20 June 2007
Sri Lankan authorities were rounding up hundreds of ethnic minority Tamils in the capital of Colombo, forcing them onto buses to destinations unknown.
They were allowed to return two days later , after an international uproar , but many Tamils are afraid the expulsions could mark the beginning of a new wave of persecution, and that the next knock on the door might be even more dangerous.
"I'm scared about what will happen," said the woman, Sanmugam Rasamma, who came back to Colombo after her expulsion. "I'm scared it could happen again."
For two decades, the Tamil Tigers , a highly secretive, well-armed group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and many European governments , have fought to carve out a separate homeland for the country's 3.1 million Tamils, citing decades of discrimination.
As violence has ratcheted up over the past two years, the harassment of Tamils has increased as well.
Sometimes it's petty harassment. Sometimes it's worse.
There are now far more roadside checkpoints, and Tamils usually take far longer to clear them. Tamils say they have a harder time finding work or gaining entry at universities. After rebel attacks, random Tamils , particularly the poorer ones, are often rounded up and interrogated.
There are plenty of Tamils who do not suffer harassment , a handful of cabinet posts, for instance, are held by Tamils, and there are wealthy Tamil businessmen. But stories about anti-Tamil discrimination are a constant in the minority community.
A retired literature professor recalled passing through a checkpoint without a problem when he was wearing pants and a shirt, but being stopped for hours when he went by wearing the flowing, white traditional Tamil cloak, called a vetti.
"It was a nasty experience," said the professor, who asked not to be identified, fearing retribution. "These things happen quite often in Colombo."
The reason for this: "There is a general suspicion that Tamils are potential terrorists," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank.
On June 6, authorities raided Tamil guest houses in Colombo, saying they were teeming with rebel activity and the move was a security precaution amid violence that has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the past 19 months.
The government has not said if any of the 376 people rounded up were suspected in any attacks. Rights groups called the roundups arbitrary.
The next day, after an outraged international response, the Supreme Court ordered police to stop the expulsions.
Authorities bused 186 of the expelled back to Colombo. The others chose to return to their hometowns, police said.
Thousands of Tamils have left their homes in the north and east , areas that have been wracked by bloodshed for most of the past year as government troops and Tigers battle , and come to Colombo with hopes of securing foreign visas and leaving the island.
They often stay in cheap guest houses run by Tamil families while waiting for their paperwork, a process that can take months, if it happens at all.
Now, despite the apologies for the expulsions, many fear what could happen next.
"We were taken from the lodge so the manager and others knew what happened, but if you're caught alone, no one would know what was happening," said a young man who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
"I'll sleep afraid tonight," he said. "Every night now, I'm afraid."
The police often came to the hotel in the early morning to check the registry, particularly after Tiger attacks, said S. Yathavan, the hotel owner's son.
But this time was different.
"They said, 'Pack your bags, we have to send you back to your own place,'" said Yathavan.
Rasamma, who said she was 65 but appeared older, knelt before the four policemen at her bedroom door, touching their feet to ask for mercy, she said.
But they did not listen.
"We were not told where we were being taken," she said.
Twelve hours later, the bus stopped at Vavuniya, the last government-held garrison town south of the LTTE-held areas. Other buses went to Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the restive east.
The group of roughly 30 Tamils were taken to a school yard, where they were given sleeping mats, Rasamma said. Human rights groups came the next day to take down names, and that evening they got back on buses to Colombo , scared, tired, but safe.
"We didn't do anything wrong," said Rasamma, who is hoping to join a son in Canada, and is more determined than ever to leave Sri Lanka.
"Until then, I hope nothing bad happens again," she said.