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Sri Lankans Flee Fighting, Need Humanitarian Aid


At least 30,000 people have poured to Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka to escape intensified fighting in the country's long-running war. Many say Tamil rebels are blocking their path to safety.

The train is arguably the best way to get to Vavuniya, near the front lines of Asia's longest-running war. If anything, there are fewer checkpoints. But it takes almost seven hours from Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital.

About 31,000 people, mainly Tamils, have fled here from the north as fighting intensifies between Sri Lankan security forces and rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

They are massing in at least five relief camps around the town, seen as crossroads between the mainly Sinhalese Buddhist south and the mainly Tamil Hindu north. The United Nations and other aid groups say as many as 250,000 more people remain trapped in the fighting, an estimate disputed by the Sri Lankan government, which says it is more like 75,000 people, painting a less dire humanitarian scenario.

The town is under tight security. Soldiers patrol the streets with automatic assault rifles.

Multiple checkpoints are set up along every road leading in and out of the town. Some of the checkpoints are lined with razor wire, some with sandbagged bunkers nearby and high-powered rifles poking out from horizontal slits.

Sri Lanka's government has barred independent journalists from the war zone, and they are prevented from entering the relief camps in Vavuniya as well as the government-protected safe zones farther north.

But some of those who have seen the relief camps and the safe zones worry about a looming humanitarian crisis. Some of the camps are overcrowded and lack sufficient supplies of medicine and clean water, said an aid worker who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to journalists.

Taking shelter at a school near the center of Vavuniya is Gonapinuwala Sumanasara Bikku, a gray-haired 76-year-old Sinhalese Buddhist monk who has fled his home at least three times since the first rebel uprising in 1983.

"We have been here before," he said. "In 1983, in 1996 and now, I have had to leave my home because of fighting."

In his latest escape a month ago, he hitched a ride on a tractor with seven others, including a young couple and their baby. The father is Sinhala, the mother is Tamil.

"The problem in Sri Lanka is not about ethnicity," he said. "It is a political problem that needs a political solution. The military solution is necessary to fight the terrorists."

By terrorists, he means the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which is seen by the United States and others as a terrorist organization.

In another part of the town, 17-year-old Rasendran Ranitha and her brother, Radanraj, 20, spent weeks trapped by fighting, but managed to get to Vavuniya alive and unhurt. The rest of their family was not so lucky.

They, along with their mother and younger sister, all Tamil, lived in a tiny village near Kilinochchi, formerly the rebel capital, about 120 kilometers away. Ranitha said they were walking through dense forest earlier this week to a government-protected safe zone farther south, when gunfire suddenly sprayed from out of the trees.

She said they heard shooting and dropped everything and ran. We did not know who was shooting. We lost everything, she said, crying as she gave a rare firsthand account of the violence and trauma experienced by many of those fleeing Sri Lanka's war zone.

The gunfire killed her father, who was 41.

Ranitha said, "We need this war to be over. But we will never go back to Kilinochchi." She spoke while standing with her brother, waiting in a line at the hospital entrance to be frisked by security guards before being allowed in to visit their mother and sister, who were being treated for gunshot wounds.

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