Devastated lives

Published : May 22, 2009 00:00 IST

in Kilinochchi, Puthukudiyiruppu and Puthumathalan

IS it Sri Lanka or Ethiopia? That was the spontaneous reaction of a Western journalist, who was part of a 49-member team of foreign and local journalists on a visit to the no-fire zone (NFZ) in northern Sri Lanka, as he spotted a group of emaciated and visibly ill Tamil civilians walking gingerly towards the military checkpoint at Puthumathalan.

The journalists were on a military-conducted trip four days after the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) breached the three-kilometre-long earthen wall-cum-bund built by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to halt the advance of the troops and prevent civilians from escaping from the NFZ.

The breaking of the three-metre-high embankment in the early hours of April 20 resulted in a flow of 1.15 lakh civilians into government-controlled territory over the next six days. It began as a trickle but turned into a flood within hours and grew into an avalanche over the next four days. On the day the media team visited the area, more than 1.05 lakh people had crossed into government-controlled territory.

A sense of disbelief and shock was writ large on the faces of those trudging in as also the military personnel entrusted with the task of ushering them in after a preliminary screening. With three suspected cadre of the LTTE blowing themselves up amid the early groups of fleeing civilians, to take a chance in executing what came to be dubbed as the worlds largest-ever rescue mission would have meant courting death.

The people of northern Sri Lanka are among the toughest communities in the world and dignity of life is of supreme importance to them. The harsh weather conditions under which they eke out their livelihood, coupled with more than two decades of conflict, have earned them the distinction of being a hardy race.

Looking at the ghostly images emerging from the NFZ under a blistering afternoon sun on April 24, one wondered if they were the same people. The instant reaction of the Western journalist did not seem misplaced.

Of those pouring in from the NFZ were shrunk and sick old men and women with little children clinging to them. Barefooted and empty-handed, they could hardly walk. As the reporters and photojournalists descended on them looking for sound bites and photo opportunities, they appeared dazed and bewildered. Presumably, they had not had a decent meal in weeks if not months. Living under the constant fear of death for nearly two years, they looked like walking corpses.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that this proud community had not faced such a prolonged period of agony, trauma and humiliation in their 2,000-odd-year history. The tragedy of the people of northern Sri Lanka has few parallels in recent history. Imagine the plight of a people settled over a geographical terrain of over 15,000 square kilometres the area under LTTE occupation before the military operations began in the north in March 2007 suddenly finding themselves squeezed into a 19-sq-km hole facing the sea. On the day the SLA launched the rescue mission, the NFZ was down to an area of 12 sq km.

Sometime in the third week of February, the military demarcated a 20-sq-km area along the edge of the Mullaithivu coast as a no-fire zone even as it engaged the Tiger cadre in their last remaining strongholds in Mullaithivu district. But how was the message of the creation of an NFZ to reach the civilians caught in the middle of the war? Even if it did reach them, how would they figure out the area that constitutes the NFZ? These are valid questions that have no answers in a war situation.

Sometime in the last week of March the LTTE began losing the last remaining stretches of land it held and by April 4/5 it had lost the conventional military battle and the last inch of its territory. True, several hundred cadre and dozens of middle-rung leaders fought until their last breath and perished. However, the top rung, presumably including its chief, Velupillai Prabakaran, retreated into the NFZ, taking with them civilians as hostages. In doing so they shunned the repeated offers of the government and pleas from all parts of the world to end the conflict.

Sections of the Tamil diaspora are entitled to be guided by information dished out by Tiger outfits across the globe. But it would be the height of naivety to ignore the outcry of 1.15 civilians who crossed from the NFZ into government-controlled territory.

Daya Master, the media coordinator of the LTTE, and George Master, the official interpreter of the late political wing chief, Thamilchelvan, could be traitors and renegades in the eyes of die-hard LTTE supporters. But would they be magnanimous enough to suspend their convictions for a brief while and care to listen to what the two had to say about the Tigers conduct, particularly in the past few months, towards the very citizens whose cause they claim to espouse? True the pre-recorded confessions of the two senior officials of the LTTE were telecast on the Sinhala racist, government-run television channel, Rupavahini. Yet, it is worth a listen at least for a change if not for anything else.

For all the impressive gains made by the military with much less collateral damage than feared, the government does not cover itself with glory on the subject of stranded civilians in the war zone. For months before the April 20/24 avalanche of fleeing civilians, the government was engaged in a high-decibel debate on the number of people stranded in the war zone.

The estimates of the United Nations and other international agencies were between two and four lakhs. Of course, the last census in the Northern and Eastern provinces was carried out in 1981, and no one had any reliable estimate of the civilian population in the areas that were once under LTTE control.

