Reign of fear

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

Life in the Jaffna peninsula lies shattered as the war between the government forces and the LTTE rages.

in Jaffna

THE security situation remained tense during the reporting period (April 10 to 17, 2008), with fire artillery continuing towards Forward Defence Lines (FDL), was how the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sri Lanka Team, an umbrella organisation of international non-governmental organisations (INGO) operating in the island nation under the aegis of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, summed up the ground situation in Jaffna peninsula. The single line speaks volumes not only about the fragile peace but about the overall sense of unease and uncertainty that has become part of life in the peninsula.

The weekly reports of the committee are significant as they give a glimpse of the suffering of the people. A group of INGOs and local NGOs are the only sources of relatively independent reports emanating from the district particularly after the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) wound up its work when the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime terminated on January 16 the Norwegian-brokered Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) of 2002 between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Given the extraordinary sensitivities of the government to any information divulged by the NGOs, the latter tend to be overtly cautious in their description of the ground realities. However, in a situation of information drought, whatever little they reveal is of enormous value.

The statistics in respect of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) best illustrate the point. Going by the latest report of the committee, there are over 1.03 lakh IDPs. In other words, one out of every six residents of the peninsula is an IDP. Of these, 80,235 displacements took place before December 2005. An October 2007 Danish Refugee Council assessment report on the Jaffna Welfare Centre notes:

The families living in Jaffnas Welfare Centres are categorised as long-term displaced, with the earliest displacement taking place in 1983, and families first arriving in the Welfare Centres in 1984. Since then, most of their places of origin were declared and currently remain as high security zones (HSZ), so no return has yet been possible.

However, the renewal of hostilities in August 2006 led to the closure of the A-9 highway that linked Jaffna to the rest of the island. Since then access to Jaffna has been severely restricted. Prior to August 2006, the long-term displaced had developed coping mechanisms that allowed for a reasonable standard of living. The closure of the A9 and subsequent loss of access to markets, coupled with the loss of livelihoods (fertile farm land and coastal/fishing areas are within the HSZs) has severely impacted on the Jaffna population.

The INGOs and the local NGOs as a matter of policy largely stay away from the touchy subject of human rights violations. A senior manager of an INGO told Frontline: There are several issues that are cause for serious concern. But we dont go public on our knowledge about the human rights situation as it invariably leads to a confrontation with the government and poses a problem to our ability to function in the area when our services are needed the most. Random killings, disappearances, extra-judicial torture and the culture of impunity are widespread in the peninsula. The most comprehensive and meticulously documented work on the human rights situation in the peninsula was released in December 2007 by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) or the UTHR-J.

The government has no doubt contested several of the assertions made by the UTHR-J report but the reputation of the organisation is so high that mere denials are not enough to repudiate its contents. UTHR-J Special Report No. 28, made public on December 4 and titled Slow Strangulation of Jaffna: Trashing General Larry Wijeratnes Legacy and Enthroning Barbarism a bequest of Mahinda (Jathika) Chintana, is a scathing indictment of the armed forces, the government and the LTTE on the count of human rights. The 20,000-odd word report spares none and, more importantly, backs up its contentions with concrete evidence wherever possible.

Life in Jaffna has become a dizzy mixture of the barbarous, anarchic and grotesque. Killings by state forces have in recent times taken a viciously sadistic form. In a number of cases victims questioned by the Army and told that they are cleared, much to their and their families relief, have soon after been targeted and killed often before their wives and families by state killers on a routine shooting safari on motorbikes. These brazen crimes were forebodings of public acts of terror by both sides around the 27th of November, further blurring what is and is not permissible in war. This report also examines the plight of civilians living under the LTTE and argues that war only serves oppressors on both sides, it says.

As per the report, the Government Human Rights Commission has sizable information in areas where its staff are fairly active but are tongue-tied, supine and dodging requests for information. After the killings of a number of aid workers, even HRC staff is afraid to go out and collect information. Valaichenai is one such area. The police are not even reporting abductions taking place in front of the police station. These are among a large number that are likely to go unrecorded. The system is collapsing with even magistrates increasingly fearful of exercising their power to investigate. We give below instances where in one, the wife, and in the other, a sister, identified army men who killed their loved ones in their presence. Yet, the law remains blind, it bemoans.

The report says disappearances are the hardest to deal with and the security forces routinely deny abductions. In about 75% of the cases nothing more is heard. It requires the powers of a state to investigate and here the state is all about suppression. Based on available figures for those killed and disappeared and making due allowance for the LTTEs share in killings, we estimate that the Government and its security forces are responsible for murdering in cold blood upwards of a base figure of 700 unarmed civilians in Jaffna during 2006 and 2007. We make a large allowance for persons listed missing, but whose status is uncertain.

The report concedes that what happened under the 2002 CFA was problematic and argues that it could have been tackled politically if the state had reached out to the Tamil people of the island. The CFA was not their fault. The absence of political engagement has left the Army looking barbaric, ridiculous and stupid, chasing after schoolboys, peeping into school attendance registers, beating up boys, wives and mothers, shooting unarmed women on the street in cold blood and shooting old men and fathers before their wives and children. The extent of the trauma could be judged from the fact that the victims were mainly young men, frequently with wife and children. That extortion should be mixed with terror comes as no surprise, as killing becomes increasingly for the sake of killing.

It further says: Many are the signs that civilians have lost all right to dignity. In Point Pedro, for example, the Army extracts forced labour for clearing roadsides and fields from fishermen who must daily get passes from them to go fishing. No labour, no pass and quite possibly worse. A serious disability everywhere in the government-controlled areas of the North is one the people swallow in silence. MBRLs [multibarrel rocket launchers] sited near civilian habitations are constantly and unbearably booming into LTTE areas.

