Two platoons of soldiers were ambushed by the LTTE at Kondachchi and 45 of them were killed. On the same day 4 persons travelling from Mannar Island to Murunkan were stopped by the army at Vankalai. Three of them were teachers -Sebamalai, a school head master in Murunkan, Justin, a member of his staff and SoosaiPillai. Travellers who passed that way later said that they saw what appeared to be three bodies in a well. A Roman Catholic priest who passed that way on a motor cycle reportedly saw Soosaipillai lying injured and appealing for help. Suspecting that he was being watched by soldiers, the priest went without pausing and reported the matter at Madhu, a Roman Catholic shrine and UNCHR refugee centre, who then contacted the army command at Tallady.
Subsequently relatives in search of the missing persons were permitted by the army to look in the area. When they went there, there was no trace of the well. A patch of new plants marked the spot where the well had been. The officer in charge of the area was Major Dias who later became Town Commandant in charge of civil affairs at Mannar town.
This incident took place at a time when Brigadier Srilal Weerasooriya was taking over the command of the district from Brigadier Siri Peiris. After promising to investigate the matter, Brigadier Weerasooriya later told local citizens that he was unable to proceed on the matter since the local area commander totally denied that any thing untoward had happened in his area.
It is generally believed by local sources that this incident is unconnected with the Kondachchi incident. The LTTE, it is said, was making conspicuous use of Mr. Sebamalai’s school for its propaganda activities. Whatever Mr.Sebamalai’s feelings, he had little choice in the matter.
In another incident on the same day, several prisoners held in Talladi camp disappeared that night. Former detainees from the camp put the number at about 12 and believe this to be a direct reprisal for the Kondachchi ambush. Prisoners are normally held in groups, and others became aware that some from a particular group were transferred to other groups while the rest went missing. Those missing were never again seen in the camp.
There are three possible causes for persons to be removed from Talladi. They are either released, transferred to Boosa centre near Galle, or they are finished off. Those held in Boosa are allowed letters and other prisoners routinely write about new arrivals. The first two causes have been ruled out by fellow prisoners in the case of these persons missing since 17th February.
One class of prisoners routinely sent to Talladi are those detained at sea en route to India by the navy. Many of such prisoners are often from outside the Mannar District, and hence usually unknown to the rest who are mostly from the area. This class of prisoners is said to be the most vulnerable as there
would be no record outside. [Top]
In the absence of LTTE resistance,, the army takeover of Mannar Island in early November 1990 was accomplished with no major army or civilian casualties. The first major known instance of disappearances took place at the UNHCR refugee camp in Pesalai on 16th November. The army went into the camp and arrested about 18 persons. Some of those who witnessed the event informed the UNCHR office in Colombo that same day. According to local sources, the LTTE had been seen in the neighbourhood on that day. But those taken by the army were refugees having no connection with the LTTE. Though the matter was pursued by the UNHCR and other NGOs, about 8 of those taken disappeared without a trace.
This was followed by the disappearance of 9 civilians taken by the army in Talaimannar on 21st January 1991. International organisations that were working with the government to prepare Mannar Island for a return of refugees from India, found the arrogance, insensitivity and cockiness of the Brigadier wholly uncongenial. They called for a removal of the Brigadier, and this was forcefully put to the late Ranjan Wijeratne, then defence minister, during his visit to Mannar in February, shortly before his death in a car bomb attack. Thus in February Brigadier Siri Peris was transferred to Trincomale, where he continued to deliver what was expected from him without nuisansical foreigners breathing down his neck. [Top]
What follows is the experience of a young man taken by the army and detained at Talladi, Mannar’s main army camp. for about 6 weeks in early 1991. The young man was a skilled craftsman as remote from the LTTE as any one could be. He was pointed out to the army in Town as an LTTE supporter by a muslim army recruit. He was held at the camp in town and was badly assaulted for two days. His assailants included officers who were drunk. Two days later, having survived the torture and having apparently convinced his captors of his innocence, he was sent to the camp at Talladi. But this time several of his limbs were swollen and he had several injuries and cigarette burns. Even now he is handicapped with the movement in several limbs impaired.
At Talladi, his own treatment was relatively mild, and he was not beaten at all after the first few days. He felt miserable and unable to help himself. Once he lay down and cried for water. Ironically it was another Muslim recruit who surreptitiously came to him with a cloth soaked in water and squeezed it into his mouth.
