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A case of detaining Tamils

Injured civilians lie on the ground in a makeshift hospital in this photograph released by the pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group ‘Mercy Mission to Wanni’ on April 20, 2009 showing what they say are wounded civilians who were fleeing from an area still controlled by the LTTE in the No Fire Zone near the village of Putumatalan in Puthukkudiyirippu, northeastern Sri Lanka. (REUTERS/Mercy Mission to Wanni) (inset) Damilvany, an eye-witness to the final stage of the bloody conflict in the Wanni, Sri Lanka

We reproduce below an article which The Guardian in the UK carried on Wednesday, September 16…

‘As the shells fell, we tried to save lives with no blood or medicine’

Damilvany Gnanakumar witnessed Sri Lanka’s bloody conflict from a Tamil hospital — then spent months detained in a camp. Here she tells her story…

By Gethin Chamberlain The Guardian

The young mother was standing by the side of the road, clutching her baby. The baby was dead.

Damilvany Gnanakumar watched as she tried to make a decision. Around them, thousands of people were picking their way between bodies strewn across the road, desperate to escape the fighting all around them.

“The mother couldn’t bring the dead body and she doesn’t want to leave it as well. She was standing holding the baby. She didn’t know what to do. At the end, because of the shell bombing and people rushing there were thousands and thousands of people, they were rushing in and pushing everyone.  She just had to leave the baby at the side of the road — she had to leave the body there and come — she had no choice. And I was thinking in my mind ‘What have the people done wrong? Why are they going through this, why is the international government not speaking up for them? I’m still asking.”

Four months later and Gnanakumar is sitting on a cream leather sofa in the living room of the family home in Chingford, Essex, reliving the final days of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.

In grim internment camps

For most of those four months, the 25-year-old British graduate was imprisoned behind razor wire inside the country’s grim internment camps, home to nearly 300,000 people. She was released last week, partly as a result of pressure from this newspaper (The Guardian), and flew back into London on Sunday.

The last time she publicly spoke about the conflict was from the hospital where she was working inside the ever-shrinking war zone in Sri Lanka’s north-east.

Then, the national army had surrounded the small sliver of land where the remnants of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas held out and where hundreds of thousands of civilians had taken refuge. She had been in despair: a shell had just struck the hospital and dozens were dead. “At the moment, it is like hell,” she said then.

Treating the wounded

Gnanakumar was one of a small group of medics treating the wounded and providing a running commentary to the outside world from behind the lines. For months she had managed to stay alive while around her thousands died. At night, she lived in bunkers dug in the sand. During the day, she helped in the makeshift hospitals, dodging the shells and the bullets, tending the wounded and the dying, as the doctors tried to operate with butcher’s knives and watered-down anesthetic.

Now her damning account provides a powerful rebuke to the claims of the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse, that the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was achieved without the spilling of a drop of civilian blood.

Born in Jaffna in the Tamil-dominated north of Sri Lanka in 1984, Gnanakumar and her family moved to Britain in 1994. Until February 28 last year, she had not been back. She had just completed a biomedical degree at Greenwich University, but her short-lived marriage was on the rocks and she decided it was time to make a clean break. She left the house, telling no one where she was going.

Fighting was getting worse

Arriving in the capital, Colombo, she headed for the Wanni, the Tamil heartland, to stay with a relative she calls her brother (her real brother is back in the UK, along with her two sisters). There seemed little sign of danger, but by June 2008 fighting was getting worse: the Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), still thought they would be able to negotiate a ceasefire, as they had done in the past, but the government had other ideas. They were determined to destroy the LTTE once and for all. Gnanakumar decided to stay on to try to help those who were trapped by the advance.

Even before the arrival of the government’s ground forces, there had been regular air raids by air force Kfir jets. But in early January artillery barrages began, forcing the population to move.

That was when the reality of the war hit Gnanakumar for the first time.

“It was raining and you could see everywhere on the road the blood is running with the water and the bodies were left there because there was no-one to identify who was dead and who is alive, the bodies were just laid down on the floor and that’s the first time I saw dead bodies and wounded people crying out, shouting.”

Built bunkers

Wherever they stopped, they built a bunker, digging down until they could stand up in the hole, cutting down palm branches and laying them across the top for a roof and packing sandbags on the top and around the sides.

As the frontline advanced, trapping as many as 300,000 people inside a shrinking enclave of LTTE-held land, Gnanakumar went to the makeshift government hospital, which had moved into a former primary school, and volunteered to help, dressing wounds and administering first aid.

