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Sri Lankan Tamils Ponder Future

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

People in Sri Lanka are trying to piece their lives back together. It's been a month since the end of nearly three decades of civil war. Many people are celebrating the government's defeat of the Tamil Tigers separatists. The war has also left a lot of scars and much unsettled business - that includes the fate of several hundred thousand displaced Tamils.

NPR's Philip Reeves sent us this story from Sri Lanka.

PHILIP REEVES: This is not how Bynum Mutu Arami(ph) wants to spend his day. He's a fisherman who's used to making his living from the warm seas around Sri Lanka. Today he's marooned on land, sheltering from the blazing sun near the cramped and stuffy hut that's become his home. He's babysitting his seven month old boy.

Mr. BYNUM MUTU ARAMI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Bynum Mutu is from the island's Tamil minority. He says he used to own an acre of land on the east coast and his own small fishing boat. But several years ago, Sri Lanka's armed forces arrived to seize the area back from the Tamil Tigers who controlled it. As the conflict raged around them, Bynum Mutu and his fellow villagers fled. He's ended up here in this camp in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka. He has another child, age three. Both his children were born in the camp.

Mr. MUTU: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Bynum Mutu says he's been told he can't return to his village land, though it's been in his family for generations.

Mr. MUTU: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The authorities offered to resettle him on land in another area, he explains. But he declined, complaining it wasn't properly irrigated and was too far from the sea. So for now he's staying put, earning a little money every now and then by doing odd jobs in town.

In another camp nearby, other Tamils have similar stories.

GANESHA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: This woman, Ganesha, and her family had a small farm until the war ruined everything. She, too, is a camp veteran of three years who turned down the offer of resettlement because she wants to go home to her own land.

When you ask these people what they feel about what's happened to them, they rarely give a direct reply. Many are still too frightened to speak out. Sri Lankans tend to disguise their more painful emotions with a smile. Ganesha tries this but is suddenly overwhelmed.

(Soundbite of sobbing)

REEVES: Her son-in-law has disappeared, she explains. She and her daughter depended on him. She's sure he's dead.

(Soundbite of sobbing)

REEVES: If Ganesha wants to travel out of town she must get official permission. But she is allowed to come and go from the camp - a quarter of a million Tamils in northern Sri Lanka are not. Many of them were caught up in the last bloody phase of the war. They were trapped as the Sri Lankan army moved in on the Tamil Tigers, finally wiping out the rebels.

Now they're trapped again in crowded government internment camps. Only the very young and the old have been permitted to leave. The government says this is a security measure. It's searching for Tamil Tigers among them. It also says it needs time to clear landmines and rebuild infrastructure. Sri Lanka faces international pressure to free these people as soon as possible.

Lakshman Hulugalle head of the government's Media Centre for National Security, says the authorities intend to do so.

Mr. LAKSHMAN HULUGALLE (Director General Media Centre for National Security): We know that within a very short time, within a year or so, we'll be able to settle down most of these people. But there are certain areas, where the major work has to be done, that will get late.

REEVES: But these official reassurances have so far failed to quell concerns that many Tamils will end up interned for a long time, maybe years.

Mr. TILLEY RAJA IMMANUEL(ph): I am worried, frustrated, angered, sad.

REEVES: Those interned Tamils include the sister of this man. That's Tilley Raja Immanuel speaking to NPR in March. Back then he was desperately worried. His sister was trapped on the battlefield, so was his mother. He's since discovered that both escaped, though with difficulty. His sister had an unusual problem. Years ago, she lost a leg when her village was shelled. She has an artificial limb, but in the final days of the war, this was damaged in an artillery strike. She limped out of the battle zone without it and was then dispatched to a government camp. Immanuel says he is, of course, greatly relieved the two women are safe.

Mr. IMMANUEL: But it's still - I am very disappointed because a lot of people have been killed. There've been number. The damage is very high. A lot of our relatives, a lot of friends have been killed there. More than 50, I counted.

REEVES: His mother, who's 63, was recently released from camp. That's also a relief for Immanuel, although he is worried her condition.

Mr. IMMANUEL: She is not like she used to be. She used to be a very brave person. But this time she feels bitter, very disappointed. And she doesn't talk too much outside - they're people who have been seriously traumatized.

REEVES: It will be a long, long time before the scars of war heal in Sri Lanka. Immanuel acknowledges the island's Ceylonese majority also suffered severe losses. He says he understands why they're now celebrating victory. But he hopes they won't forget the needs of the many Tamil civilians whose lives were ruined by war.

Mr. IMMANUEL: The affected people need the help. They don't have any hope but they should have a future. It's going to be very, very difficult because they lost everything. They're almost like beggar on the street now.

REEVES: 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.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.