Part 3 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: Mattalan: Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse (continued fromPart 2)
Use of Bombs, Cluster Munitions and White Phosphorous; and Curtailment of Medical Aid
The first public reports on the use of cluster munitions appeared in the international media in early February 2009. On 4th February AFP’s Ravi Nessman reported citing the Colombo UN Spokesman Gordon Weiss that 52 civilians had been killed in intense fighting over the past day and that cluster munitions were fired outside the Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, which too had been struck by artillery killing 12 persons. The Government immediately denied it. Mr. Weiss as quoted by AFP said that cluster munitions had been used at least once earlier in recent weeks. The same report also quoted him saying, ‘the UN accepted the government’s assurance that they did not have the weapons’. It appears the UN took a political decision not to pursue the matter.
Our sources have assured us that cluster shells, known locally as kotthu kundu, were regularly fired from 21st January. They were then noticed by the Oxfam staff at Thevipuram and subsequently by the OCHA, which had its office near Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital. Both observations were reflected in the UN statement.
Witnesses said that at the time of firing cluster shells are indistinguishable from normal shells, but subsequently these shells open about 1000 feet above the ground with the pop sound of an opening of a soda bottle, sending out about 80 submunitions or bomblets, each the shape of a plumb bob. A few seconds later they strike the ground making a characteristic loud drumming noise for several seconds. Our witnesses are agreed that this was a daily occurrence in the NFZ – about one in ten shells fired had cluster munitions. Of the 80 or so bomblets in a shell, about 15 remained on the ground, lethal to children who chanced to pick them up. The LTTE regularly warned people about these and placed sticks with a red cloth attached wherever an unexploded device was reported. This was a familiar sight and the drumming noise of these shells was a familiar sound until the fighting ended in May 2009.
TamilNet regularly reported the use of cluster munitions, but appears not to have published pictures of any unexploded devices. Taken along with indignant government denials and the UN dropping the matter and the ICRC not saying anything publicly, the only means of establishing the truth is to question witnesses brought to the IDP camps.
Bearing Witness: “Gunam”: We obtained a description of frequently encountered sub-munitions from a young witness whom we call Gunam is scientifically trained. We give below his description of the object:
These are shaped like bells of grey aluminium colour about 1 ½ inches in diameter and 3 ½ inches long. The top of the bell which contains the mechanism is screwed to the lower part and some of the threads are visible. The lower part which contains the explosive packed along the sides has an empty appearance. The bell shaped object falls downwards trailed by red ribbons attached a small rotating cap fixed to the top of the bell, so that the drag ribbons do not interfere with the spin acquired by the bell upon discharge.
The witness who in early February saw about 15 unexploded munitions near Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital said he searched Google using the type number of one of them (which he has since lost) and found that it was from a shell with about eighty sub-munitions. He had confirmation of this on a later occasion where on the soggy ground of the NFZ, he saw over 60 holes where the sub-munitions had penetrated the ground. A friend of the witness took one of the unexploded sub-munitions at Puthukkudiyiruppu. The exposed threads below the top invite an unsuspecting beholder to unscrew the object. When Gunam’s friend proceeded to unscrew, he found the object getting hot. It exploded before he could throw it away, causing him to lose a hand and acquire injuries on his neck and face by small bolt-like objects. A person standing in front was killed.
On another occasion Gunam was told about unexploded cluster munitions in a house. In order to prevent children picking them up, he went with some others to place a sandbag over the unexploded munitions. On certain occasions the sub-munitions fell on people’s heads as with other normal shells, killing them. Whenever people found that the bomblets had fallen inside their bunker and penetrated the ground or lay there unexploded, they abandoned the bunker to avoid risks of a mishap. The bomblets come down with a spin, which they acquire upon being discharged centrifugally by a dispenser.
On an occasion quite widely known to the people near Putumattalan Hospital, a spinning outer rim of the bomblet, upon falling, embedded itself in the thigh of a woman lying down. She was taken to the hospital and, according to those present, her leg was amputated rather than risk the bomblet exploding while attempting its extraction. In another instance seen by Premila who testified to us, a sub-munition was embedded in a calf of an 8-year-old girl. She was living close to the hospital and also saw the girl after her leg was amputated.
To identify the cluster munitions used, we first note that the Indian and Pakistani media have reported from May 2006 that Sri Lanka placed orders for cluster munitions with Pakistan (e.g. Indian Express, 2nd May 2006, ‘Lanka sent Pak its arms wishlist’, Pranab Dhal Samanta). Pakistan Daily (3rd March 2009) said, “It has been reported that Sri Lanka has purchased cluster bombs, deep penetration bombs and rockets and UAVs from Pakistan.” A similar report was put out by Jane’s Information Group.
In its 2007 document ‘Overview of Dirty Dozen Cluster Munitions’, Human Rights Watch lists 12 kinds of submunitions that are most harmful to civilians by for example being inaccurate or leaving a high proportion unexploded on the ground. Just one of these types shown was manufactured in Pakistan, besides in the US, Turkey and Germany, and had been used in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Western Sahara. These were M42/M46 type sub-munitions carried by 155mm shells, each one of which dispenses 88 or 72 of them. The sub-munitions are bell shaped and have almost the identical dimensions described above and are fitted with drag ribbons. The agreement with the eyewitness description from the battle zone, gives us a tentative identification of the type of cluster shells used in the Vanni.
