KILLING FIELDS OF SRI LANKA
An estimated 20,000 to as high as 70,000 Tamil civilians were killed at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in late 2008 and early 2009, many trapped in a No-Kill Zone, where they were supposed to be safe, in April and May 2009. Callum Macrae, who made a film about the slaughter, wrote in The Guardian: “I have spent the best part of the last three years looking at some of the most terrible images I could have imagined. I've covered wars and seen some awful things, but few that could prepare me for the hours of video and mobile footage that emerged from the last 138 days of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war between the government and the Tamil Tiger secessionists; a war that ended four years ago – and whose bloody denouement is the subject of my film No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka. [Source: Callum Macrae, The Guardian, September 3, 2013]
“In the last few days of the war, in May 2009, the massacre of the civilians was followed by another series of war crimes. Victorious government troops systematically executed bound, blindfolded prisoners. Women fighters were stripped, sexually assaulted, blindfolded, and shot in the head. In one incident the 12-year-old son of the Tigers' leader is seen first in captivity, eating a snack. Two hours later he lies dead, having been shot, five times, at point-blank range. These events were recorded by the perpetrators on mobile phones as grotesque war trophies.
“The film records what happened when the government of Sri Lanka told some 400,000 civilians to gather in what they described as "no fire zones" – and then subjected them to merciless, sustained shelling. We humans are good at reducing terrible massacres to statistics. We instinctively distance ourselves from the lost humanity represented by heaps of corpses or rows of dead bodies. But it is more difficult to avoid the anguish of those who survive.
“For example, the two young girls, crying hysterically in a fragile bunker of sandbags in the immediate aftermath of a shelling. They want to rush from their shelter to help the injured, but a woman is holding them back – because one shell is almost inevitably followed by another. The girls are weeping as they look at the carnage in front of them. And then, in a chilling moment, one of them recognises someone, and her hysterical cries turn to anguished screams: "Mama!" Two men – one is probably the girl's father – ignore the danger and stumble blindly from the bunker to fall beside, and hold, the horribly damaged corpses in front of them. This awful story is just one of tens of thousands of such incidents. The most recent UN report suggests that as many as 70,000 civilians died in the last few months of the war in 2009, possibly more.
“Another incident in the film provides some relief from the carnage. Two young brothers are sitting in a makeshift hospital. Their parents are almost certainly among the nearby dead and maimed. The person filming them asks: "Are you injured too?" "No," says the older brother quietly. He is 11 or 12 years old, and holding his younger brother protectively round the shoulders: "Not us." The younger child turns to look at the carnage around them but his brother gently guides his head back towards him and away from the terrible sights. Humanity survives in this awful situation.”
“A few of those who died were killed by Tamil Tigers, who are accused of shooting Tamil civilians attempting to escape the no fire zones' killing fields. The Tigers saw the civilians as a bargaining counter that would force the international community to intervene, and so would not let them leave. That was a crime, a betrayal of the trust of the civilians – and also a terrible miscalculation, because the international community did not intervene: it did not even impose meaningful diplomatic or economic sanctions against the Sri Lankan government. These crimes by the Tigers – and the failure of the international community – must not be forgotten. But the vast majority of the civilians were killed by government forces. And that too, we must remember.”
Callum Macrae wrote in Vice News: “By the middle of January 2009, with the Tigers in hopeless retreat, the Rajapaksa government declared the first of a series of what they called no-fire zones, into which they encouraged as many as 400,000 Tamil civilians to gather "for their own safety." But instead of protecting these no-fire zones, government forces relentlessly shelled them, all the while insisting, implausibly, they had a policy of "zero civilian casualties." Innocent Tamil civilians died by the thousands, in what some regard as nothing less than a genocide.” [Source: Callum Macrae, Vice News, August 4 2015]
Andrew Buncombe wrote in The Independent: “It is believed that 250,000 people have become caught up in the end-game of the island's bitter civil war as the military continues to drive the Tamil Tigers into an ever-diminishing area of jungle following the capture of Mullaittivu, the rebels' last major town. Humanitarian convoys, on which the civilians depend, have not been able to reach them for almost two weeks. UN workers, taking shelter inside a safe area designated by the Sri Lankan government, told how they twice came under fire. About 20 people were killed and many more were wounded in the bombardments. The workers said it was unclear who had fired the shells but it is understood they came from both the government and rebel positions. Our staff were in the designated safe area and there was incoming fire from artillery shells. There were shells which killed and wounded dozens of people, the last of which was Monday morning when 10 people were killed and many more were wounded. They have seen this first hand." [Source: Andrew Buncombe, The Independent, January 28, 2009]
“The Red Cross said hundreds of Sri Lankans had died during the past two weeks, based on body counts carried out by its staff. "People are being caught in the crossfire, hospitals and ambulances have been hit by shelling, and several aid workers have been injured while evacuating the wounded," said Jacques de Maio, head of the South Asia operations. After capturing Mullaittivu, the military is now pushing along a stretch of coastline to try and encircle the rebels, a manoeuvre they believe will be completed within weeks. The military, which has denied firing into the safe zone, escorted journalists into Mullaittivu, a town now largely deserted. As government forces approached, the rebels apparently ordered residents into the jungle and stripped the town of anything that might be of use...hundreds of thousands of civilians, trapped in an area measuring around 115 square miles, were driven north and east by the Sri Lankan army, were now stranded along the A35 road that leads north- west from Mullaittivu – most with just the few possessions that they can carry. It is along the A35 that the government last week designated the "safe zone" for civilians.
