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Special Report No: 34 

Date of release: 13th December  2009

Let Them Speak

Part I:

When People Do Not Matter

 and Tyrannical Egos are Dressed-Up as Nations

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it, ALWAYS.” – Mahatma Gandhi


1.1 The Still Eloquence of Wastelands

1.2. IDPs and Hidden Agendas: A Dark Shadow over Lanka

1.3. Never Again

1.4. Rajapakse Strategy: Plagiarising a Well-Known Script

1.5. “Operational Freedom”

1.6. Absence of Rules of Engagement and Rain of Shells in Safe Zones

1.7. The Shelling and Aerial Bombardment of Murukandy, 16th September 2008, Limitations on Reportage and the Mounting Death Toll

1.1 The Still Eloquence of Wastelands

The legacy of war and the devastated lives of hundreds of thousands of people will remain with us long. Its effects will be felt in every corner of the country, by the blind, blighted, marred and crippled; and beyond this is the mutilation of democracy, freedom and the ability of different communities to live together.

Weakened, impaired communities of widows and fractured families may be rehabilitated in name, but they continue to live in isolation under a paramilitary regime; their sons, brothers and fathers who were LTTE conscripts – some for only  a short time – , have been intimidated and recruited as agents of the state security apparatus. Under these conditions human rights abuses would inevitably remain hidden deep below the surface.

Highlighting a few that are hard to prove such as rape may actually help the State to hide others no less grave and systemic.

The truth must be faced in its full horror without compromise for partisan gain. Visible tokens of what thousands of ordinary Sri Lankans were compelled to endure owing to the ideological games played by those more powerful are nowhere more evident than in what mine clearing teams have found in their treacherous and delicate labour, where a slip could be fatal. The wastelands they move in have their own story to tell.

Just north of the Mannar – Vavuniya Road that had been a frontline for more than a year, no house in the once prosperous agricultural area stands undamaged. Most of them are ruins. Virtually all the trees are destroyed. In the fields, a larger version of the thorny Udai trees have grown up, making thereby cultivation this season far more arduous after resettlement is done.

The variety of weapons that they had collected on the field is an indicator to the heavy casualties that both sides must have suffered. There were all types of weapons collected and piled up in houses to be cleared. These are all that remain of many a friend and foe, who once fought one another with them.

The whole area had been heavily mined by the defenders – in this case the LTTE. They had built up a long trench for their line of defence and then heavily mined a vast area behind it. They left behind varieties of mines with timing devices. The delayed action mines had been set to various times. Wire-trip mines were also used widely. Observers with military experience are amazed at the sophistication of the devices. To this day, soldiers on patrol die regularly as they go inadvertently into certain areas and houses that have been mined.

Four groups are working on mine clearing, including a local company, two Indian companies and one from the Sri Lankan Army, each allocated different areas.

A widely understood catch in the affair is that the last “No-Fire-Zone”, the strip of coast north of Mullaitivu that was the final, traumatic and devastating home for over 240 000 persons, has been given to the Sri Lankan Army unit. Far more than mines, which our informants tell us the LTTE was very short of at that time and, at best, laid astride a handful of well defined bunds across the narrow strip between the sea and the lagoon, the area undoubtedly contained a great deal of incriminating material including remains of a huge number of shells and cluster munitions the Army fired into the helpless IDPs from February to May 2009. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the continuing war on truth.

1.2. IDPs and Hidden Agendas: A Dark Shadow over Lanka

The decimation of the LTTE is for many Tamils a source of new challenge and despair. It represents the dissolution of a dream that many clung on to, even with deep reservations.   They believed that despite its violence and crime, the LTTE would deliver a settlement that the Sinhalese, they felt, would never grant.

The nature of the challenge they now face is two-fold. One aspect of that challenge concerns the need to examine and question the legacy of Tamil politics that led to this calamity; the other, is coming to terms with and responding to the conduct of the war and the treatment of the displaced.

Political and military leaderships on both sides not only denied the trauma they inflicted on the civilians during the war, which needed urgent care, but exacerbated it. Since the war’s conclusion survivors have been subject to further indignity and hardship.

As if to prove the Government’s pronouncement that the war was conducted with zero civilian casualties, its survivors have been locked up and denied the means to account for the dead and missing, to mourn for them and to cry on shoulders they find comfort in. This policy of segregation of the entire northern Tamil population and denial of basic rights and remedies is overtly discriminatory.

It shows that the Sinhalese polity is far from being able to overcome the legacy of communalism that has brought infamy on Lanka and denied its people peace and normality for generations.

In the absence of truth, all the self adulation and flattery about trouncing the world’s number one terrorist are fragile. A wise statesman should know that in the final reckoning every war is a tragedy that casts upon the victor an immense burden of reconciliation.  This report is merely an attempt to unravel the tragedy that lies buried under the debris of the Vanni, lies and government censorship.

