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Civilians Trapped By Sri Lanka's Civil War


For much of the last 25 years, the government in Sri Lanka, that Indian Ocean island off the tip of India, has been fighting separatists known as the Tamil Tigers. Those separatists want a homeland within the island for the minority Tamil population. Now that war may be drawing to an end. The separatists are cornered in a small parcel of land in the northern part of the island. Trouble is, an estimated 150,000 civilians are trapped there as well. They're suffering heavy casualties. U.N. officials believe 2,800 of them have been killed in just the last two months. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

(Soundbite of storm)

PHILIP REEVES: Telli Raja Emmanuel(ph) is sitting in his office. A tropical rainstorm sweeps in from the nearby Indian Ocean. Tonight Emmanuel is doing what he always does. He's worrying. His is not an everyday kind of worry. It's a nerve-shredding anxiety that makes him tap one foot constantly and flit his eyes around the room.

Mr. TELLI RAJA EMMANUEL: I am worried, frustrated, angered, sad. I don't know -I never felt this kind of, you know, fear, helpless people.

REEVES: Emmanuel's mother is among a huge crowd of civilians trapped on a battlefield. So is his sister and his six-year-old niece. A few days ago, he heard on the grapevine they are alive. Some of their friends are not.

Mr. EMMANUEL: A lot of people have been killed and no shelter and no - they are in an open space. Even my next neighbor has been killed. His daughter has been killed.

REEVES: The trapped crowd is from the island's Tamil minority. As the Sri Lankan military advanced into Tamil Tiger territory in the island's north, they've been driven into a pocket of coastal land that's now shrunk to a few square miles. Emmanuel says his mother, who's 63, and her relatives, used to live in decent homes. Now their only shelter is a plastic sheet.

Mr. EMMANUEL: They had everything. They had electricity. They had water. They had sanitation presently, they had materials, they had a space to sleep. Now they don't have anything. (Unintelligible) very miserable, can't explain it with my words, simple words.

REEVES: The Sri Lankan government does not allow journalists to go to the war zone, but you can see the plastic sheets on satellite photos of the area. There are many, many thousands of them - tiny, dark oblongs packed closely together. You can also see craters from shells that have come crashing in amongst them. International aid agencies believe the number people ensnared in this nightmare is at least 150,000. Many are small children. These people can't leave for fear of being shot by the Tamil Tigers holding them there as human shields. Staying means the constant risk of joining thousands of others killed or injured by shells and shrapnel. Sophie Romanens represents the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ms. SOPHIE ROMANENS (International Committee of the Red Cross): Yeah, it is a humanitarian crisis and we are very concerned that the situation will deteriorate if it is not possible to bring in humanitarian assistance for the population there, and also if it is not possible to continue to evacuate the wounded and sick from the area.

REEVES: There's a shortage of food and fresh water.

(Soundbite of thunder)

REEVES: Water came the other day in the form of this torrential rainstorm. It made matters worse as it flooded the trenches where the people shelter when the shells start flying. Government health officials in the area say they're only receiving a tiny fraction of the medicines they need. The Sri Lankan military is blocking medical supplies, including antibiotics and anesthetics for fear they'll fall into the hands of the Tamil Tigers, also known as the LTTE. U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake says the Sri Lankan authorities have made some efforts to send in food and other supplies, but the U.S. remains deeply concerned about the fate of the civilians.

Ambassador ROBERT BLAKE (U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka): Well, certainly if the LTTE doesn't let them go, I think we are looking at a humanitarian crisis.

REEVES: Most of these civilians are in what's supposed to be a no-fire zone. But, says Blake, both sides have been shelling in or around the area.

Ambassador BLAKE: So many, many civilians have been killed, hundreds of civilians just in the last several days, probably in the thousands since the fighting really intensified, starting at the beginning of this year. The main priority now is to have the LTTE let these people go and for the government to exercise extreme restraint to not shell into those civilian areas so that civilians can be protected.

Brigadier UDAYA NANAYAKKARA (Military Spokesman): Yes, sir. Good morning, sir.

REEVES: In his office in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara is fielding phone calls. The brigadier is spokesman for the Sri Lankan military. He dismisses reports of a humanitarian crisis and says the number of civilians in the war zone is under 70,000, less than half the aid agency's estimate. The brigadier says people have died in crossfire and claims some of these were civilians who the Tamil Tigers forced to fight, and others Tamil Tigers disguised as civilians.

Brigadier NANAYAKKARA: There's no major catastrophe going on. If anything is going on like this, they should be able to prove it with the evidence. There's no evidence to say that there is large number of civilians getting killed, large number of civilians getting injured.

REEVES: Much of the outside world isn't buying this. There's been a torrent of statements from various international bodies raising the alarm. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, recently described the situation in the war zone as absolutely desperate. She said that there's an apparent ruthless disregard for the safety of civilians and that both sides may have committed war crimes. Pillay also called for hostilities to be suspended immediately to allow all civilians to be evacuated.

(Soundbite of civilians chattering)

REEVES: Some civilians are getting out. Every few days, a couple of hundred injured people are brought here under close guard from government troops. This is a hospital in the port city of Trincomalee, 60 miles south of the war zone. The building is ringed with soldiers under the command of a colonel.

So your orders categorically are to keep out the media from this hospital?

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) medias in.

REEVES: The patients within came on a Red Cross ship after a journey along the island's east coast that lasted most of the day. For the badly injured, this journey is an agonizing ordeal. They must lie on mattresses, as the ship has no beds. The patients that arrive in Trincomalee include babies, pregnant women, and, says medical coordinator Dr. G. Gnanagunalan, a large number of badly wounded people.

Dr. G. GNANAGUNALAN (Trincomalee Hospital): Some people have lost both limbs, some people lost one limb. (Unintelligible) head injuries, lots of different kind of injuries.

REEVES: These patients are eventually dispatched to government-run camps, where they're screened and held under guard, unable to leave. No one yet knows when they'll be allowed home. It's widely expected to be months, if not years. That issue will be decided in the future. For Telli Daja Emmanuel, as he sits fretting in his office, it's the present that matters right now. He's praying his mother and his sister and his niece will get out of the war zone safely. And he's also trying to keep his worry and his anger under control.

Mr. EMMANUEL: Being a human being is very (unintelligible) I don't know, even animals don't suffer like this. I am really worried about my people. It's really unfortunate. I don't know what to do.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.