Macrae wrote: “In the makeshift hospitals at the time, a series of medical points set up in abandoned primary schools, the suffering was truly awful. Critical shortages of antibiotics and anesthetics caused untold pain and countless unnecessary deaths. Vany Viji, a young Tamil woman from London who had been visiting the region and became trapped by the fighting, was one of those who volunteered to help in the last hospital. Still traumatized by her memories of those days, she recalls helping to restrain a seven-year-old boy while, without general anesthetic, a doctor sawed off his left arm and leg, shattered irretrievably by a shell. "I was holding his mouth so he didn't scream."
“A UN report concluded that the government deliberately and illegally denied humanitarian supplies like anesthetics. At the same time, government forces targeted and shelled these hospitals, killing hundreds. But the Tigers were also complicit in the suffering. Reports spoke of Tigers opening fire on Tamil civilians who tried to escape the killing fields and test their luck with the government forces. The violent conscription of teenagers and children to work as laborers and fighters — publicly abandoned during the peace process — recommenced. Five years later, there is still no accurate figure for the dead.
“By May 17, 2009, the final no-fire zone had been overrun. It was smaller than Central Park in New York, but crammed with tens of thousands of civilians. Triumphant Sri Lankan soldiers, battle-weary and brutalized but fired up by the chauvinistic rhetoric of their commanders and political leaders, went on a grotesque rape and murder spree. We know this because these soldiers — in an unconscious illustration of the culture of impunity in which they operated — recorded these terrible crimes on their mobile phones and camcorders. And over the past four years, more and more of this footage has emerged.
Over 20,000 Tamils Killed in Final Onslaught
More than 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final onslaught by the Sri Lankan government on separatist rebels in May 2009 according to a report in the British newspaper The Times. AFP reported: Citing its own investigation, the paper said most of the 20,000 deaths were caused by the government. Sri Lanka has insisted its forces stopped using heavy weapons on April 27 and respected a no-fire zone where 100,000 men, women and children were sheltering, the newspaper reported. [Source: AFP, May. 30, 2009]
“Confidential UN documents indicated 7,000 civilians died in the no-fire zone up to the end of April, said the Times, noting that journalists had been barred from the conflict zone. But citing aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony, the paper said the death toll mounted, with 1,000 civilians killed each day until May 19, the day after the death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
“Photographs published by the Times appeared to show sand mounds, indicating makeshift burial grounds, the paper said, citing analysis of the images by independent defense experts. Charles Heyman, editor of the magazine Armed Forces, said it seemed unlikely that Tamil Tiger mortar fire or artillery caused a significant number of deaths, from the layout shown in the aerial photos. "It looks more likely that the firing position has been located by the Sri Lankan Army and it has then been targeted with air-burst and ground-impact mortars," he told the Times.
“A spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission in London dismissed the report. "We reject all these allegations. Civilians have not been killed by government shelling at all," he told the paper. "If civilians have been killed, then that is because of the actions of the LTTE who were shooting and killing people when they tried to escape," the spokesman added. The French daily Le Monde cited UN figures putting the death tool at 7,720, including 678 children, between January 20 and May 13, while 18,465 people were injured, 2,384 of them children. But it said there had been "an attempt to systematically suppress this material" by the UN.
Human Rights Abuses by the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan Army
An investigation by the University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna — a leading Sri Lankan human rights group — accusesd elements of the Sri Lankan army of touching "the most depraved depths of humanity". It also accused the LTTE of torture, murder, and the forced conscription of children, and says the rebel group was probably responsible for most of the thousands of civilian casualties in the final days of the war. [Source: Gethin Chamberlain, The Guardian, June 11, 2009]
Gethin Chamberlain wrote in The Guardian: “Its investigators uncovered evidence that LTTE fighters gunned down civilians who they believed were trying to escape and that government troops threw grenades into bunkers where they knew civilians were sheltering and used a vehicle to run over injured civilians. There are also allegations that wounded civilians may have been bulldozed into mass graves along with the dead. The most controversial claim, however, is that the government authorised a massacre of LTTE cadres after persuading them to surrender.
Citing sources within the Sri Lankan armed forces, the report points to a "politically ordered massacre of people who wanted to surrender or surrendered". It adds: "The army had for the most part conducted itself in a disciplined manner in trying to protect civilians. But once the command gives a signal for barbarity to be let loose, the men touch the most depraved depths of humanity."
“The Jaffna report found that cornered LTTE fighters were killed after being persuaded by government forces to destroy most of their weapons and to give themselves up. "Claims of a massacre have been emanating from the security forces … these were messages from very senior officers, middle-ranking officers and personnel. They were posted in various areas. Some heard it from friends on the scene and others from the armed forces grapevine. The common substance was the same: all LTTE members who were left there were massacred, including the women and children."
“The researchers also questioned the use of earth-moving equipment to dispose of the bodies inside the no-fire zone. "Given also the fact that earth-moving equipment was used to clear the area before the president's victory announcement the following day, we need to ask if adequate care was taken to separate the dead from the injured and the dying. On the testimony of civilians there were several injured persons asking for help."