Her laboratory training had not prepared her for anything like this, but she learned as she went along. As the fighting intensified, they were treating as many as 500 people every day in two rooms. “They had a shortage of medicine but they had to somehow save the people. The last two weeks or so there was a shortage of everything.”

With replacement blood running out, she had to filter what she could from the patients through a cloth before feeding it back into their veins. When the anesthetics ran short, they diluted them with distilled water. “I watched when there was a six-year-old boy,” she said. “They had to take off the leg and also the arm, but they didn’t have proper equipment, they just had a knife that the butchers use to cut the meat, and we have to use that to take off his leg and arm. He cried and cried.”

It got worse

As the army closed in, it got worse.

“People were running and running to get them safely away from the shell bombing, but they couldn’t and it came to a point where we thought we were all going to die, there is no way we can be safe anymore here, but we just have to take it. I mean, you can’t get out of the shell-bombing. I didn’t think that I would be alive and I would be here now. I said OK, I’m going to die, that is the end of it.

“One day I was inside the (operating) theatre and the next room was bombed. We had a lot of the treated people left in the room for the doctors to go and monitor and they all died in that shell bomb. And they (the Sri Lankan forces) again bombed the hospital and one of the doctors died in that.”

Inside the hospital, there was no respite. Gnanakumar cannot forget the day a mother was brought in, injured, clutching her baby.

“She had the baby on her lap, the baby is dead and the mother didn’t know and the doctor said: ‘Don’t tell her, because if we tell her now she will start crying out and shouting and we have to save the mother first.’ So we said: ‘OK, give the baby to us, we’ll look after her you go and get the treatment from the doctor,’ and only after she got the treatment we told the truth, that your baby is dead. I can easily say it, but at that moment I was in so much pain — the innocent baby — the mother didn’t know the baby was dead she thought ‘my baby is sleeping.’

“There were so many incidents. Another time the mother was dead and the baby was still suckling.”

Ate what they could

The fighting was getting closer. They ate what they could find and those who could slept, in the occasional lulls.

“You have to be ready to run, you can’t relax and go to sleep, any minute you just have to be ready,” she said.

Gnanakumar could not take any more. On May 13 the hospital had been hit, killing about 50 people. “The bunker right next to ours had a shell on top of it and there were six people in the same family who died and three were wounded.

“I saw them suddenly I start hearing people are crying out and I thought, it has to be somewhere really close? I came out of my tent and I saw blood everywhere and the people? I couldn’t even imagine that place, there was blood and then the bodies were in pieces everywhere and my brother said: ‘Just pack up and let’s get away from this place.’”

In the last five days, she says, she believes about 20,000 people died. It is a very high estimate, though the UN has acknowledged the true death toll may never be known. Tamil groups such as the Global Tamil Forum say her account corroborates their own figures drawn from interviews with survivors.

Over the course of the three-decade war, it is estimated that up to 100,000 people have died. But independent confirmation of the death toll in the final days has been impossible. The Sri Lankan government has barred independent journalists from the war zone to this day, and has expelled UN officials and aid workers.

Survivors spirited away

Meanwhile, the survivors of the final assault have been spirited away inside sprawling camps in a militarised zone.

It was to those camps, at Menik Farm, that Gnanakumar was taken. Following that last bombing, she joined thousands fleeing towards the government lines. “We started moving and after walking about one hour or so we saw the Sri Lankan army.

“They were saying: ‘Come, you are safe now, food will be provided for you.’ There were bodies everywhere, in pieces. We had to just walk.” That was when she saw the mother agonising over ‘what to do with her dead baby.’ No one had time to bury the bodies, she says. Some pushed them into bunkers and covered them with a little sand. That was the best they could do.

That night, they slept in a school, then they were taken by bus to the town of Vavuniya. She called her mother: “I said, Mum, just get me out of here, I just want to get out of this place. And the phone got cut off.”

The Sri Lankan government has built a series of camps to house the estimated 300,000 people who poured out of the war zone. It claims that it needs to hold the civilians until it can weed out the former Tamil Tiger fighters; its critics, including many UN organisations and independent aid groups, question why, even if that is true, it needs to imprison children and the elderly behind barbed wire, and why it has not quickly identified the rebels. Despite pledges to start sending the internees back to their homes “at the earliest possible opportunity,” the UN says only 2,000 have so far been released.

No food

There was no food on the first day Gnanakumar arrived, and she had lost contact with the people she had been with. She slept in a tent with strangers.

Even after the privations of the war zone, conditions in the camp still came as a shock.