The report bemoans: For the grotesque, Jaffna must be one of the few places in the world where scores of people neither charged with any offence, nor told what they are guilty of, fearing the states safari killers, voluntarily enter remand prison after registering with the Human Rights Commission and appearing before the Magistrate. In an ironical reversal of roles, civilians innocent in law seek official protective custody from official defenders of the law freely indulging in manslaughter. Jaffna currently has nearly 200 voluntary remandees.

The report notes: Apart from the States treatment of Tamils and the absence of a political settlement, there is an outstanding feature that has complicated the problem of security in the North. Governments have found it far easier to appease the LTTE than to work at a political settlement the minorities have long asked for. In appeasing, governments turned a blind eye to what the LTTE did to the Tamils as happened in 1990 and 2002-2005. School principals, auto drivers, administrators, cooperative chairman and employees, various trade organisations and even university students (for vote rigging), were all placed gratis under the LTTEs whip and gun.

The governments did not stand up for the people, the report says. The LTTE freely conscripted children from schools, while the governments watched and the police were ordered to be passive. It is the same people and the same society that was thrown into the inevitable new dispensation of confrontation between the government and the LTTE. The Government then pounced on the people whom it had previously rendered helpless.

It says the LTTE keeps a register of children and abducts them as soon as they reach the age of 17. Unfortunately, rights groups have not got around to seeing the LTTEs practices, certainly a breach of law, as disastrous and traumatic for the whole society, and hardly less harmful to children than conscription. Children left with virtually widowed mothers, without elder brothers and without means, are open to all kinds of exploitation. Ensuring the return of the Muslims to the North is an obligation that confronts the Tamil community, from where the LTTE shamelessly expelled them in 1990. It is, sadly, the Muslims who have worked harder to heal the wound.

It is against this backdrop that one has to look at the inability of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), for the second time, to capture the strategically important Muhamalai Forward Defence Line (FDL) of the LTTE in the peninsula. At least 184 soldiers are feared either dead or missing in action. The battle commenced on April 23 around 2 a.m., hours after Army Commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka discussed the pre-planned military operation to capture further lands of the LTTE in the seven kilometres of the Muhamalai stretch.

The military had monitored a large number of LTTE cadre entering the Kilali area south of the A-9 (Jaffna-Kandy main road) armed with heavy weapons, indicating that the Tigers were planning a major onslaught against the military.

The intensity of the Tiger attack was such that the Army Headquarters sought aerial support. Jets were tasked to destroy the LTTEs artillery and mortar locations, as these weapons were instrumental in causing major problems for the troops. The jets bombed two heavy gun positions located about 10 km to 12 km south of the LTTE FDL. After a series of aerial raids, the troops were able to withdraw from the deep enemy land and also hold the first FDL of the Tigers. The LTTE, employing a similar tactic it used back in 2006, withdrew to the secondary lines and brought a large volume of artillery fire on the troops consolidating the newly captured positions. It was this rain of artillery shells that caused most of the SLA casualties.

The narrow stretches along the FDLs of the Muhamalai sector and the clever tactics of the LTTE cost the military dearly. For several years now, the Army has been trying to break through the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagar Kovil Defence line and reach Elephant Pass, which is the gateway to Wanni. But each time, it has had to retreat, suffering heavy losses. The area has been heavily mined by the Tigers.

A major gain and consolation for the military came after the Muhamalai battle when it took full control of the Madu church in Mannar district. The church was in an LTTE-administered territory for nine years. The military plan to capture the church was conceived in February 2007. The operation commenced from the north of Omanthai, parallel to the A-9 Highway. According to the plan, troops were tasked not to enter the 4 sq km area around the church to avoid causing any damage to the church. For that purpose, a no-war zone was declared.

When soldiers of 8 Sri Lanka Light Infantry reached the shrine, Tiger cadre beat a retreat unable to withstand the Army advance. However, pro-LTTE portal TamilNet, quoting unnamed sources in Wanni, claimed that the SLA had been stationed 1.5 km away from the shrine for weeks and it could have entered the shrine at any time as LTTE defensive units were strictly kept away from the peace zone.

The Madu shrine zone has been a theatre of battle between the SLA forces and the Tigers for several weeks now. In view of the heightened tension, the Bishop of Mannar had instructed, on April 3, the four priests, four nuns and five civilian assistants in the church to flee the premises with the statue of Our Lady of Madu.

All civilians had vacated the area, which was located inside the LTTE-controlled territory, before the priests left the shrine with the statue. The government accused the priests of acting under pressure from the LTTE.

The centuries-old Catholic shrine was visited by thousands of pilgrims, especially during the church festival in August, before the LTTE took control of the area in 1999. As LTTE terrorists unleashed their Final War in 2006, the church became a sanctuary for thousands of civilians who wanted to avoid their children being conscripted by the terror outfit, a Defence Ministry statement noted.

It said that 57 Division of the Army on the Vavuniya battle front tactically removed most of the LTTE lines of communication to what had `then become the terror stronghold inside the Madu complex, making the occupying terrorists isolated from the rest.

The modus operandi became a success as the terrorists started to withdraw amid the increasing military pressures outside the no-war zone. The LTTE bands, Malathi, Radha and Charles Anthony, withdrew from the area after shifting their heavy guns. A small LTTE group led by a terrorist leader Gopith was the last to remain at the church. At present, Army troops are clearing the surroundings of the church, as there is a strong possibility that the terrorists would have booby-trapped the church building before they left, the Ministry said.

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