“The report was equally damning about the LTTE and its supporters overseas. The authors said the rebel group had "tortured, robbed, murdered the people, suffocated alternative voices and conscripted their children in the name of liberation". It continued: "Even as the LTTE leaders were discussing surrender terms, they were sending out very young suicide cadres to slow down the army advance." It said sections of the Tamil diaspora "blindly supported the LTTE's terror at home and its political articulation of people as weapons of mass suicide". It added: "Some cadres were going to bunkers where civilians were sheltering, asking, 'So you want to run away to the army, do you?', and then opening fire at them." The report suggested that between 1,000 and 4,000 people were killed on the final night of fighting, with the LTTE responsible for the large majority of civilian deaths.”
“More than 2,000 Civilians Killed in the Last 24 Hours" - LTTE
The Los Angeles Times reported: “The Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tigers traded blame today for an artillery attack that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, with the army accusing the encircled Tamil Tigers of launching the assault to pressure authorities for a truce and the Tigers saying the deaths were further evidence of government atrocities. The attack took place late Saturday and early today when artillery shells were reportedly lobbed into a densely packed area of northern Sri Lanka, resulting in at least 378 civilian deaths, according to the LTTE. [Source: Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2009]
"The LTTE fired mortars indiscriminately into this place," army spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said today. "They fire indiscriminately at civilians because it's the only weapon left them. And they may be forcing doctors to give these kinds of statements." TamilNet.com in turn accused the government forces of carrying out the artillery barrage, which it said killed at least 378 people and wounded 814, quoting unidentified medical sources. "More than 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the last 24 hours," it said, quoting Selvarajah Pathmanathan, the Tigers' foreign relations intermediary and longtime weapons smuggler wanted by Interpol.
Thileepan Parthipan, a spokesman for the LTTE, who spoke by telephone from what he said was a bunker, agreed that Prabhakaran would never give himself up alive. "He's fighting for his people and is still with us," he said. Reports that the guerrilla leader had fled the conflict zone were army disinformation, he said, adding that people in the area were starving and the international community needed to intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Parthipan denied the Tigers were using civilians as human shields. "You should realize, these are our own mothers, brothers, wives," he said. "It's the army that is using our people as human shields."
Shelling of Civilian Areas in the Final Push of the War
Satellite images of Sri Lanka’s war zone in mid May along with witness accounts indicate the government has shelled densely populated areas despite repeated denials that it had done so. Ravi Nessman of Associated Press wrote: “Health officials in the tiny coastal strip still under rebel control say the area was repeatedly pummeled by artillery attacks that killed as many as 1 000 civilians in recent days as the government pushed ahead with its offensive. [Source: Ravi Nessman, Associated Press, May 13, 2009]
“British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the conflict zone “as close to hell as you can get”. The fighting raged, with government forces fighting off a rebel attempt to recapture territory in a sea attack, destroying three rebel boats, military spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. The rebels blamed the government for the attack. The government denied it, and has said several times that it stopped firing heavy weapons into the war zone weeks ago out of deference to the thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians trapped by the fighting Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government has barred journalists and aid workers from the war zone. However, Human Rights Watch said witness testimony and satellite images of the area analysed by experts “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area in northern Sri Lanka.”
“The group also accused the rebels of using the civilians as human shields and shooting those who try to escape. “Neither the Sri Lankan army nor the Tamil Tigers appear to have any reluctance in using civilians as cannon fodder,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“A preliminary analysis of the images showed a stark change in the area. By comparing before-and-after satellite images, we were able to see a significant movement of the region’s human population, suggesting widespread displacement. We also saw destroyed structures and circular, crater-like features consistent with widespread shelling,” said Lars Bromley, director of the association’s Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project. One area, which had been densely packed with tents and other structures in the earlier photo was nearly empty.”
49 Killed in Shelled Tamil-Area Hospital
In mid May, a mortar shell struck the only functioning hospital in Sri Lanka's northern war zone, killing 49 patients and bystanders, a government health official said. It was the second time the hospital had been hit in a past month. Associated Press reported: “The attack, which also wounded 50 people, came after a weekend of heavy shelling that killed hundreds of civilians trapped in the tiny war zone. The military denied shelling the coastal strip under rebel control, which is packed with an estimated 50,000 civilians. Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, the top government health official in the war zone, said a single mortar shell hit the admissions ward in the makeshift hospital Tuesday morning. The death toll was expected to rise, he said. [Source: Associated Press, May 12, 2009]
“Shells were still hitting the area hours later, including one that landed about 150 yards (meters) from the hospital, Varatharajah said. Just outside the admissions ward — little more than a corrugated tin roof with blue tarp walls — bloody bodies were strewn about in the dirt while health workers hooked up the wounded to IV lines, according to photographs taken after the attack. Later, nearly two dozen dead bodies were lined up in rows in a sandy courtyard. Other photographs showed civilians fleeing the area. One man running away was carrying a child with a bandaged head. Two other hospital officials, who spoke separately on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed the attack and said a hospital administrator was among those killed.
“It was the second time this month the facility has come under heavy fire. On May 2, 64 civilians died when the hospital was hit by artillery. Meanwhile, army troops broke through a sand fortification the Tamil Tigers had built in the area, killing dozens of insurgents and advancing further into what little remains of rebel-held territory, military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said. Reports of the fighting are difficult to verify because the government bars journalists and aid workers from the war zone.