“Wherever you go there are big queues, whatever you want you have to queue. The toilets are terrible, I can’t describe how disgusting it was. Flies everywhere, mosquitoes — unhygienic. People had all sorts of illnesses.

“People have lost their family members, they are separated from their families  and they are going through depression.”

Accounts circulated of rapes and murders, of people disappearing. Some people committed suicide: a teacher was found hanging from a tree.

Military intelligence officers were roaming the camps, looking for former Tamil Tigers, she said. “It is an open prison, you are free to walk but you are inside a prison, you are not allowed to step out. You can’t. There were guards everywhere and checkpoints.”

Appeal from her parents

A couple of days after she arrived, the British High Commission made contact through the UNHCR. An appeal from her parents in The Guardian brought fresh hope and a flurry of activity: she was moved from the overcrowded zone II to zone I, the part of the camp the authorities show to visitors.

“I was there when the UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon came in. He stayed there for about 10 minutes and just went. Why didn’t he go into the camp and talk to the people and spend some time asking them what their problems were? I thought he has a responsibility and people were expecting something from him. They expected much from him and he just spent 10 minutes and that was it.”

The officials told Gnanakumar she would be staying for a couple of days and would then be released. “And then the 48 hours turned into three days and then it turned into weeks and months and I thought OK, now I understand it is not going to happen.” She was interrogated five times as to what was she doing there and why she had been in the hospitals.

The call to say she was going home came last week. She was taken to Colombo to meet the President’s brother, Basil Rajapakse.

“He said OK, you went through so much in the country and now you are released you can go and join your family and be happy. He wasn’t sorry about it.” She was then handed over to British officials.

She speaks in a matter-of-fact way, rarely betraying emotion. Her hair has been tied back tightly. She had beautiful hair before she left, she says, but lost most of it in the camps. She is not sure what she will do now, maybe something in the field of medicine.

“I’m happy and proud of myself that I was able to help the people. I still think it is unreal that I am in the UK. I never thought I would be alive and be coming back, even in the camp.

“After looking at the people dying and dead bodies everywhere, it is like nothing would scare me any more — it is like I have had the hardest time in my life and I think I am prepared to take up whatever happens in life now.

“I’m not that old, the Vany that sits down and cries for little things. I’m stronger now after going through and seeing all those problems. My mind is clear now.”


‘My husband is 100 percent innocent’

Ratnarajah Thusiyanthan who is being held in the Colombo Remand Prison since April 29 without any charges — a typical case of what is happening in Sri Lanka today

Ratnarajah Thusiyanthan, 35, was working as an IT consultant for a World Bank funded project in Colombo when he was arrested outside his office on April 29, and is still being held without charges at the Colombo remand prison. He was among several arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, described by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as “draconian.” HRW has noted the Sri Lankan government uses emergency regulations to arrest and detain political opponents, journalists, human rights defenders, and members of the Tamil minority community.   In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader Ratnarajah’s wife, Nijanthini, insists he is innocent and not a terrorist.

By Ranjit Jayasundera Our correspondent in Canada

Q: Your husband was arrested in April, have you been able to speak to him?

A: Yes in the presence of the prison and police officials, I spoke to him.

Q: Do you know the conditions where he is being held and is he getting daily meals?

A: He is being held at the Colombo Remand Prison. Like any other remand prisoner, he is getting three meals a day.

Q: Do you know if the Canadian Government has been in contact with him and are they assisting him?

A: Yes, they have been.

Q: Your husband was working for a World Bank funded project in Colombo as an IT consultant, did he have any relations with the LTTE?

A: He never ever had anything to do with the LTTE.

Q: Would there be any reason at all for your husband to be arrested?

A: As far as I know, there is no reason for him to have been arrested. He is 100 percent innocent. He was just focused on his career and his family and I want to add he is a loving father and husband.

Q: Who from the Attorney General’s office is assisting you with your husband’s case?

A: So far, I have not been contacted by the Attorney General’s office.

Q: If there is anything you could say to your husband at this time, what would it be?

A: God is with us. You have done nothing wrong. Have faith and you will be released soon. You will be reunited with me and our loving daughter in the near future.

The process should be transparent 

Q: Is the Foreign Affairs Office in Canada aware of Ratnarajah Thusiyanthan’s case and when did you find out about it?

A: The High Commission of Canada in Sri Lanka, has been informed by the Sri Lankan authorities that a Canadian has been detained in Colombo and informed us on May 7. We have requested to have access and have had access on two occasions and are providing assistance and support to the individual and the family.

