she has been clutching from the moment she got off the bus. It is a framed picture of the Baby Jesus. "It has saved me," she says. Her name is Maria Poomani.
"They [the Tigers] wouldn't let us come," she said. "They shot at us." As she remembers she keeps touching the Baby Jesus with her fingers. "The rest turned back but we threw ourselves on to the sand and crawled on our bellies."
An old man sat staring into space, a shawl over his head. Another, heavier and burlier, nods in agreement.
In adjoining partitions the army screening process has begun. A man behind a desk asks questions. Each individual and every family is registered and photographed. When the screening is over, everybody moves into the tent in the middle.
Soldiers drag in cauldrons of dhal, rice and soya and there is a rush towards the food. The children are first in line, holding out their plastic plates to the women soldiers. Food eaten, they board the bus again for the next stage of their odyssey.
They will travel down the A-9 road to Omanthai, two-and-a-half hours away. Omanthai is the last checkpoint controlled by the army, from here the people are handed over to the Sri Lankan government.
"They always come at first light," Private Saman Kumari, one of three women soldiers, says of the fleeing civilians.
"We give them water and search them and check their bags. They are frightened and so are we.
"There was one woman, she was about 30. We hadn't searched her body. She told us that she had lost her gold jewellery. She started crying and everyone gathered around to help. I left the other women soldiers with her and went to eat. Then we heard the sound. All we could see was smoke. People were screaming and there were pieces of flesh everywhere. She had strapped the bomb to her stomach."
From Vallipuram the buses speed through the rolling savannah of Sri Lanka's Vanni region. Once the heartland of Tamil Eelam, now it is an empty landscape dotted with army posts. At 3.30 in the afternoon we arrive at Omanthai, the last checkpoint in the army-controlled zone. Here all the bags are searched again and their contents itemised. They are questioned, their identities checked and they are registered and issued with cards.
Everyone is seated on the ground. As the shadows begin to lengthen, a young man in a T-shirt and a baseball cap begins to speak. His tone is reassuring.
"We know that the Voice of Tigers Radio has told you that your men will be killed and your women raped. No one will be taken away. None of you will be sent to prison. Our war is with your leaders, not you. You have been taken by force and kept by force. If you have any connections with the LTTE come forward and tell us now.
"Nothing will happen to you. But tell us now before somebody else does. When you go to the camps, there will be people who know you. Tell us now, so that we can trust you. If you don't we will suspect you."
When he finishes speaking, almost everybody gets up and moves to another spot. A small knot seats themselves in another group: five men and two girls. They sit on their own with strained, intense expressions. All are young and in good physical shape, better dressed than the others.
One by one, they are questioned under the trees. As they answer they begin to relax; the tautness gradually leaving their faces. We are not allowed to ask the names or take pictures of the people in this group. One girl is wearing brightly gilded earrings, a long brown dress and her hair is tied up. She is 24 years old, a member of the Sodhiya regiment, one of the crack female fighting brigades. Why did she join, we ask her? "I joined because I left school early and stayed at home. My mother was angry with me and used to beat me. I joined to make her angry."
She had left her husband behind. As she spoke, tears welled in her eyes. "He was seized by the LTTE. I am very worried for him." Her leaders told her that she must kill all Sinhalese, she said.
A thin, wiry young man with buffed hair and shaved sideburns sat nearby. He told us that he was a member of the computer wing and had signed up straight after leaving school "for the salary". The group are photographed against a tree. Eventually they pick up their bags and walk towards their families.
In the sheds on the other side queues are forming. Every item is checked and rechecked. By 5.45 as the sun begins to set, the last bus starts up. It will be the fourth and final stage of the journey, down the A-9 to Vavuniya. The final destination is the refugee camps run by the government.
As the engines rumble, an old woman is doing her best to clamber on to the running board. Hauling herself up, she turns to berate a brawny soldier struggling with her numerous bags. Everybody grins and looks away.
SinhaRaja Tammita Delgoda is a Sri Lankan writer and historian who travelled with government forces to the conflict zone