Horrors of the “undeclared war”

By Dr. S. Narapalasingam

The inconsiderate use of the suffering of civilians caused by the atrocious actions of both sides in the ‘undeclared war’ for propaganda is damaging their own aims as well as the prospects of achieving peace. Misleadingly, the military campaign is said to be defensive actions against the ruthless enemy. In the ongoing war, truth is hard to find as accusations, counter accusations and instant denials are common. Permanent peace is the long-awaited yearning of the vast majority of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim people. The violations of human rights and blatant lies by both sides are moving the peace goal further away.

Truth and reconciliation are vital for building mutual trust and ensuring the success of the peace effort. The undue suffering of the people cannot by any means said to be in pursuance of the efforts to secure unity and ‘honourable’ peace. On the contrary fear and hatred are being promoted by the inhuman acts that no civilized society will tolerate. The distinction between a national government that should be committed to human rights and safety of all citizens and a rebel outfit not accountable to any one and believes in violence as the means to achieve its goals has been blurred by the recent tragic events.

The following observations give an idea of the extreme suffering endured by the civilians in the ‘undeclared war’ started eagerly about a year ago through various provocative actions.

Displaced persons

Since the fighting intensified last year nearly 213,000 persons have been displaced from their habitat and are sheltering in refugee camps and communal buildings. Moreover, the total number of refugees from Sri Lanka who reached Tamil Nadu coast since January 2006 is over 17,600. An estimated 120,000 to 140,000 were rendered homeless by the tsunami disaster in December 2004. About 315,000 people were previously displaced by two decades of war.

According to UNHCR, it is a matter of survival over shelter for some destitute persons. Their families cannot survive without the usual wherewithal and are compelled to go fishing when the sea is too rough for the fighters. The UNHCR report says: “This dilemma is contributing to low occupancy at several relocation sites, as authorities try to accommodate more than 70,000 people registered as newly displaced across the LTTE-controlled districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu”.

Veteran Indian journalist M.R. Narayan Swamy (IANS) has described the suffering endured by Jayanthi, a widow at 20 as typical of the suffering of many victims of the ‘undeclared war’. She lost her husband when an artillery shell fired by the military fell close to her house in Sampoor. Devastated and nine-month pregnant, she stayed in a camp for a while before trekking with relatives to the Tigers-held Vaaharai in August. She gave birth to daughter Kirthiha that month at a school in Kathiravelli, close to the river Verugal. Both miraculously survived a military bombing of the school that killed dozens. Jayanthi suffered minor injuries. On December 12 midnight, she took a boat to go from Vaaharai to Vaalaichenai. But it capsized. Luckily, Jayanthi rescued her baby, lifted it high above her head and waded through neck deep water for over five kilometres before reaching a government exit point from where she reached the eastern town of Batticaloa.

[Women say that, there is no privacy in the refugee camp as they are sharing the space with a lot of people – Photo:HA]

Battle for Vaaharai

Following the constant attack by the Sri Lankan army and air force, 22,893 civilians had escaped from Vaaharai by December 24 to government controlled areas in the East. Many from Vaaharai north moved to Ulukkulam in Trincomalee south trekking through the jungle. The internally displaced persons are sheltering in 31 camps in the Batticaloa area. Children and adults crowded in the camps have insufficient food and sanitation facilities.

Since the siege of Mutur in August, the mass exodus from the Trincomalee District took place. Thousands moved southwards to the LTTE-controlled Vaaharai. In November, a school sheltering displaced people in Kathiraweli, Vaaharai came under attack and subsequent artillery fire exchange between the government forces and the LTEE led to another mass exodus. Tens of thousands of people have moved towards the government-controlled areas.

Those who moved out of Vaaharai had to cross several paths situated amidst thick jungle and swamps, while shells and artillery fire rained down in all directions. They had walked without any food for 3 to 4 days, barefoot and with only the clothes they were wearing. Some died while running to escape. According to the survivors, bodies were being blown up and strewn all over. A mother of a two-month old baby said, ‘I had to carry my baby while walking, and we had to pass flooded plains. The water level was up to our necks, but I lifted the baby above my head and walked holding my breath. There were many people who fell into underwater pits. Some were killed by shells after they managed to get out of the pits’.

