I remembered John Denver’s passionate song dedicated to the refugees called â€œFallen leaves”, as I sat in the Chennai airport, trying to make sense of what I had seen and heard and my own feelings, recalling my visit to Sri Lankans who had fled to India in fear of their lives and live in camps as refugees. One of the lines from the song that kept coming back to me was what I had put as the title to this reflection.
At the airport, I myself felt a bit of a refugee, having come to the airport from an overnight bus. It had not been an easy journey, traveling by a night train, and spending the day at the store house that now serves as a home to 26 families, and then taking an overnight bus back, straight to the airport. And several other train, bus and auto rides in between. But I guess the difficulties in my journey pales when compared to the journeys that the people I met had undertaken, on makeshift boats, often overcrowded. Mine had certainly been a journey by choice, taking advantage of attending a conference in Chennai, while they had not much choice in undertaking the journey, the choice of fleeing to India and remaining in Sri Lanka having being one of life or death.
Some had paid as much as Rs. 10,000 to get on boats that carried anything between 10-40 people, but ill equipped to carry so many. One mother told me that all her three young children had vomited and fainted in the journey. They had not only to brave the rough waves of the ocean, but also the firing from the Sri Lankan Navy. They also had to take care to avoid any cross fire between the Navy and the LTTE’s sea tigers. I remember the story of several people killed in the seas off Mannar last year. A priest who was with me, reminded me that that was only one incident that had been reported in the media, but that there have been many other such reports. The departure points are usually Pesalai and Thaleimanar on the Mannar island.
A few years before, people have made the same journey, for much pleasant purposes such as shopping, with only the sea to fear for, for about Rs. 2,000. It was still illegal, but it was accepted part of life, as normal as coming to Colombo from Mannar and going back. My mother and others have told me stories of how Sri Lankans all over the country used to go to India by boat, when there was a regular boat service in operation, decades ago.
Arriving in India
People fleeing to India by boat are met on arrival by Indian authorities, who question them, particularly regarding any links they may have had to the LTTE or other militant groups. They usually have to spend some days in a transit camp called â€œMandapam”. The duration of stay there varies, with one man I spoke to saying he had to wait for 26 days, while I also met others who had stayed shorter times. Then, they are sent to more â€œpermanent camps”. I also heard from some that Indian authorities give them a choice of which camps they can go to.
I was with two Catholic priests, anxious to visit their dispersed flock and two workers from a church based NGO working with refugees. We talked with several youth, women and men. The shrill voices of the kids and babies crying filled the air during our brief stay. There were many young babies, one as young as three months. I was told that 5 children have been born to this community, in the last one and half years they had been here.
I heard that the camp I visited was a one of the smaller ones, with 26 families at present, and there were 12 larger camps in Dharmapuri area itself, as well as many others throughout Tamil Nadu. According to an article published this week, there are over 97,000 Sri Lankan refugees living in 117 campuses and 60,000 outside the camps in Tamil Nadu. After particular incidents of violence, large numbers flee to India, with 16000 refugees having arrived in India in a six week period between Jan-Feb 2007 and 6000 in August 2006, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
I also heard from the aid workers I went that Indian authorities closely monitor who visits these camps, and in Chennai, Indian friends warned me that I would be followed. But unlike in places like Jaffna, where I was sure I was being followed around, I didn’t get any sense of being followed or intruded by any intelligence officers.
Running away from fear and insecurity
Many people I spoke to were from Pesalai, a place I had enjoyed some of the best seafood for many years, including last December. One woman described how they had run to seek refugee in the church, having heard that the Navy was after them, shooting houses, burning boats and shooting at fishermen. â€œWe ran to the church because we thought we would be safe there, but they threw grenades there while we were inside. One women was killed and around 50 injured” she recounted. â€œIf the Navy also attacks the church, we have no place to go with our children, that’s why we came here” another woman told us.
Another woman recounted the killing of a whole family in Vankalai, another village close to Pesalai. She mentioned that they have been scared after that incident, and after the attack on the Pesalai church, she had decided to leave, as she felt it’s not safe for her children.
Many in the camp had suffered greatly due to the war. The only son of one woman had been killed several years back. Another women’s husband had been shot in the arm and seriously wounded as he was returning home after fishing. He had survived, but the family had decided to flee the country, as the husband had been called by the Navy for questioning.
