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Sri Lanka Fighting Forces Families From Homes

As many as 170,000 people in northern and eastern Sri Lanka have been displaced in recent weeks by fighting between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces. VOA's Patricia Nunan recently met with a family living in a refugee camp in the town of Kantale, and then visited the home they had fled.

Sitting beneath the plastic tarp that forms the roof of his temporary shelter, 35-year-old Daoud Ajith relaxes with his wife, young son and infant daughter.

The family has spent nearly three weeks living in the makeshift tent, with nothing more than an old blanket serving as their floor. But it is safer here, in a refugee camp in the eastern town of Kantale, than at their home.

Like tens of thousands of others, Daoud's family fled fighting in the town of Muttur, 56 kilometers to the east in the Trincomalee district. It has been the scene of the some of the worst fighting in the past four weeks of clashes between the government and the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group, which threaten to push Sri Lanka back into civil war.

Daoud says this is not the first time the family has gone through this. In 1989 and 1990, they were displaced because Tamil Tigers infiltrated government territory. But no matter what happens, he says, they want to die on their soil.

Today, for the first time since fleeing, Daoud has decided to take a bus sponsored by the government to visit Muttur, to check on his house, and then return to the camp at night.

With the government and Tamil Tigers still exchanging intermittent artillery fire, most evacuees refuse to spend the night in Muttur. And, like Daoud, most of the men who return refuse to bring their wives and children, even on a short trip.

The United Nations estimates 170,000 people have been displaced by the recent clashes - about 48,000 from the Muttur area. The U.N. says 40,000 have been displaced on the northern Jaffna peninsula, the second front to open in the past month, and the rest from other communities in Sri Lanka's north and east.

It is the worst outbreak of fighting since the government and Tamil Tigers signed a ceasefire agreement in 2002, brokered by Norway.

The truce was meant to help end two decades of conflict between the government and the rebels, who demanded a separate homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority. The rebels say they are tired of repression by the Sinhalese majority, which dominates the government.

Ceasefire monitors and aid agencies say both sides are guilty of ceasefire violations, which had killed at least 800 people this year before the fighting in Trincomalee and Jaffna broke out. There are no precise figures, but some estimate an additional 800 to 1,000 people have died in the past month.

Officials say they hope evacuees like Daoud and his family will return home within a few weeks, leaving the camps before the onset of the monsoon rains.

But Muttur is now a veritable ghost town, with shops locked up, and few people, except those who came in on the bus, walking the streets.

Distant artillery fire can still be heard, although officials say the worst of the fighting is over. Residents say it has been more than a week since artillery landed in the town.

Walking around his house, Daoud points out marks from gunfire on one of the walls. The walls and roof are intact, but inside, furniture and clothes lie in heaps, which Daoud says is from the impact of artillery shells and bombs landing nearby.

Daoud's home is a few hundred meters away from a military checkpoint, which he says was overrun by Tamil Tiger rebels, leading to house-to-house fighting in his neighborhood. The Sri Lankan military, he says, fought back with little regard for civilian lives.

The ceasefire, he says, has little meaning to the people in Muttur.

He says, they have heard about the ceasefire through television and the newspapers. But the Tamil Tigers infiltrated into the area and started firing, and that is why residents are in this situation.

Moments later, the visit is interrupted by an explosion nearby. Daoud signals it is time to go, and he leaves for a safer part of town.

The next morning, Daoud's wife, Ajith Maheera, is bathing their son in a small river in the Kantale camp.

Daoud did not come back from Muttur on the return bus, as he had promised Ajith he would. She is worried, she says, "because of all that has happened there."

It is quite possible that Daoud simply missed the bus, and would return to Kantale later that afternoon. But the uncertainty in which Ajith and Daoud now find themselves may not leave them for some time to come.