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Tamils launch great armada as Jaffna crumbles


Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka

Using an armada of leaky skiffs and outboard motors that sputter along on a mixture of kerosene and coconut oil, Tamil rebels have launched one of the biggest sea evacuations seen in recent times.

More than 120,000 Tamil men, women and children are queuing on the Jaffna peninsula to be taken by Tiger rebels across the dunes and on to the tiny boats that will carry them on a two-and-a-half-hour journey across a vast lagoon whipped by monsoon rains. The Tamils are fleeing an invasion of the peninsula by the Sri Lankan armed forces, who are intent on capturing Jaffna, the rebel citadel.

Jaffna may fall within days, once the soldiers have defused mines and booby-traps left by the Tamil Tigers. But the troops will find a city emptied of its 300,000 souls. All have fled, save for a few priests caring for elderly people too infirm to move. Hidden around Jaffna are probably a number of Black Tigers - the rebel suicide commandos - who are expected to make a last stand in the city they had once hoped to make capital of Eelam, their independent Tamil state. "Most of the Tigers have left Jaffna. They've crossed the lagoon," said a weary refugee priest who walked through the government checkpoint near Vavuniya. The guerrillas have not run in panic, but after suffering nearly 1,000 losses in two weeks of fighting with the Sri Lankan forces, they have been ordered to retreat. They are now hiding in the jungle on the other side of the lagoon.

The authorities accuse the Tigers of herding people out of Jaffna and using them as "a human shield for their own military evacuation". The guerrillas may have wanted to protect lives; or they may want to show that Tamils fled the city because they refused to live under government domination. Wary of international opinion, the army does not dare to strafe the refugee flotilla skittering across the lagoon, though it easily could.

Only a few refugee families left Tiger territory by road, through the minefields of a jungle no man's land and into the government-controlled south. Some said it was because the Tigers refused to let them pass unless they paid 50,000 rupees (pounds 500) for a "three-month visa" into enemy territory. Others insisted that few Tamils wanted to go south because they were afraid of reprisals by the island's majority Sinhalese. Unable to halt the army's assault on Jaffna, the Tigers lately have turned on easier prey, massacring Sinhalese and Muslim villagers in the borderlands.

These refugees voiced bitterness towards their supposed protectors. After the Tiger chief, Velupillai Prabakharan, broke off peace talks with the government in April and restarted the 12-year-old civil war, many Tamils now openly express fear and distrust of their rebel leaders. "The Tigers may have a dream of Eelam, but not the people. All we want is peace," said one Tamil refugee who came with his family. "We are ready to compromise."

Other recent travellers into the battle zone spoke of a "sense of betrayal" now felt by the Tigers towards the Tamils. A school principal, a teacher, a civil servant, and a dozen businessmen were all killed recently as "traitors". The various Jaffna churches, which in the past supported the Tamil struggle, are no longer as keen to do so. "The Tigers came to the schools and asked the principals to help in a recruiting drive. The principals refused. They said 'We can't go to homes and ask parents to give up another son and daughter'," a priest said. It is a far cry from the days, not long ago, when many impressionable Tamil teenagers were eager to join the elite Black Tigers and become suicide commandos. Now the Tiger ranks are thinning. Advancing soldiers have found dead rebels - boys and girls - as young as 13. Jaffna refugees claim that the city's bishops pleaded with Tiger commanders several days ago to resume peace talks with the government.

"The Tigers gave us no answer," one priest said, even though in August, President Chandrika Kumaratunga offered Tamils greater autonomy, giving them control over their own land rights, education, and police force.

So far, observers claim that the Sri Lankan forces have taken care to keep down civilian casualties. One recent traveller to Jaffna said: "I heard shells falling all the time and I thought thousands must be dying, but that's just not happening."

More than 400,000 Tamils are trapped by the fighting. They are camping in schools, Hindu temples, convents, anywhere that gives shelter from the monsoon rains. Where they are huddled, in Chavakachchi, is less than six miles from the battle zone, and the hammering of artillery shells and mortars is relentless.

The fratricidal aspects of this conflict are also apparent. The northern Tamils and the southern Sinhalese have co-existed on this island for centuries. Some blame the British colonialists for upsetting the equilibrium by giving the minority Tamils a boost.

The Sinhalese government cannot decide whether the Tamils, like a rebellious younger brother, should be coddled or beaten. So, confusingly, it does both.

Even in the Tiger-run areas, Colombo still pays salaries to teachers, bank clerks and postmen. It also sends food and the very few supplies which the inventive Tigers cannot use for war purposes.

Tamil refugees are in no immediate danger of starving, according to relief agencies. But the danger exists that, denied proper medicine and water purifiers by the government, since these too are bizarrely considered to be materiel, Tamils fleeing the war may soon find themselves facing a far more deadly enemy: a cholera epidemic.