COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Civilians fleeing the besieged Tamil community of Jaffna on Thursday described a terrified city without electricity and food, where most residents have abandoned their homes for school campuses that serve as refugee camps.
"People are suffering. Most people are trying to get to refugee camps. Many people have not eaten or slept for four days," said a 25-year-old business student at Jaffna University who escaped Thursday morning. He said one refugee camp, at the large Hindu temple in the Nallur area of the city, has more than 50,000 refugees camped on the grounds.
The student was among 43 passengers on a private bus that arrived here Thursday night. They are among the first Tamils to escape the city and reach Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, since fighting broke out Saturday between Tamil Tiger guerrillas and the Indian army.
The bus driver said he left Jaffna using back streets but had to pass through two Indian army checkpoints and one manned by Tamil guerrillas of a group who oppose the Tigers before they reached Colombo.
The journey took 17 hours. When the bus stopped in Vavuniya, 60 miles south of Jaffna, so passengers could eat curry and rice, it was their first meal in three days.
"We were running for our lives," said the student. He and another Jaffna University student talked with reporters on the condition their names not be used. They said they fear for the lives of their families still living in Tamil areas.
Because Indian authorities have banned journalists from the Jaffna Peninsula since they began military operations there Saturday, the reports are among the first independent accounts of conditions in Jaffna, the main city in the majority-Tamil northern area of this island nation.
Indian Air Attacks Seen
Compared to Sri Lankan military campaigns in the area last spring, the passengers said, the Indian forces appeared to take greater care to avoid civilian targets. Nevertheless, they reported at least 12 civilians killed, including a family of six blown up in their house by an Indian mortar shell, and six students killed at Jaffna University during an Indian commando attack by helicopter.
The passengers said Indian aircraft have bombed and strafed some areas. The Indians say they have refrained from using air power precisely to avoid excessive civilian casualties.
The passengers reported that Tamil Tiger guerrillas still control the main parts of Jaffna, which has a peacetime population of about 120,000. However, they said the estimated 2,500 Tiger fighters have assumed a suicide attitude against the 6,000 Indian troops who are advancing on the city from four directions.
One of the passengers said the Tigers have broadcast messages to Tamil people through megaphones on street corners.
"The boys (Tigers) say they cannot possibly win against the giant Indian army but they are still fighting for their rights," said one passenger. "They are like a suicide squad. I think they want to die."
The Tigers, mostly men in their early 20s who are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam separatist organization, have also hung blackboard slates with scribbled messages from lamp posts at key intersections. These so-called "voice of the Tigers" slates indicated that by Thursday, only 16 Tigers had died in fighting, the passengers said. Indian authorities said Thursday that they had killed 380 Tigers.
The two student passengers said they witnessed a disastrous attack Sunday night by a Sikh regiment. They said the Indian soldiers landed by helicopter on a cemetery near the medical faculty at Jaffna University and begin building sandbag bunkers when a Tiger counterattack overran the position, killing 26 of the Indians.
In the first stage of the Indian offensive, they said, street hawkers were selling cookies and biscuits for inflated prices. And a jar of kerosene that normally costs seven rupees (25 cents) was selling for 40 rupees ($1.40). But the hawkers have disappeared and all of the stores in the city remained closed.
The passengers said Tiger fighters, who normally depend on residents for food, were surviving on lemon cookies and a locally made green soft drink called Nelli Crush.
On Wednesday, the Indian spokesman in Colombo said government authorities in Jaffna estimated that 375,000 civilians had been forced to flee their homes to safety camps designated by the Indians at high school campuses.
But Thursday, the Indians said they were still having trouble supplying the refugees with food and other supplies.
"The refugees are suffering a lot of hardships," the spokesman said.
He said the Tigers are not allowing civilians to leave the areas they control. "They are holding the Tamil population hostage."
The bus passengers said there was little doubt in the city that the Indians would eventually triumph over the outnumbered Tigers, or that the Tigers would continue to fight until they died.
"In a week's time," said one of the students, "the Indians should take over. The Tigers will be dead."