The Great Escapes
people in the internment camps want to talk and be
heard. Everyone of the over 190,000 men, women and
children want to tell their stories. They are fed up
with the grand narratives in which they have been used
as vulnerable victims by the LTTE and its sympathisers,
by the Sri Lankan Government and its embedded spin
doctors (and a swindler?) and now increasingly by the
UN, the NGOs and the humanitarian industry.
have all along known that when the others use them in
their stories as ‘an integral component of the Tamil
people’s struggle for liberation,’ or as ‘our people
caught in the clutches of terrorism needing to be
rescued’ or since of late ‘as IDPs facing a humanitarian
crisis’ they are condemned to be robbed of their rights
as citizens and humans.
Listening to people in the internment camps does many
things to you. It causes frustration and drives you into
depression. Their questions make you feel naked and
vulnerable. Most importantly they shatter the myths
about the former and current ‘liberators.’
have harrowing experiences to narrate about their time
under the brutal clutches of a maniacal LTTE, about
their government that was deliberately reckless in its
offensive operations, about their exodus through
difficult terrain and ‘screening’ processes and about
their living conditions in internment camps.
Bitter and angry
of whom I spoke to were very bitter about and angry with
the LTTE. They felt they had been lied to and had lost
confidence in them. Everyone of them confirmed that the
army had shelled indiscriminately causing heavy civilian
casualties and that the air force had repeatedly
aerial-bombed civilian locations. All of them were
relieved to have escaped the conflict zone and from LTTE
control and to be in the IDP camps.
feeling was universal despite the primitive conditions
and incarceration in barbed fire enclaves amounting to
collective punishment. They were also clear that it is
the relentless and indiscriminate shelling by the army
and the human shield tactics by the LTTE that made them
flee their homes.
Everyone I listened to had been displaced multiple
times. One old lady, Nesamma, in her late 60s told me
that she was forced to move nine times in the last three
months – as the army’s shells kept falling and shootings
took place in close quarters — before she escaped on
Another woman, Parameshwary, in her 30s said that they
had to carry a child (whose parent had been killed) and
move either by foot or by bicycle for days from place to
place – at least five times – in two months. She said
that they were shelled and bombed from the air almost
every day for two months. She had spent most of her time
in hastily set up bunkers.
13-year-old child, Lawrence, who I swear looked much
younger than that, had lost both his parents in a shell
attack and tagged along with his very old grandfather
through at least five places before coming out of the
conflict zone. There are over 190,000 such experiences
of forcibly being moved, fleeing for life and suffering
great loss of life, limbs and property on the way.
of the initial movements seem to have been voluntary –
as the fighting arrived nearer, people moved interior to
places they perceived as safe. There were some instances
of LTTE cadres ‘guiding’ them to ‘safer’ locations.
Though some people reluctantly moved there wasn’t an
indication of systematic coercion. Many still had
confidence in the LTTE to fight back and fearing worse
things on the government controlled side, preferred to
move en-masse to places they considered safe.
LTTE, while drumming up propaganda about transforming
the war into a ‘people’s struggle’ and the need to make
sacrifices, during the initial months, was still
maintaining a distance between the civilians and their
cadres, arms and equipment.
when the fighting intensified and the towns fell one
after the other, and particularly after Killinochchi was
captured, the people realised it was a lost cause. They
wanted to escape. Until then there weren’t many deaths
due to shelling by the army and the LTTE did not
apparently have to nor use much coercion to move
was some food available so in general people did not
starve. But then the situation dramatically changed.
Assessing the trajectory of the war many people wanted
to leave. They began to fear for their lives. The only
thing that prevented them was the fear of what the LTTE
would do and the uncertainty about what awaited them on
the ‘other’ side.
military shelling intensified, they wanted to escape to
the government-controlled areas in order to save their
lives. The LTTE began to violently prevent people from
doing so. According to Parameshwary shooting of fleeing
civilians or those with the intention to flee began when
people started moving away from Viswamadu. Some others
mentioned that it began at Iranaipaalai.
the time Killinochchi fell people were given strict
orders by the LTTE as to where they should be moving.