Rebel spokesman Seevaratnam Puleedevan blamed the attack on hospital on the government, and said civilians were fleeing in all directions inside the tiny war zone, seeking safety. "There's no place to seek shelter or protect themselves," he said. Sri Lankan defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella denied the army had launched the attack and reiterated the government's promise not to launch any airstrikes or artillery into the densely populated area.
Two artillery barrages pounded the area over the weekend, with several shells landing inside newly demarcated "safe zone," where the government had urged civilians to gather, according to Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, another doctor at the hospital. A total of 430 ethnic Tamil civilians, including 106 children, were either brought to the hospital for burial or died at the facility after those attacks, he said. But the death toll was likely closer to 1,000 because many of those killed would have been buried in the bunkers where they were slain, and many of the gravely wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment, he said.
The shelling came as a Red Cross boat sent to deliver food aid and evacuate the wounded waited off shore, the health officials said. "There is fighting going on and we need a more quiet environment to land," said Paul Castella, the head of the Sri Lanka office for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Castella said if the fighting did not soon subside, the boat would be forced to turn back.
Final Assault on Cornered Tamil Tigers
At the end of their offensive, the Sri Lankan army boxed remaining LTTE cadres into a 400 meters x 600 meters land stretch in the Vellaimullaivaikkal area. According to the Sri Lankan government at this stage the Tamil Tigers are "slowly giving up" their fight against advancing troops cornered in their last tiny strip tiger territory. The military had complete control of the country's coastline and surround the reeling Tamil Tigers in a final push. The pro-Tiger Tamilnet said the narrow beach and lagoon area from where the LTTE have been mounting a last stand was engulfed in smoke. It said close-quarter combat had been raging.
The Sri Lankan army completed a pincer movement to surround the Tigers, seizing control of the coastline and cutting off the rebel group's escape route to the sea. The whereabouts of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and other senior commanders at that point was unknown. The remaining LTTE cadres made an abortive attempt to breach the Army defence line on the Western bank of the Nanthikadal lagoon during the wee hours of May 17. The LTTE cadres launched a surface attack across the Nanthikadal lagoon using several boats between 1.30am and 3:30am. According to the latest information, troops have been able to crush the LTTE attack causing heavy damages to their members. Troops have so far collected over 80 bodies of LTTE cadres.At least six LTTE boats were destroyed.
Gethin Chamberlain wrote in The Guardian: The violence in Sri Lanka was close to a bloody conclusion as the country's armed forces sought to destroy the last pocket of Tamil Tiger fighters in defiance of international pleas for a halt to the fighting and accusations from the UN that they had triggered a bloodbath. While leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were reported to be preparing to kill themselves rather than be captured, explosions reverberated around the tiny coastal strip where as many as 80,000 civilians remained trapped alongside the cornered rebels. [Source: Gethin Chamberlain, The Guardian, May 16, 2009]
Civilians Trapped During the Final Assault on Cornered Tamil Tigers
Gethin Chamberlain wrote in The Guardian: Humanitarian aid workers were in despair as sporadic reports filtered out of thousands of civilians killed inside the "no fire zone", the government-designated haven where non-combatants were supposed to be able to escape the fighting. "It is hard to think of a worse place on earth to be right now than on that stretch of beach," said James Elder, the Unicef spokesman in Sri Lanka, as he struggled to contain his emotions. [Source: Gethin Chamberlain, The Guardian, May 16, 2009]
“The Sri Lankan military said the Tigers, which have used the trapped civilians as human shields in an attempt to keep the army at bay, were detonating their ammunition dumps. There were no reliable figures available for civilian casualties, but with tens of thousands of people crammed into an area of less than one square mile, humanitarian agencies feared the worst. The military said last night that 10,000 civilians had breached the Tigers' inner cordon and were being shepherded to safety under fire from the rebels. Elder said those who remained were at the mercy of "indiscriminate firing" from all sides. "It is a bloodbath. It is a catastrophic situation," he said. "We are seeing a complete disregard for civilian life. Everyone's worst-case scenario is coming to pass."
About 20,000 people are believed to have escaped from the no-fire zone between Thursday and yesterday afternoon, but Elder said many of those who had managed to get out were in a terrible condition. "When you look at the state of the first people to leave three weeks ago, there were malnourished children and women, and people with gunshot wounds and shrapnel injuries, and these people now have been there for another three weeks with next to nothing to eat in terrible conditions. It is going to be a nightmare," he said.
Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman, said reliable reports from inside the war zone had dried up after the "courageous" doctors who had been working out of the last makeshift hospital at Mullaivaikal East primary school were forced to abandon the building in the face of heavy fighting. "We are most concerned about the fate of the 30,000 to 80,000 people who are left inside the combat zone," he said. "This is precisely the situation we feared all along - that they would be left inside at the penultimate moments of the battle."
Despite the mounting death toll, neither side in the conflict showed any willingness to lay down arms to allow the trapped civilians to escape. The Tigers said in a statement that they were "extremely mindful of the civilian hardships" and were "prepared to take all necessary measures that would immediately stop the current carnage". They said that "an onslaught by the government will only result in thousands more dying and will not pave a way for a dignified and respectful outcome". The Sri Lankan military said it would press on with what it described as a humanitarian operation. Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, the military spokesman, said: "Operations are continuing to rescue the civilians still being held hostage by the terrorists."
The government's decision in September 2008 to order humanitarian agencies out of the LTTE-controlled area greatly exacerbated their plight. Ongoing fighting, lack of oversight, and the manipulation of aid deliveries by government and LTTE forces contributed to a deepening humanitarian crisis, with major shortages of food, water, shelter, and medicines.
