War in Northern Sri Lanka: A brief respite, but not quite?

Here at Pass The Roti, we had a self-imposed moratorium on posting while our brilliant webmaster readied the blog for some major changes. But as I readied myself for bed last night, I found I could not sleep. After some pacing, I become suddently aware that my brow is furrowed, much as it has been over the past two years, since the (most recent) war between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) began in 2006. So I write in an attempt to unfurl some of that worry. (More links to follow soon.) . . . On Thursday evening, the Sri Lankan government announced a 48 hour ceasefire to allow civilians to move from the war-affected Vanni, in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Since the fall of Kilinochchi, the erstwhile capital of the LTTE's 'defacto state' of Tamil Eelam on January 2nd, the two parties to war appear to be in a fight to the finish, or so we're told. Seven divisions of the armed forces (SLAF), comprising nearly 40,000 armed personnel, surround a coastal pocket north of Mullaithivu. Over 250,000 civilians are caught in the middle. To date, Sri Lanka had rejected international pressure for a ceasefire, with Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, arguing that a ceasefire would only give the LTTE an opportunity to regroup. Now, claiming that the LTTE has used civilians as human shields in its war against the state, President Rajapaksa urges the LTTE to release civilians:

I urge the LTTE, within the next 48 hours to allow free movement of civilians to ensure their safety and security. For all those civilians, I assure a safe passage to a secure environment. I also assure all those living in the North and in conflict areas in particular, that vacating LTTE held areas will ensure their physical security and enable peace, freedom and rights for all citizens of this country. [News.lk]

The announcement of a ceasefire, however brief, is welcome news. But how long will it last? UN officials have managed to evacuate a few hundred severely wounded civilians to provide treatment in areas under government control. The number of civlians who await such treatment are unknown. Will the ceasefire allow safe passage? And are these government-declared 'safe zones' truly safe, or even safe enough? According to an Amnesty International release titled, Civilians Trapped by Sri Lanka Conflict, the answer is no:

A doctor working in a hospital in a "safe zone" says that about 1,000 shells fell around the hospital. The hospital, which houses at least 1,000 patients, was damaged and hundreds of people in the area were injured.

The report continues to say that a convoy of 24 vehicles transporting 350 critically wounded people, including 50 children, was prevented from leaving Puthukkudiyiruppu for days by the LTTE, but according to the AFP, UN spokesperson Gordon Weiss confirms that they were able to evacuate the civilians, following lengthy negotiations with the LTTE. In a BBC article on the evacuations, he countered the government's claim that there is no humanitarian crisis:

"Our staff witnessed the deaths and injuries of dozens of people over the weekend," he said.

On Tuesday, in an urgent appeal to both parties to the conflict, the ICRC also asserted that a major humanitarian crisis is unfolding:

"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. The violence is preventing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from operating in the region," said Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for South Asia in Geneva. The terrified population is in need of protection, medical care and basic assistance, according to the ICRC. An estimated 250,000 people are trapped in a 250 square-kilometre area which has come under intense fighting. They have no safe area to take shelter and are unable to flee.

The statement goes onto note that, under agreement from both parties to the war, the ICRC is the only international agency working in the Vanni for the past four months. The international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, whose affiliate, Caritas, works in the region through local Catholic churches, finds a parallel in the precarious situation of civilians in Gaza:

"Around 300,000 people, that is two-thirds of the civilian population, have been forced out of their homes and are living in camps in areas controlled by the LTTE. They are trapped in (an area) not more than 50 sq km, the size of Gaza,’’ Balleis said.

"It is the last stronghold of the LTTE which imposes a strict pass system, preventing people from moving to safer places. They are crowded together in temporary shelters, surrounded by mud, with no promise of regular access to food or adequate sanitation," he said. The JRS’s affiliate Caritas works in the Vanni through Catholic churches in the region.

These temporary shelters are not even available to all, and for the last several months, thousands of civlians have been exposed to the winter monsoons, living under trees throughout the Vanni. Those who haven't been following the war in Sri Lanka may wonder, why aren't there other aid agencies? Why aren't the numbers of civilians killed and wounded recorded and made available? Why are there so few reports from the war? Why, over the last two years, has the international media focused on the military escapades of the LTTE and the SLAF, rather than the effects of the war on the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans, particularly Tamils in the North and East? In September 2008, the government ordered all NGOs and humanitarian workers to leave the Vanni, ostensibly to protect them from the imminent dangers of war. Only the ICRC remained, while a few UN agencies were later allowed to provide humanitarian assistance in the passage of people and goods. Both the ICRC and UN have complained of immobility as a result of shelling and air raids, while some Tamil UN workers have claimed they were prevented from leaving the Vanni by the LTTE. That the government doesn't see fit to protect its own citizens from these dangers of war, even at the instigation of the LTTE... well, that's a pesky detail that can be easily brushed aside. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the government's spokespeople continue to deny that there are any civilian casualties at all. In an unbelieveable bit of Orwellian double-speak,

Military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said no civilians had been killed in the fighting, though some who had been forced to build fortifications by the rebels — known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — might have been wounded in the crossfire. "There were no civilians killed," he said. "We are targeting the LTTE. We are not targeting any civilians so there can't be any civilians killed." [CBC.ca]

That's military logic for you. And according to the BBC:

On Wednesday Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse denied that the fighting had led to a humanitarian crisis in the north. He told the BBC that he had a policy of "zero" civilian casualties and that the ICRC and UN were wrong about the situation in the north. "I'm not saying they are lying but they are exaggerating," Mr Rajapakse said.