Q: Would you not think that if Canada has decided to provide Sri Lanka with 22 million dollars in aid, the Sri Lankan Government has an obligation to inform the Canadian Government on what is happening to a Canadian Citizen who has been arrested in Sri Lanka?

A: Yes, we were informed by the Sri Lankan authorities of the detention of this Canadian on May 7, and when I was in Sri Lanka they gave me access to the Canadians who were at the IDP camps — of course they didn’t give me access to the individual they consider to be a combatant and he was at another camp.

Q: What are your thoughts on the detention of Canadians being held without charges in Sri Lanka?

A: We always ask the Sri Lankan Government that when they detain a Canadian; first he should have consular access; second, he should have clear access to a lawyer; and third, that he should be charged if there are any charges, and the process should be transparent.

Q: What are your views on Sri Lanka’s humans rights?

A: Well on my visit to Sri Lanka, on July 4, I met with Minister of Foreign Affairs and we agreed that this was now the time when they have the opportunity to address many of the issues that they couldn’t do before due to the war and now that the war is not there, they can put their minds to those issues.

Q: With all the news of Canadians being arrested in Sri Lanka, what is the relationship like with the Sri Lanka Government now?

A: Well number one, we have been informed when Canadians are arrested and we expect that justice is provided. The other aspect of it is, we are concerned about the displaced people.

Q: Have you felt that the Sri Lankan Government has provided you enough access to visit all the Canadians that have been arrested?

A: We continue working with them. With regard to this particular case we have been provided access and we are in contact with the family.

Q: Are you satisfied with the cooperation you are receiving from the Sri Lankan government and if not what further steps is the Canadian government willing to take to exert pressure on the Rajapakse regime?

A: Well I don’t know what you mean by putting pressure, and on what issues, all the less about being satisfied and not satisfied is not there, the issue about a Canadian being arrested there are things we expect the government to do, which is a case by case issue but our consular people have better access.

Q: The Sri Lankan government claims that the comments and criticisms levelled against it by Western nations including Canada are hypocritical in the light of the atrocities committed by the West in Iraq and Afghanistan and constitute nothing more than neo colonial interference in an internal matter — how do you respond to that allegation?

A: Canada is concerned about the IDP camps in Sri Lanka and we are giving money to Sri Lanka so they can provide assistance to the refugees so that they can go home.

Q: Do you believe an international probe into the human rights situation/ alleged human rights abuses committed in Sri Lanka is necessary — given that the Sri Lankan government has failed to conduct its own inquiry into these allegations?  

A: Our main concern for the Sri Lankan Government is to work with the UN Conventions and have a dialog.

Q: The West’ efforts to influence Sri Lankan government policy so far seem to have been something of a failure — the war was brought to a bloody end, hundreds of thousands of people still languish in detention camps, the human rights situation as we can see from these Canadian cases continues to deteriorate daily... all in spite of Western pressure, so do you think it’s time for the nations such as Canada to adopt a more effective policy in Sri Lanka?

A: I do not think that Canada wants to influence the policies in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka is a sovereign country, Sri Lanka has an elected Government, Sri Lanka can decide how to run the country, the point of aspect is we are willing to help them, and they can decide. Sri Lankan Government has said to us that we are in the reconciliation process, so peace can return to the country, and they have said we are in the reconciliation process.

An enduring myopia 

By Sanjana Hattotuwa 

A news report published last week suggests a novel approach by the Sri Lankan government to thwart allegations of war crimes and is anchored to Damilvani Gnanakumar, a British Tamil present in the Wanni during the final bloody weeks of war, was subsequently interned in Menik Camp. Upon her release from Menik Camp, she left to the UK.

Once safely at home, she recounted damning first hand accounts of government atrocities during war and appalling conditions in Menik Camp, receiving wide coverage in the British press and broadcast media.  Unable to contain or censor her by other means, the news report notes that the government “arrested members of the family that provided lodging to her while she was in Vavuniya”, effectively silencing Damilvani.

The report also suggests that the government has decided to delay the release of Tamil nationals who are citizens of Australia and Canada from IDP camps, for fear of more Damilvani’s amongst them.

Damilvani silenced

So what has the government achieved here? It has effectively silenced Damilvani, obviously its intended goal. After her initial outbursts on The Guardian and Channel 4, she has not appeared again in the media, obviously for fear of endangering the lives of relatives now in custody. But by doing so, the government has given her account, which as I noted last in my previous column is deeply partial and biased, new legitimacy, greater appeal and vigour.