Debating about whether or not the camps holding the survivors of the Vanni apocalypse are concentration camps misses the point. The point is very simple. Consolidating peace and security calls for generosity. This has been the case wherever in history genuine reconciliation has taken place.

Previous governments in Lanka that used harsh methods to combat JVP insurgencies, stopped short of imprisoning entire villages to weed out JVP elements. They at least understood the cost of creating two nations of Sinhalese. The logic of the government’s current policy regarding Tamil war survivors is more contradictory, as if the IDPs both are and are not Sri Lankan citizens.

Strangely, the inhuman plight of the IDPs is not that of a defeated enemy nation, but of a people whom Sinhalese ideologues insist are people of their own nation

A person who experienced the trauma of war and the humiliation of IDP camps told us,

If the Government openly admitted that it had crushed and injured these people, it would be easier to accept than what it does now. It claims that it rescued the civilians without a single casualty, is caring for them, feeding them, resettling them and looking after all their needs. That kind of lie is the lowest thing you could inflict on another human being.”  

Instead of showing generosity, the Government made maximum mileage of the misery it imposed on Tamil civilians to solicit funds from reluctant donors to pay for the extra-legal incarceration of IDPs and for other projects with ulterior aims, such as resettlement or development schemes that could change the ethnic demographics of the north and east to further weaken the Tamil community’s claim on those areas.

The fear that the Government will not allow the IDPs to resettle in all the areas they inhabited before the war, and will instead introduce new Sinhalese settlements and their familiar consequences would remain a real fear for the Tamils. The Weli Oya Project of 1984 begun by forcibly displacing and massacring Tamils (Chapter 20 of the Arrogance of Power) continues to haunt them. Meanwhile the Government appears totally indifferent to the squalor of the IDPs. The effect of its actions amounts to the decimation of a people by crippling them from birth through deprivation, routine harassment and dirt.

The Government is being carried headlong by the disastrous logic of Sinhalese hegemonism, an attitude that has lain dormant much of the time but whose sinister underpinnings are often expressed in local politics and the casual talk of ordinary people, and which sometimes leads to outbursts of communal violence. The recent war victory is seen by some leading elements in the Government as a chance to fulfill their wildest ideological dreams. This drama has been compounded by a concerted campaign against truth and Sinhalese dissent by which the Government has tried to hide realities of its acts during the war and its inflictions on civilians, which were either war crimes or border on them .

The whole machinery of law enforcement has been politicised, violently covering up crimes by the state; and manipulating trials and judicial verdicts at the behest of the executive.

Many Tamils, who know the malignity of the LTTE sought explanations for the Government’s continuous bombing and shelling of Vanni civilians in provocations by the LTTE. A closer examination of events leads us to raise some crucial questions.

We easily forget the implications of the deliberate massacre of five innocent students on the Trincomalee sea front on 2nd January 2006. Many haunting questions remain unanswered in that case, and justice has been stymied. We do know that the State at the highest levels and all the different arms of the security forces in Trincomalee were involved in this ugly exhibition, followed by ideologically motivated intimidation.

Against this background, and given the Government’s conduct of the war in the East, one needs to be extremely skeptical as to whether a State which in the past had displayed such a vindictive attitude to a minority, could have been trusted to treat the Vanni civilians decently and in accordance with humanitarian norms and the rules of war. We take up this question in the light of further eyewitness accounts. We believe the answer is no.

1.3. Never Again

In reality, for more than a decade most Tamils on the ground had been thoroughly disillusioned with the LTTE’s politics. Its commencement of forcible conscription of children in the East in 2001, and the resulting agony of families (sadly covered up by Tamil publicists and intellectuals in Colombo and abroad) was a glaring sign of terminal cancer that many Tamil elites just did not want to see. But institutions with their roots on the ground like the influential Roman Catholic Church were beginning to voice muted criticism.

The Tamil elite became deeply divided. Through the agency of a few key expatriate intellectuals, the LTTE had captured most of the public space among the Tamil expatriate community by the early 1990s and its propaganda went largely unchallenged. It infiltrated their churches, temples and social organisations, Tamil societies and Tamil schools; it made it respectable to collect funds for military purposes in the name of charity for the victims of state aggression. It was horrifying to see well educated professionals behaving like some fanatical religious group, impervious to reason and humanity,

But another group of expatriates who experienced the LTTE first hand were convinced that one could not talk about any decent future for the Tamils until the LTTE was wiped out. Many embraced the same logic of violence that drove the LTTE and gravitated to support for other armed actors, like Karuna, who sought to challenge the monolith by aligning with the Government. For years they were kept at bay, living in constant fear of attack by the LTTE’s shock troops. The latter, often ex-cadres found it easier to obtain asylum as most governments would not accept that victims of non-state forces could be in even greater need of asylum

When the war reached its terminal months there was a curious contrast as well as agreement in lack of concern for the people among both groups of expatriates. The LTTE supporters refused to accept that it was holding the people hostage, abducting their children and shooting at those who attempted to escape. They campaigned one-sidedly, with cries of genocide and a humanitarian catastrophe caused by government missile attacks and deprivation of food and medicine, but avoided any demand that the LTTE should let the people go.

