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Tamils flee war for Indian shore

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ARICHAL MUNAI, India - They wade through the surf, their suitcases on their heads and plastic bags in their hands, refugees from war in their homeland.

Behind them, the small fishing dinghy that brought them is already speeding away through the waves.

Every day, boatloads arrive on the shores of southern India, leaving their fields and fishing boats behind and even selling their jewellery to pay for the passage.

And as conflict and fear escalate, what started as a trickle of refugees in January is turning into a flood -- about 8,000 this year, including 785 arriving on Sunday and Monday alone on this narrow spit of sand which juts out from a small island on India’s southeastern coast.

They are men like Chinnathambi Pakiaraja, cradling his 15-month-old daughter in his arms, overcome with tears as he set foot on the sands of Arichal Munai after a three hour, 29-km (18-mile) boat journey.

“There were 14 of us in the boat, and the waves were high,” he said. “We got drenched and the children were crying. We left our relatives and most of our belongings behind.”

Everyone has a tale of terror in their homeland, of gunfire and shelling, violence and threats by one side or the other in Sri Lanka’s two-decade civil war, which now seems to be raging once again after four years of ceasefire.

“The army told us, if there was any incident, any violence by the militants, they would come and kill my wife, kill my child,” said Pakiaraja, a painter from Trincomalee in northeastern Sri Lanka. “How could I take that risk?”

The refugees are from Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority, mostly Hindus heading for the safe haven and relative familiarity of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Many are fishermen, too scared to ply their trade at home after clashes between the Sri Lankan navy and the “Sea Tigers”, the naval wing of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who say they are fighting for an ethnic Tamil homeland.

On land, night-time was the worst time.

“Six or seven families used to sleep huddled together in the open, the sound of gunfire all around us,” said 41-year-old Prinsa Lambert from Vankalai in northwestern Sri Lanka.

“We didn’t know who was being killed. I can’t remember when I last slept in peace.”

Lambert first fled her homeland with her husband Devaraja in 1990. Fourteen years later they took advantage of a ceasefire to return home on a ship provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

They arrived home one day before the Asian tsunami struck.

“We survived the tsunami and for a year we were happy,” she said. “But then war started, and it is misery. My children can’t study, my husband can’t work, his nets and huts on the beach have been burnt by the navy.”

Refugees pay anything from 5,000 to 8,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($50-80) per person to cross the narrow strait on a fibreglass boat. Most get across safely, but some -- like the family of Pushpam Miranda -- pay a far higher price.

“The boat was hit by a big wave and overturned,” she said, a week after arriving in a refugee camp on the Indian mainland. “My husband and the boatman tried to save my sister-in-law’s children. But the next wave took them away.”

The children were just 5 years old and 18 months. Both of their parents also drowned. Miranda’s 22-year-old son Rothman struggled and failed to save his own wife.

“They had been married just the day before we left,” she said. “Since we arrived here, he just stares at the sea.”

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