Nanayakkara and Rajapaksa either wish to deny the presence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of dead bodies, some of whom aren't even to be counted because their loved ones cannot move outside to identify them or provide a proper burial or cremation, or... they are saying something else entirely what he has left unsaid. Namely: If they aren't civilians, who are they? It is this logic that has led the government to set-up detention camps for Tamils who, in leaving their homes in the LTTE-controlled region, move to government-controlled areas with the hope of living a life with the prospect of peace. They are instead greeted with suspicion and accusations of being a member or supporter of the LTTE. As mentioned above, there are few reports on the extent of civilian suffering, let alone writing that incorporates the narratives of those who have experienced insecurity, fear, and untold losses as a result of this war. In this week's Tehelka, an an aid worker and photographer who left the Vanni in September 2008 Between Two Armies in this week's Tehelka, provides a fleeting glimpse. In a must-read account, the writer relays the stories of Tamil civilians in the Vanni told shortly before s/he left, and places them in the war's rapidly decaying political and humanitarian context. It begins with the words of 13 year old Stella:

"MY HOME is in Illuppakadavai in the Vanni. On January 2, 2007, at nine in the morning, the KFIRs [Sri Lankan Air Force jets] came. They bombed my village, the ground was shaking and shrapnel flew everywhere. Many people were injured, and so was I. That is how I lost my leg.” Stella is 13 years old, fresh-faced and beautiful. I first met her on August 5, 2008, in Maniyankulam, a village in North Sri Lanka’s Vanni, territory that was until the beginning of this year under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Stella is at a pivotal stage of her life, her mind and body developing. But there is much to set her apart from others her age; she has endured far beyond what can be expected from an average adolescent. “On June 20, 2008, there was shelling close to our new home, and we had to run away because we were afraid. We could not take many things and I had to run as fast as I could with my crutches, with help from my family and neighbours. We have been here for a week, and we have only one shelter for six families. That’s around 23 people. There are no proper toilets, and for me it is very difficult… because of my leg. “I don’t know how I’ll manage if we have to move from this place. I have a prosthetic leg, and I can ride a bicycle. If I had a bicycle, life would be much easier. “I’ll be happy if we can get more shelters, to sleep comfortably, and a proper toilet; but more than that, what I need most is a bicycle.” I met Stella again on August 20, 2008. She described to me how the shelter in Maniyankulam had come under attack by the Sri Lankan Army two nights before. “The shelling started at 7:30 in the evening and we ran immediately to Konavil school, about five km away. Our family had to spend the night in the school as I couldn’t go on with my crutches. My family was carrying all our belongings and could not help me. I felt sad for my family that I was slowing them down. That night was very loud due to the shelling. Other families had managed to get further away, but we had to stay there because of my injuries. “We are now here in the school and again I feel bad. This school is like my old school, but we are using it for a home and the children in this area will suffer. I am very scared that shelling will happen again in this area and we will have to run again. I am tired of perennially running from place to place and not feeling safe in any place. If the Government and the LTTE allow us, I would be very happy to escape this area. I just want peace to come to my family and me, and I don’t want to run anymore. I still have very bad dreams about the KFIR attack and when I hear the roar of the KFIRs these days, I get so scared.”

The writer also expresses a note of caution that could hinder the movement of civilans into areas of government control, and must be heeded by all who are concerned for their safety and security:

EXACERBATING THE general insecurity is the fact that the Vanni population is very nervous of the SLA. With a 25-year history of atrocities on Tamils and the Sri Lankan Government’s clear agenda to wipe out the LTTE, Vanni civilians are facing their most desperate time. Almost all of them have a family member who is an LTTE cadre, either voluntarily or by conscription. This makes many feel very scared of the SLA as they will be seen as LTTE supporters and, therefore, a threat to Sri Lankan national security.

The former-aid worker concludes:

With no independent monitors in the Vanni and both sides posturing behind very well-orchestrated propaganda machines, it is almost impossible to paint an accurate picture of life in the Vanni since the aid agencies left last September. What can be categorically stated is that up until that month, the civilians were living an appalling life with inadequate food, shelter, protection and sanitation facilities. With the international agencies evacuated, relief items blocked, the onset of the monsoon and a severe escalation of the military offensive, the situation must have deteriorated to an unimaginable level.

