Sri Lanka Hails Victory; Refugees Unsure of Future In Sri Lanka, government forces say they've won crucial victories, allowing them to cut off the rebel Tamil Tigers' supply line and secure terrain used to shell a naval base. But for 40,000 Tamil refugees displaced by civil war and a tsunami, the question is when — and how — they'll be able to return home.
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Sri Lanka Hails Victory; Refugees Unsure of Future

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Sri Lanka Hails Victory; Refugees Unsure of Future

Sri Lanka Hails Victory; Refugees Unsure of Future

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Tens of thousands of people along Sri Lanka's east coast have been driven from their homes in recent months. It's because of a new flare up in the ethnic conflict that's plague the island for years. For many people, this is the second trauma in quick succession. They also were victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans.

NPR's Philip Reeves recently returned from a visit there and filed this report.

(Soundbite of helicopter engine)

PHILIP REEVES: This is a video posted on the Internet by the government of Sri Lanka. A helicopter carrying a delegation of Sri Lankan and foreign officials is touching down. Among them is the U.S. Ambassador Robert Blake. You can see the officials comely walking away from the aircraft. Suddenly, a couple of mortars land not far away.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: There's panic. The officials run for cover. They're lucky. A few of them, including Ambassador Blake, are treated for cuts and bruises, but that's it. The delegations come to Sri Lanka's east coast to see the conditions endured by tens of thousands of people who were displaced by war and are now living in camps.

They've arrived here in Batticaloa, a mostly Tamil, a Muslim town. The area is under the control of the Sri Lankan government, but the Tamil Tigers are not far away. They're the ones who fired the mortars. This is one of main flashpoints in the renewed conflict, a war between government forces dominated by the island's Sinhalese majority, and separatists seeking a homeland within the island for Tamils. The headquarters of Bishop Kingsley Swampillai's diocese is in the middle of Batticaloa. And though this is a low-level conflict, the bishop says he regulate their shelling.

Bishop KINGSLEY SWAMPILLAI (Diocese of Batticaloa): If (unintelligible) behind me for the last one month its going on. And the children get excited, the people can't sleep in the night - old people, they become nervous.

REEVES: Here, a few miles to the north of Batticaloa, the Sri Lankan military has secured what he considers a major strategic victory. In January, it's forces took control of a coastal town called Bahari(ph). The area had been Tamil Tiger territory. Lieutenant Colonel Dashopria Gonawarina(ph) took part in the battle.

Lieutenant Colonel DASHOPRIA GONAWARINA (Sri Lankan Military): There was stiff resistance. We took almost two months to get them, so I did it with my battalion. I'm so happy with that.

(Soundbite of moving vehicle)

REEVES: The colonel's eager to show off the captured territory to a visiting foreign journalist. We drive to a picturesque village on the edge of Bahari. There are huts thatched with palm leaves, banana groves, a lagoon and small fishing boats, but no civilians.

Well, I'm standing in a village school in the middle of the playground. This would normally be a busy place thrumming with children, but listen.

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

REEVES: It's more or less disserted here, apart from a few soldiers. This community has left the area. It's the second time it's being displaced in a very short period because the people who lived here were also the victims of the tsunami.

Thousands of Tamils, mostly poor farmers and fishermen, died in the tsunami along Sri Lanka's east coast. Afterwards, money poured in from overseas to build new houses for the survivors. Standing with the colonel, we look at some new homes which didn't last long.

We're looking at, I don't know, several dozen new, kind of, cottages with red-tiled roofs. They're burned. There's bullet marks all over some on the walls. Some of them are still more or less intact. I would say maybe half of them -would that be right? About half of them badly damaged.

Lt. Col. GONAWARINA: Yeah, that's right.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

REEVES: Back down the coastal road, in a refugee camp in Batticaloa, hundreds of people line up for a handout of rations.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

REEVES: They've been here for months, living in tents. Some are from Bahari. They say they just want to return home. The Sri Lankan government says that'll happen soon, but there are landmines to be cleared first. No one here seems convinced by this. Some Tamils say the government's trying to change the demographics on Sri Lanka's east coast, putting Sinhalese people in land vacated by Tamils. Among the crowd is a Tamil woman called Mahalingam Bijerani(ph).

Ms. MAHALINGAM BIJERANI (Tamil Refugee): (Through translator) This is our life. I have been displaced a number of times - number of times.

REEVES: She's 30, but she has been displaced by war so many times in her life, she's lost count. Now she's homeless again, thanks to an ethnic conflict that shows no sign of abating.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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