Close encounters

Print edition : March 27, 2009
in Colombo

ON the morning of March 3, the Sri Lankan military marched into Puthukkudiyirippu (PTK) junction, the last town under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in the Wanni. The Armys capture of PTK symbolises the end of the LTTE as a conventional force, which status it acquired in the aftermath of the departure of the last contingent of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in March 1990.

As of March 4, the LTTE is confined to some jungle pockets in Mullaithivu, which in terms of area would total less than 50 square kilometres, according to the militarys assessment. Before the current phase of hostilities broke out in July/August 2006, it controlled an area of 15,000 sq km.

The territory is now just another statistic as the Sri Lankan military has almost completed the goals it set for itself before the commencement of what is referred to in media circles as Eelam IV. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government vowed a fight to finish, and is almost there. However, what continues to be a matter of grave concern is the fate of an estimated 70,000 civilians trapped in the areas still under the LTTEs control.

The estimate on the number of civilians has been a matter of debate for over six months. The LTTE has consistently maintained that the figure is above four lakhs. The United Nations and other international agencies projected a figure of 2.5 lakhs. The government contested both these figures as vastly exaggerated and estimated the number to be 75,000.

Neutral observers are now veering round to the view that the government figure appears more reliable. It is improbable for more than a lakh people to be present in LTTE-controlled territory, which is shrinking with every passing day. Whatever their number, the major concerns both within and outside the island nation are about ensuring their safety and the provision of basic needs and their rehabilitation and resettlement in the long term.

These concerns become all the more grave when one considers the assessment that in the past few weeks the Tigers, consumed by a death wish, have begun to act like robots. An estimated 500 Tiger cadre have been cornered by 50,000 Sri Lankan troops, yet they show no signs of changing their tactics. Pleas to the LTTE to lay down arms and surrender to save precious lives have fallen on deaf ears.

The much-speculated revolt against the LTTE leadership or a split within the organisations rank and file has not happened. There is no evidence to back up reports in a section of the Sri Lankan media that the LTTE leadership has put behind bars a group of its senior leaders who attempted to flee along with civilians.

Defence and political analysts in Colombo are baffled by the stubborn fight put up by the remaining cadre and leaders of the Tigers in the face of certain defeat. Several functionaries in the Rajapaksa government have, in recent days, gone on record as saying that the military can wipe out the Tigers in a matter of a day and the only obstacle is the presence of a large number of civilians. In this context, what is worrying is that the LTTE may be on a suicide mission to go down fighting to the last cadre and make history as a martyr for the cause of a separate homeland for Tamils. In such an eventuality, would the Tigers care about the fate of the civilians?

A glimpse into the current mindset of the LTTE leadership was available on the night of February 20 when it chose to send two of its light-wing aircraft on a suicide mission. Described as a failed stunt by the government, the targets of the venture were very ambitious the Sri Lanka Air Force headquarters in the heart of the national capital and the air base at Katunayake in the vicinity of the international airport on the outskirts of Colombo. They crash-landed close to their targets, presumably after they came under fire from the military forces on the ground.

Imagine a scenario where even one of the aircraft had succeeded in its mission. The course of the war would not have changed, but the military would have possibly got a free hand to march into the remaining territory controlled by the Tigers and crush them without bothering about the collateral damage to civilians. If that had happened, the international community would have lost whatever little clout it had with Colombo in counselling optimum restraint in the conduct of the last phases of the war.

As if to leave no one in doubt, the LTTE not only owned up to the air strikes but also claimed them to be a success. The pro-LTTE website, TamilNet, quoted a news release by the LTTE as saying that two aircraft of Black Air Tiger (suicide cadre) were on a crash mission. The Tigers also released photographs of the two pilots, Colonel Roopan and Lieutenant Colonel Siriththiran, posing with LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran before embarking on their mission.

Both the Tamileelam air force pilots had earlier been decorated with Blue Tiger award for having carried out successful air raids on enemy targets, the website said. The tall claims of the Tigers apart, all that the LTTE could achieve through the ill-advised aerial forays was to embarrass the government. The raids exposed the weaknesses in the defence preparedness of the military and achieved nothing more.