The violators were dealt with severely – initially shot
and injured and later shot and killed. In the backdrop
of intensive shelling by the army, the herding of
civilians by the LTTE and the big plan to create a human
shield had begun. So did the attempts by the people to
man, Lakshmidaran, who had escaped in early February
said – ‘We wait in places to escape. Some times for
days. The whole family, including the children, stay
like this. Near the location where the fighting takes
place. The army is shooting in this direction from about
250 meters away. The LTTE combatants are firing at the
army from about 50 meters from us. We waited for the
right time to break through the LTTE lines with white
flags ready. We knew from Tamil radio broadcasts that
we should not go across in the night. We waited till
daybreak and crossed. The LTTE in the lines (front line)
did not stop us at that time.’
the escape became more difficult as the days progressed.
The punishment for trying to flee was getting more
severe. One middle-aged man, Shivakumar, said, ‘they (LTTE)
started keeping sentries. These sentries and the
intelligence department people were the most
problematic. If you get caught you were put for ‘pani’
(meaning deployment in the frontlines to dig trenches at
gun point). By this time, ‘the sentries and the fear of
failure were the only two things that prevented us from
attempting to escape,’ said Shivakumar.
were many prominent leaders of the LTTE who were in the
zone. But except on a few occasions they did not try to
come and speak to the people. Ilamparithi on a couple of
occasions was confronted by a hostile population. When
things went out of control Pottu Amman had addressed a
group of civilians.
intense and indiscriminate barrage of shelling was what
had initially compelled the people to decide to move
out, but from about the middle of March (a few said it
was from late February) the shortage of food became a
primary reason too. What came from the government and
agencies gradually was perhaps deliberately reduced. The
LTTE was taking the food that the aid agencies brought
and were allowing only partial distribution.
were also instances of the LTTE selling food items that
came as aid and using food as a tool to control people.
Naturally the lack of food created agitations. There was
an instance reported when the civilians overpowered a
LTTE group and broke open a consignment meant for 600
LTTE cadres in the front line — fully recognising the
Maathalan, there would be a thousand who stand in a
queue to get 500 grams of fish, seven pieces of dry
chillies cost 100, but the worst thing is that even if
you have money there was nowhere to buy anything.
Children became very hungry and people began to take
higher risks to escape,’ related Selvan who escaped in
shooting by the LTTE increased. When they shot and
injured fleeing civilians, Maaran said, ‘they brought
and dumped them in the hospital.’ ‘There were many
innocent people particularly those who have family
members in the LTTE who are too scared to come to this
side, so they were planning to escape to India.’ But of
course this became more dangerous after the navy
tightened their cordon. ‘If their fears are allayed,
they too will come,’ he said.
stay near the water and wait for an opportunity to dash
into the water. We stay in groups, mostly families
together – old men, women and children. Some feeble
people who cannot physically manage the ordeal will stay
back. To leave behind family members is a difficult
hit the waters, mostly in the dark, then the LTTE does
not come to catch us as it would expose them to army
fire from the other end of the lagoon. Instead they
start shooting from their hiding places. When the army
sees civilians getting into the water then they too
start shooting towards the LTTE in order to rescue us.
As firing happens across us we keep wading through the
‘Another dangerous obstacle was the craters created by
artillery shells in the lagoon bed. You just slip in.
Some drowned. The LTTE had also placed mines along the
coast. I saw one of the women in our group hitting a
mine and losing her leg. But we had no option but to
keep going. While fleeing one of my cousin brothers,
Kannan, and his two year old child were shot and
injured.’ This was a narration of Ramanan who was lucky
enough to escape from Maathalan.
Paid their way through
were people who paid the LTTE sentries to allow them to
go. Some got caught paying and were punished. Cadres
from the LTTE intelligence wing and the ‘police’ kept a
close watch on all of us. If families were conversing
together they suspected that we were plotting to escape
and would beat us up,’ said Maaran. ‘Any signs of us
preparing to leave was detected and dealt with. The
conscription by the LTTE became severe.
we get to the water, then it is a long hard walk. After
the initial shower of bullets from the LTTE side we see
crossfire between the army and the LTTE. While wading
through, holding our children including babies above
water level, we see bodies floating in the lagoon – of
people whom we know,’ added Ramanan.
they reached the other side they were greeted by the
army who had put up a barbed wire fence along the coast.