This is the situation, or the extent to which we who are outside can know it. Now, we must ask: Is the government's 48 hour 'ultimatum' a sincere effort to give civilians the opportunity to safely leave the war zones and move freely, or one of many examples of the politics of humanitarianism as deployed by these two main parties? (The government, for its part, has described the war as both a "war on terror" and a "humanitarian mission" to "liberate" the Tamils of the North and East from the LTTE; the LTTE, on the other hand, claims that it is fighting a "defensive" war of "national liberation" in order to safeguard the lives of Tamil civlians who would be otherwise killed by a "genocidal Sinhala state.") Moreover, if these efforts are sincere and unimpeded, to where will these civilians go, following the destruction of properties and massive displacement throughout the Northern Province, and already crowded living conditions in IDP camps and detention centres? To what kind of 'secure environment'? How will the government's attendant call for the LTTE to surrender its arms during these 48 hours affect responses to the ceasefire and civilian movement? Despite these persistent questions, the GoSL has come up with a response to its critics and their calls for a ceasefire. This is, after all, a variation on what various Tamil diaspora activists have called for in the last few months. As far as international public opinion is concerned, the ball is now in the LTTE's court. Will they allow civilians to leave according to their own wishes? How the LTTE responds now will determine the next phase of this war. Without a durable political solution that addresses the needs and aspirations of Sri Lanka's minorities, state reform, and reconstruction aimed at a building a sustainable peace, the war will remain long after the military battles are over. . . . A primer-cum-commentary, for those who haven't been following recently: Over the last two months, December 2008 to January 2009, a series of intense battles between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu have yielded a number of military successes for the government's armed forces. For several months prior, the government had been assuring its citizens and the so-called international community that the war was nearly over. Soon, we were told, all Sri Lankan citizens would live in peace, with the ideals of justice, dignity and equality to be restored in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious polity. Sri Lanka would, once again, regain its place on the postcolonial mantle of "model democracies." And then came the fall of Kilinochchi. As the capital of the LTTE's 'defacto state,' the army's capture of Kilinochchi was rendered as a great symbolic victory for the Sri Lankan state's military effort. Once again, we were told: It's only a matter of time. But Sri Lanka's premature gong of victory was muted as the world's attention turned to Israel. With each passing day, people the world over bore digital witness to appalling images and stories of bodily and social harm in Gaza. In Kilinochchi, and later, Mullaithivu, the Sri Lankan army took over virtual ghost-towns, as civilians were displaced to overcrowded encampments in neighboring battle zones. The tally of civilians killed and wounded grew in both places. But while many (though not all) mainstream media outlets reported with chilling accuracy the number of civilian casualties as provided to them by the Palestinian Authority, as well as the stories of those who survived, in Sri Lanka, this simply could not be. The GoSL had already banned journalists from reporting from the war zones. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 9 journalists have been killed since the present war began in 2006. In this "culture of impunity," without transparent and independent investigations, the killers roam free. Free to kill again, while civilians are overwhelmingly surrounded by the army and police. So that, in the days after the fall of Kilinochchi, at a time of jubiliant self-congratulation for the government and its cronies, they killed. Again. In And Then They Came for Me, the editor-in-chief of the English-language Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, all but named his killers in a moving, impassioned editorial published three days after his death, during which time his brutal murder sparked protests in the capital.

I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

Wickrematunge had just married his colleague, Sonali Samarasinghe (editor of The Morning Leader), 13 days earlier. She and his friends reminisce, while associates and acquaintances offer their condolences here. Without diminishing the importance of Wickrematunge's life and work, and the ardent courage with which he pursued it, we must, of course, ask why some deaths are able to offend and galvanise the Sri Lankan public, while others pass quietly by. Tamil journalists throughout the island, and particularly in the North and East, have particularly vulnerable targets of the government, paramilitaries and the LTTE. In the period after the second JVP insurrection (1987-8), and more recently, the Sinhala media is also under siege (see the recent attacks on Sirasa, MTV offices, and Rivira). As with J.S. Tissainayagam and Lasantha Wickrematunge, those who continue to write and report in any way perceived to be inimical to the government's interests, particularly when critical of the war, are harassed, intimidated, abducted, beaten, detained and killed. Still, I believe Wickrematunge's assassination provoked widespread outrage, across all sectors of Sri Lankan society, because it also raised the following question: If a friend of the President isn't safe in Sri Lanka, who is? That question, and the answer with all its depressing uncertainty, should drive us all to speak out and speak up against all of the injustices that are carried out today in the name of Sri Lankan democracy and freedom. Especially those among us who have the most to lose, in terms of relative privilege, status, connections, and wealth. For in some sense, we have nothing to lose. And we will lose much more if we do not.

The Sri Lanka Government calls a 48-hour ceasefire as hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped between the Army and the LTTE

Trackback URL for this post: