VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - The Tamil Tigers gave V. Rasamalar no choice in how she would die -- the separatist rebels told her she would die alongside them in Sri Lanka’s war zone.
But the mother of two escaped heavy fighting and fled to an army-controlled area. She and her children are now living with about 1,000 other refugees in a military-run transit camp in the northern city of Vavuniya.
“The organization said we were going to die anyway if we crossed to the army-controlled area and told us to die with them,” said 48-year-old Rasamalar, who fled the northern town of Udayarkattu when soldiers fought their way into it.
More than 36,000 Tamils since January 1 have fled to government-controlled areas, running from the final battles of a 25-year-old war and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels who tried to force them to stay.
“After a long time, at least me and my two children are relieved from hearing the sound of shells and life in a bunker,” she told Reuters at a school converted into one of 15 temporary homes for Tamil refugees.
On the run for weeks or months, refugees say they faced the wrath of the rebels, constant combat, perpetual fear and little food or water.
“There is scarce food. Even 15-year-old youth are being forcibly recruited by the LTTE. We were not allowed to leave the war zone. This is the situation of over 200,000 Tamils in that area,” S. Selvekumar told Reuters.
Formerly a security guard for an international aid agency, Selvekumar escaped at night in a boat that was rescued by the Sri Lankan navy. But he left his sister behind and still does not know now where she is.
“DON‘T KNOW THEIR FATE”
Aid agencies estimate that 200,000 Tamils are now squeezed into a 12-km long stretch of land on the northeastern coast which the army has declared as a no-fire zone. The government says there are no more than 70,000 people there, along with the LTTE.
Soldiers are less than 5 km (2 miles) away, and commanders expect they will face a final showdown with the Tigers there -- one in which they will have to fight carefully to prevent any civilian casualties.
Ariyakutti Velayutham, a 72-year former manager of a Hindu temple who escaped on a Red Cross ship bringing out sick and wounded people, now spends his days fearing for the safety of his children and grandchildren.
“I do not know the fate of my two sons, a daughter, and a grandson who had been hiding from being forcibly recruited by the LTTE,” he said in the presence of government officers.
He said the LTTE had fired artillery from populated areas, “compelling the army to target us.” The military denies targeting civilians, but has acknowledged some may have been killed.
“There were radio messages by the LTTE saying that once we got into government-controlled areas, females would be raped and males would be tortured, but nothing has happened,” he said.
Some refugees complained that life in the refugee camp is just as hard as life in LTTE territory.
“I sometimes feel that we are now imprisoned in this refugee camp, after being held as prisoners by LTTE for a long time,” 42-year-old S. Babu told Reuters.
At one camp, Reuters saw more than 100 refugees trying to speak to relatives over a camp wall.
The government says the restrictions are temporary, to give them time to weed out LTTE infiltrators and to ensure the rebels do not try to repeat a suicide attack that killed 30 people on February 9 at a refugee registration center.
The government plans to transfer most refugees to temporary villages with schools and other facilities, with homes for each family. The government says people will be placed with others from their home areas.
Editing by Bryson Hull