It was indicated to him by the officer in charge of interrogations that his unpresentability was the main cause of his continued incarceration. But staying there was a nightmarish experience. The sounds of torture - beating, screams and groans- were a regular feature of life in Talladi. Sometimes the screams of a victim would reach a high pitch, followed a little later by a total deathly silence. On other occasions there were several single shots in the night. There is a hollow in the camp containing ashes mingled with burnt tyres. This is known to contain the mortal remains of an unknown number of former prisoners.
It is easy to believe that several prisoners would have died under torture. In the first place the beating is often done with stiff objects swung randomly. Our interlocutor himself had received three injuries on his head when beaten with a pole while suspended by a rope tied to his ankles.
Another torture inflicted on several prisoners was to drive nails into the soles of their feet. One prisoner’s feet had become infected after going to the toilet, which had a layer of dirty water, with nails in his soles. He then lay down ill, unable to walk.
Subsequently an army medic, presumed to be an army doctor, came on one of his routine visits. The prisoner with infected feet was dragged by soldiers using a rope with one end knotted into a loop taken under the victim’s arm pits, and brought to the ‘doctor’. The ‘doctor’ looked at the prisoner’s feet and scolded the soldiers. Speaking in Sinhalese that was understood by several of the prisoners, he said “If you want to do this sort of thing, it would be more expedient not to keep them alive.” The sense of his words could have a charitable interpretation.
What was witnessed by other civilians who had been to the camp strongly suggests that the practice of driving nails into the soles of prisoners was far more than isolated. A group of civilians who had gone to the camp on business saw about seven prisoners being dragged along the ground by ropes in the manner described earlier . A soldier then ordered the civilians to look the other side.
Our witness was seen by the ICRC after being inside for two weeks. The ICRC lady saw that he could not sign his name properly because of an excessively swollen arm and spoke to him sympathetically. He talked to her without fear about other prisoners who had not been shown to her and how she had been shown the soldiers toilets as those meant for prisoners.
Upon his release the prisoner was politely cautioned by an officer not to speak about his experience. [Top]
The situation in Mannar following the change of brigadier in February 1991 serves to illustrate the limits of what can be achieved by a change of command. The new brigadier was considered relatively humane and not one who enjoyed killing and torture. The public judged him to be well meaning though having reservations about his effectiveness. In general, following the change, prisoners were nearly always accounted for, at least when someone was around to pursue an arrest. Visits to detainees also became easier.
But incidents continued to occur which showed that civilians were ultimately unprotected because there was no process of accountability. In mid June two shots were heard in the night. The bodies of two persons previously detained by the army were seen in town the following morning. The incident followed the killing of some policemen in an LTTE ambush. The officer commanding the town at this time was the same Major in charge at Vankalai during the killing of 4 civilians on 17th February.
It was commonplace in the succeeding months for persons detained to be hung by their thumbs and beaten. Among those given this treatment was a businessman well known to the army in Mannar town but arrested by the army in Pesalai about the beginning of September l991. He was later warded in hospital and released. In such cases persons usually end up with defective thumbs.
There is no getting away from the need for basic discipline coupled to a radical change of politics. Without the latter, few army officers would find the will for the former. [Top]
The shooting and injuring of 4 MSF personnel and their local driver by a Sri Lankan airforce helicopter on 3rd may 1991 resulted in an inquiry whose supposed findings were categorised as whitewash by the MSF office in Colombo. The MSF personnel were travelling from Mannar to Colombo, after informing the military authorities in Colombo. According to the airforce an LTTE vehicle was in the vicinity. This was strongly denied by the MSF. Although MSF vehicles had very clear and distinct markings, a witness from the forces said at the inquiry that red cross markings meant little to them as the LTTE also used such vehicles. It was also pointed out by others that the helicopter had fired continuously without going through the often used procedure of firing warning shots and giving those in the vehicle a chance to establish their identity. Under further pressure the government agreed to procedures that were aimed at preventing recurrences. NGO s operating in the North-East agreed to give these a try and no more was said on the MSF matter.
Sources well informed of the situation in Mannar believe that what did surface in public did not get to the heart of the truth. They point out that the MSF had fairly good relations with the forces evidenced by the fact that in keeping with its principle of strict neutrality, the MSF had two weeks before the incident treated injured army personel from Silavatturai who were brought to Mannar hospital where the MSF maintained a presence.MSF personnel have been known to get rides in airforce helicopters when travelling between Mannar and Colombo. It was understood by both sides that the MSF would treat any injured person brought to them irrespective of military allegiances.
The MSF enjoys a reputation for taking medical aid to difficult places at considerable risk. The fact that MSF personnel are rotated frequently suggests that the MSF took a deliberate decision to concentrate on this objective to the exclusion of any involvement in other such as human rights etc. [Top]
4.6.The LTTE and the Civilians:
The LTTE has been responsible for several disappearances in the Mannar District, but the public in general is not aware of large scale massacres of persons with dissident connections such as in the East.