The expatriates’ implicit backing for LTTE holding the civilians hostage, reinforced the absence of any process to separate civilians from combatants. Consequently, the international community gave up on the civilians. Combined with testimonies in the international media of the LTTE firing at escapees, the expatriates’ propaganda became so discredited that it allowed the Government additional opportunity to hide its criminal misconduct. 

The group above, whose development had been influenced by the LTTE’s violence against themselves and their own people, wanted the LTTE destroyed at any cost. They refused to question the Government’s military strategies and supported the war uncritically. In this stand they showed the same indifference to the people’s suffering as LTTE supporters abroad.

On the ground it was very different. Even among political groups that had every reason to detest the LTTE and wish for its end, there were several among them for whom, concern for the people overshadowed all other considerations. They saw and heard harrowing accounts of the Vanni experience and differed radically from expatriate colleagues who were long close to them and had begun engaging with the Government.

Interestingly, persons who were in the Vanni and believed in the LTTE’s cause and witnessed the harrowing final days placed much of the blame on the LTTE’s overseas supporters’ failing to say in time what they can and cannot do. In the first place the overseas support base was assiduously built and managed by the LTTE and was its mere shadow. Expecting them to be a strong force in world affairs, which could stop the war when the LTTE’s diplomatic and military fortunes were rapidly eroding, was misplaced.

The expatriates’ role in making life hell for the Vanni folk was more subtle. They had swallowed the LTTE’s rhetoric that it would somehow carve out a separate state, and for various reasons blindly invested in the project. The LTTE had itself become a lopsided organisation, which had only a tenuous political base among the people and had come to rely heavily on its overseas mafia-like operations. Changing course would have meant pricking the balloon of its Eelam project and letting go its only source of material support.

Despite signs of proscription by belatedly disillusioned Western nations from 2005, beginning with the curtailment of arms supplies, the LTTE failed to see its intrinsic weakness as a purely military organisation without a political base, pitted against a state power with far greater resources and new found diplomatic support. Once the tokens of defeat were clear, India too committed itself firmly, albeit covertly, on the Government’s side. The LTTE went on until the last, promising in particular its expatriate supporters that their withdrawals were merely tactical and a prelude to inflicting a major reversal on the State as it did in 1999.  The end was inevitable. Once it came, some angry expatriate supporters made a beeline to their collectors demanding their money back. The hubris of LTTE politics gave the Sri Lankan state a gratuitous military victory, at terrible cost to the people.

These are certainly setbacks for the LTTE’s kind of politics which was dominated by the destructive power of its military machinery. Given however the obdurate and blatantly chauvinistic character of the present government, there remains potential for the revival, if not of the LTTE itself, then of the  ideological edifice that supported the LTTE’s politics. While the Government and Sinhalese chauvinism must be fought through alliances with Muslims and Sinhalese who understand the dangers, the Tamils should be clear that there should be no return to any LTTE brand of politics.

The ruin it brought to the Tamils  must be incontrovertibly documented and recognised as  the ultimate outcome of its atrocities against Muslims, Sinhalese and above all the Tamils themselves. The LTTE’s inability to negotiate a dignified settlement when several opportunities arose, its constant belligerence arousing Sinhalese fears and its electoral manipulation, finally brought Rajapakse and his team to power.

Despite the disasters it wrought, its appeal to the people abused and humiliated by the present government should not be underestimated. Further, overseas Tamils have long preferred to embrace heroic myths rather than concern themselves with the real plight of people back home. What LTTE supporters have done to their people is so horrendous that they dare not face up to the truth. Living with myths is far easier. One recalls expatriate propaganda in the 1990s, praising Tamil children at home who should have been at school with their geometrical instruments, taking a gun instead in the cause of the liberation of their nation. Knowing what their children needed, they did not want to ask by what deceitful means these children were taken from their mothers and made to carry guns. 

People who need to hold on to myths to justify themselves, would also refuse to see the depravity involved in conscripting all and sundry and sending them to the battlefront to protect the leaders’ skins and, over their dead bodies, negotiating safe passage for themselves.

The dangers are apparent and would be greatly reinforced by the Government’s actions. For tens of thousands in IDP camps, whose initial anger against the LTTE flowed like water through a breached dam, are now beginning to say that it would have been better had they fought with the LTTE and died. Like all expressions of this type, this is largely hyperbole, but their anger and desperation are real enough and can be easily manipulated.

