AS of February 4, the Sri Lankan military had the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) confined to an area of less than 200 square kilometres in the north of the island. The choice for civilians stranded in this war zone is either to revolt against the LTTE leadership, which is evidently fast losing control over the situation, or to end up as canon fodder between the warring sides.
This hapless population, numbering at least 1.2 lakh even by the conservative estimates of the government, has been on the run for nearly 17 months. And now there is nowhere left to run.
The estimates of the United Nations and other international agencies put the number of civilians caught in the fighting between two and four lakhs. Of course, the last census in the north and in the eastern provinces was carried out in 1981, and no one has any reliable estimates of the size of the civilian population in areas under LTTE control.
No one has any idea, either, of exactly what this population is going through. What is clear, however, is that there are no escape routes left for it with the Army fast encircling the last remaining Tiger hideouts and the LTE engaging the military from areas inundated with civilians.
In a message to the stranded civilians, the military has notified the world that they will be counted as LTTE cadre and, therefore, as legitimate military targets, unless they move into areas designated as safe zones. The message was televised through the electronic media, broadcast on radio and published in the print media. Given the situation of the stranded civilians, where one square meal a day is uncertain, it is too optimistic to expect them to have access to even a transistor set.
On record, the government maintains that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only organisation with a nominal presence in the small territory that is still under LTTE occupation, has been entrusted with the task of educating civilians to move into the safe zones.
With a mere three international and 130 Sri Lankan staff on its rolls, the ICRC is simply not equipped to take on such a gigantic task. It is also not part of the ICRC mandate.
Besides, how safe is a safe zone? Even assuming that the governments intentions were bona fide, safe zones are impracticable in the prevailing situation.
A safe zone is ideally an area which both parties to a conflict have agreed to leave out of hostile actions. But the government, in the second week of January, unilaterally announced some areas as safe zones without the LTTE being a party to any agreement to treat them as such.
Frontline learnt from reliable diplomatic sources that on January 26 the military asked the ICRC to move out of some of the areas formally designated as no-fire zones. Designating some areas in LTTE-held territory as safe zones and then asking the ICRC to move out of some of them perhaps indicates the kind of confusion that prevails on the ground.
In such a situation, especially when each side has made it clear that it will stop at nothing, it is not realistic to expect civilians to figure out where a safe zone begins and where it ends.
The way in which so many hundreds of thousands have ended up as hostages in war zone has perhaps few parallels in history. In the course of the military campaign that began in July/August 2006 in the east and in September 2007 in the north, the military claims to have seized 14,800 sq km of territory from the LTTE. A substantial chunk of this territory is spread across five northern districts Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu and Jaffna.
The Army marched through 68 small and medium towns and villages under the administrative control of the LTTE in the north. These included Kilinochchi, the so-called administrative and political headquarters of the Tigers, and Mullaithivu, the LTTEs military hub and the main base of the Sea Tigers. But the astonishing thing is that only 5,000-odd civilians crossed over to government-controlled territory or reported at the makeshift camps set up for internally displaced people by the government.
The million-dollar question is, where did the civilians disappear as town after town and village after village in the five districts of the north came under military control?
The Joint United Nations North East Situation Monitoring Report for December 2008 puts the number of internally displaced in the north at 2.73 lakh. The report was released before the fall of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu towns, and it is presumed that a sizable civilian population lived in the two districts. Correspondents based in Colombo, who were taken on occasional conducted tours by the Defence Ministry to areas captured by the military in the north, were struck by the sight of ghost towns and villages over hundreds of miles.
The overwhelming majority of the civilians are presumed to have moved with the LTTE cadre as the Army advanced. A peep into most of the towns and villages taken over by the military suggests that people shifted out with whatever they could carry and erected temporary shelters deeper inside LTTE territory. So the civilian population must have faced repeated displacement as it fled the advancing troops.
For several months now, the government has been accusing the LTTE of using civilians as human shields and of not allowing them to cross over to government-controlled territory. There could be an element of truth in the governments accusation, but in the absence of independent information, it is difficult to know whether civilians moved deeper into Tiger territory because the LTTE forced them to do so. Given the sheer logistics involved in the repeated shifting of such a large number of people, it is not possible for the LTTE cadre to have forced all the civilians to move. With its cadre engaged in the war with government forces, policing civilians would be tough.
