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Sri Lanka Fighting Traps Thousands in Jaffna

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The U.S. and Italian ambassadors to Sri Lanka have become the latest victims in that country's decades-long rebel insurgency. The two diplomats had just made a helicopter landing in a major eastern city when their craft came under fire by Tamil Tiger rebels.

MONTAGNE: Officials say the two men were slightly wounded in the attack. A spokesperson for the Tamil Tigers apologized saying it mistook the helicopter for a military target, and accuses the Sri Lankan Army of putting the ambassadors in harm's way.

INSKEEP: And let's stay in Sri Lanka for this next story, where for months now half a million people have been, in effect, cut off in the northern tip of the country. Their home is the Jaffna Peninsula. That peninsula is controlled by the Sri Lankan government. The territory just south of it is in the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels.

MONTAGNE: In August, the road linking Jaffna to the rest of the island was cut after the Tamil insurgency flared up again. Jaffna's residents say that since then they'd been living in an open prison land, a very frightening one.

NPR's Philip Reeves has been talking to some of them.

PHILIP REEVES: On the busy streets of downtown Colombo, it's hard to tell anything's wrong. There's little sign this is the capital of a tropical island where some 4,000 people have died in little more than a year, and several hundred thousands have fled their homes.

There are roadblocks and soldiers on the city streets, but shops and restaurants are bustling. Which is very different from the place 21-year-old Arasso Hasirimasha(ph) left just a few hours ago. Arasso is sitting in an airline office in Colombo catching his breath. He's just flown in from Jaffna. He was lucky enough to get a flight out.

Mr. ARASSO HASIRIMASHA (Resident, Jaffna): (Speaking in foreign language)

REEVES: He explains it took him weeks to get permission to leave and secure a seat on the plane. He now plans to head for England to try to get a job. In a small house down a narrow alleyway, Sarsuaki Palai(ph) is planning her new life. She arrived a couple of weeks ago with two of her daughters, eager to get them out of the conflict zone and into a school in Colombo.

There are now daily flights from Jaffna and there are also ships. But waiting lists run into thousands. Those wanting to leave undergo a lengthy vetting process by the Sri Lankan military. They're trying to make sure they're not members of the Tamil Tigers. For many weeks, Sarsuaki went everyday to stand in line. Sometimes, she says people's frustration boiled over.

Ms. SARSUAKI PALAI (Resident, Jaffna): (Through translator) There had been lot of people waiting in the queue, and there had been a stampede, and a wall has been collapsed, and a lot of people injured while they're waiting in the queue.

REEVES: Most of the people on the Jaffna Peninsula are members of the island's Tamil minority. Three are many reasons for them to try to leave. Prices for food and other essential items have rocketed since the road was cut. A coconut, a staple food in Sri Lanka, costs eight times more than it used to. Some medicines are also in short supply.

Contacting people on the Jaffna Peninsula can be difficult - the phones are unreliable and sometimes cut. But it can be done.

(Soundbite of phone dialing)

REEVES: On a poor quality line, NPR reached the bishop of Jaffna - Thomas Savundrayanagam. He says people in Jaffna are struggling to get by.

Reverend THOMAS SAVUNDRANAYAGAM (Bishop, Jaffna): People have no money because they have no work. Fishing is very much limited, and there is no other work here, no building work, development work, nothing is going on.

REEVES: But the biggest worry of the people of Jaffna is not about food process, nor is it about the curfews that start everyday at sunset, or the power cuts in some places, or the sound almost every night of the shells flying back and forth from nearby Tiger-held territory.

Safe now in her new home in Colombo, Sarsuaki Palai says the biggest worry in Jaffna is about people who just disappear.

Ms. PALAI: (Through translator) More than the population is abductions, maybe youngsters, maybe married people, been taken away, and next day their wives or the parents who - get on the streets, and they're screaming. These are part of day-to-day life in Jaffna.

REEVES: Bishop Savundrayanagam says more than 500 people have gone missing or been killed in Jaffna in the last few months.

Rev. SAVUNDARAYANAGAM: People vanish suddenly at night during the curfew, when everyday at night we have curfew. And during that time, the people are abducted and they disappear. We don't know who has taken them away. And also people are killed, and their bodies are found all over the place.

REEVES: Human rights activists say some of these killings and abductions are committed by the Sri Lankan security forces, or a breakaway Tamil paramilitary faction linked to them. And some are the work of the Tamil Tigers.

Mr. ROHAN EDRISINHA (Legal Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo): There's a culture of fear partly brought about by the isolation now of the people of Jaffna.

REEVES: Rohan Edrisinha is from the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank. He says although abductions and killings have been going on for months, Sri Lanka's law enforcement agencies have yet to identify the culprits.

Prof. EDRISINHA: The human rights community, civil society in Sri Lanka is extremely concerned about this phrase that is on everyone's lips: the culture of impunity and the growing culture of impunity in Sri Lanka today.

REEVES: No one in Sri Lanka feels that concern more acutely than the frightened people of Jaffna.

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.