Escape from Hell: Refugees Flee Sri Lankan War Zone

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A government soldier looks over civilians who fled an area still controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on Friday.

Rageswari, a 40-year-old mother of three in northern Sri Lanka, had been running from bullets, shell fire and artillery fire for more than a year. But last week she and thousands of other Tamil civilians had nowhere else to run, caught between the Tamil Tigers and the advancing Sri Lankan government forces working to retake all the land that has been under rebel control since early 2008. Her village, Periyatampanei, was once part of a vast swath of Tiger territory, but upon the first signs of danger last March, she and her family moved deeper into Tiger-held areas. But after fleeing 90 miles (150 km) over the course of 13 months, Rageswari finally crossed the frontlines last week — dodging gunfire from the Tigers, according to the Sri Lankan army, as she headed for safety behind government lines. (See Pictures of the Week.)

She was one of some 110,000 civilians who have poured out of the war zone — a fast-shrinking sliver of land still under Tiger control — since April 20 when the army broke through a key embankment in an effort to bring an end to the 25-year conflict with the ethnic separatists.

In February the government established a no-fire zone, requesting civilians to move into it to escape the fighting. Once the last remaining Tiger units had also moved into the zone, the government accused the Tigers of firing at troops from within the safe zone. Aid agencies have reported fighting within the zone in recent weeks. "No one is safe inside the safe zone,"says Neil Buhne, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka. "The Tigers are conscripting to fill depleted cadre levels, the military is advancing and civilians in close proximity face extreme danger."

The Sri Lankan government estimates some 15,000 civilians are still trapped in the war zone; the U.N. says the number could be as high as 50,000. And food and medicine have been in short supply on the Tigers' side of the line. "For a family of four, they would give rations sufficient for two," Rageswari said, three days after fleeing the fighting while meeting a group of journalists flown in by the Sri Lankan military to Putumattalan, about a kilometer (half a mile) from the frontline.

Why are so many people risking death by crossing the firing line? Because, as Rageswari explained, they realized they are trapped. "The Tigers always made sure that a large number of civilians fell back with them when they retreated," she said. "Finally there was nowhere else for us to go. When we heard soldiers using loudhailers (megaphones) and calling people to come out, I thought there was no point staying here and risking death. I might as well risk death and run, so I ran with my family."

According to the Associated Press, a memo the U.N. circulated among Colombo-based diplomats reported that more than 6,400 civilians had been killed and 13,000 injured in the last three months. Buhne declined to comment on these figures for TIME. What's indisputable, however, is the humanitarian crisis the exodus is creating. "The massive influx within three days has completely overwhelmed the resources available," Buhne said. "We have to act fast."

Five-star hotels some 155 miles (250 km) away in Colombo have made available their kitchens and staff to cook meals that are then airlifted to refugees. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama appealed for help last week, asking "our friends in the international community" to provide emergency relief aid "initially by way of semipermanent shelter, water purification plants, sanitation facilities and medical assistance."

UNICEF and the U.N.'s refugee agency, UNHCR, are airlifting emergency supplies to the island nation over the weekend. The U.S. and France have pledged field hospitals while the European Union has committed $22 million in assistance. But the U.N. last week warned that the response to its emergency appeal in February for $155 million for Sri Lanka had brought in less than a third of that amount by the time thousands of civilians began flooding into refugee camps last week.

Meanwhile, several countries are trying to help forge a truce — or at least a temporary suspension of fighting — so government troops can get the remaining civilians out of the war zone. The Sri Lankan president met with high-ranking officials from India, just after its government condemned the killing of Tamil civilians. The U.S. has also expressed concern over the dangers faced by civilians, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is expected to visit the country in the coming days. The Tigers have indicated their willingness to agree to a truce but, according to U.N. officials, are still preventing civilians from leaving.

Buhne told TIME that the government had agreed to let his team send experts into the no-fire zone for a short assessment visit. "There will be a cessation of hostilities during the time the team remains in the no-fire zone," he said. "The purpose is to assess the situation there and also identify means to get the remaining civilians out."

For those still stuck behind Tiger lines, time is running out. Many are suffering from dysentary and untreated gunshot wounds. "The longer they remain inside, the more desperate they will be," Buhne said.