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On The Spot

   

The Great Escapes

By Vidura

The 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.

They 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.’

They 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

Many 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.

This 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 April 20. 

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.

A 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.

Voluntary movement

Most 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.

The 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.

But 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 civilians around.

There 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.

As the 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.

Strict orders

Around 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 escape.

One 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.’

But 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.

Prominent leaders

There 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.

The 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.

There 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 brutal consequences.

‘In 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 April.

Increased shooting

The 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.

‘We 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 decision. 

‘If we 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 water.

‘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

‘There 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.

‘When 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.

When 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.

A 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.

Long process

At 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.

There 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.

What 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.

Some 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.

The 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.

(Names in this article have been changed for security reasons)


At least 378 killed and 1,122 injured in shelling and bombing 

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Northern Wanni 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.

Dr. Veerakathi Shanmugarajah, formerly of Mullaithivu hospital presently attached to the Mullivaaikkaal temporary hospital said that there was intensive shelling from 5 pm on Saturday, May 9 till 9 am on Sunday, May 10.

There 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).

There 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 Sunday.

Of 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 under 15.

Hospital struggling

The 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.

The 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 scheduled earlier.

Dr. 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 the area.

The 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 different places.

Dr. 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 artillery shelling.

It was 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.

Many civilians

There 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.

The 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.

The 59 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 responsibility.

The ‘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” Lakshmanan.

The 58 Division under Brig. Shavendra Silva was moving in a south-eastern direction further into the Mullivaaikkaal region.

Likewise the 53 Division under Gen. Kamal Gunaratne was also moving further into the region in a north–eastern direction.

Moved

“Col” 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.

This 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.

Apart 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Even 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 of civilians.

Estimates

Though 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.

Human 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 Tiger-controlled territory.

Despite the continuous suffering of civilians the LTTE refuses to let the people move to government controlled areas for safety.

Thus 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 catastrophe.


 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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