Final assault

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

from the war zone

TO begin with, a confessional note. The current phase of the hostilities in Sri Lanka, dubbed by the government in Colombo as liberation of innocent Tamils from the clutches of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from the East and North and christened as Eelam IV by the Tigers, began in August 2006. For the first time in the course of this war, The Hindu/Frontline got attached (embedded, to borrow the famous word from the United States war on Iraq) with the Sri Lankan military for four days, from May 13 to May 16, for a glimpse of the war zone. Admittedly, these are glimpses from the battle zone under the jurisdiction and control of the military.

There is no other way one can give an eyewitness account of the war theatre. On paper, the LTTE is the other party to the conflict. Confined to an area of less than 1.5 square kilometres along the Mullaithivu coast and hiding behind an unknown number of civilians, the Tigers are no longer an active party in the conflict. The remaining Tiger leaders and cadre are actually inside the government-demarcated new safety zone (NSZ) with civilians as insurance against an all-out offensive by the military. There are no precise estimates of the number of Tigers or civilians. The final days of the war are no more than a glorified version of a hostage crisis. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government is marketing the final phase as the largest ever hostage rescue mission in the world.

As these lines are written in the morning hours of Saturday, May 16, time is fast running out for the LTTE. It is a matter of days if not hours before the Tigers are finished as a conventional force at least for several years to come. Call it supreme self-confidence or flight of imagination. Rajapaksa, on an official visit to Jordan, declared on the evening of May 15 that the security forces were all set to wind up the humanitarian operations in the North by May 17. As the supreme commander of the countrys armed forces, one presumes that he knows what he is talking about.

By all accounts, Eelam IV is poised to reach a decisive stage and has proved to be the Tigers Waterloo. There is a still a question mark over the whereabouts of the LTTE top brass, including its chief Velupillai Prabakaran. However, there is no doubt that the LTTE has lost at least 80 per cent of its cadre and virtually the whole stock of deadly weapons and ammunition it had amassed over the years. It is difficult to assess, at the current juncture, the unconventional or guerilla capabilities of the Tigers. Going by its track record, the Tigers undoubtedly have a large contingent of sleeper cells across the island nation and a substantial following among the Tamil diaspora. The sleeper cells could include a number of Black Tigers, the most potent Tiger weapon in the form of suicide squads. It is a continuous buzz of explosions in and around the NSZ as the military and the LTTE engage in no-holds-barred battle. The former is engaged in the combat in its declared pursuit to rescue the civilians and the latter to save its top brass. The civilians caught in the crossfire are undoubtedly the worst hit.

This reporter, being the only foreign print journalist inside the war zone in the last days of the war, witnessed some poignant moments. Imagine thousands of sandbags draped in finest silk, obviously cut from the prized possessions of the women in Wanni, adorning the innumerable bunkers scattered across the 3.5-sq-km NSZ. The NSZ was the last makeshift settlement of approximately 1.5 lakh civilians who trudged along with the Tigers, willy-nilly, for nearly two years as the military pushed them deeper and deeper until they were left with nowhere else to go.

The civilians, who had lugged their most valuable belongings in the hope of saving them, were forced to abandon them at their last temporary stop in the face of the relentless onslaught by the military. It could not have perhaps got more ironical. The LTTE took the civilians in the name of protecting their honour, dignity and culture from the racist Sinhala military. But the very civilians it claimed to represent solely and wholly became the organisations human shield. The tales of forcible recruitment of teenagers for deployment in the front line, well documented by several independent organisations such as the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna and various wings of the United Nations, speak for themselves.

As the military closed in on the Tiger positions inside the NSZ in the early hours of May 13, the Tigers had beaten a hasty retreat along with the civilians further into the 1.5-sq-km area. The area that has been vacated appears devastated. Burning and burnt vehicles, broken television sets, refrigerators, household furniture and office equipment lie scattered in the landscape amid rubble and the remains of shells. Civilians and Tigers probably ran for their lives to escape the rain of countless bullets and shells.

Shells in a zone demarcated as NSZ? Yes, and in abundance. The government and the military had given a solemn commitment not to use heavy weapons on the stranded civilians. The promise was honoured more in breach than in practice. On April 27, the government said that the combat operations were over and its focus was now only on the rescue of civilians. It said that it would not use heavy weapons inside the no-fire zone (NFZ), which was created then. One thought NFZ meant no fire at all, but it appears only in the conceptual sense.

