SUICIDE bombers, soldiers, checkpoints and the slaughter of innocents are a way of life in Sri Lanka after 12 years of warring with a rebel separatist movement. It is a war unlike any other, a low-level, invidious fight with the biggest weapon being the unknown. Sri Lanka is a country under siege, where people are told to avoid crowded areas because they are favoured targets for the Black Tiger suicide bombers. It is also a country where the majority Sinhalese are hostages in their own land and at the mercy of the Tamil Tigers. As the paranoia builds, so too does the government rhetoric. Propaganda statements claiming victories against the Tigers are issued on a regular basis in the hope that someone may believe progress is being made. But trusting the government is difficult when strict curbs are placed on foreign assistance and no independent media is allowed near the major conflict presently underway on the Jaffna peninsula. 'Journalists cannot go to the north on their own because of the security situation,' said a government spokesman. 'If they were hurt, it could harm our friendly relations with foreign governments.' No reports are made of attacks by government forces on civilians in the troubled north. Refugees who fled Jaffna and made it through the Vavuniya military checkpoint, the frontier to the north, told the Post of attacks on their homes by air force bombers. They also told of a campaign of beatings, killings and rapes by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forces. Neither side is the innocent it claims to be. As the battle for the northern rebel stronghold continues, the number of people displaced by the violence is also on the rise. The difference with these refugees compared with many the world over is that they have nowhere to turn. There are no refugee camps with makeshift accommodation for the fleeing masses, there are no food distribution points and there are no guarantees of safety. It is a refugee problem like few others. Even the numbers are in doubt. Depending on who you listen to, the number is anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000; either way it is a mass movement of people through an area where food, medical supplies, fuel and potable water are scarce commodities. A handful of the refugees are heading south and making it through to Colombo, but most don't have the money to travel far. The outflow has largely been across the Jaffna lagoon on boats provided free by the Tamil Tigers. From there, they walk for many days to the relative safety of towns such as Kilinochchi, south of the Jaffna peninsula. The government claims this assistance by the Tigers is part of a plan to keep people on the move and bring world attention and possible foreign intervention to the north. Those who have made it out of Jaffna say the city has been devastated and that few residents remain. 'Our people, we will always be the oppressed . . . we have no future,' a 21-year-old student from Jaffna told the Post. Speaking in the frontier town of Vavuniya, the student said he had come south hoping to make some money to support his family, but had no luck and would return to Jaffna despite the dangers. The few foreign aid workers allowed into the north are at a loss to explain the situation. 'We have to find them to feed them,' said one. 'It's a matter of taking in what we anticipate will be needed, it's the monsoon season, so plastic sheeting is a must for shelter, eating utensils and fresh water are key items,' said United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees field officer Kilian Kleinschmidt. 'This is not Rwanda or Somalia, the people are scattered throughout the north and it is just not possible to treat this like other refugee operations.' His big fear is that of disease. Heavy rains from the prevailing monsoon coupled with bad sanitary conditions and general ill-health resulting from poor nutrition offer all the basic essentials for everything from cholera and dysentery to malaria. The one similarity Sri Lanka's refugees share with others in the world is that they are fleeing fighting. The battle for Jaffna began afresh last month with a campaign of aerial, naval and ground attacks; the government threw all it had . . . and then stopped. Last week, its forces massed just 31/2 kilometres from the city, according to the government. As it waited to reinforce for the final push, so too did the rebels. On Saturday, the push forward began again and yesterday, troops were said to be less than 2 km from the city. But lives were not just lost in Jaffna. On Saturday, in what was almost certainly a tit-for-tat raid on the heartland of government, two Tiger suicide bombers launched separate attacks which left 16 dead in central Colombo. It was no coincidence that the attacks coincided with the push in Jaffna. Last month, when the offensive began in the north, the Tigers launched an attack on a Colombo fuel depot which saw massive explosions rock the complex. It is a campaign of terror with no shortage of disciples willing to give their lives for the cause of an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country. Military commanders admitted to the Post that it was almost impossible to combat one unknown factor: where the next attack is coming from. 'We can carry out searches and identity checks and vehicle checks but if someone wants to set off a bomb they can and they do,' said one senior officer. Meanwhile, the government hopes it can clean up its own backyard and at the same time win the hearts and minds of the people. What it doesn't say is how it can achieve such a goal. Ethnic divisions run deep. Observers of the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda know full well that there are no easy answers to resolving ethnic issues and neither have seen the level of extended violence that Sri Lanka has endured. Tamils and Sinhalese have been at odds for centuries but in more recent times have been openly head to head in a civil war for the past 12 years. During this time, other countries in the region have emerged as economic powerhouses, but Sri Lanka lags behind as it struggles to pay the price of peace. Millions of dollars have been spent on the military and police in a nation that barely has a domestic transport network. It relies largely on its tourism, tea and gemstone industries to pay the bills but the further development of these areas is impossible under existing conditions. European tourists are staying away in droves, and technology and transport are not being upgraded to international standards for the tea and gemstone industries. The way ahead for Sri Lanka is far from clear, but continued hostilities can only drive down the lot of the ordinary people. In the past the Tigers have used peace talks as an excuse to prepare for fresh attacks but observers say it would be farcical to believe that a group committed to a cause for so long would just give up if Jaffna fell to the government. Branded as terrorists by the Government, maybe the Tamil Tigers should be called countrymen and invited to participate in meaningful talks adjudicated by the international community. Ethnically, their roots are in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but they were born in Sri Lanka. Both sides are now paying a price for that accident of history.