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Sri Lanka's war returns to haunt civilians

Written by: Staff
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AL AYSHA REFUGEE CAMP, Sri Lanka, Sep 14 (Reuters) It wasn't the rocket explosions or the air raids that brought Sri Lanka's civil war home to me. It was the pain in Nafeena Rahim's bloodshot eyes and the anger in her voice.

When she searched me out in the dusty tracks between tents in this overcrowded refugee camp in Sri Lanka's volatile east, she was desperate to share her tale.

A Muslim mother-of-four, she had led her family on a 10-hour trek to safety through fields as Tamil Tiger rebels battled troops in the latest flare-up in a civil war that has displaced them yet again.

''I have just the dress I am standing in,'' she said, her lip quivering as others shied away from a reporter's questions, peering out of the new-found security of their bare shelters.

''Life has been going on like this for 20 years, running here and there. I want my children to study and to be able to go back home but we are afraid.'' Villages like hers south of Trincomalee, a port 145 miles (230 km) northeast of the capital Colombo, have been ravaged by the collapse of a 2002 truce in Sri Lanka's 23-year-old war.

Artillery shells and mortar bombs have left homes and mosques in ruins close to front lines in this district of paddy fields, palm trees and reservoirs. More than 200,000 people have been driven from their homes in the north and east since late July.

More than 1,800 people live in this camp of 108 tents alone.

Rahim shares a modest tent -- suffocating under the scorching midday sun -- with 12 others.

CIVILIANS BEAR THE BRUNT While hundreds of soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed in fighting, ghost towns and villages a few miles from the Tigers' forward defence lines make it clear that civilian life is bearing the brunt.

Some survivors brave continued mortar fire and shelling to see what they can salvage from their ruined homes. They warn their children not to pick anything up, for fear of unexploded ordnance.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) pride themselves on running a tight ship in their own territory with law courts and even speedgun-wielding traffic police.

Successive governments have resisted their demands for a homeland for minority Tamils in the northeast in a war that has killed more than 65,000 people since 1983.

The impact of the fighting is being felt across Sri Lanka, from the empty tourist resorts along the tsunami-battered eastern and southern shores to the capital Colombo, where office workers file past soldiers with assault rifles.

Dinner out usually involves a stop at one of countless green sandbag checkpoints that have sprung up across the capital.

When shipping containers are dropped with a thud in the docks across town, the mind races and the stomach sinks for those only too familiar with periodic bomb blasts.

Sri Lankans have had years to acclimatise, particularly in the north and east, where years of past fighting are still evident on the pockmarked walls of homes and shops.

But they are sick of having to restart their lives over and over again.

''There is firing in the morning. At night it is not safe here,'' said displaced businessman M Y H Imam, visibly tense as mortar bombs exploded in the distance.

''This is no life,'' he added despondently after stopping on his motorbike amid the debris in his village of Palai Nagar near rebel lines south of Trincomalee harbour.

REUTERS DKA PM1133

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