A mother delivered her baby while crossing a flooded area. The baby fell into the water. No one heard her cry or tried to locate the baby. In another instance an old man was paralysed by an artillery attack. There was no one to carry him or to look after him, as everyone was running for survival.

Four civilians were killed and at least another ten sustained
injuries as artillery shells fell in the Vaaharai hospital compound on
January 8. Last year, Kilinochchi hospital compound in the LTTE-controlled area was hit but fortunately it was not a major incident.

As usual military denied targeting the hospital in Vaaharai. According to the spokesperson Brigadier Samarasinghe, the forces “only retaliated to LTTE attacks and did not launch attacks on hospital compound”. He reiterated: “The government and the Army requested the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, UN and the International Red Cross to inform the LTTE to free the innocent civilians still forcibly held by them, to reach safety areas using the A-15 road. Still the LTTE has not responded”. In fact this was the strategic aim of the military.

According to UNHCR – More than 20,000 people have fled fighting and harsh conditions in Vaaharai in the past three weeks, but despite reaching relative safety they still face many problems and an uncertain future. According to ICRC some 15,000 displaced people and residents are trapped in Vaaharai area without access to food, medicine and other essential supplies. Many of them are aged and ailing. Humanitarian agencies have had no access to the Vaaharai area since late November. There has been no response to their appeal for access so as to help those trapped by the fighting.

Amin Awad, Acting Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator said: “We stand ready to assist those still trapped in Vaaharai. These persons are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. We must always recall that it is the most weak that remain behind – the elderly, the sick and the disabled. They are still without access to food, emergency medical services, and shelter, and continue to be caught in the middle of relentless fighting”. It is also distressing that many in Vaaharai when the onslaught started were refugees who came from neighbouring conflict zones.

Aerial bombing

Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) Kfir fighter jets bombed LTTE bases in Vaaharai in the East and in Mannar in the Northwest of the country, on January 2. A heavy gun position and a Sea Tiger base were destroyed, apparently in response to LTTE’s gun fire and claymore mine explosion the previous 2 days. Aerial bombing has now become the usual modus operandi to overcome the LTTE. The government says great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties but this is disputed not only by the LTTE but also by many others. Tamilnet.com reported, 15 civilians were killed and dozens more wounded when air force jets “carpet bombed” territory held by the Tamil Tigers. It also said the raid in the coastal hamlet of Padahuthurai, near Mannar, left only five out of 25 homes standing. Among those killed were four children. A further 30 people were seriously wounded. The village of Iluppaikkadavai, near the air raid, is where “more than 4,000 displaced Sri Lankans have sought shelter from the conflict since early 2006”.

D. B. S. Jeyaraj has given a clear description of the January 2 tragedy (Tamil Week January 7- 13). “People from Iluppaikkadavai rushed to the scene of bombing. Among them were the parish priest Fr. Arulnathan and Village service officer or Grama Sevaka, Sinnathurai Vejendran. The villagers led by Catholic priests and nuns of the area administered first aid and began efforts to take the people to hospitals. There were two small hospitals in the region. One was at Mulankaavil to the north and the other at Pallamadhu to the South of Iluppaikkadavai. Even as injured people were taken to these two hospitals it became apparent that many of the serious needed medical care that could not be provided adequately at the Mulankaavil and Pallamadhu hospitals. The closest big hospital was at Mannar town only a 40 minutes ride away. An urgent message was sent. Mannar hospital authorities promptly dispatched two ambulances. The entry – exit point for GOSL and LTTE controlled areas was at Uyilankulam. The security officials at Uyilankulam refused to let the ambulances go to Iluppaikkadavai. No amount of pleading by civilian officials would make the army relent”. Because of this callous act, the serious cases had to be taken to Kilinochchi hospital 80 km away by two of its ambulances instead of Mannar hospital that was only 25 km away.

