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’
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
in Jaffna in the Tamil-dominated north of Sri Lanka in
1984, Gnanakumar and her family moved to
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
Fighting was getting worse
Arriving in the capital,
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.
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.
was when the reality of the war hit Gnanakumar for the
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
the hospital, there was no respite. Gnanakumar cannot
forget the day a mother was brought in, injured,
clutching her baby.
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
were so many incidents. Another time the mother was dead
and the baby was still suckling.”
Ate what they could
fighting was getting closer. They ate what they could
find and those who could slept, in the occasional lulls.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
“People have lost their family members, they are
separated from their families and they are going
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
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.
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.”
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
call to say she was going home came last week. She was
taken to Colombo to meet the President’s brother, Basil
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
What are your views on
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
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
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
and we are giving money to
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
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
An enduring myopia
By Sanjana Hattotuwa
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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.