There are perhaps two important reasons for this. The population of Mannar District is small. The LTTE having been largely a Jaffna based group, it was a late comer to the East where the other groups had been established for several years. The LTTE’s brazen ruthlessness in the East was partly owing to the insecurity it felt. In Mannar on the other hand, the membership of militant groups has been diffuse from the beginning. It has been common place to come across instances where say three boys from a family belonged to two or three deferent groups. This combined with the easygoing nature of Mannar folk and the fact that Mannar cadres were generally low in the leadership hierarchy, frequently made feelings of rivalry and hatred less intense. It has often been possible for a family worried about a son who was in a group opposed to the LTTE to approach a close relative with an LTTE affiliation. [Top]
People thus disappeared individually rather than in conspicuous groups. Among those who disappeared were Ravindran and his brother Sasitharan. Ravindran, whose mother is on the staff of Mannar hospital, was a member of a group opposed to the LTTE. With the departure of the IPKF imminent in late 1989, Ravindran fled to Colombo with the aim of going abroad. Sasitharan who had no militant connections had accompanied Ravindran to Colombo. Both were picked up by an LTTE party then operating in Colombo with the blessings of the government. Nothing more has been heard of the boys . We had earlier pointed out (Report NO.4) that those so detained were often transported to the North chained to their seats in passenger coaches, through check points manned by Sri Lankan forces.
Another who disappeared about mid-July was Sergeant Namasivayam of the Mannar Police. Namasivayam was returning to Mannar Island after visiting his family in Jaffna when he passed through the last LTTE check point before his destination. Namasivayam who was wearing Khaki trousers was asked what he did for a living, to which he replied that he was working for the anti - malaria campaign. He was allowed through,then recalled and detained. Also similarly detained about this time was a police constable. According to sources in Mannar the fate of such prisoners in usually to be put to forced labour, such as involving digging bunkers in forward positions. As we have reported earlier, Tamil policemen in particular have been at the receiving end from both sides. Namasivayam would be lucky if his fate was no worse than that of digging bunkers in exposed positions on one meal a day. [Top]
The LTTE’s programme of cornering Tamil civilians by painting stripes on them is very much at work in the mainland parts of the district. Slogans such as one cadre from every family have been pushed hard in the interior villages. The pressure mounted on the young and children to join up is said to be just short of conscription. The phenomenon of painting stripes on people is at work in a variety of ways. Most people in this farming district are out of work and live in refugee concentrations. Their survival depends crucially on government rations. These rations supplied free by the government are controlled eventually at the distribution end, by the LTTE. This basic need has been used as a means of obtaining forced labour.
Government officials are often forced to fill one set of forms for the government and another for the LTTE.A certification of one day’s labour by a member of the family from the LTTE must be produced before the family’s weekly rations are released. This irony of fighting a liberation war on government rations provides a funny side to the public rhetoric, giving rise to much private resentment by the people. But their past experience of government forces makes them equally fearful of what may happen to them in the event of the army moving in.
For much of the year (1991) the LTTE anxious over the loss of civilian cover ensuing upon displacement, had been importuning the refugees to get back to their villages. During the run up to the rainy season-August,September-pressure in the form of a need for cash combined with forced labour in refugee camps compelled many civilians to move into their villages.(More than 70% from these villages had already fled to Mannar Island and chiefly to India). These villagers sowed some of their rice fields. But they also left representatives from their family guarding their place and valuables at the main refugee camp in Madhu. in preparation for a dash back whenever the situation changed. [Top]
The following incident is symptomatic of the fate of the Tamil people under a politics that has gone far to destroy any community feeling. Instead of settling divisive issues by a principled approach, they are driven to desperate manipulation While the deeper and real problems lie buried, the entire community becomes the tool of repressive interests.
It started during the IPKF presence when members of the TELO operating with the IPKF put up a small Hindu shrine in the administrative centre of Mannar. The small rude structure remained virtually unnoticed after the IPKF left. The problem started after the current war which began in June 1990.Under the cover of the confusion of the Sri Lankan army’s takeover of Mannar Island, some influential Hindu government servants built a permanent structure over the shrine and gave it a ceremonial opening. This new development angered may of the Christians who were the majority in Mannar.
We will not go into the internal politics of this matter. This phenomenon is a vexed issue in the country as a whole and different religious groups had cause to complain in different parts of the country. The parliament ruled in recent times that one religious group should not construct a place of worship within a given distance of another’s. The ruling, though allegedly at the behest of Buddhist interests as against newly emergent Christian groups, is arguably fair.