“In the East the security personnel at the Mankerny entry – exit point display the same conduct when it comes to helping the beleaguered civilians of Vaaharai get medical treatment. There too the callous cruelty is due to orders from Colombo”. It is a moot point whether this is the primary intention of the authorities or is the consequence of a military strategy in the ‘war against terrorism’. What matters here is the effect on civilians which is horrendous unbecoming of conduct even during total war between countries.

The January 6 ‘Island’ editorial said: “According to the military spokespersons, everything is hunky dory on the warfront. When one listens to them, one gets the impression that they are using special bombs programmed to avoid civilians and go for the Tigers like sniffer dogs. Whom are they trying to fool? Not even the Americans can achieve that kind of feat!” The killings came as both the government and the LTTE expressed hope for peace in their New Year messages. President Mahinda Rajapaksa said, “We hope this New Year will bring the long awaited genuine and sustainable peace to our land, bring about a new era of trust and understanding among all our people, and enable us to move forward together to solve our social and political problems.” The LTTE in their message said, “Tamil people hope that the world will view the year 2006 for what it is and in the new year stand with the Tamils in their sincere effort to seek a permanent peace through a just political solution.” This contradiction between words and deeds compels one to ask, what kind of peace are the warring parties expecting? The deception of both sides to realistic peace process is crystal clear.

Concerned over civilian deaths during aerial bombardments, the United Nations called upon the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE for the protection of civilians, cessation of hostilities and resumption of the peace process. Margareta Wahlström, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Acting Emergency Relief Coordinator in a statement said it is imperative that both sides to the conflict take all measures to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect civilians in the conflict. “Sri Lankans continue to suffer deeply due to this conflict and today’s (January 2)
loss of life is a source of deepest concern,” she said.

TNA’s Dilemma

Nearly 60 schools in the Batticaloa District, sheltering the IDPs were not functioning when the new term started on January 2. 22,243 persons comprising 8000 families are being sheltered in schools. Another 14,000 people are being accommodated in temporary shelters in the cleared areas of Koralai Pattu North while 10,600 people are being sheltered in the LTTE-controlled areas.

A TNA MP from the East, who did not want to be named, had told that the people of Trincomalee and Batticaloa did not want to be part of the war between the Security Forces and the LTTE (Hindustan Times December 20).

“These two groups can fight because they are armed. But why should the people be dragged in and harassed? The harassment will only widen the gulf between the Tamils and the Sinhalese,” the MP said. “Thousands of people are being made to walk for 30 to 40 km at night on an empty stomach, to reach places of relative safety near Welikanda,” he said. “There have been cases of pregnant women giving birth at check points,” he pointed out.

According to the MP, “About 16,000 people had fled from the Verugal and Eechchilampattu area to join the 70,000 refugees already present in Batticaloa and Amparai. The 18,000, who fled from Sampoor after the Security Forces took it over nearly seven months ago, are still to go back. No food lorries had gone to the Vaaharai/Verugal area after November 29. The sick were being left to die because of the restrictions on the movement of people”. Desperate people try to leave by boat braving the choppy sea and some did not make it as their boats capsized. TNA MPs in the North too are in a quandary as they have not been able to do anything to alleviate the suffering of the people.

Crowded buses attacked

The government forces are determined to liberate the East from the LTTE (Vanni Tigers). The Tigers continue to defend Vaaharai, which is of strategic importance to them after the fall of Sampoor. They are alleged to have fired artillery and mortar bombs into an army camp in the Vaaharai area, wounding four soldiers. The National Security Media Center said that the air raids on the same day targetted a LTTE arms depot near Verugal in eastern Batticaloa district. Following the aerial attacks, explosions inside two packed buses on January 5 and 6 in Nittambuwa and Godagama near Hikkaduwa in the South killed 18 and injured some 50 civilians.