 Precisely because of government attempts to silence her, Damilvani’s narrative strengthens the argument that allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both government forces and the LTTE can only be verified or denied by independent inquiry.

By attempting to blackmail her into silence, the government guarantees more domestic and international media scrutiny on the fate of a quarter of a million Tamil IDPs, especially those with foreign citizenship, still interned in Menik Camp.

Diplomatic pressure and censure will not be far behind, at a time when the government is trying its utmost to retain the EU’s GSP Plus trade concessions. And with this inescapable international pressure will be growing calls for accountability, precisely what the Government is so violently opposed to and seeks to avoid. The Sinhala adage “uda balan kela gahanewa” comes to mind.

Braggadocio of the Executive

Based on this incident alone, it’s remarkable how such a victorious government, enjoying unprecedented adulation, has lost so comprehensively the post-war plot. Braggadocio of the Executive to stand trial on behalf of the armed forces over any investigations into war crimes does nothing whatsoever to prevent punitive sanctions and whether we like it or not, the possibility of Washington backed, UN mandated war crimes investigations in the future. This glass jawed patriotism is at best silly for it ignores, at great peril, vital domestic and international post-war realities.

Functioning as if it still commanded the services of glib gentlemen in peace secretariats and at the UN to defend Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses, the government’s continuing offensives against human decency and democracy are without reason. Worse, it is self-defeating.

For example, the JHU loudly proclaimed last week that it would start a campaign to generate a million signatures to hold the US accountable for its own war crimes, forgotten momentarily perhaps, inter alia, the sheer absurdity of challenging the moral authority and popularity the incumbent US President commands.

Columnists and commentators, in print, broadcast and increasingly on line, have gone on the offensive, offended at what they see is the chutzpah of the US and West to rain on our parade after the LTTE’s decisive defeat.

New enemies

New enemies are being created apace by the regime and its apparatchiks to cover up for the lack of post-war democracy. From the UN to the IMF, from the US to the EU and all their domestic agents, this is a conspiracy of such power, reach and complexity that it would put Dan Brown’s imagination to shame.

In a bizarre twist, there is even now the demonisation of the ICRC on the Ministry of Defence website. Yet it is the UN that is helping with post-war demining, development and the existential needs of interned IDPs. Government media record that in July, Sri Lanka’s US Envoy, Jaliya Wickramasuriya at a meeting with Robert M. Scher, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia at the US Department of Defence thanked the United States for providing support, especially in terms of curbing the funding and logistical network in the effort to eliminate the LTTE.

We need the money from the IMF just as much as we need the GSP Plus extension. Leave aside GSP Plus – the EU in 2006 alone gave Sri Lanka over Rs.170 million Euros as post-tsunami development and reconstruction aid. As noted on its website, over the coming years, the EC will spend an average in grants to Sri Lanka of around Rs.2 billion a year. And finally the ICRC, that lost three aid workers this year alone, continues to care for those displaced and affected by war it has access to. Quite simply, without the aid and assistance of these governments and agencies, Sri Lanka would tank.

An affront to national pride

While for some an affront to national pride, this is a reality that one cannot erase through bitter invective and silly posturing. To speak out in favour of domestic conditions that encourage the continued engagement of these actors is not, as it is often simplistically made out to be, uncritical of Western assistance or to be a lackey of some foreign agenda.

On the contrary, our ability to negotiate favourably loans, grants and trade concessions is inextricably pegged to real change in our post-war democratic institutions. To my knowledge, Sri Lanka is being judged today against rights enshrined in its own constitution and UN declarations and treaties it has ratified as a State. It is being judged on the basis of official statements to the international community by the Executive, promising the resettlement of IDPs in Menik Camp within 180 days and the full enactment of the 13th Amendment.

These are not promises made by and statements crafted by NGOs or an operative in Langley hell-bent on regime change. Why then viciously blame it on NGOs and the West when the divide between promises and reality stands exposed?

Our best chance at international respect and recognition post-war will not come from photo-ops with pariahs like Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Gaddafi, or for that matter through supine subservience to bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors. It can only ever be achieved through the restoration of the dignity of all our peoples, a return to democracy, the Rule of Law and a country all its citizens are proud to be associated with and part of.

Celebrating 60 years of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2009, the President noted that “we in Sri Lanka renew and reaffirm our commitment to upholding the values and goals proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which also requires the elimination of terrorism in all its forms.”

Damilvani and others may wonder if the President was thinking of his own government’s policies and practices when he said that.







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