In contrast to the blind adulation of expatriate supporters, those who lived in the Vanni have finely nuanced perceptions of the LTTE. They hold the leadership a great deal responsible for their suffering and they detest the political wing that was involved in conscription of their children, but at the same time they have much admiration for the fighting cadre who did their job of fighting. They on a number of occasions aided the escape of conscripts given to them. While the civilians in IDP camps attacked some of those responsible for conscription, they protected fighting cadres who earned a good name among them. These were potentially good men betrayed by their leaders and peers.  

A great deal needs to be done in documenting impartially the history of the militant struggle, how it degenerated into fascism and why it should never be allowed to happen again. At the same time the Government needs to be challenged on what it is currently doing to the Tamil people while it gloats over a war that was fought with scant regard for civilians and with measures that were humanly unjustifiable, if not criminal. The accompanying war against truth has grave implications for the future of democracy and grievous repercussions for the Sinhalese themselves.

1.4. Rajapakse Strategy: Plagiarising a Well-Known Script

Flattery over the recent victory comes not only from the victor but also from foreign defence analysts. In their view Sri Lanka (once a land of promise), which had done little of previous note since Independence 61 years ago, earned renown as a miserable laboratory of violence and hate. Using such low cost data from the misery of others, they propose to devise surgical cures for their own self inflicted plagues of terrorism. In this exercise they arrogantly disregard root causes, and what unbridled violence and disregard for Human Rights would cost at the next turn of history.

In the course of this report we argue that a government intent on minimising the loss of life and the resulting harm to the country as a whole had several political options. A successful strategy must minimise loss of life and livelihood and requires a solid base of hard thinking.

One could hardly credit a war won on the basis of a plentiful supply of unemployed subaltern manpower, dispensable to the ruling class, as a work of genius when there is no accounting of costs and objectives. Successful planning, especially when fighting supposedly their own people should have been based on a close study of the strengths and weaknesses of the LTTE, the basis of its support and the political remedies that would minimise costs. We point out that little thought was given to rules of engagement having a clear perspective on tenable military objectives and the civilians’ right to protection from arbitrary fire.

Some of the facts we highlight in the account below are deep differences between the LTTE’s military and political cadre, particularly as regards conscription. Many of the former had deep reservations on the use of conscripts, while imposing war on an unwilling people meant the inevitability of conscription.

The tensions increased in the latter months, with the military cadres frequently helping conscripts to escape and at times being openly scathing about the leadership. Apart from this source of tension, the people fervently resented being held hostage and their children conscripted. After Kilinochchi, the LTTE’s elite units like the Charles Anthony Brigade and Malathy Women’s Brigade had been decimated. There was a severe shortage of artillery shells, mortar shells and landmines. The LTTE was fighting increasingly with conscripts waiting for a cue from their families to run away.

What prevented the collapse of the LTTE was the people’s and the cadres’ ingrained fear of the Sri Lankan state, they knew only through its brutality. There were surely many political options available to the State for countering the basis of the LTTE’s negative appeal. It could have reigned in heavy handed use of weaponry against civilians; it could have established a transparent system to account for people coming out of LTTE control and further, it could have made clear that it was going to give the Tamils an equitable political deal. Even if only lives of Sinhalese mattered for the rulers, they could have saved the lives of thousands of soldiers by acting with prudent restraint.

Any sense of responsibility on the part of the Government was sadly missing. Its sense of complacency is being fed by articles of the same kind once praising Prabhakaran’s military genius after some of his stunning victories such as at Mullaitivu (1996) and Elephant Pass (2000). Some of those who observed him from close quarters feel that such praise going to his head was one of the reasons he failed to understand in time that his strategies had become untenable, especially after the fall of Kilinochchi on 1st January 2009.

For many years we have been convinced that the social costs LTTE politics was imposing on Tamil society, its killing of dissidents and conscription of children would inevitably one day end disastrously for the Tamils. During the recent peace process of 2002 – 2005 those who had such reservations became fairly isolated in the face of well-marketed theories about winning peace.

The cost of the LTTE’s diplomacy, which aimed at continuous deception, such as denying human rights abuses while almost openly indulging in them and simply being obdurately intractable when called to change its ways, came to a head in early 2006 when Western nations one by one began labelling it a terrorist group. Its military venture thus received a crippling blow which owed nothing to the Government’s virtues. 

Today, Rajapakse and his team are receiving the same kind of disproportionate glorification that Prabhakaran once did for his intractable determination and supposed military genius. Much circulated is V.K. Sashikumar’s ‘Fundamentals of Victory against terror, Sri Lankan Example’ in the Indian Defense Review (July – September 2009).