The civilians may have opted not to cross over to government-controlled territory out of fear and distrust. After two decades of Tiger propaganda that the Sri Lankan military was out to annihilate Tamils, and with the deepening of the Sinhala-Tamil divide brought about by opportunist politicos of the majority community, the civilians had good reason to be worried at the prospect of being caught by the military and interrogated on their links with the LTTE. The government did little to allay their apprehensions.
The governments September 2008 order to all U.N. and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to move out of LTTE-controlled areas perhaps made things worse for civilians. The government said that with the escalation of hostilities in LTTE strongholds, it could not guarantee the safety of international aid workers. If there was no guarantee of the safety of relief workers who were relatively better equipped to face adverse situations, what about the safety of ordinary citizens? There was no answer to that question.
There is no denying that the governments war strategy did not really factor in the interests of civilians trapped in the rapidly shrinking LTTE territory. But the LTTE, too, cannot deny responsibility for confining such a large number of citizens to an increasingly hostile battle zone that is slipping out of its control. The LTTE leadership perhaps considered the presence of such a large number of civilians as the best insurance against advancing forces.
Indeed, the way in which the LTTEs propaganda machinery whipped up a frenzy on the humanitarian crisis in Wanni from September onwards in the international community in general and in Tamil Nadu in particular clearly suggests that the Tigers hoped to invite international/Indian intervention for a halt in the war in the name of the plight of civilians. But its repeated appeals for a ceasefire failed to evoke any response. The LTTE has lost its credibility within and outside Sri Lanka, and the world has had enough of its tactics of embracing war and truce depending on what suits it when.
The extent of the erosion of its standing was evident in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagams (DMK) angry reaction to the LTTEs failure to respond favourably to the 48-hour ultimatum served by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 30 on the facilitation of safe passage to civilians.
For all its expressions of concern on the safety of civilians, on the ground the LTTE has been preparing for an all-out war for nearly three years with forced recruitment from every family in territories under its control. According to Rajan Hoole of the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna (UTHR-J), in 2006 the LTTE made it mandatory for every family to send at least one fighter to sign up for its troops and enforced the diktat by raiding homes and abducting minors as they reached their 17th birthday.
If the victim had already been sent into hiding, they took a proxy. As things became desperate in 2008, the required number of inductees per family was increased depending on its size two from a family with four children, while one with an only child was officially exempt. Mostly young, unwilling and barely trained conscripts were being sent into the battlefield. Yet no political means of rescuing these conscripts was ever contemplated by the Colombo officialdom, he said.
Thanks to the LTTEs tunnel vision, the lives of hundreds of thousands are now at risk. According to diplomats in Colombo closely interacting with the ICRC and other agencies concerned, civilians in the conflict zone are on the verge of starvation. The vast majority of the displaced people in Tiger territory are completely dependent on aid from outside as they have been moving around like gypsies in the Wanni.
With the security situation extremely precarious, there is a severe shortage of food and medical supplies. The last food convoy to set out for Tiger territory left on January 16. Efforts are on to send another, but it is not clear if it will be possible to do so. The food sent in the last convoy was meant to last two weeks for two lakh people.
We could still see stray dogs and cows roaming in the area where the civilians are stranded. The day they begin to disappear, we will know how pathetic the situation has become, a Western diplomat remarked wryly in a conversation with Frontline.
The state to which ordinary civilians have been driven by the LTTE is best exemplified in the state of affairs at the Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) hospital in Mullaithivu district. Puthukkudiyiruppu and parts of Visuamadu are the last remaining LTTE settlements with a civilian population numbering an estimated 1.2 lakh. The PTK hospital, which has 150 beds, has 500 patients in its care, in addition to 300-odd civilians who have taken shelter on its premises.
It has been shelled four times and hit by cluster bombs at least once since the fall of Mullaithivu town. Twenty patients died in the attacks and several were injured. The military and the Tigers blamed each other for the attack and accused each other of violating international norms. Eleven out of the 20 doctors at the hospital have left; those left behind are struggling to cope with the situation. Bedsheets are being used for bandaging, and operations are being performed without anaesthesia.
Efforts are on by the Sri Lanka Co-Chairs, a consortium of donor countries, and a group of independent observers to secure an amnesty for LTTE cadre in a bid to save the lives of thousands of innocent citizens.
Significantly, within hours after an appeal by the Co-Chairs, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband called on both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to agree to a temporary no-fire period to allow civilians and the wounded to leave the conflict area and to grant access to humanitarian agencies.
One can only pray and hope saner counsel prevails and a catastrophe is averted.