As the military kept up its steady advance into the Wanni and there was no trace of civilians, the government went into denial mode, and with a vengeance. All kinds of motives were attributed to everyone who questioned the governments figures that the number of civilians in the war zone could not be more than 40,000.

It is indeed astonishing how a government equipped with some of the best technology in the form of satellite imagery, unmanned aerial vehicles and human intelligence and the backing of virtually the whole world could have erred in its estimates by over a lakh. The irony is that the count is not over yet. As of the morning of May 1, the Tigers still held seven square kilometres of land in the NFZ with an unknown number of civilians as human shields.

The government does not seem to have learnt any lesson from its blunder and insists that the number of civilians still under the grip of the Tigers cannot be more than 20,000. What is the basis for this assessment? In the words of Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, This is what we have learnt from Daya Master.

How did so many civilians get caught in the war and ultimately end up as hostages in the war zone? In the course of the military campaign, which began in July/August 2006 in the east and in September 2007 in the north, the military seized 15,000 sq km of territory from the LTTE. A substantial chunk of this territory is spread across the five northern districts of Mannar, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu and Jaffna.

The Army marched through 70-odd small- and medium-sized 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 which fell on January 1, and Mullaithivu, the LTTEs military hub and the main base of the Sea Tigers, which came into military hands on January 25.

By then only 5,000-odd civilians had crossed over to government-controlled territory or reported at the government camps set up for internally displaced people. So, where did the civilians disappear as the military took town after town and village after village in the five northern districts?

The Joint United Nations North East Situation Monitoring Report for December 2008 put the number of internally displaced people in the north at 2.73 lakh. The report was released before the fall of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu towns, which were presumed to have a sizable civilian population.

Correspondents based in Colombo, who were taken on conducted tours to areas captured by the military in the north, were struck by the sight of ghost towns and villages for hundreds of miles.

The vast majority of the civilians obviously moved ahead of LTTE cadre as the Army advanced. A close look at most of the captured towns and villages suggests that people moved out with whatever they could carry and erected temporary shelters deep inside LTTE territory. So, the civilian population faced repeated displacement as it fled the advancing troops.

For several months now, the government has accused the LTTE of using civilians as human shields and of not allowing them to cross over to government-controlled territory. This charge was subsequently borne out by testimonies of civilians who escaped. However, there appears to have been two different phases for the civilians.

They initially opted not to cross over to government-controlled territory out of fear and distrust and chose to move into Tiger-held territory. After two decades of Tiger propaganda that the Sri Lankan military was out to annihilate Tamils, and with the deepening 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 interrogated by the military on their links with the LTTE. The government did little to allay their apprehensions.

Besides, in terms of the logistics involved, the repeated shifting of such a large number of people would not have been possible by force alone. Also, policing the civilians when it was engaged in the war would have been tough for the LTTE.

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 the civilians.

There is no denying that the governments war strategy did not factor in the interests of civilians trapped in the rapidly shrinking LTTE territory. But the LTTE cannot escape primary responsibility for confining such a large number of citizens to a battle zone that was slipping out of its control. The LTTE leadership undoubtedly considered their presence as the best insurance against the advancing forces.

Indeed, the frenzy that the LTTEs propaganda machinery whipped up from September onwards on the humanitarian crisis in the Wanni in the international community in general and in Tamil Nadu in particular suggested that the Tigers hoped to invite international/Indian intervention in the name of the plight of civilians. But its appeals for a ceasefire failed to evoke any response.

The LTTE had lost its credibility within and outside Sri Lanka, and the world had had enough of its tactics of embracing war and truce depending on what suits it.

For all its expressions of concern on the safety of civilians, on the ground the LTTE prepared 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 when they turned 17.

The escape from the terror grip of the LTTE has not meant the end of the ordeal for the civilians. Speaking to the media after touring camps for people who fled fighting, John Holmes, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said on April 27 that Sri Lanka was trying to cope with what amounts to two quite distinct crises.

There are still tens of thousands of people trapped on a small patch of territory in the north, with the LTTE refusing to let them leave, and with fighting continuing, said Holmes. The second crisis is the swollen camps that are filling up with 200,000 people who fled the fighting, many in very poor condition, with more likely on the way soon.

The large numbers arriving at Omanthai checkpoint in such a short space of time stretched the governments capacity to cope, and our capacity to help, said Holmes. But we are now making progress with basic services such as shelter, water and food. Nevertheless it is a long way to go before we can achieve anything like satisfactory conditions.

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