Sri Lanka Troops Enter No-Fire-Zone
According to the website of Prasanna De Silva, an officer in the Sri Lankan army, government “troops have entered a part of the 2.5 kilometers long no- fire- zone in Vellamullivaikkal this morning, government spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said. He added that LTTE leader V.Prabhakaran is believed to be trapped in this area. Military spokesman Brig Udaya Nanayakkara said that in two separte incidents at least 35 LTTE cadres were killed as troops were entering the 'safety zone'. [Source: Prasanna De Silva, General Officer Commanding 55th Infantry Division Sri Lanka Army, May 12, 2009]
“North-bound, troops from the 59 Division troops led by Brigadier Prasanna Silva advanced further crossing the LTTE constructed earth bund c-um ditch North of the Wadduvakal causeway, early this morning (May 12). According to latest military reports, the initial forward military thrust made by 6 SLLI and 12 SLLI infantrymen was followed by the induction of Special Forces resulting in a rapid wipe-out of the remaining terrorist resistance in the area. Troops have advanced 300 meters further into LTTE defences after consolidating positions at the Wadduvakal causeway, military said.
“The capture of the causeway and adjacent territory would open-up another alternative escape route for the civilians held hostage by LTTE terrorists. Not only troops have secured the Wadduvakal causeway, entrance to the Mullaittivu shallow waters, but also denied LTTE the use of the Nanthikadal lagoon minimizing concentrated LTTE attacks at fleeing civilians, an observer said.
“Terrorists' put-on stiff resistances backed by heavy artillery and mortar fire mounted from the newly declared 2km long civilian safe zone (CSZ) at Vellamullivaikkal since the early hours, military said. The ground advances are made in steady phase with total consideration of avoiding civilian casualties while ensuring safe passage from the LTTE clutches, an area military official said. According to intercepted LTTE communication, senior cadres and those newly recruited at the forward battle lines were engaged in heated arguments blaming each other for the recent debacle.
“Meanwhile, three LTTE suicide bombers hiding inside underground bunkers have blown themselves as advancing 58 Division troops closed-in on them. At least 10 terrorists were killed and several soldiers injured due to the explosions this morning, security forces further said. The injured soldiers were evacuated for medical treatment, according to military.
Digging in the No-Kill Zone
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “A survivor of the final stand at Mullaittivu, a young pastor, described the scene to me. He and four other pastors and a group of sixty orphans in their care had been dug into shallow bunkers on the beach. “It was the first thing we did whenever we reached a new position — digging and making bags with cut-up women’s saris,” he said. “Only afterward would we go and look for food or water.” The Tamil fighters were in bunkers all around them. “Most of them were Black Tigers,” he said, referring to the Tamil suicide squad. “Prabhakaran was among us, too, but none of us saw him.” He described a charnel ground, with artillery shells landing at random. “All we could see was dead people, people crying for food and for water, and burning vehicles everywhere.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
“On May 16th, Army troops took the last coastal positions, and, as they pursued the remaining Tigers, the Army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, declared victory. The next day, a Tiger spokesman posted a statement on the organization’s Web site: “This battle has reached its bitter end. . . . We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer.”
“In the bunker, the pastor’s group talked by cell phone with a brigadier general in the Sri Lankan Army who told them to stay there until they saw soldiers, then identify themselves with white flags. The group had run out of food and went foraging in an abandoned bunker nearby. “We found food packets — meat, chocolates,” the pastor said, and they took as much as they could carry, dodging incoming fire. The next morning, a young man in their group was fatally shot as he defecated outside.”
Surrendering and Being Killed in the No Kill Zone
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “By evening, they could see soldiers approaching. “Two or three of us went out with several children, and we took white flags, as the brigadier had suggested,” the pastor recalled. “But as we approached they said, ‘Don’t come,’ and fired guns in the air.” The soldiers had been told there could be suicide bombers among the last Tigers, and in fact several insurgents blew themselves up in the midst of civilian refugees turning themselves in to the Army. “We fell on the ground. They were about fifty meters away. We crawled back to the bunker, and then they fired at the bunker. The whole night, I could hear the Army throwing grenades in the bunkers near us. There were explosions, and people were crying and saying, ‘Help us.’ ” “I try to be royal without being regal.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
“At dawn, the pastor said he “felt courage” and decided to go out and confront the soldiers. “I went with another pastor and a white flag,” he said. “We explained who we were, and they told everyone to come forward out of the bunker. They ordered us to kneel down. There were about fifteen soldiers. Their faces were covered with black cloth. One soldier said, in Sinhala — I understand a little — ‘We have orders to shoot everyone.’ We were shouting for them not to shoot.” After a tense standoff, the pastor was strip-searched, along with the children, and then allowed to collect his belongings from the bunker. “A pastor came behind me, but he was punched in the chest by a soldier. He fell down. He died later that day. The same soldier who hit him stuck his fingers in the wounds of the young men with us who had been injured.”
“After another strip search and a long interrogation, the pastors were reunited with the children and put in a detention camp. When I asked the pastor how the experience had affected him, he said, “It is in my mind. When I sleep, automatically it comes out — things I only saw in films in my youth. Bodies without heads. Bodies with the stomach open and the liver coming out.” He added, “At the end, we were walking out through fire and past dead people, and the soldiers were laughing at us and saying, ‘We have killed all your leaders. Now you are our slaves.’ You can imagine how I feel about my country.”