According to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the troops close to PTK, the last remaining LTTE-held town at that time, passed on information about the two aircraft even before the radars detected them.

He said: The LTTE may have used a straight road in their last stronghold for taking off as the outfit had lost all the airstrips to the troops during the past few months. The Tiger craft flew over Mannar and Wilpattu en route to Colombo. It was their normal route. The troops would have captured the LTTE planes within days, and the LTTE had acted before they lost the craft on the ground.

There was no explanation as to how the two light-wing aircraft managed to make their way from PTK to the heart of the national capital and come within metres of their purported targets. The Defence Ministry said each aircraft was loaded with explosives weighing 215 kg and added that the pilots failed to drop any bomb.

The Defence Ministry proudly proclaimed that the two LTTE-improvised, Czech-manufactured Zlin-143 aircraft were brought down by anti-aircraft fire within an hour of their detection. The first craft crashed into the rear of the building housing the Inland Revenue Department, opposite the Air Force headquarters, killing the pilot and two persons in the building, three storeys of which were damaged, and injuring 45, including two airmen. The body of the second pilot was found near the wreckage of the aircraft at Katunayake.

The air raids surprised political and diplomatic circles in Colombo, considering that on the day of the air raids the LTTE was confined to an area of less than 100 sq km.

Incidentally, the air raids coincided with the visit of Sir John Holmes, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinatory, for a first-hand assessment of the crisis triggered by the war. In the course of his interaction with the media, Sir John hinted at efforts by neutral parties to reach a settlement between the LTTE and the government for safe passage for the trapped civilians. In fact, President Rajapaksa told the U.N. envoy that the government would cooperate with any move to free the civilians caught in the war zone.

The meeting between Rajapaksa and Sir John followed the latters travel to the temporary camps at Vavuniya. The U.N. envoy told the media that he was concerned about restrictions on the freedom of movement of the displaced and the presence of the military inside the camps, and urged the government to complete the registration process of the refugees at the earliest.

He appealed to the government and the LTTE to avert a final bloodbath. Sir John said deaths and more injuries of civilians were taking place daily in the northern Wanni region. However, he concurred with Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe that it was difficult to make a distinction between civilians and Tiger cadre.

In a cheeky commentary, the TamilNet website accused the U.N. envoy of whitewashing slaughter by the government. It said: Within a day of Human Rights Watchs damning report stating that Sri Lankan forces are shelling hospitals and so-called safe zones and slaughtering the civilians there, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes, went out of his way to avoid criticising the hard-line Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and instead praised the good cooperation between the government and the U.N. agencies vis-a-vis the needs of the displaced Tamil population. Instead, he blamed the LTTE for the continuing suffering of the Tamil civilians in Mullaithivu.

In another feature on February 28, a day after Sir John gave the U.N. Security Council an account of his visit, TamilNet said: The position taken by U.N. Security Council Friday indicating no go beyond hearing, and the considerate briefing of John Holmes largely endorsing and trusting Colombos agenda and assurances for civilians, are read between the lines by international political observers as a knowing wink at Colombo to pursue its offensive. Alternatively, the U.N. stance either paves way for intervention by interested powers outside of the U.N. or perhaps reveals an actuality that the U.N. can be shaken not when people face genocide, but only when ground realities endanger the Sri Lankan state.

Three days after the aerial raids, on February 23, the LTTE wrote to the Sri Lanka co-chairs (the United States, the European Union, Norway and Japan) arguing that it would not be helpful to pressure the Tigers to lay down arms and that it was ready to cooperate with the international community for a ceasefire in the interest of the welfare of civilians.

At Puthukkudiyirippu on March 3, Sri Lankan soldiers carry a comrade who was injured during an artillery exchange with the LTTE.-REUTERS

The political head of the LTTE, B. Nadesan, urged the international community to effect a ceasefire and initiate a political solution as a priority rather than insist that the LTTE lay down arms.

In an appeal to the heads of the co-chair countries, he said: When a permanent political solution is reached for the Tamil people, with the support and the guarantee of the international community, the situation will arise where there will be no need for the arms of the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government dismissed it as hilarious.

