TALAIMANNAR, Sri Lanka -- The thin wisps of land here where Sri Lanka and India nearly meet look like outstretched arms straining to touch: one reaching for sanctuary, the other pulling to safety.
Pirabakaran Kumari and her three children almost connected. They set out from the Sri Lankan side on a peaceful day, the skies blue, the seas calm. Soon, as their motorboat hopscotched the waves, they caught sight of refuge in the form of a telecom tower standing tall on Indian soil.
But fate intervened - or, rather, the Sri Lankan navy, which quickly surrounded the boat and forced Kumari and her fellow passengers back to the country they were trying to flee. For two weeks, they've been staying in a makeshift refugee camp at a church here on Sri Lanka's northwest coast, only about 15 miles from India.
The people here are desperate to escape the conflict convulsing their hometowns, a spasm of violence that threatens to plunge this island nation back into all-out civil war after a few years of fragile peace. Since December, the Sri Lankan military and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have turned their official cease-fire into a fiction with near-daily attacks and counterattacks. Yesterday, 68 people were killed when two mines blew apart a bus in the deadliest attack since the truce.
Diplomats are scrambling to get the parties back to the negotiating table and away from a war of attrition that has killed 64,000 people in the past 23 years. But no one is betting on a quick return to calm, certainly not the 2,000 Sri Lankans who have crossed over to India since April or the 500 others who have flocked to this area hoping to follow suit. A dozen people have drowned making the attempt.
"If the government says we have to go back they can shoot us and take our bodies," said one elderly woman who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals against family members who stayed behind. "Or we'll pour gasoline on ourselves and burn ourselves to death. We won't go back."
Nearly all the would-be refugees come from around the eastern port city of Trincomalee, where clashes have been heaviest, including bomb attacks, shootings and slashings. They are ethnic Tamils, the minority group in whose name the rebels claim to be fighting to establish a homeland in the island's north and east, separate from the Sinhalese-dominated south and west.
The rebels, known as the Tamil Tigers, are a fierce and disciplined force, notorious for pioneering suicide bombings, recruiting children and wearing cyanide capsules around their necks for use in the event of capture. The U.S., Britain and Canada classify the Tamil Tigers as terrorists; the European Union just added the group to its list of terrorist organizations, a move the rebels warn will exacerbate tensions.
But those who have fled Trincomalee also fear the Sri Lankan army, with its history of harassment of Tamils and alleged summary killings.
"Our kids can't go to school, and if our menfolk walk along the road, they get fired on by the army," said Nisha Dharshan, 24. Her father and brother have now made it over to India.
Dharshan and many of the others housed here at St. Lawrence's Church are from the village of Uppuveli, a paradise for the tourists who started coming back after peace descended in 2002.
That blissful calm was punctured last year when a statue of Buddha was suddenly erected near Trincomalee's main market square, which local Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, saw as aggression by the Buddhist Sinhalese.
The town's delicate ethnic and religious mix then turned into a volatile brew, with tit-for-tat violence culminating in a bomb that exploded in the marketplace April 12, killing more than a dozen people. The Tamil Tigers were blamed, and a vengeful Sinhalese mob went on a rampage, setting Tamil shops ablaze and hacking some people to death while army soldiers and police officers looked on, witnesses say.
The elderly woman who refuses to go back to Trincomalee said she was shopping at the time but was lucky enough to be inside in a store that swiftly locked its doors. Her niece was caught outside.
"I saw her being killed when I was peeking through the door. She was trying to get into a three-wheel taxi when these guys pulled her out and killed her," the woman said. "I couldn't do anything."
Two weeks later, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the capital, Colombo, in an assassination attempt on the Sri Lankan army chief, who survived. The government retaliated by dispatching planes to pound rebel positions around Trincomalee.
Since then, attacks and brutal reprisals have been almost daily occurrences.
Yet both sides insist that the cease-fire remains in place, despite all evidence to the contrary. That is because the agreement is the only blueprint for peace out there, and neither the government nor the guerrillas can afford politically to walk away from it and resume a full-scale war.
While critics condemn the Tamil Tigers for pushing the conflict into a "low-intensity war," they also accuse President Mahinda Rajapakse of failing to show leadership in addressing Tamil demands and of appeasing the hard-line Sinhalese nationalists who helped him win election last November.
Newly complicating the picture is a third party: a breakaway Tamil rebel leader known as "Colonel" Karuna, whose followers have engaged in murderous fighting with the main group. The Tamil Tigers say that Sri Lankan forces, in violation of their agreement, have provided havens for Karuna loyalists in government-held areas and allowed the renegade rebels' assaults on their former comrades-in-arms.
Last week, a diplomatic coalition including the U.S. issued a strongly worded statement declaring that "the government has failed to prevent attacks of armed groups, including Karuna."
Sri Lankan officials deny any collusion with the breakaway faction. But observers note that in February, when the two sides agreed to meet for another round of peace talks in Geneva, the tally of dead that month dropped to nine, a dramatic decrease from 101 in January.
In all, 625 people were killed in the conflict in the six months from December to May.
Determined not to be among them, Dharshan and members of her extended family in Uppuveli gathered up what they could stuff into a few suitcases and made their way here to Mannar island.
Local fishermen offered to sail them over to India's southern Tamil Nadu state, home of many ethnic Tamils, for $100 a head. On May 24, they took the gamble - and got caught.
Aid groups are providing regular meals and helpful villagers are letting them use their toilets, but many of those housed here don't intend to stay. As soon as they can scrounge up enough cash, they'll make another attempt to get to India, perilous as the crossing might be.
Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.