B. Muralidhar Reddy
The distance was only about 1.5 km, but it was a journey fraught with risks
COLOMBO: The old and the young, men and women and children, all ran alike, carrying on their heads and shoulders whatever they could, towards the Sri Lanka military checkpoint from the no fire zone (NFZ) where they were being held hostage at gunpoint by a group of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leaders and cadres led by Velupillai Prabakaran.
In the approximately 1.5km they had to cover fromtheir captors to the militarycheckpoint, they braved bulletsand blasts. Despite havingbeen indoctrinated foryears to see the Sri Lanka militaryas nothing but the devilincarnate,they preferred thecompany of the unknowndeep sea, read the securityforces, to the known devil,read the LTTE.
It has been dubbed as theworld's largest hostage rescueoperation. The escape ofover 58,000 Sri Lankan civilianstrapped in the NFZ perhapshas few parallels inrecent history. What began asa trickle turned into an avalanchewithin 24 hours afterthe Sri Lanka security forcessucceeded in breaking the 3sq km earthen wall built bythe Tigers.
The wall-cum-ditch had atwin purpose - to halt themilitary advance as well as toforcibly stop the citizenscaught in the crossfire. Thedoggedness of the militaryand the desperation of the civiliansto reach safety dealt amassive blow to the Tigermission.
Terrorised for weeks anddeprived of even the basic necessitiesof life for months,the civilians were clearlytired of being perpetually onthe run since the currentphase of war began in August2006.
Among the civilians whocrossed over on Monday includedthose who have beendisplaced over and over, adozen times. As the Sri LankaArmy advanced and the Tigersretreated, the civiliansfollowed the latter. Some ofthem went willingly and othershad no other option.
With the Army ousting theTigers from nearly 15,000 sqkm of territory that the Tigerslorded over before thestart of `Eelam IV,' ironicallythe remaining Tiger leadersand cadres themselves becamethe refugees among thevery people they claimed torepresent solely. The civiliansbecame for the Tigers avirtual shield against the militaryonslaught on them.
The sudden upsurge of refugeesposes an enormouschallenge for the government.It is a gigantic task tocater to their short, mediumand long term needs and seethem through their transition,from temporary campsto resettlement.
Steps for succour
President Mahinda Rajapaksaon Tuesday ordered officialsto gear up for a majorrelief operation. The InternalDisplaced Camps in Vavuniyaand other areas braced for thearrival of Tamil civilians.
Government Agent anddistrict secretary for Vavuniya,P.S.M. Charles, said thefacilities at the temporarywelfare centres in Vavuniyahad been expanded on thePresident's instructions.
The commander of 58 Division,Brigadier Shivendra Silva,said humanitarianoperations were on in fullswing. He said troops had rescuedover 52,000 hostagesover the past 24 hours.
Vavuniya camp is home tomore than 63,000 refugees.Of them 19,000 were beingaccommodated at ArunachalamWelfare Village and8,500 at Kadirgamar WelfareVillage. The rest were in 13transit camps in and aroundVavuniya. Authorities wereshifting people to the maincamp as and when new houseswere built.
The other displaced Tamilcivilians were settled in Mannar,Jaffna and Chalai camps.Minister of Resettlement andDisaster Relief Services RishadBadiuddin said three committeeshad been appointedto look after them, each with adifferent function.