There is no evidence to suggest that the LTTE is concerned about the safety and welfare of civilians in the war zone. The government is not prepared on the ground to deal with the internally displaced. Samarasinghe told the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 3 that over 36,000 people trapped in the Wanni had managed to escape the LTTE and flee the theatre of conflict. He added that they have been housed in 12 temporary accommodation centres and one welfare village that had all facilities.

We will ensure that our fellow citizens will be provided not only with accommodation and food and sanitation facilities but also with a range of government services, including banks, post offices, schools, health and even recreational facilities, counselling and psychosocial care, and vocational training. These persons who flee the LTTE and arrive in safe areas will go through a gradual process of emergency care, accommodation, stabilisation and eventually resettlement, he told the council.

However, the ground realities are far from satisfactory. A group of foreign and local media personnel who were flown in to the government model village on the outskirts of Vavuniya returned with the impression that the government was simply not geared to meet the gigantic task.

The government has been talking for months about its preparedness to accommodate the displaced in temporary camps. However, at the moment only one camp, which can accommodate 500 families, is ready. The rest are housed in schools and other public buildings. To give one example, minutes away from the model village, several hundred people are housed in a school. The visiting journalists were taken to the school after they insisted on looking at least one other facility. Each classroom in the school is packed with at least 40 persons. Their belongings are kept on benches along the walls.

The government is working on a project close to the model camp to create facilities to accommodate more people. The authorities are not sure how long it will take to complete the facility. On paper, the government is gearing up to accommodate 200,000 displaced people. Informed sources suggest that shortage of funds is a serious hurdle. There is no clarity at the moment on how long the people will stay in the camps. The governments argument is that it will take time to rebuild infrastructure and remove landmines before the people can return to their original places.

The tales of those housed in the model village are chilling to say the least. For most of the families, it has been an unending ordeal since the latest round of hostilities between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE broke out in March 2007.

Over a span of less than two years, some have been displaced at least a dozen times and are haunted by memories of sleepless nights spent in bunkers, constant bombardment and an uncertain future.

Reporters who visited the village heard horror tales of innocent citizens caught in the crossfire. The choice before them was the known devil, the Tigers, and the unknown deep sea, the military. Every one of the 500-odd families in the village has gone through more or less the same trauma. The worst nightmare for them was the possibility of forcible recruitment of their young boys and girls by the Tigers as the military began to corner them from mid-2008.

We hid our boys and girls to avoid the fate suffered by hundreds of youngsters who were forcibly taken by the LTTE to the warfront after a short period of military training. The choice was either to die on the battlefront or to incur the wrath of the Tigers, who do not take kindly to anyone defying their orders, said a Jaffna University student who was stranded in Kilinochchi after the government shut down the A-9 Highway in August 2006.

The trust deficit is huge between the military and the displaced persons. So far, over 36,000 displaced persons have managed to cross over to government-controlled areas. They are housed in 17 camps in Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna districts and are anxious about the fate of their relatives stuck in the war zone. Some of them have relatives in Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna but have no way of communicating with them. With the military and the Tigers engaged in close confrontation, the flow of refugees in recent weeks has slowed down considerably.

No outsider is allowed into the village, which has been fenced with barbed wire and is tightly guarded by the military. Theres not a single telephone here. Ive not heard from my daughter and son held up in the LTTE-controlled area. I hope and pray they come out alive, a teacher from Kilinochchi district told journalists in a choked voice.

The Government Agent in Vavuniya defended the restrictions on the plea that it was in the interest of their safety. Its not detention. Were keeping them in the safest area, she said. At the moment only those above the age of 60 are being allowed out, and the government hopes eventually to ease the restrictions for everyone, she said.

Until we finish the screening, to ensure that LTTE cadre have not infiltrated in the garb of refugees, and complete the registration process we cannot take chances, the Government Agent argued.

The people in the village yearn desperately to return to their homes and re-establish contact with family members and relatives but know that the prospect of that happening soon is bleak. The only consolation is that the model village has at least a tin shed with minimum facilities for each family.

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