They took the women, elderly and the injured and asked
the rest of the men to stay in the water till daybreak.
Different groups of escapees had different narratives
about their journey from the point of being rescued by
the army till they reached the internment camps. For
some it took just two days from the time they escaped
till they came to Vavuniya whereas for some others it
had taken a good two weeks from the date the army took
them in till they reached the transit sites in Vavuniya.
variety of ‘screening’ processes had been adopted
according to those who underwent the ordeal. It included
an initial body check and collection of information at
the first point. The civilians fleeing were then
addressed and instructed by the military. One said that
they were given a speech in Tamil by a para-military.
Later they were taken in for more questioning.
this stage people were asked to identify if they had any
dealings with the LTTE, be it as a combatant, spy,
revenue collector, police or as part of the
administration. They were lined up separately and
questioned. Informers and cadres who had already turned
themselves in were used to identify LTTE cadres from
civilians. On most occasions except for some hardcore
cadres and leaders the rest (even active combatants)
were all put together and sent with other civilians to
Omanthai. Many of those spoken to told that they were
photographed either individually or as a family unit.
have also been instances when some self-identified
cadres or those alleged to be LTTE were kept back. As to
how many of those crossed over from the LTTE controlled
areas actually made it to the IDP camps we will not know
for a long time until proper registrations are
completed. As to how many were lost or disappeared on
the way, perhaps we may never know.
we hear from people are heart-rending stories, but we
also occasionally hear of a compassionate LTTE cadre who
shot in the air and let the civilians escape or the
story about a brave soldier who jumped into the lagoon
risking his life to save an injured woman.
of those who escaped also expressed a sense of
dejection. They feel cheated by the LTTE. ‘Those in the
movement said that they will protect us, that they will
block the army’s progress and retaliate. They were
telling stories,’ said Parameshwary. While the
government is to be blamed for conducting a brutal
military campaign with scant regard for civilians, the
LTTE is to be blamed for the way they had used the
civilians, causing great loss.
people are so crushed and dispirited that it might have
dried up their support for the LTTE or for a separate
Eelam. Unless the government swamps them with their
high-handedness, brutality and insensitivity when
dealing with the displacement and resettlement situation
these people are ready to try out alternatives. They
have been and are ready to try out alternatives. They
are willing to do that partly because of the LTTE’s
brutal mis-adventure of an endgame.
in this article have been changed for security reasons)
At least 378 killed and 1,122 injured in shelling and
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in
reached tragically high levels on May 10 as a result of
intensive artillery shelling and aerial bombardment by
the Sri Lankan armed forces.
According to medical sources at least 378 people were
killed and 1122 injured as at 4.00 pm, Sri Lankan time
on May 10. While this figure is based on the number of
bodies brought to and number of persons treated for
injuries at the makeshift hospital in Mullivaaikkaal,
further casualties in their hundreds were also reported.
Veerakathi Shanmugarajah, formerly of Mullaithivu
hospital presently attached to the Mullivaaikkaal
temporary hospital said that there was intensive
5 pm on Saturday, May 9 till
on Sunday, May 10.
were also reports of the exchange of fire between the
armed forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
during the night. There was a lull for about three hours
till 12 noon but thereafter sporadic artillery and
mortar fire commenced. There were also two air strikes
by the Sri Lankan armed forces around 3 pm and 3.15 pm
on Sunday (10).
was a lull once again from 3.30 pm. Speaking to sections
of the media at
4 pm, Dr. Shanmugarajah said that up to that time 1122 persons
had been treated for injuries sustained on Saturday and
these the condition of more than 200 was very critical.
378 dead bodies were lying at the hospital premises at 4
pm on Sunday. Of these 106 bodies were those of children
makeshift hospital is functioning in the premises of a
school in Mullivaaikkaal east. Dr. Shanmugarajah said
that the ICRC ship that had arrived recently had brought
medicine and materials for first-aid and surgery.