The two explosions on civilian buses south of Colombo on consecutive days were condemned by foreign governments and international organizations. Even the SLMM that was relatively quiet earlier was jolted suddenly by the attacks in Gampaha and Galle districts. The Nordic truce monitors warned Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Tigers to cease all violence against the civilian population. SLMM reminded them that the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) signed in February 2002 was “still in force”. Both had agreed to “abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population in accordance with international law,” the SLMM statement said. The LTTE announced last year the CFA was defunct. Since April 2006, almost all actions of both sides were in violation of the truce agreement. Both did not want to be the first one to quit and get branded by the international community as a warmonger.

The ICRC also deplored the death and injury to civilians caused by the two attacks on civilian buses and was deeply concerned about the rising number of civilians being injured or killed in Sri Lanka’s escalating violence. Lamenting the acute suffering endured in recent months by men, women and children taking no part whatever in the hostilities as a result of shelling and bombing, the ICRC appealed all parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and thus ensure that the civilian population and civilian objects are respected and protected at all times.

The United Nations condemned the deliberate targeting of civilians and deplored the incidents involving two civilian buses which resulted in the deaths of several innocent civilians with dozens maimed and injured. UN also called for the protection of all civilians throughout the island.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa accused the Tamil Tigers of stoking an ethnic backlash by majority Sinhalese on the minority Tamil community after the bomb blasts on civilian buses on January 5 and 6. In the statement released on January 7 he said: “The aim of the LTTE is to have a backlash against the Tamils and to undermine our efforts to find a peaceful solution”. He appealed to the Sinhalese community to show maximum restraint. Although the LTTE denied any responsibility for the two blasts, the international community did not take it seriously. The Sri Lanka Communist Party too accused the Tigers of wanting to create a backlash against the Tamils living in the South.

Jaffna blockade

The closure of the A-9 road at Muhamalai by the government and the refusal of the LTTE to guarantee free movement of food by sea had resulted in the 600,000 Tamils of Jaffna facing a severe shortage of food and medicines and sky-high prices. Despite the contradictory versions of the tragic incidents, the affected people blame both sides for their mental and physical sufferings. The government maintains the problem in Jaffna is not related to supplies but to the distribution as the LTTE has deliberately interfered by forcing the retailers to close their outlets to create shortages for propaganda in order to get the A-9 road reopened. The closure of A-15 in the East has produced similar humanitarian problem, particularly to the people in Vaaharai.

The UN said, “The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also remains concerned about deteriorating livelihoods on the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka”. Neither side has taken the statements of UN and other international organizations seriously. This is evident from the time the peace process collapsed and the attention focused on military operations.

Civilians as pawns

Iqbal Athas, a Janes Defence Week correspondent and Sunday Times defence analyst, told The Telegraph (UK) that the civilians were pawns in a strategic game in which the Sri Lankan army was seeking a decisive victory in the East. “The Tamil Tigers want to keep the civilians around Vaaharai to protect them from a full-on assault by the Sri Lankan army. However the military appear to be getting bogged down in the fight,” he said. The Telegraph (UK) on December 20 also reported, “International aid workers privately accuse the Sri Lankan army of trying to ‘starve’ people out of Vaaharai by halting aid convoys. The government accuses the Tamil Tiger rebels of using the people as ‘human shields’, making it almost impossible for the army to avoid civilian casualties”. The army wants the civilians out of the way for intensifying the assault, while the LTTE wants them to stay for thwarting the final offensive.

Now the military tactically attributes most civilian casualties in their attacks against LTTE positions to the ‘human shield’ factor. It is not untrue that the LTTE earlier fired their artillery from or near public places endangering the lives of civilians. The question that should stir the conscience of sensible Tamils is whether the unbearable suffering of the less fortunate brethren is the sacrifice needed to liberate the land from the clutches of Sinhala polity. The suffering lot also includes the forgotten Sri Lankan Tamils subsisting in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu.

[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]

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