It suffices to say that circumstances rendered the law and appeal to principles of little use in Mannar. Both sides used envoys to lobby the powers that be. The LTTE reportedly kept aloof. The Sri Lankan army authorities needed no finesse to use the dispute to serve their ends. The Sri Lankan army officer in charge of civil affairs gave conflicting hopes to both sides. He reportedly agreed in an audience with the Christian partly that the erection of the shrine contravened the law of the land and therefore had to be brought down. The Hindu party was reportedly told in a separate audience that if the Christians did anything to shrine, he would level down every church in Mannar. The officer concerned was a Christian! [Top]
It was clear tat the end of October 1990 that the army was moving in and the LTTE was making its exit. Having heard numerous stories of the army’s conduct, the parish priest of a village in Mannar Island took the lead in dismantling the LTTE’s flags, festoons and monuments from its prominent local office. On seeing this , LTTE cadre approached him threateningly, asking whether he thought they were going. The homely wisdom of local villagers saved the day. They came to LTTE and told them, “ When Eelam dawns with your victory, we will put up monuments that will leave these in the shade. Now why don’t you leave Father alone?“ [Top]
Mannar Island forming the bridge of trade between Ceylon and India, and hence the rest of the world, from ancient times, invited a variety of human inhabitants. The renowned pearl fishery at Kondatchi Bay six miles south on the mainland served to enhance this influence. As one would expect, colonial writers of an age when modern national barriers did not exist, saw the human community in Mannar having intimate links with Rameswaram across the straits of Palk while being relatively cut off from the hinterland in Ceylon by jungle.
The influence of Arab traders in Mannar almost certainly predates the birth of Islam in the 8th century a.D. Perhaps the most visible testimony to this is the presence of baobab trees in the district, particularly Pallimunai and Thiruketheeswaram. These trees had typically huge cylindrical trunks topped by several conical shaped branches ending in shoots that formed the food of camels then used by traders. The present day Muslims are decedents of these traders with presumably a large infusion of local (south Indian) blood. During the portuguese persecution of Muslims ( 16th and 17th centuries), one would imagine that the Muslims moved to parts of the hinterland less frequented by the former. The 17th century Dutch cleric and writer Phillips Baldeus who mentions the church at Errukkalmpiddy does not appear to have noticed a muslim presence. Today Erukkalamppiddy is an exclusively Muslim village. One would imagine that the Muslims re-established themselves on the Island during the British era. Today they form 45% of the district’s population. The historical links of the local Muslim population with the land are not inferior to those of anyone else. Nevertheless Muslims were expelled from the district aliens and traitors. [Top]
The place was an old house in Kalpitiya ( Calpentyn of the Dutch) renovated with coconut thatch. This is now the dwelling of a person we shall refer to as Mohammed, his wife and six children, his sister-in - Law’s family, his brother’s and so on. Mohammed has a continuous stream of Tamil visitors travelling to and from Mannar Island 60 miles north by sea. One such visitor had come to bathe, eat and rest after a gruelling boat journey. The visitor who was going to Colombo on business gave utterance to a sentiment held surely by hundreds of Mannar Tamils; “We chased you from Mannar, and now you have us as guests in your homes”. Whatever the LTTE had intended, fraternal links between the two communities have persisted and in a sense the Tamils have become more dependent on the Muslims. The Muslims evicted from Mannar now play an important role in the trade between Kalpitiya and Mannar Island supplying essential food items, including fruit and vegetables, that make life on the Island possible. Dried fish, the principal export of Mannar Island, now passes through Kalpitiya as the land route to Colombo is closed.
Muslim refugees from Mannar now lead a much impoverished existence scattered among Muslim villages that straddle the peninsula across Puttalam Lagoon. There is among them a general eagerness to get back and rebuild their looted homes on mannar Island. Many of them do regular trips to look over their homes. When ordered to pack up by the LTTE, many of them buried their jewellery in hastily found hiding places. First the LTTE looted the goods they ere ordered to leave behind. Soon afterwards the Sri Lankan army came in and launched its own treasure hunt. Next came civilian looters. Depressions created by rain exposed newly dug hiding places. Mohammed was among those fortunate enough to recover his family jewellery.
