RAMESWARAM, INDIA // It was a short but perilous boat ride. Motoring across the cyclonic waters between India and Sri Lanka, the wind beat against the small plastic dingy as its engine spat smoke. For six hours, the choppy sea threatened to upend the craft, while the danger of Sri Lanka's navy patrol boats was never far from Arumugam Rasasekeran's mind. With Sri Lanka's government stepping up its assault on ethnic Tamil separatists in the country's north, Mr Rasasekeran, 30, a Tamil farmer, felt he had no choice but to flee his homeland. His brother was killed by Sri Lankan forces several years ago, mistaken for a Tamil Tiger rebel, he said.
"It is very dangerous for Tamils in Sri Lanka now. The Sri Lankan army is very dangerous for us," said Mr Rasasekeran as he registered at a police station in Rameswaram, the beachside town in India's south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu. Since the Tamil Tigers launched their war in the early 1980s, Sri Lanka's 3.2 million ethnic Tamils have been under suspicion by successive Sinhalese governments. With good reason: the Tigers forcibly recruit from the Tamil population and are ruthless in their quest to carve out a separate homeland for Tamils in the north and east, sending suicide bombers into civilian as well as military populations.
Up until two years ago, the Tigers held wide swathes of territory in the north and east which they controlled like a tiny state, while carrying out raids on security forces. A 2003 ceasefire brought a measure of peace to the island, better known for its sandy beaches and palm trees, but began to unravel in 2005. In 2006, the government launched a concerted effort to retake areas in the east, pushing out the rebels and holding elections. It officially pulled out of the ceasefire in January and has since pledged to crush the insurgency by the end of the year. This week, the government troops claimed to be just 30km from Kilinochchi, the rebels' de facto headquarters.
The war, however, has taken its toll on the country's population. Thousands of Tamils, many of them children, have been press-ganged into the Tigers' dwindling ranks, while the Sri Lankan security forces have been accused of abductions and torture of Tamil civilians. Since 1983, about 70,000 people, both combatants and civilians on both sides of the ethnic divide, have been killed and more than 600,000 Tamils forced to flee their homes, many of them seeking refuge in Tamil Nadu in India, where there are strong historical, cultural and linguistic links. But securing passage via the sea can take days and many of those trying to escape end up staying in squalid bedsits, waiting for a space on a boat.
Mr Rasasekeran was lucky. For 40,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Dh1,330), he bartered his way on to a boat from the coastal island of Talaimannar, where fishermen make the risky journey under cover of darkness. His wife, however, was turned away. It is not uncommon for boats to capsize and the passengers to drown in the shallow waters. In September, a boat carrying 13 refugees capsized off Rameswaram, killing eight. Another concern is the Sri Lankan navy which, wary of the Tigers' feared sea wing, has been known to open fire on unidentified vessels, including fishermen and boatloads of refugees. About 400 fishermen from the area have been killed since 1983, said Suresh Mascarenas, 27, a fisherman.
But for some Tamils, there is no alternative. Week by week, scores of desperate and frightened Sri Lankans wash up on the long, thorium-stained shores of Tamil Nadu. According to latest official estimates, there were 75,000 Sri Lankan refugees in 117 camps there. Estimates from those on the ground place the figure closer to 90,000, with another 25,000 outside the camps. Life for the refugees is basic. The majority live in overcrowded camps, said Thushanth Balasubramaniam, who works for the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation. Those who find work, usually as farm labourers or in construction, are lucky to earn a basic daily wage.
Recent arrivals are monitored closely for the first couple of weeks and intelligence agents regularly visit camps to scout out any possible connections to the Tamil Tigers, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE. If they are found to be soldiers, they are transported to a Chennai-based prison camp. "We screen them very thoroughly here," said a policeman in Rameswaram, who asked to remain anonymous. "In the past, LTTE men have come here acting as refugees, but not anymore. LTTE needs all the cadres they have right now, so they would not let them flee to India."
Although life is tough in India, the situation back in Sri Lanka is worse. UN agencies estimate there are still about 250,000 Tamils living in territory controlled by the Tigers in the north, where for the past two years the government has enforced a blockade, leaving them short of food, medicine and subjected to daily air strikes and tit-for-tat artillery battles. "Things are too dangerous in Sri Lanka. [The Sri Lankan military] sees all Tamils as rebels and the supporters of LTTE," Mr Balasubramaniam said. Even though they have fled their country, there is still widespread support for Tamil Eelam, the independent state within Sri Lanka that the rebels are fighting for. "Most of the Sri Lankan Tamils are still supporting LTTE. All are demanding Tamil Eelam," he said.
In certain areas of Tamil Nadu, there is also support for the Tamils' cause. During the 1980s, many Tiger cadres trained and lived in the state before returning home to fight the government, including Velupillai Prabakharan, the group's elusive leader. But the relationship between India and Sri Lanka's Tamils soured after New Delhi sent in a peacekeeping force in the 1980s which ended in a hasty pull-out a few years later and the subsequent assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, the prime minister, by a female suicide bomber in a town outside Chennai in 1991.
With daily ground battles in Sri Lanka's north, calls in Tamil Nadu for a solution to the decades-long conflict have grown louder. Last month, M Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu's chief minister, threatened to resign with several other ministers if the Indian government did not pressure Sri Lanka into calling a ceasefire. With the Sri Lankan government closing in on Tiger headquarters, and with the rebels refusing to accept defeat, it is unclear what will happen to the insurgents and their cause.
New Delhi fears that as more Sri Lankans seek refuge in India, the fight for a separate state may simply shift location. But for most of the refugees, the answer is that they simply want to return home. "It's very tough for refugees to come over here," said Vabivelu Kandaiah, a refugee from Jaffna who has been baking bread outside Rameswaram's camp for the past decade. "It's not an easy choice. But I hope I will go home again.
"I don't want a separate homeland, but we need independence and we need peace. Whatever it may be, Sri Lanka is my country." * The National