Sri Lanka is an island nation in the shape of a tear drop, poignantly. And countless are the tears that were shed amid the spasms of a savage civil war — as countless, as uncounted, as the dead.
SRI LANKA— The United Nations has acknowledged calamitous failure under the Responsibility to Protect — R2P, a doctrine that Canada was pivotal in establishing — is still trying to tally the numbers and apportion the blame, four years on: 40,000 to 70,000 civilians killed over five months of the final conflagration, the number the UN now accepts, though many argue the figure is far higher.
Nobody has been held responsible despite repeated cries for an international inquiry into war crimes committed by both sides. But one side, at the end, had at most 1,500 hard-core cadres while the other had 50,000 front-line soldiers.
The liberation struggle for a separate Tamil state in a majority Sinhalese country had raged for nearly three decades: conventional combat, asymmetrical combat, terrorist combat waged by fanatical fighters who wrote the manual on spectacular suicide bombings against civilian targets, male and female shock troops with vials of cyanide at their throats in case of capture.
The Tamil Tigers took an entire population hostage as human shields, driving hundreds of thousands away from their homes in a forced mass migration eastward across the scrubby jungle, floundering in retreat as one insurgent-held town after another fell. In the spring of 2009, in the last phase of their doomed quest, 350,000 people were funnelled into a narrow tract of coastland on the marshy shores of the Nandikadal lagoon on the northeastern coast, Tigers’ backs against the sea, army troops surging in a pincer offensive from the west, the north, the south.
Trapped in The Cage, as it became known, civilians were caught between Tigers on one side who shot anyone attempting to flee and heavy artillery bombardment on the other from the Sri Lankan army. An estimated 80,000 took their chances, traversing no man’s land, fearful of being shot in the front or the back, and marshalled into detention camps.
The world looked away from these bedraggled wretches and the hordes left behind. Mangled corpses of babies, shredded by shelling, hung from palm trees. Families clambered for scant shelter behind mud bunds and inside bunkers, parents using their bodies to shield their children, lured cruelly into no-fire zones that were promptly fired upon. The ground, boggy with blood, was littered with severed limbs and tatters of charred flesh. Hell on Earth was a spit that measured three kilometres by one kilometre.
The Gardiner connection
Here, in May of 2009, the Tigers made a futile last stand. Their elusive and messianic leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, among the last to die, apparently while attempting to steal away, joining the stream of shell-shocked citizens wading across the lagoon and collapsing into the arms of Sinhalese troops they feared as monsters.
For five months, they had been pummelled, strafed and bombarded — women, children, the elderly. Only a few voices were raised internationally to halt the carnage. In Toronto, expatriate Tamils blocked the Gardiner Expressway to draw attention to atrocities unfolding on the other side of the planet. The public only wanted their road back.
The Tigers were a terrorist organization, thus designated across the globe by 2006. In their death rattle as a once-powerful rebel force, no mercy could be expected, even as their leaders scrambled for a ceasefire, for a formal surrender under the auspices of the UN. But most of the innocents who died in the final convulsion of combat, between January and May 2009, were killed by the army in what was an entirely avoidable massacre. The Tigers were besieged, escape impossible, yet the regime in Colombo would not yield.
They eradicated terrorism — that was their triumphalist cry in a war-on-terror era — and were applauded for it: the “Sri Lanka Model” of counter-insurgency. Colombo even offered to train the U.S. military, mired in Afghanistan, in their successful ways.
They brought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to their knees. And in the years since the war ended, the Tigers crushed, the government has continued to promote its version of events, their “bloodless historic victory,” which every regime official still describes as a “hostage rescue.”
But on the ground, that benighted ground, the Sri Lankan forces unleashed horrors that, retrospectively, have been condemned as alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. The killing of civilians through widespread shelling, intentional attacks on innocents, firepower targeted on hospitals (22 such attacks in those final five months, as documented by Human Rights Watch) and humanitarian convoys, denial of aid assistance and starvation, failure to allow for care of the wounded and enforced disappearances.
Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in September called upon Sri Lanka again to conduct a “credible” inquiry into human rights violations. Failing that, “the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms.”
Victors, as always, write the requiems.
Witnessing a massacre
This is what Dr. Thangamuthu Sathiyamoorthy wrote on May 13, his last email dispatch to the outside from inside The Cage:
“Heavy battle started since 5:30 a.m. Many wounded civilians were brought to the hospital. The hospital is not providing services because hospital was under shell attack. Few staff reported to duty. Nearly 1,000 patients are waiting for treatment. But even wound-dressing and giving antibiotic problem. So many wounded have to die, in the ward, among patients, many dead bodies are there. Seeing and hearing the people cry . . . disaster.”
Sathiyamoorthy was one of four Tamil doctors, along with a handful of medics and nurses, who stayed in the conflict zone for two years, treating acute trauma and burns, performing surgical amputations without anesthetics in makeshift field hospitals, under almost constant artillery attack. He chronicled the death and destruction in photos and email dispatches that he regularly sent to 40 embassies as well as international media — upwards of 200 recipients — because foreign journalists were not allowed anywhere near the battle zone.
It was a war without witnesses ,Colombo made sure of that.
The UN had withdrawn all but its domestic Tamil staff — the Tigers would not permit them to leave — sending out only the occasional World Food Program convoy. The last one, the 11th, came under intense fire from multi-barrel rocket strikes (the army) and mobile artillery batteries (the Tigers), despite safe passage negotiations with both sides, as civilians huddled close to the vehicles in a forlorn bid for safety. They were killed by the hundreds.
“The fighting was like a tsunami in the final months,” Sathiyamoorthy told the Star during a recent interview in Vavuniya, close to the southern border of Northern Province, where he is now director of the main local hospital. “There were thousands of attacks and no corridor for civilians to leave, never. Civilians were not going over into the area captured by the government. How could they? There was shelling all the time coming from that direction, aerial attacks, Claymore mines. And the Tigers shooting at them if they tried to escape.”
To this day, Sri Lanka’s military commanders insist they took all reasonable precautions to induce the population out of harm’s way, away from the front line, and that culpability lies with the Tigers, who deliberately surrounded themselves with civilians, which is true.
This had always been LTTE strategy, from the time they first withdrew from the Jaffna Peninsula in the northwest sector of the country in 1996, taking 400,000 civilians with them and establishing a mini-state in the Vanni, a vast triangular swath of jungle — Tigerland — that the rebels controlled for more than a decade. It would ultimately become the main scorched battleground when the Sri Lankan government, under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his defence secretary brother Gotabaya, launched its no-mercy push to annihilate the Tigers in 2007.
The army first broke through Elephant Pass — which connects Jaffna Peninsula to the Vanni — amid fierce fighting. Then, within weeks, the main towns held by the LTTE fell like dominoes, most disastrously Killinochchi, the Tigers’ administrative centre, with its parallel government, parallel judiciary, parallel police and health and education services. It signalled the beginning of the end-game.
“When the army entered Killinochchi, we went to Mullaittivu District,” recalls Sathiyamoorthy. “We moved seven, eight times, five kilometres at a time.”
He had been regional director of health services for Killinochchi and Mullaittivu, spending the ceasefire years — between 2002 and 2007 — crossing back and forth the delineation line separating Tiger and government territory. When fighting resumed, Sathiyamoorthy sent his wife and young children to Vavuniya but remained behind as a Tamil doctor on the Colombo government payroll.
The Tigers had trained their own physicians, though Sathiyamoorthy also attended to Tigers, when needed. “We treated whoever came to the hospital. To get medicine, the supplies we needed, I had to deal with the army HQ and negotiate with the LTTE. The army was suspicious of me, the LTTE were suspicious of me. After 2007, the government systematically stopped the supply of drugs. We had some stock but not enough to treat people properly, so they died.
Sri Lanka’s hidden genocide is a piece written by Rosie DiManno – a Star Columnist
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Source: Toronto Morning Star