One of the key reasons for the refugees wanting to get back is the education of their children. At present these children attend afternoon sessions in Tamil schools catering for the local Muslim population. An important feature distinguishing Mannar Muslims is the importance they attach to education. In this they have much more in common with Jaffna than with the local Tamils. One elderly Muslim refugee lady said: “If anyone takes away our money or our property, it matters little. These are perishables. But education is something you cannot take away from a person . That is why we are so concerned about the education of our children”. This change in cultural out look had taken place over perhaps the last three decades. By imperceptible degrees, Muslim schools in Mannar had been built up to a level comparable with good schools in Jaffna and well above those attended by Mannar Tamils.
A variety of pressures are now impelling Muslim refugees to return to Mannar despite a tricky security situation. It is now only a matter of time before they actually do so. Despite the fact that good relations between Tamils and Muslims have survived, the LTTE’s attacks on Muslim civilians in the East do give cause for anxiety. In the meantime Mannar braces itself for an unpredictable future with much trepidation. [Top]
According to Muslim sources, following the expulsion of Muslims, about 300 Muslim boys had joined the army as regulars - a much smaller number than one might have expected. For the largely pragmatically minded Mannar Muslims this is a cause of anxiety given where this might lead to in the event of say an LTTE attack on Muslims. The process that will provide the government with more Muslim recruits is identical to that giving the LTTE additional cadre.
The position of Muslim recruits themselves is unenviable; involving mixed feeling many of them talk freely to Tamil civilians. As we have pointed out some of them have been helpful to Tamils while some others were vindictive. The manner in which they are sometimes treated in public by army officers would normally have been a recipe for mutiny. This loss of dignity also underpins their ambivalence. Their tragedy parallels that of many militants who are now are playing the role of an auxiliary armed
force to the Sri Lankan army. [Top]
Robert Percival, a British official writing in the early 19th century boasted that tapal runners working in relays could convey tapal , or mail bags, between Colombo and Madras in 7 to 10 days. The journey of 160 miles through varied terrain between Colombo and Mannar used to take 3 days. That may now seem a golden age of communication.
Passengers travel between Kalpitiya(Calpentyn ) and Mannar Island in boats taking goods to Mannar and bringing back dried fish. The system of issuing passes could change without notice and the system is so confused that any one wanting to travel must anticipate a wait that could last several days. A time of war does involve inconveniences. But what the system reveals is the lack of guiding principle, of co-ordination and the absence of central command among the armed forces.
The navy at Kalpitya and the army in Mannar have their own rules. There is no central authority from whom one could ask for permission to travel or transport goods. The harassment of people is less deliberate than that the whole thing has become a mindless bureaucratic exercise. The officers issuing passes are concerned with playing absolutely safe and there is no question passes are concerned with playing absolutely safe and there is no question of individual initiative. An old man in his 60s wanting to travel to Mannar and having a letter of introduction from a reputable organisation could be sent back from Kalpitiya to Colombo to return with a police report.
In Mannar several copies of passes go into several files. A person obtaining a pass after queuing up the entire morning could later find that he cannot travel because no passes were issued to boats. Alteration of the pass would mean another queue and another morning. The officer issuing passes goes through the immense bother of tracing the copies and updating them as well. In terms of security the whole exercise is self evidently superfluous.
Despite the large fees paid ( part of which go to sections of the forces through middlemen), the passengers travel at considerable risk. Not even elementary life saving equipment such as floats are available on boats. When there is a strong breeze, passing Kuthiraimalai Point (Horsehill Head) can be quite treacherous. Waves reflected by the concave shoreline cause them to converge out in the sea the confluence resulting in considerable turbulence How much a boat caught in a random series of hills and troughs would tilt is a question of chance. It is amazing that there has been no major disaster up to the time of writing despite a large number of women and children regularly making this 60 miles sea journey.
This is one relatively minor instance of how the civilians come to be treated callously and unimaginatively in a war renowned only for stupidity, cruelty and corruption in the absence of cogent political goals.
Transport of goods
This is one area that illustrates the absence of goals, superfluity of measures and the resulting inconvenience to civilians. Like in the case of travellers going North from Vavuniya,. those sailing from Kalpitiya to Mannar are meticulously searched and the bars of washing soap carried by each individual are counted. There appears to be great concern about such things getting into Tiger hands, even though Mannar Island is under army control.
The people of Mannar themselves are very sceptical. Like all wars this war too has produced its crop of talented survivors. When one armed force is replaced by is declared enemy, there would be concern for such people. But contrary to expectations they would survive and prosper, as chummy with the new bosses as they were with the old. A number of sources in Mannar have claimed that the armed forces themselves are behind breaking the fuel ban imposed on the North.They point to one man who was caught with a large quantity of fuel by one section of the forces who were unaware that the sale had been made by another section. The matter was settled amicably. The effectiveness of the ban remains largely in piles of meticulously kept files. [Top]
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