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Refugees Endure Difficult Existence in Sri Lanka

The United Nations says as many as 200,000 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, in eastern Sri Lanka, and then visited the home they had fled.

It isn't much, but for Daoud Ajith and his family, this is home.

For the past three weeks, Daoud, his wife and two young children have lived in this makeshift tent. They share it with two other families. They live on assistance from aid groups.

They are among the roughly 50,000 refugees to flee Muttur, the predominantly Muslim town that became a front line for fighting between the Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels. Fierce clashes erupted in the Muttur area more than a month ago.

Daoud and his wife carried what little they could to this refugee camp in Kantale. They were forced to leave most of their possessions behind.

"This isn't the first time we've gone through this,” he says. In 1989 and 1990 we also had to leave when the Tamil Tigers came into government territory. But no matter what happens, we want to die on our soil."

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

With ongoing artillery fire between the two sides, most of the passengers are men, who think Mutture remains too dangerous for their wives and children to visit. It wasn't meant to be this way.

The Tamil Tigers and the government signed a ceasefire deal in 2002. It was meant to help put an end to nearly two decades of civil war, and find a compromise to the rebels' demand for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.

Observers estimate that 800 people died earlier this year in ceasefire violations committed by both sides. And that was before the fighting in Muttur. There are no precise figures, but some say another 1,000 people died in the recent month of clashes alone.

Both sides claim to uphold the ceasefire. But the reasoning behind that is difficult for many here to fathom, when checkpoints and fears for one's safety are simply a fact of life.

Muttur itself is hardly encouraging. The city is a veritable ghost town, with few daring to come back to live.

Daoud's house bears the scars of the recent fighting, which included house-to-house combat in his neighborhood, located near a military base.

Searching with a relative, Daoud says it was the impact of bombs and artillery shells landing nearby that has left clothes and furniture in heaps.

The Sri Lankan military can intercept the rebels' radio signals, Daoud says, so they knew the rebels had infiltrated a civilian neighborhood. The army responded, he says, ignoring civilian lives.

Still, most of his anger is saved for the Tamil Tigers. "We've heard about the ceasefire through television and newspapers. But the Tamil Tigers infiltrated our neighborhood and started firing, and that is why residents are in this situation," says Daoud.

Moments later, an explosion nearby. Daoud says it's time to go, and leaves for a safer part of town.

The next morning, at the refugee camp in Kantale, Daoud's wife, Ajith Maheera, has taken their young son to bathe.

Daoud did not come back from Muttur on the return bus, as he promised Ajith he would.

"I'm 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 that undercurrent of fear and uncertainty that Ajith and Daoud face is shared by tens of thousands of others, displaced in what may be the first battle of Sri Lanka's renewed civil war.