In off-the-record conversations, middle-rung officers and soldiers conceded that in the final hours they had little option but to use heavy arms. Please note this is war and not a wedding. The LTTE, which had positioned all the weapons in its possession inside the NSZ, was firing indiscriminately at the positions taken by the troops. We had no option but to neutralise them. How else could we pave the way for the escape of the civilians and ensure minimum casualties of our men in the battlefield? a senior military officer in the war zone said.

We waited patiently from April 20 in the hope that the exhausted Tigers, running low on ammunition, would take pity on the civilians and either try to escape or fight to the finish. But the Tigers were only using the period as a breather, in the hope of a bailout from some part of the world. For the civilians the NSZ had become a living hell, with severe shortage of food, medicines and other essentials. Pressure from the international community to save the civilians was mounting by the hour. The government could no longer afford to be a silent spectator and we made the decision to exert maximum pressure on the Tigers in our bid to open up an escape route for the civilians, he said.

The strategy adopted by the military paid rich dividends within 48 hours. It was evident from the fact that 15,000-odd citizens dashed to the government-controlled territory, braving all odds. They literally elbowed their way to freedom on May 14 and 15 as the military, after opening an escape route, pushed the Tigers to an enclave of approximately 1.5 sq km along the Mullaithivu coast. The trickle that began on the night of May 13 turned into a wave in the next two days. The military was confident of overwhelming the remaining cadre and the Tiger leadership by the evening of May 17 and paving the way for the escape of the remaining civilians.

It was pitiable to see terror-stricken and emaciated mothers clutching on to their babies and running towards the military checkpoints. In a brief interaction before boarding the government buses that took them to the Omanthai checkpoint, a group of newly arrived civilians inside the NSZ narrated the travails they had endured in the past two months.

My 45-day-old child was born inside a bunker. After he came out of my womb, these are his first glimpses of the big bad world, said a mother who had covered the naked body of the child with a white towel to protect him from the blistering sun.

My son-in-law managed to buy a tin of Lactogen for a price of Sri Lanka Rs.3,000 as my two-year-old grandchild had to go without milk for nearly two months. We have been living in the bunkers for weeks with shells and gunfire exploding all around us. Late last night we decided to crawl our way out without being detected by the Tigers, a man, who was successful in coming out with his entire family, said.

That the fate of family members of some of the Tiger leaders was no better became evident when Sri Lanka Navy units identified the family members of the LTTEs Sea Tiger wing leader, Soosai, in the morning when they rescued a boat carrying 11 civilians. The sailors found Soosais wife, son, daughter and his sister-in-law and her son. The military said that a large sum of money had been found in the possession of Soosais family members.

The government is engaged in a high-decibel war of words with human rights organisations on who is responsible for the destruction and devastation inside the NSZ. Truth is the first casualty in a situation of war. In a war where thousands of innocent people are caught, it is impossible to make definite conclusions even in the era of satellite imagery.

In a detailed report dated May 14 on the situation in the NSZ, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) asserted that new satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts contradicted government claims that its armed forces were no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict zone.

Quoting local sources, the HRW said that more than 400 civilians had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded since May 9 as a result of artillery attacks on the thin coastal strip where fighting continued between government forces and the LTTE. Recent satellite photos and witness accounts show the brutal shelling of civilians in the conflict area goes on, said Brad Adams, Asia director at the HRW. Neither the Sri Lanka Army nor the Tamil Tigers appear to have any reluctance in using civilians as cannon fodder.

On the same day, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a preliminary analysis of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery of the conflict zone that shows craters from the use of heavy weapons and the removal of thousands of likely structures used by internally displaced persons (IDPs) between May 6 and May 10. The AAAS found that it was certainly unlikely that the IDPs would have moved en masse, and so completely without a compelling reason.

The HRW reported K. Kanaga, a 35-year-old woman whose name was withheld for security reasons, had said that around 7 p.m. on May 9, she and 15 others were hiding in a bunker that they been built under a tractor when a shell struck the tractor. If it hadnt been for the tractor, we would have all been dead, she said. About eight to 10 shells struck the immediate area, which was populated with tents and improvised bunkers. Kanagas 45-year-old cousin was staying in a tent nearby; she never reached the bunker and was killed in the attack.

It went on to say that at around 8 a.m. on May 12, the makeshift hospital at Mullivaikkal was shelled when many wounded civilians were waiting for treatment. Nearly 1,000 patients were in the hospital at the time of the attack, including those wounded in the attacks on May 9-10. A shell reportedly exploded in front of the admission ward. Doctors reported that the attack killed 49 people (26 immediately, while the rest succumbed to injuries) and wounded 31.