1.5. “Operational Freedom”

Accordingly, the Rajapakse model for fighting terrorism gave the military complete operational freedom ‘to Eliminate and Annihilate’ while standing by them politically, which meant telling all foreigners and governments demanding a reigning in of human rights and humanitarian abuses to ‘Go to Hell’ and regulating the media.

If we remove these from their euphemistic moorings and examine how they worked, we immediately recognise those very qualities for which the LTTE leader was once seen as a genius. His fundamental premise was: The people do not matter.

Rajapakse repeatedly made solemn pledges to respect human rights, but then killer squads from the Defence Ministry were given a free run. When there was international pressure over a particular incident, he appointed one or even two police teams to conduct urgent investigations, after which nothing more was heard. He appointed a Commission of Inquiry to inquire into some violations in 2006; invited a group of foreign experts to observe it, and in 2009 told some local commissioners who went to him with their findings that it had only been a measure to fool the international community. In November 2006, two weeks after he told the Indian Foreign Secretary his committee of experts was working doggedly on a political settlement, he simply trashed their progressive majority report. These are all leaves out of Prabhakaran’s book.

For both Prabhakaran’s war of national liberation and Rajapakse’s war for national sovereignty, one unstated motive assumed the greatest significance – the entrenchment of unchallenged personal power. Rajapakse followed Prabhakaran in calling his political enemies “traitors.” Both used the cover of war to kill their enemies; and for both the expression of critical independent opinion was anathema. Both ran regimes that killed exponents of independent opinion – regulating the media in the euphemism above.

The assassination of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on 8th January 2009 had nothing to do with defeating the LTTE. The LTTE’s defeat was sealed days earlier when Kilinochchi fell. The assassination coincided with the shelling of Tharmapuram, a distinctly civilian target. The Air Force took on ill defined targets among displaced civilians. More significantly, civilian dead from shelling, hitherto a few dozen, rose to the hundreds and thousands as they were being cornered towards the eastern seaboard.

The assassination, along with intimidation of journalists and exclusion of the foreign media, was meant to regulate the truth about how the war was waged, to check criticism and to hide the truth about the world’s greatest ‘hostage rescue’ operation. It was becoming a phenomenal cover up operation, as the rescuers showed little compunction about killing the hostages. The role of the Government’s ‘political wing’ was almost a leaf out of Prabhakaran’s book: Not to question, but to justify to the world, the actions of the ‘military wing’. 

Claims being aired by an unquestioning media that the war victory was the result of  brilliant strategy cannot be taken seriously when the voices of those most affected are simply shut out. Are we hearing the voices of soldier families who lost a loved one or need to help one who lost sight or limb? Why were no political measures ever tried to give the Tamils a role in their future rather than have their feelings moulded by the brutality of the State behind which the LTTE found cover for its misdoings? Was sending tens of thousands of Sinhalese youth crawling through mined, muddy trenches to be mown down upon reaching barbed wire barricades, the only strategy available?

This is not the future the well heeled in Colombo, who praise the sacrifice of youth from subaltern sectors, desire for their own children.

The Government’s dogmatic insistence on sending the Army into the final No-Fire-Zones was thoroughly misplaced as a hostage rescue. This was a war fought on ideological obsessions with both sides regarding fighting men and women, and civilians, as disposable fodder. That is why the Government wants all mouths sealed.

An accounting for the civilian dead needs to be done. Whichever way one looks at it, significantly more than 20 000 civilians are dead or missing from January to May 2009 (see Part V). The number could be several tens of thousands more. Then we need to ask, was it not something that went far beyond a war to defeat the LTTE?

During past rounds of the war, the Army has used brutal and indiscriminate bombing and shelling against civilians. But that was usually when the security forces felt they were at some disadvantage, insecure and in some ways militarily inferior to the LTTE at its height. But this time, from January 2009, indiscriminate brutality causing huge civilian casualties was used when the LTTE was virtually broken and was merely prolonging the war by throwing in conscripts. This time, moreover, the bombing and shelling of areas full of civilians seemed almost vindictive. The largest civilian losses came at the last stages due to indiscriminate fire when the LTTE was virtually finished. These were stages when a sensible government could have made a breakthrough to secure the future by showing the greatest clemency towards civilians, its own Tamil civilians. Any government excited about Rajapakse’s victory needs to think twice.

1.6. Absence of Rules of Engagement and Rain of Shells in Safe Zones

The military strategies used could in the first instance have been hardly worse for the civilians. Vanni is a big place. Every family’s modest desire is to stay with their plot of land, sow, reap and raise their family. Displacement of people should be contemplated only under dire circumstances. The people would not have followed the LTTE’s retreat without the cannons of the advancing Army pounding remorselessly.

