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‘They took me to Colombo and tortured me’

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Former vegetable vendor Dharmaselan lost his leg and arm in an aerial bombing over strife-torn northern Sri Lanka several years ago.

But he says government soldiers did not believe him when they began harassing him again earlier this year as violence escalated in the region.

“The army kept stopping and asking me questions. They said I must be LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) because I had no leg,” said the 32 year-old father of five known only as Dharmaseelan, referring to the fighters now skirmishing daily with government troops.

“I feared for my family, so I left.”

The vegetable seller from Jaffna district joined tens of thousands fleeing their homes amid tit-for-tat killings, disappearances and military operations that have killed more than 830 people since December amid a crumbling ceasefire.

Like many of the 10,000 people seeking refuge in LTTE-held Vanni district, Dharmaselan has been shuffled from holding centres to this resettlement camp built along a desolate stretch of road an hour south of Kilinochchi town.

Dozens of thatch-roofed shacks have been put up in a clearing hacked out of the scrub brush and forest.

But even here, in LTTE-controlled Mallavi, the fear of violence lingers, said Laurence Christy, director of the planning division with the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), as both the government and the LTTE accuse each other of waging an increasingly brutal dirty war against civilians.

“Attacks on civilians are on the increase -- bombardments, artillery shelling, terrifying families or killing people ... because of the fighting, immediately there is a kind of fear psychosis,” he said.

Both the TRO and the United Nations estimate that at least 40,000 people have been displaced by the recent violence.

Thousands have fled to neighbouring India, but countless others have been forced to find shelter with relatives, or languish in settlements much like this one in Mallavi, unable to go home.

“Right now I feel it is a manageable situation, but we are readying for a big exodus, especially with the possibility of war breaking out,” Christy said.

Rights group Amnesty International urged Colombo last week to better protect civilians caught up in the bloodletting.

“The state’s failure to provide adequate security and to ensure that attacks against civilians are prosecuted has resulted in widespread fear and panic,” said Purna Sen, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director.

“Almost every major attack in recent months has had a devastating ripple effect as people flee from their homes and villages in search of sanctuary.”

Like many of those who have fled, Dharmaselan’s past traumas came crashing into the present as the violence worsened.

“I lost my leg during a bombardment, and because of the bombing now, I fear a return to war,” he said, standing on a battered prosthetic limb. Thick welts ringed his neck and the remains of his left arm were tucked into his shirt.

Four young relatives were killed in the beginning of the year, and Dharmaselan’s own troubles with security forces heightened the sense of panic.

“They took me to Colombo and tortured me - they held me under water, or tied a bag over my head and poured petrol over it. I could not breathe,” he said, adding he had twice been arrested and tortured in the past.

Dharaselan was freed after three months without being charged with any crime, he said.

Nearby, 55-year-old Pavalakaili, held up her left forearm, badly scarred by a bullet that shattered her wrist during fighting in 1987.

Waving yellowing disability cards that entitled her to assistance during earlier upheavals, she said she left her home in Jaffna district after a cousin and son-in-law were gunned down while returning to work.

“The army was coming around knocking on doors, harassing us,” she said.

Eight similar settlements have been established around the Vanni area, and refugees are also being kept with friends of family in another 50 villages, TRO’s Christy said.

But as the crisis lingers on, even the most meticulous planning has failed to completely provide essentials like water, access to schools or work.

“Education is a problem - there is no transport and it is very difficult to walk,” he said, adding “water is also a problem.”

Nearby, one man, a former concrete worker, has tried to cut his own well, digging a few meters into the hard dirt before giving up.

Work is also becoming scarce as restrictions on concrete and other building materials stalls the construction sector.

“There used to be a lot of construction work, but now people are starting to complain about their livelihoods” Christy said.

Programs have been put in place to try and encourage commerce in the settlements. Dharmaselan runs a tidy, but poorly-stocked stall selling candies and small household items.

But it is barely enough.

“What can I do?” he asks.

“When there is total peace, then I will go back. “I expected that peace would come, but the recent events don’t indicate that peace will come soon.”

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