Despite this, progress in treating the injured was
hampered by the lack of adequate personnel and also
because a very large number of people had been injured
within a short time.
hospital was struggling to cope. The ICRC had been
informed of the emergency situation and the critical
condition of more than 200 people. The ICRC was making
arrangements to send a ship to evacuate the injured
persons on Monday, May 11 instead of Tuesday, May 12 as
Shanmugarajah also said that a number of persons injured
were yet to be brought to the hospital. Also several
hundreds of dead bodies were lying in various parts of
doctor working under extremely difficult conditions said
that he could see about 15 bodies lying outside the
hospital premises. Injured people receiving treatment
had told him that they had seen a lot of bodies in
Shanmugarajah said that he had no knowledge of the
number of Tiger casualties. His figures were based only
on the casualties brought to the hospital. He further
said that the people were dazed and shocked by the
ferocity and intensity of the aerial bombardment and
on May 8, Wesak day that the Sri Lanka Army reduced the
size of the existing “safe zone.” The zone is within the
Karaithuraipatru AGA Division of Mullaithivu District.
The re-demarcated area was 2 km in length and 1.5 km in
width. This extended from the south of
Karaiyamullivaaikkaal to Vattuvaagal North and
encompassed Vellamullivaaikkaal also.
was a large concentration of civilians in this area and
it was officially proclaimed this zone was a safe zone.
Despite this declaration the shelling and bombing had
affected a very large number of civilians existing amid
horrible living conditions in this re-demarcated zone.
shells had come from Mullaithivu town in the South,
Puthukkudiyiruppu in the north and Vatraappalai and
Keppapulavu in the West. The intense shelling was from
artillery and heavy mortars, multi-barrel rocket
launchers, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and from
battle tanks and armoured cars.
Division now under the command of Brig. Prasanna Silva
was trying to move up in a northward direction. He was
earlier 55 Division commanding officer but given a fresh
‘59’ has reached the Vattuvaagal causeway that goes
across the estuary of the Nandhikadal lagoon. The LTTE
has reportedly blasted both ends of the causeway and set
up defences under “Col”
Division under Brig. Shavendra Silva was moving in a
south-eastern direction further into the Mullivaaikkaal
Likewise the 53 Division under Gen. Kamal Gunaratne was
also moving further into the region in a north–eastern
Velavan of the LTTE was in charge of Tiger defences in
this front. The LTTE has moved the civilians into the
middle at both ends in a bid to avoid a repetition of
the April 20th operation in which more than 100,000
civilians fled from the LTTE controlled area.
was due to the army reaching the ‘bund cum trench’
defences of the LTTE. The people living within proximity
to the bund were able to escape easily. Now the LTTE has
moved the people inwards and keeps the area around its
forward defence line devoid of civilians.
from the announcement that a “safe zone” was declared
the Sri Lankan government has also announced that
“combat operations” have ceased and that “artillery fire
and aerial strikes” had come to an end.
government however has engaged in colossal deception and
flagrantly violates its own pronouncements blatantly.
There has been constant shelling in which a large number
of civilians have been killed and injured. The 19 hour
attack that occurred in two phases on May 9 and 10 were
of terrible intensity not witnessed earlier. In addition
there have been two air strikes.
government continues to maintain that it is not shelling
or bombing civilians. It says that it is not fighting
the Tigers but only engaging in a humanitarian operation
to rescue civilians entrapped by the Tigers.
as civilian casualty figures are reported in sections of
the Tamil media official spokespersons like Brig. Udaya
Nanayakkara and Cabinet Minister Keheliya Rambukwella
continue with unconvincing denials. With a small
landmass being saturated with civilians, bombing and
shelling results in the inevitable killing and injuring
the government says only 15-20,000 civilians are there
the UN and ICRC estimate it at upward of 50,000. The
official district administrative figure is 165,000 while
NGO estimates vary from 80,000 to 120,000.
rights organisations have warned that shelling and
bombing an area with the full knowledge that civilians
could be victimised would amount to a war crime. They
have also warned that targeting hospitals amount to
crimes against humanity.
Notwithstanding all these warnings the Rajapakse regime
continues with its actions firmly and deliberately. The
current intensification of shelling and bombing is seen
as a prelude to a massive three-pronged operation to
establish full control over what remains of
Despite the continuous suffering of civilians the LTTE
refuses to let the people move to government controlled
areas for safety.
the helpless civilians are caught between a cruel
government and a cruel ‘liberation’ organisation, both
of whom claim to be fighting on behalf of the people.
Meanwhile the civilians get killed and injured almost on
a daily basis. It is a continuing humanitarian