Starting from southwest Vanni, the entire people was shelled and bombed all the way through several temporary homes to the threshold of the LTTE’s prime high security zone in northeast Vanni. This area, the Government had appointed the Thevipuram safe zone and urged civilians to shelter there, although it obviously knew that it was going to become the most bitterly contested war zone.

The Army’s final intrusion into the safe zone, which it called a hostage rescue, was the most questionable. On 20th April, the army undertook a predictably bloody operation to box in a group of civilians.  This involved shelling crowded areas opposite the Army’s main entry points. In the latter stages in May the battle became a remorseless firefight in a tiny area packed with helpless civilians who were also subject to the advancing Army running heavy vehicles over their flimsy bunkers and soldiers popping grenades into their bunkers.

One of the most damning features of the war was that civilians caught up in a shrinking area, were subject to relentless shelling, and particularly in safe zones so declared by the Government.

Almost every part of the shrinking area became a war zone. The LTTE was cornered and had nowhere else to fight from and the Government was intent on decapitating the LTTE leadership at any cost. All those whom we have talked to who were in the final safe zone, are agreed that places where civilians gathered and sighted from UAVs, often for collecting rations and handouts, were regularly targeted for shelling.

A similar early instance was the shelling of refugees from further south who had gathered at Murukandy Junction in September 2008.

In almost all instances not involving direct combat, the Army’s return fire was directed at civilian presences, something it would have known from UAV information. Modern detection systems for hostile artillery have a circular probable error of about 0.45% of range ( ). This roughly means that detection of hostile fire 6 ¼ miles (10 km) away could be measured to a working accuracy of 50 yards (45 m). This is again a probabilistic measure, inadequate for firing at enemy positions among civilian concentrations. LTTE had its large artillery guns usually in isolated places. Civilians on their own kept well clear of LTTE mortar positions. Witnesses report the LTTE firing mortars from among them, but they were usually out of sight or at a distance outside the error in detection systems. In general they were far enough to avoid danger to civilians, if civilian safety had been one of the Government’s aims.

The Government had the technology to avoid hitting civilians; the fact that it did so almost daily points to a deliberate intention. Several witnesses consulted by us confirm that one shell from the LTTE or even its firing small arms into the air brought indiscriminate return shelling multiplied scores of times. This was the pattern throughout. The ICRC which issued a series of damning statements from late January to early February was pressurised to quit the war zone on 10th February 2009. 

At their final safe zone on the strip of coast, shells were directed into civilians every three or four hours, not giving them a chance to sleep. Shells came by turns from surrounding army artillery points: Alampil, Ampankamam, Oddusuddan, Kilinochchi, Visuamadu and Theravil. Guessing the next source of artillery fire, civilians would readjust their positions inside bunkers to minimise chances of being hit. Some witnesses viewed this shelling as a daily homework assignment for the Army. Others concede that the shelling would be less when the LTTE did not fire. Death was routine. Army gunners observed Sunday as a holiday, unless disturbed by the LTTE.  

Apart from temporary medical centres being hit, the Ponnambalam Memorial Hospital was bombed on 6th February 2009 and Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital was hit thrice by government artillery fire on 1st February, killing nine civilians on the spot. There was no LTTE fire from inside the hospital. But even if in the extreme case that the LTTE had turned the hospital into a fortress, Article 14 of the Geneva Conventions indicates what a civilized party should do prior to firing:

The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.”

Here too we see an absence of rules of engagement issued by the Defence Ministry. The civilians were given no warning, nor were any alternative locations named for them, before the Government shelled hospitals and safe zones it had designated, without respite.

It should be noted that, the government-declared safe zones had an extremely curious feature. They were designated without consultation with the LTTE and were invariably the Army’s next target.

The ICRC was also not consulted, although it has a clear mandate to engage with both parties in establishing safe zones.  This should have been utilised in determining and monitoring safe zones and would have been in everyone’s interest. Instead, the Thevipuram safe zone, as we pointed out, bordered the LTTE’s prime high security area. As a result, the ICRC was shelled from safe zone to safe zone along with the people until its presence was confined to its local staff, who were trapped just as surely as the civilians. 

A less harsh way of looking at it is that the Government may have wanted to show statistics of its singlehanded rescue of civilians from the LTTE and get good political mileage out of it. We note that the Army was on the verge of taking complete control of Mullaitivu town when it designated the Thevipuram safe zone on 21st January. It probably hoped to take control of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) at the southeastern end of the safe zone by 4th February in time for Independence Day celebrations. This way it may have hoped to get the people out to Mullaitivu. But the advance from Mulliavalai to PTK failed with large army casualties. Even if it had succeeded, the position of the civilians would not have been very different.

The major flaw in this plan was that the civilians were placed in the thick of the war, ostensibly to effect a hostage rescue. The advancing army shelled them blindly, even as LTTE cadres and gun mounted vehicles moved among them. Thought given to civilian protection, if any, was minuscule.