“On the same day, May 18th, the Army announced that the Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had been killed, along with two hundred and fifty others, during an overnight escape attempt across the Nandikadal Lagoon, which separated the beach from the mainland. Images were released of his body lying at the feet of Army troops, a handkerchief over his forehead to conceal a yawning wound. The Army claimed that it had cremated his remains. Prabhakaran’s eldest child, Charles Anthony, was killed the day before, along with other fighters who launched a final assault on Army lines. Soon after, the Army said it had also recovered the bodies of Prabhakaran’s wife, their daughter, and their youngest child, a boy, all of them dead of gunshot wounds.
“Dozens of unarmed Tamils, including several senior Tiger political leaders and their families, were also shot dead by soldiers as they walked out of the kill zone carrying white flags. Their surrender had been personally approved by Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, after being negotiated over a satellite-phone link by the U.N.’s special envoy to Sri Lanka and Marie Colvin, a correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, whom the Tamil leaders had asked to be their intermediary. “This was not the chaos of battle,” Colvin said. “It was a negotiated surrender. Promises were made and they were broken.”
Killing of Prisoners Caught on Cell Phone Videos
Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “The mobile-phone video clip shows a pair of soldiers pushing a naked, blindfolded man into the frame. His hands are tied behind his back. One soldier, dressed in the uniform of the Sri Lankan Army, forces him into a sitting position on the ground, kicks him in the back, and steps out of the way as the other soldier comes forward and shoots him in the back of the head. The man’s body jolts and flops down. Off camera, the shooter can be heard laughing giddily and exclaiming, “It’s like he jumped!” The soldiers kill two other men in similar fashion, and then dispatch a number of wounded prisoners. The camera turns to show at least eight other bodies, including those of several half-naked women, lying in pools of blood. All of them appear to have been freshly executed.” [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]
On a grainy video taken Sri Lankan government soldiers that appears to show the killing of . well-known Tamil television presenter and singer Isaipriya by Sri Lanka government soldiers, Callum Macrae wrote in Vice News: “In the 48-second-long tape, Isaipriya is still alive. She is uninjured, but partially naked, distressed, disorientated, and being half-dragged, half-helped, from the shallow waters of a lagoon. Since then more photographs have emerged showing her and a 19-year-old woman named Ushalini Gunalingam, who had been captured with her. They are in custody, their arms tied behind their backs. And then there is a final terrible video, shot by a Sri Lankan soldier on his cell phone as a grotesque war trophy. Isaipriya and Gunalingam have been stripped naked — apparently raped — and then executed. They lie in a pool of blood. "I would like to fuck it again," says an off-camera Sinhalese voice. [Source: Callum Macrae, Vice News, August 4, 2015]
“Episodes from that massacre were preserved like scenes from a nightmare in short video sequences, uploaded at necessarily low resolution on satellite phones during brief breaks in the shelling. In one of the videos, a family lies huddled in a shallow bunker. Shells are falling nearby. "Don't take the video," one woman, clasping her child protectively, screams at the cameraman. "Please get in the bunker. What are you going to do with the video? They are killing everyone." The cameraman keeps filming.
A UN envoy has concluded that the video footage allegedly showing Sri Lankan troops executing Tamil Tiger rebels is authentic. AFP reported: The video, aired on Britain's Channel 4 in August, "is authentic," Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions told reporters here. The footage was shot during the final stages of the Sri Lankan army's battle against Tamil Tiger separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). [Source: AFP, January 7, 2010]
Alston said the authenticity of the video was established by three US-based independent, qualified experts he had commissioned to conduct an impartial evaluation after four Sri Lankan specialists had concluded that it was a fake. He named the three as Daniel Spitz, a prominent forensic pathologist, Peter Diaczuk, a firearm evidence expert, and Jeff Spivack, a forensic video analyst. "The independent experts' analyses also systematically rebutted most of the arguments relied upon by Sri Lanka's experts in support of their contention that the video was faked," Alston said.
“Channel 4 had said in its original report that it could not verify the authenticity of the video which it received from a group called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. The group claims the video footage was taken in January by a soldier using a mobile phone. The disturbing footage shows a man dressed in army uniform shooting a naked, bound and blindfolded man in the back of the head, while the bodies of eight others can be seen nearby in a muddy field.
“Alston said Spitz found the footage appeared authentic "especially with respect to the two individuals who are shown being shot in the head at close range." And he added that Spivack's forensic video analysis "found no evidence of breaks in continuity in the video, no additional video layers and no evidence of image manipulation." "While there are some unexplained elements in the video, there are strong indications of its authenticity," Halston said.
Killing of the LTTE Leaders
On Tamils who witnessed the killing of LTTE leaders who surrendered, Frances Harrison, wrote in Asian Correspondent: “Soon we’re drawing an untidy map on my notebook to mark the frontline and the bridge across the lagoon over which tens of thousands of emaciated civilians escaped at the end – leaving behind them billowing black smoke and pounding shells. Kumaran shows me where he was positioned by the Sri Lankan military – behind an earthen embankment near a tree. The army wanted him to confirm the identity of the Tiger political leaders crossing over. Who better than their former bodyguard? It never crossed Kumaran’s mind that he was endangering them because this was clearly a well-planned and organised surrender. Senior Sri Lankan military officials were everywhere with bodyguards and walkie-talkies. [Source: Frances Harrison, Asian Correspondent, March 3, 2013]
“The first batch to cross the frontline carrying a white flag included the wife of the Tiger political leader. She was not a Tamil but Sinhalese – the same ethnic group as the soldiers. As they approached she was urgently screaming something in their language that Kumaran couldn’t understand – probably urging the soldiers to hold their fire. He watched the Tiger leaders cross over. They were received by the soldiers who escorted them across the bridge, moving towards a cluster of vehicles in the distance. More groups of Tigers walked past him at intervals and surrendered.