One man mentioned that he had to leave two sons behind, one had been recruited by the LTTE. Another woman said she had not seen recruitment by the LTTE, but that she had heard about it. â€œWho can we trust? We thought LTTE was fighting on our behalf, but we are not sure now” said another man.
Another women whose children had been sick in the boat journey, said that before coming here, every time she heard a blast, which is fairy regular, she would get scared and worry about the children. â€œSometimes I run to the school to make sure they are ok” she said.
There were also some people from around Murunkan, who had come to India, to protect their children and families from imminent battles. â€œwhen the army and the LTTE start to attack each other, it is us innocent people who get caught in the middle, so we decided to run away till the fighting stops” one young man with a 3 year old baby told us.
Gone home in better times, but forced to flee again
Several people have been to India before as refugees. â€œMy family was here for four years in the 1990s, it was so difficult to live hear, so we went back when we thought things were better. But as fighting started again, we had no choice but to come back, however much we will have to suffer hear” was how one person expressed his experience.
Amongst those who had fled from the Murunkan area was one man, who had fled to India for the 3rd time. â€œTwice, I went back when things were looking better, but both times I had to run away again. I don’t know whether I should ever go back again, as who can tell what will happen after sometime, even if there is peace?” I didn’t know what to say, so just responded with a vague statement about not losing hope, which I know wouldn’t have meant much.
Living as refugees
One fishermen told me that he had been earning as much as Rs, 2,000 â€“ 3,000 per day in Sri Lanka, and now he is reduced to casual jobs, which are uncertain.
It appeared that most men somehow manage to do some work. It was not clear whether this is legally allowed by the Tamil Nadu state government, but it seemed as if it was at least tolerated. Indeed, if they were not allowed to work, these families would not survive. They were receiving rations of 12kg of rice and an allowance of around Rs. 1,000 (Sri Lankan rupees) for adults and Rs. 250 for a child, depending on the age. Vegetables, fish, meat etc. have to be purchased by the families. Children are also allowed to go to local schools and a NGO conducts additional evening classes. I also heard that arrangements have been made by these groups to facilitate some of the children to sit for Sri Lankan G.C.E. Ordinary and Advanced level exams. Being mainly Catholic, many also mentioned the support they receive from the Priest in a nearby church. When we were there, we met a religious sister who visits them regularly, as well as 12 other camps located in the Dharmapuru area.
Many had come with almost nothing, but they been provided some kitchen utensils by various non governmental and church groups. They had also been provided canvas sheets, and these are being used to demarcate a â€œroom” for each family within the large hall.
Impatient to go backâ€¦but only when they sense peace and security
Almost everyone I spoke to said they yearn to go back. Some even said they are hoping they can go back this year. â€œNothing like our own country, so we want to go back. But we will only go when there is no fighting and when our security is guaranteed” said one women, who spoke to me in fluent Sinahlese. She said she has been following the news closely on radio, and was quick to ask about my family when I mentioned I live near Mount-Lavinia, where several people were seriously injured in a bus bomb few days ago, while I was in India.
â€œWe face a lot of difficulties here, but at least we can sleep in peace, without worrying about bombs” said other women, who was also keen to go back as soon as possible.
Hoping for a â€œpeace beyond all fear”
We were warmly welcome to the humble dwelling, and the inmates laid out mats which they use for sleeping, to let us sit. The building was very warm, but the warmth of the people helped me to bear this. We were served cakes, fruits and tea on arrival. An old women, who spoke some Sinhalese, repeatedly asked me about lunch, and finally, we were served with a wonderful meal, Sri Lankan style. A religious sister working in the camp told me that they would have bought this rice from outside, as this seemed much better than what they get through the rations.
Before, I had always enjoyed the hospitality of people in and around Mannar, including Pesalai and Murunkan, where most of the people I met yesterday had come from. I had enjoyed their hospitality and warm friendship, even in their desperate situation as refugees.
As I remember the faces of these peoples and their stories, I remember the words in John Denver’s song â€œare they not some dear mother’s childâ€¦or are they just like falling leaves who give themselves away, from dust to dust, from seed to shear and to another day”
And thinking back, looking towards the future, I only hope as John Denver does when ending his song, for a â€œpeace beyond all fear” in my country. And that I could one day enjoy the hospitality of these peoples again, in better circumstances, in their own homes.