The look on the faces of those coming from the No Fire Zone (NFZ) tells the story. It is a story of children. Aged and haggard, look well beyond their age. It is their stoic nature and the desire to live for the sake of their remaining children that kept them alive.
As they alight from the packed buses to seek lodgings in the camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), there are no young men among them. Where have all the young men gone? Yes, gone, or rather taken to LTTE camps. Now they are coming for the girls. It is for them that parents grieve and show no leniency to the LTTE. They know their children are destined to die; with three days basic training they are dispatched to the front to face the war machine of the Sri Lankan Forces. Worse, they are positioned in the first line of defence.
They talk of nothing else but their lost children. Life is not worth living without children; life must continue for the younger children still with them. They live in that dilemma. More than food and drink, they need psychological care, having gone through agony and trauma in the NFZ under LTTE rule.
NFZ is the final happy hunting ground for the LTTE preying on children. In a confined space of 21 sq. km. any child, above 12 years, is vulnerable and easy picking for the terrorists, running desperately short of man power. It’s a child ranch with easy access for the bandits. Few girls have been untouched, the rest have been hunted and hounded. Even the children of the Mahavira (dead combatants) and Porali (present fighters) have now been conscripted. They were the firm bedrock of the LTTE; the last support column but that too is gone with their children kidnapped. The final bastion of goodwill is lost. There is mayhem in the midst of desperation.
A-77-year-old lecturer in English among the IDPs, spoke fondly of the LTTE achievements with his eyes glowing with pride. He crossed because life was becoming uncomfortable but awaits the return of the LTTE. He is married but childless.
Howling children are carted away from the NFZ. The parents intervening are mercilessly beaten and a few have been shot at by impatient cadres. Some artful kids have escaped from the clutches of the LTTE but they have not returned to their parents. Parents know of their fate with the LTTE ground area shrinking rapidly. There are no sanctuaries for escaped kids to hide. In retaliation, angry cadres return to take an elder from the family as a substitute.
They moved from their earlier NFZ as they heard on radio and learnt from leaflets about the newly designated zone. They covered 12 km to reach the new secure area from the old. LTTE did not hamper the movement but watched from a distance.
They live as families in tents purchased at Rs 2,500 out of material supplied free, previously by the UNICEF and has now found its way to the traders. Prices are exorbitant and food is scare. Two tablets of paracetamol cost Rs. 250. There are sarees wrapped around four poles by way of toilets for women. Wells are full of brackish water.
They live every second cursing the LTTE, but at the mercy of the latter, expecting an opportunity to cross the invisible border.
Each family dug a trench for they knew within the NFZ the LTTE guns are booming. Retaliatory fire was anticipated but it has not come so far. They pleaded with the LTTE to take away the artillery pieces from the NFZ but to no avail.
Did they tell their tale of woe previously before reaching the NFZ? Yes, to the Tamil boys and girls who came with the NGOs when they operated from Killinochchi but in vain. They think those NGO representatives were LTTE sympathisers. Otherwise they may not have been permitted to enter LTTE territory.
Most of the displaced are confident that the LTTE would not get any votes from the people in the NFZ, if it were to contest a free and fair election. The TNA is disparaged as the running dogs of the LTTE. They yearn for a new leadership. Ananda Sagaree has support from the elders coming from around Killinochchi. Sambandan is cursed for having sold his soul to the LTTE.
A camp for the Internally Displaced Persons is hardly home away from home. The camps have an unending inflow with bus loads arriving with those who manage to flee the NFZ. The camps are far from comfortable; they are over-crowded. But people live in safety worrying about the children, relatives and friends left behind. Yet, these places are far better than shelters provided to the 80,000 Muslims ethnically cleansed from the north and the Sinhalese evicted from the north and east.
Those Muslims and Sinhalese lived for years on government dry rations and some handouts from Muslim and Buddhist organisations. The present IDPs are fortunate as the World Vision distributes footwear, mirrors, clothes, crockery and cutlery and pots and pans. Some other NGOs distribute biscuits and bottled water. Nutritional foods and milk foods are provided for children. There are medical centres, banks and schools within the premises of the welfare centres.
There were complaints about the quality of food. Northerners as farmers had plentiful food and ate well. Surely, in the camps it does not taste like the home cooked food. There is quantity but not quality as such. It was yellow rice with beetroot and mixed vegetable curry and a few sprats. Families do the cooking on rotation. Mobile toilets and bathing facilities are available with kids engaged forever in water fights.
Escaping from the NFZ requires piercing two rings. The inner circle is manned by terrorist police patrol and the outer ring by vigilant LTTE armed cadres. The rings are becoming thinner with defection and death of cadres. Those caught escaping are sent to the frontline to fight like Pulidevan of the peace secretariat or made to do forced labour. With numbers dwindling there are becoming desperate and making an exhibition of gruesome killings to deter people from crossing over. Those seeking escape roam in the night identifying unmanned territory and then slip through with families.
No escapee has desired to return. Not because they are satisfied with life in the camp. In comparison it is a much freer and friendlier world. They were unanimous in praise of the kindness bestowed by the Security Forces along the way.
The favourite pastime is conjecturing the names of the LTTE leadership seeking escape in collaboration with the enemy sources. Many believe the LTTE leadership operates from within the NFZ for its own security. The voice of the people can now be heard as the LTTE knows its days are numbered. In the LTTE-held terrain, it is like the last days of Pompeii. Exodus will soon begin.
Crossing is more than being freed from a cage. It is like landing on another planet. Forget not, the terrorists are smuggling their hard core cadres along with the civilians for an unknown purpose.