The military has strongly refuted the satellite images and the charges of shelling of the hospital. The General Officer Commanding 58 Division, Brig. Shavendra Silva, told Frontline: The HRW report is a pack of lies. We have not shelled any area in the NSZ. On the contrary, it is the LTTE which resorted to artillery fire at least on three occasions on May 10 and 11 from inside the NSZ. We have documentary evidence to prove it and are ready to share it with the international community. The strategy of the LTTE was to fire within the NSZ with two objectives. It was meant to push the civilians deeper inside and pin the blame on the troops.

The war of words is of academic interest and offers no solace to the affected civilians. A statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only organisation operating in the battle zone, best reflected the stark realities on the ground. In north-eastern Sri Lanka, hundreds of seriously wounded or ill patients blocked in the conflict area have been waiting in vain for several days for desperately needed medical care. For the third consecutive day, a ferry chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and anchoring only a few kilometres away from the patients has been unable to evacuate them because of continuous heavy fighting, the ICRC said.

Our staff is witnessing an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe, said the ICRCs director of operations, Pierre Krahenbuhl, from the organisations headquarters in Geneva. Despite high-level assurances, the lack of security on the ground means that our sea operations continue to be stalled, and this is unacceptable, he said, adding that no humanitarian organisation can help them in the current circumstances. People are left to their own devices.

An ICRC ferry, the Green Ocean, is carrying 25 tonnes of food. The last time the ICRC could offload food and medical supplies and evacuate patients was on May 9. In addition to this, a cargo ship, Oriental Princess, carrying another 500 tonnes of food from the World Food Programme, is waiting off the coast, north of Mullaithivu.

We need security and unimpeded access in order to save hundreds of lives, said Krahenbuhl. The ICRC stands ready to carry out its humanitarian work as soon as conditions permit.

The situation was so grim that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon chose to issue a strong statement for a third time in the month. He is sending his Chef de Cabinet, Vijay Nambiar, for immediate consultations with the Sri Lankan authorities on the prevailing humanitarian crisis. As per the U.N. assessment, at least 50,000 people are still trapped in the conflict zone and they are exposed to great danger and without access to sufficient humanitarian access.

Walter Kalin, Ban Ki-moons Representative for the Human Rights of Displaced Persons, in a statement said that the LTTE was preventing civilians from leaving the area and placing military installations close to them, and for its part the government was using heavy weapons in the conflict zone.

Kalin also expressed his concern over the dire living conditions in the camps for the IDPs who escaped the conflict, with the influx of an additional 110,000 people during the last 10 days of April posing further challenges to the government and its humanitarian partners.

Ensuring adequate humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons is first and foremost a government responsibility, especially since the government decided to intern them in camps, citing security concerns, he said, adding that the authorities continue to hold nearly 200,000 IDPs in temporary camps. He further called attention to the need to screen and register the displaced without delay and to restore the freedom of movement for the large number of displaced persons who are not security risks.

Prolonged internment of such persons would not only amount to arbitrary detention but it also aggravates the humanitarian situation needlessly, the representative said.

Passionate pleas from within and outside to the LTTE to give up the fight and let the civilians leave fell on deaf ears. The Tigers hung on to the statement by U.S. President Barack Obama on Sri Lanka like a drowning man clutching at a straw and thanked him for talking passionately about the plight of the civilians and calling for urgent action to alleviate the mounting humanitarian crisis.

The United Nations organisation and the Security Council has held back in their traditional humanitarian leadership role to take prudent measures and bring about a truce and safeguard Eelam Tamils. Now, the Eelam Tamils earnestly look forward to President Barack Obama to lead the humanitarian intervention, the Tigers bemoaned in a formal statement. The LTTE conveniently ignored the appeal for surrender of arms and the fact that it is a designated terrorist outfit in the U.S.

The ostrich-like attitude of the Tigers offers no hope for the displaced Tamil people in the north. The proud community has lost everything it had and will take at least a generation to recover from the catastrophe brought upon it by the suicidal approach of the Tigers. The Sri Lankan government, too, has no reasons to be happy, with over 2.5 lakh displaced persons waiting for immediate succour. The military has no doubt won the war, but the battle for the hearts and minds of the Tamils has not even started.

It would be a blunder on the part of the majority polity in Sri Lanka to forget the simple truth that the LTTE is the by-product of the failure of successive regimes in Colombo to respond to the genuine grievances of the minorities in general and the Tamils in particular. In the immediate context, it is the responsibility of the government to tend to the basic minimum needs of the displaced and restore a modicum of dignity to their lives. The Tamil community needs a healing touch and it is the duty of the majority community to reach out to it if the unity, integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka is to be strengthened.

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