08/10/2006, 00.00
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Catholics tell of their escape from hell in the east

by Danielle Vella

More people have been displaced as clashes continue between the army and rebels although the Maavilaru canal has been reopened. A Jesuit Refugee Service worker in Muthur tells of her experience as she fled from the shelling.

Muthur (AsiaNews) - More and more civilians are being killed and displaced as army forces and rebel Tamil Tigers keep on fighting in eastern Sri Lanka. A pro-Tiger website claimed dozens of civilians were killed this morning in shelling by the army as they fled with thousands of others for safety.

A spokesman for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said the army was attacking rebel areas from ground and air and the rebels "can only interpret this as Colombo's declaration of war". The army said it had launched a "defensive" operation.

This is the worst violence since a ceasefire was signed in 2002 to end two decades of civil war. The clashes continue unabated although access to the Maavilaru water canal – the stated reason for the latest round of hostilities – has been assured by the LTTE and in spite of NGO pleas.

In a report dated 6 August, the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) called on both parties to stop shelling and for safe passage for aid to reach displaced people; many do not have access to food or medical care. An estimated 35,000 people have fled their homes in the latest upsurge of violence, seeking shelter in convents, churches, schools and makeshift camps.

The mainly Muslim town of Muthur and its whereabouts have been hardest hit: most of the residents ran away on foot to escape the shelling. Nisha, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) area coordinator, was one of those who fled.  She was staying in a convent in Muthur when shelling started on the night of 1 August.

"We were so frightened," she said. "The shelling continued the whole day. The Tamil people came to St Anthony's church, near the convent, for safety. But the church was shelled and a little boy, Aravind, was killed as he was eating his meal. Three wounded women were taken to hospital in two ambulances. One ambulance was hit by a shell on the way and the driver's wife was killed. The rest were rescued and send to Batticaloa hospital by the LTTE."

The fighting continued for the next three days. On 5 August, the people sheltering in the church decided to leave Muthur like everyone else. "We left on foot. On the way there was heavy shelling and we all lay flat on the ground. This happened many times," recalled Nisha. "We met people coming back who told us the army was not allowing them to proceed. The parish priest of Muthur, Fr Ignatius, and the sisters pleaded with the army to allow us to go further and finally they did." When the group reached the LTTE area, they were caught in heavy shelling, and "many people who came with us died there".

The rest fled in all directions. Nisha and some others managed to reach the school of a neighbouring village, Kilivetti, where they were taken to safety by the Caritas director of Trincomalee, Fr Diaz. Many others were not so fortunate. "When heavy shelling was taking place, I asked a boy who was walking with me what they would do if I was wounded?" said Nisha. "Before he could answer, a shell hit him and he was killed on the spot."

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See also
Religious visit the refugees, prisoners in the camps
Thousands of refugees living in the woods; army is blocking aid
Rajapaksa triumphs in provincial elections: a vote against the Tamils?
Jaffna Church trusts government; not so the Tigers
Government rejects ceasefire extension, fighting resumes after New Year ceasefire


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