“Once it was over Kumaran waited around for an hour or so before being driven away by the military. After a while Kumaran, sitting in the back of a pick-up truck, noticed a crowd of soldiers gathered alongside some open ground next to the road. They were taking pictures on their mobile phones of corpses laid out there. As they drove past Kumaran was horrified to see Puli and his boss, Nadesan, the political leader, lying there dead, their shirts stripped off their torsos.”
Sharmilan — another witness — was surprised when he looked through the window and saw the Tiger political leaders walk by with white flags; he knew surrender was a taboo for an organization that glorified martyrdom. Sharmilan observed the soldiers receive the first group of about 15 people and frisk them for weapons before escorting them over a bridge until they disappeared from sight. In the distance he spotted not just military vehicles but also big white jeeps of the kind used by international aid organisations. Sharmilan estimates there were about five hundred soldiers in the area. He’s adamant all the Tiger political leaders surrendered successfully. This is of course not what the Sri Lankan military says. It claimed that the Tigers were shot in the back by their own people. If this were the case it’s surprising the military never produced the bodies as evidence of the rebels’ perfidy. Instead they quickly disposed of all the evidence.”
Rape of Tamil Detainees
According to Human Rights Watch: Sri Lankan security forces have been using rape and other forms of sexual violence to torture suspected members or supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The 141-page report, “‘We Will Teach You a Lesson’: Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces,” provides detailed accounts of 75 cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse that occurred from 2006-2012 in both official and secret detention centers throughout Sri Lanka. In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, men and women reported being raped on multiple days, often by several people, with the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups frequently participating. [Source: Human Rights Watch, February 2013]
“Most of the rape victims spoke to Human Rights Watch outside of Sri Lanka, and corroborated their accounts with medical and legal reports. All suffered torture and ill-treatment beyond the sexual violence... Many of the cases followed a pattern of an individual being abducted from home by unidentified men, taken to a detention center, and abusively interrogated about alleged LTTE activities, Human Rights Watch said. A 23-year-old man who had recently returned from abroad said he was abducted, held without charge, and then raped on three consecutive days until he signed a confession. A woman, 32, said she was detained by two plainclothes men who stripped and photographed her naked. “They told me to confess about everything,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I refused to confess as I thought they would kill me. I was beaten up and tortured continuously. On the second day, a man came to my room and raped me. I was raped by different men on at least three days. I can’t remember how many times.”
“Rape and other sexual violence of detained men and women by the security forces during and ever since the armed conflict suggests that sexual abuse has been a key element of the broader use of torture and ill-treatment against suspected LTTE members and supporters, Human Rights Watch said. This torture is intended to obtain “confessions” of involvement in LTTE activities, information on others including spouses and relatives, and, it appears, to instill terror in the broader Tamil population to discourage involvement with the LTTE.
“The victims also described being beaten, hung by their arms, partially asphyxiated, and burned with cigarettes. None of those who spoke to Human Rights Watch had access to legal counsel, family members, or doctors while they were detained. Most said that they signed a confession in the hope that the abuse would stop, though the torture, including rape, often continued. The individuals interviewed were not formally released but rather allowed to “escape” after a relative paid the authorities a bribe. “Two officials held my arms back [while] a third official held my penis and inserted a metal rod inside,” said a man who had surrendered to government forces in May 2009. “They inserted small metal balls inside my penis. These had to be surgically removed after I escaped from the country.” A medical report corroborates his account.
“Human Rights Watch said that the cases suggest that the use of sexual violence was not just a local occurrence or actions of rogue security force personnel, but a widespread practice that was known or should have been known by higher-level officials. The cases reported to Human Rights Watch were not just in battleground areas of northern Sri Lanka, but occurred in military camps and police stations in the capital, Colombo, and other locations in the south and east far from any fighting. These included the notorious fourth floor of the CID headquarters and the sixth floor of TID headquarters in Colombo.”