Shelling was bad on 20th January, but became unbearable after the declaration of the Thevipuram safe zone on 21st January. Later, people leaving by the A 35 road jam packed with people and vehicles going east, were shelled relentlessly leaving many civilian corpses along the road. This coincided with the Army losing many men south of PTK and the ICRC being pulled out.

The idea of IDP camps itself was a clear indication that the Government wanted the entire population displaced, as though to dispel any notion in their minds that the land belonged to them. Given all these compulsions, safe zones became in fact killing zones.

One simple consideration speaks a lot about the efficacy of the Government’s return fire. It killed several thousand unarmed civilians. On the other hand the LTTE had 25 to 30 long range artillery pieces along with about 25 for medium-range. Only up to four of them were damaged by government fire. Despite the Army shelling Suthanthirapuram generously, the LTTE’s nearest artillery position was in a patch of jungle north of Thevipuram, about a mile east of the places shelled. 

Most objectionable of all was the Army moving into the remaining No-Fire-Zone from 9th May, after which food, medical shipments and casualty evacuations were stopped, and the Army and the LTTE were slinging it out freely at one another.

Before any military action, there must be clarity about what the objectives are, the cost and what is possible. If a desired objective proves too costly or not essential, objectives and strategies must be reviewed. There was apparently no such planning here, no rules of engagement. The Government grossly understated by at least 65% the number of people on the move and used it aggressively to short supply food and medicine, abusing anyone who complained. The Heath Ministry shamelessly insisted that there were enough stocks of medicines against protestations by the doctors and the ICRC, ignoring the huge scale of death and injury. That too was easy, since the Government’s position was that civilian casualties were zero. There was indeed no accounting of costs.

The absence of rules of engagement was described euphemistically in the Indian Defence Review article quoted as ‘complete operational freedom’. There was no concern about how many Tamil civilians, how many unwilling conscripts or, even for that matter, how many youthful Sinhalese soldiers were killed. Here the leadership has gone far below the level of individual soldiers who at risk to their life waded into the lagoon off Puthumathalan to rescue injured Tamil civilians fleeing from LTTE fire.

Despite their rhetoric about securing a unitary state, as far as the Government’s influential Sinhalese backers in were concerned, Tamils are part of the alien ‘them’ and not ‘us’.  This was a major factor that discouraged the State from placing the Tamil civilians’ well being at the centre of  their strategic planning. When the army shelled indiscriminately, they were far from feeling that their own brethren were being killed.

1.7. The Shelling and Aerial Bombardment of Murukandy, 16th September 2008, Limitations on Reportage and the Mounting Death Toll

Understanding what the civilians have been through also requires some background knowledge of the calculations of the warring parties. Even as the year 2008 came to a close Kilinochchi became a zone of misery, wailing and funeral houses as many of the children conscripted by the LTTE and sent in a futile attempt to stop the advancing Army were killed. Sources with links to some leaders said that 2000 cadres were killed in the defence of Kilinochchi, pointing to similar losses among the Army.

A common impression held by many is that civilian casualties from shelling and aerial attacks were lower before the fall of Kilinochchi, often counted in the digits of one’s hand after each attack, rather than in the dozens when the displaced were increasingly crowded into a diminishing area. This needs to be qualified. When people were spread out, deaths also went easily unreported as the incident below would illustrate:


Muhunthan (name altered) was from Mallavi. From August as the Army advertised its approach by shelling their areas, the people from Mankulam, Mallavi and Oddusuddan packed their belongings in lorries, vans and tractors and began moving north towards Kilinochchi. Muhunthan said his farm had been bifurcated by the LTTE building a bunker position through it.

They moved in a large convoy and rested in Murukandy, a shrine junction on Kandy Rd., and many people began erecting temporary shelters in a paddy field near by. They parked their vehicles in the available shade nearby, breaking coconuts to the deity and pondering their next step. Previously the people took precautions when they saw a UAV (vandu or beetle) overhead, knowing that bombers would follow. By this time they had become indifferent as UAV sightings were frequent and on the move they had nowhere to hide. They ignored the one overhead.

Soon, the Army’s shells and air force bombs began to fall on this crowded civilian area. The LTTE was resisting the Army some way to the southwest, but not where the civilians were. TamilNet reported that due to air force bombing in the morning at Murukandy, ‘17-year-old Ponnuthurai Thayaparan and 25-year-old Thangarajah Jeyanthan were killed on the spot around 11:00 a.m. 60-year-old Kanapathipillai Thirunavukarasu succumbed to his injuries at Ki'linochchi hospital’, making a total of three deaths. Two brothers of Thayaparan were badly injured.