Tamil Rape Victims
“Case of JH: JH, a 23-year-old Tamil man studying in the United Kingdom, returned to Colombo in August 2012 for family reasons. A month later, while returning home from work, a white van pulled up and several men jumped out. Telling him he was needed for an investigation, they blindfolded him and drove him for over an hour to an unknown site. He told Human Rights Watch: They removed my blindfold [and] I found myself in a room where four other men were present. I was tied to a chair and questioned about my links to the LTTE and the reason for my recent travel abroad. They stripped me and started beating me. I was beaten with electric wires, burned with cigarettes and suffocated with a petrol-infused polythene bag. Later that night, I was left in a smaller room. I was raped on three consecutive days. The first night, one man came alone and anally raped me. The second and third night, two men came to my room. They anally raped me and also forced me to have oral sex with them. I signed a confession admitting my links with the LTTE after the rapes. [Source: Human Rights Watch, February 2013]
“Case of TJ: TJ, 19, returned to Sri Lanka after completing his studies in the UK. One evening in August 2012, TJ was returning home after visiting a friend in Vavuniya when a white van stopped near him and around five or six men in civilian clothes jumped out. They forced TJ inside the van, blindfolded him, and drove him to an unknown destination. He told Human Rights Watch: They removed my blindfold and I found myself in a room. There were five men and one of them was in a military uniform. They started questioning me about my work with the LTTE in the UK. They asked me about my connections with the LTTE abroad. I did not respond and they started torturing me. First, I was slapped and punched. Then they began to torture me severely. I was beaten with batons, burned with cigarettes, and my head was submerged in a barrel of water. I was stripped naked during interrogation. The beatings and torture continued the next day. I was only given some water in the morning. The next night, I was given my clothes and left in a small, dark room. One person entered my room that night. It was dark, I couldn’t see him. He banged my head against the wall, pushed my face against the wall and raped me
“Case of GD: “In November 2011, GD, a 31-year-old Tamil woman, was at her house in a Colombo suburb when four men in civilian clothes arrived. GD told Human Rights Watch they introduced themselves as CID officials and asked to inspect ID cards of all family members at her home. She said that they confiscated the ID card of her husband, who was abroad, and asked her to accompany them for questioning. She said: I was taken to the fourth floor of the CID office in Colombo and kept in a room. I was not given any food or water. The next day, the officials, who included a uniformed armed official, photographed me, took my fingerprints, and made me sign on a blank sheet of paper. They told me that they had all my husband’s details and kept asking me to disclose his whereabouts. When I told them my husband was abroad, they continued to accuse him of supporting the LTTE. I was beaten with many objects. I was burned with a cigarette during questioning. I was slapped around and beaten with a sand-filled pipe. Throughout the beatings, they asked me for my husband’s details. I was raped one night. Two men came to my room in civilian clothes. They ripped my clothes and both raped me. They spoke Sinhala so I could not understand anything. It was dark so I couldn’t see their faces clearly.
“Case of DS: DS’s father owned a photocopy shop in Jaffna and helped the LTTE by printing propaganda leaflets and distributing them. In 2005, when he was 13, the LTTE forcibly took him away for 10 days of compulsory military training. After returning to Jaffna, he worked for the LTTE by distributing pamphlets and participating in LTTE cultural festivals. In November 2009, when he was 17, a joint team of police and army officials arrested him when he was returning from school. He was blindfolded and taken to an unknown detention site. DS told Human Rights Watch:
“They asked me to tell them all about my activities with the LTTE. They said that if I told them everything about my work, they would let me go. I refused to admit to anything. Then they started beating me. I was stomped with boots and punched. They then forced me to undress completely. I was hung upside down and burned with cigarettes. I was beaten with sand-filled pipes and wires. The officials beat the soles of my feet with rubber and forced a petrol-infused plastic bag on my head and tried to asphyxiate me. One officer performed sexual acts in front of me. He then raped me. I lost consciousness. I was bleeding heavily from my anus. There was no toilet and I had to use a plastic bag. The officials who were questioning me did not let me sleep. They did not give me any food for the first two or three days. They fingerprinted and photographed me. I finally signed a confession document in Sinhala and admitted to everything they said.
Investigation of War Crimes in Sri Lanka
Callum Macrae wrote in Vice News: “Years after these terrible events, not a single person has been charged, and neither Rajapaksa nor his brother, the defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (a US citizen), has faced any consequences. One UN report concluded that as many as 40,000 Tamils may have died, mostly as a result of government shelling. A subsequent UN report suggested the true figure could even reach 70,000.” [Source: Callum Macrae, Vice News, August 4, 2015]
In 2017, Reuters reported: “The United Nations criticized Sri Lanka on Friday for slow progress in addressing war crimes and past human rights abuses and said the international community was running out of patience. The U.N. and rights activists have accused the Sri Lankan military of killing thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, in the last weeks of the civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009 and have demanded reforms and redress.
“There is little evidence that perpetrators of war crimes committed by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces are being brought to justice,” Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, told reporters after concluding a four-day visit to Sri Lanka. With progress having ground “to a virtual halt”, Emmerson said Sri Lanka could face a range of measures, including a referral to the U.N. Security Council, if it fails to meet commitments it made under a 2015 U.N. resolution. The United Nations gave Colombo a two-year extension in March to meet the commitments, which include establishing a judicial process involving foreign judges and prosecutors to investigate the alleged war crimes.
“Colombo has previously promised an impartial investigation into human rights violations but President Maithripala Sirisena has since said he would not allow foreign judges take part in the investigation. While Emmerson was in Sri Lanka, police arrested a top naval officer on suspicion of being involved in the abduction of 11 youths, mostly Tamils, in 2008/2009 who have never been found. Emmerson also said he had come across prisoners who had been detained without trial for more than 12-years. of torture” in Sri Lanka, saying it was “among the worst in the world”, and blamed the situation mainly on Colombo’s failure to repeal its Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) despite promises to do so.
“The Sri Lankan government said it needed more time to tackle the abuses cited by Emmerson. “He can’t dictate like this, we can’t make laws immediately. They have to go through parliament ... There is a process. He must understand what democracy is,” Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa told Reuters. The Tamil separatists have also been accused of committing widespread abuses during the 26-year war, including using child soldiers and targeting civilians with suicide bombers.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022