Muhunthan, who was in Murukandy, confirmed the three deaths due to aerial bombing about 10.00 AM. They were all known to him and were killed near the church, but in the afternoon, there was heavy army-shelling into the civilian area, beside Kfir bomber attacks. He had been near the Pillayar Temple and sustained a shrapnel injury on the calf of a leg. Leaving the women and children, they were packing and loading the vehicles for the next move. He said that about seven persons there were killed, including his cousin-brother Perinpanathan (23) who later died in Kilinochchi Hospital. A further five were killed near the petrol shed. The total killed on that day was about seventeen. The area had also been shelled the previous day while they were there injuring two persons.

Their vehicles had been burnt or destroyed by shelling. Most of the deaths were due to excessive bleeding due to a long delay in finding means to take the injured to hospital. This attack followed the usual pattern. First the Kfirs swooped and dropped bombs, about seven runs on that day, and then concentrated shell fire. There was no marked LTTE presence there. The fighting was in Kutthuvedduvan, three miles south. It was on hearing gun fire at a distance that they packed up to move again.

Muhunthan said that in the earlier stages of the fighting, they waited for the Army to come within six or seven miles of them before they moved, because there were places to move to. But once from Udayarkaddu and beyond, they waited amidst heavy shelling until the Army was barely half a mile away as their space was jam packed and it became very hard to move and there was no really safer alternative.   

Only the first three deaths were reported and the second event bringing the toll to 17 was not reported anywhere. The Defence Ministry ( 16th Sept.08) described the morning’s bomber attacks as ‘precision air sorties at two separate LTTE gathering points located 3km and 4.5km West of Iranamadhu, Kilinochchi’ at 10.10 AM, ‘made in assistance of the advancing 57 Division troops [under Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias] now operating in the outer perimeters of Kilinochchi.’

Bombing and shelling were regular incidents leading to far flung deaths, impossible for a few reporters to cover. In our experience, TamilNet though biased and selective in reporting, was fairly accurate in what it reported. It thus makes an invaluable guide to civilian suffering during that period. One may not agree with the late Sivaram’s political leanings, but in forming the TamilNet it was perhaps his intention to have a source that was credible in what it reported selectively. In this he may have succeeded.

Muhunthan above was later admitted to Kilinochchi Hospital, which had around 300 patients, mostly injured civilians. LTTE injured were also brought to the hospital in civilian clothing and in civilian vehicles, but were dressed and soon moved to an LTTE facility. While he was there some shells fell in the hospital compound.  He learned that Dr. Sathiyamoorthy, who was in charge had complained through the ICRC, after which the hospital was not hit.

Another witness to the carnage

Another hint of what was coming came with the Air Force’s bombing of Murasumoddai on the Paranthan – Mullaitivu Rd. on 31st December 2008 and 1st January 2009. A religious leader who visited that village told us that he saw six or seven bodies, including the scattered flesh, hands and legs of a man, which were given to the family by the Hospital in a polythene bag. He said there were several more bodies he did not see. (TamilNet reported a total of ten dead.) This was the Government’s method of telling people to move.

The Body Count Escalates

The community was plunging into an situation where there was little possibility of keeping track of the dead. As aerial bombing and shelling became frequent and indiscriminate especially from mid-January 2009, hospitals ceased to be notified of the dead. Few dared to venture out. Bodies were buried then and there with perhaps half a dozen in attendance.

As the fighting came nearer, Kilinochchi Hospital was moved to Tharmapuram, from late 2008, to the east on the A 35, where many of the patients were under improvised shelters or trees. Dr. Sathiyamoothy kept shuttling between Tharmapuram and Kilinochchi in a bid to keep the hospital in the latter place open, which struck many as very risky and courageous on his part. In mid-January again they were moved to Udayarkattu, further east as the Army moved east.

Once Killinochchi and Mullaitivu hospitals faced closure due to bombing and shelling in the vicinity towards the end of 2008, the ICRC battled to keep Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, the remaining major hospital, open, particularly in view of the mounting casualties. But the Government had no such ideas. From January Puthukkudiyiruppu too came under pressure. It was hit by shells on 13th January, killing one person. The ICRC moved to the road linking Suthanthirapuram and Vallipunam in the first ‘safe zone’, but this zone was shelled relentlessly. The Government was not at all serious about the safety of the IDPs. The zone, though supposedly to take effect on 21st January, was according to a community leader present, communicated to the AGA, the chief government administrator in the zone, on the afternoon of the 21st, under intense shelling.

The ICRC had little choice but to move out of the extremely unsafe zone towards the end of January to near the church in Valaignarmadam, in the final ‘safe zone’, where it remained until 10th February, overseeing the shifting of Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital to the school in Putumattalan. The ICRC kept contact until 9th May through its ship calling regularly to pick up the injured and ill. 

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