White Phosphorous: The use of white phosphorous shells, eri kundu (burn bombs) in local parlance, was prominent on the morning of 20th April when the Army entered the NFZ. Militarily, burning white phosphorous creates a smoke screen for advancing troops, but in a crowded area like the NFZ, these shells led to deep burns among civilians and children. Gunam saw white phosphorous shells creating on 20th April morning a prominent white glare. Although he was not close enough to see this again, it was common knowledge that white phosphorous shells were being fired on an almost daily basis. Because the area was near the sea, one could see the smoke prominently even at a distance.
Aerial Bombing: Until the people were herded into the NFZ, many of them were victims of aerial bombing. After 19th April 2009, aerial bombing was confined to the LTTE’s defence lines in the NFZ. Reckless bombing was a daily occurrence in a region where civilians were fleeing and camping out and there were hardly any clearly marked LTTE targets. The reckless nature of the bombing could be seen from the fact that in mid-March 2009, the Air Force bombed the LTTE prison near Iranapalai, killing many detainees including naval personnel. From civilian observation, a Kfir bomber usually comes with six bombs. In its first run it drops two bombs known in local parlance as air shots. These explode above the ground, killing or burning anyone within the range of a sizeable field. When the bomber circles and makes its second run it drops another two bombs known as delay shots. These are 1000 kg bombs which penetrate the ground and explode leaving a hole the depth of a well and throwing high up the soil and everything within a given radius. On the third run the bomber drops its last two bombs known as solid bombs. These explode on contact with any object, house or structure.
An undeniable fact was that from about April, the medicines received by the Putumattalan hospital in the NFZ were grossly inadequate for the number getting injured by government missiles. Further, the doctors and support services were far too overstretched to deal with the casualties. A witness who visited the hospital at Putumattalan found some of the doctors almost in tears. They were saying, “We studied and were trained to save lives, but here we do not have the ability and wherewithal to fulfill our mission.” Whenever the doctors complained of the lack of medicines, the Government became very angry, often blaming the LTTE of taking the medicines. Visitors going to Putumattalan Hospital have confessed to the depressing sight of the more seriously injured laid out by the roadside and practically allowed to die.
To put it in stark terms, if the patient came with a wound in the head or the stomach caused by a missile, the person was often given a dressing and laid on a mat to slowly die, which took about two days. This group amounted to about 25% of the admissions. An implication of this is that the standard dead: injured ratio of 1: 2 resulting from shelling must be taken as nearer 3: 4 in the case of Vanni.
The doctors concentrated attention on those with a chance of being saved under existing conditions. This meant trying to keep the injured alive until the ICRC ship arrived, which was about once in three days. Thus a significant proportion of those who could have been saved, were allowed to die. It is the Government that is answerable and not the doctors it impugned and humiliated. Allowing the MSF into the war zone to aid the overstretched medical services could have saved many hundreds of lives.
The hospital was housed in a small school. Surgical operations were performed chiefly by Dr. Athirchelvan, who was originally from Mallavi Hospital, working as late as 2.00 AM. Being a small rudimentarily constructed classroom, the operating theatre had more the appearance of a butcher’s shop.
Injured LTTE cadres were brought to the hospital and left there for two days and were then taken over by the LTTE. Although shells were falling in the vicinity and exceptionally inside the hospital premises, there was no major shell damage. An army post across the lagoon had a direct view of the hospital. The Army fired with RPGs or small arms whenever they saw a vehicle approaching the hospital, taking it to be one bringing injured cadres. They did not fire at ambulances displaying the red light above. The LTTE usually approached the hospital when it was dark after switching off all lights. People were also advised not to be seen near the hospital in jeans. One young man in jeans who had left his mother and was standing outside the hospital was killed by sniper fire from across the lagoon aimed at his head.
Yet, despite the yeoman service of the doctors, the hospital’s reputation was not uncompromised. The author of Vanni Experience commends the doctors’ dedication while having reservations about their political sympathies.
This, in combination with the LTTE being the ultimate authority deciding who should be sent by ICRC ship, aroused suspicions and questions in the minds of people over certain experiences. According to the people who were there, the LTTE was not allowing persons injured by its guards, while attempting to escape, passage on board the ICRC ship, however much the patients needed advanced care not available there.
Maniam told us an incident where a mother and her two boys were injured by LTTE firing while attempting to escape, the mother in a hand and the boys in their legs. They were inevitably warded at Putumattalan Hospital. The mother was very angry and had a sharp exchange of words with one of the doctors, which was observed by others in the ward. One boy’s leg was later amputated and he subsequently died. It is in cases like this that the people are bound to ask searching questions even when the doctors had done their best under the circumstances.
It raises questions about politics that are consistent with the highest medical ethics. They are perhaps a questions not adequately discussed in the Medical Faculty at the University of Jaffna, after the LTTE assassinated Dr. Rajani Thiranagama with the assistance of some medical students. The people were very angry with the LTTE and they saw the doctors as being sympathetic to that group. In these circumstances they were likely to blame the doctors unfairly even on matters beyond their control. For one thing the Government was sending far too little medicine in relation to what was needed. A proper inquiry should easily be able to compare the quantity of medicines brought by the ICRC with what was required on the ground. The people also perceived rightly or wrongly that LTTE cadres were being treated better than the civilians, against the reality that many injured civilians were dying along the road and under the trees near the Hospital, their wounds infested by maggots.
The State of the LTTE
The Government’s obsession was with decapitating the LTTE, disguised as civilian rescue, and never paid attention to the state of the LTTE and how the challenge it posed could be tackled politically. There was no genius in the Government’s approach. Age, the attrition within caused by repression and the peace process had all taken their toll on the LTTE.
The LTTE as an organisation evinced two minds, showing the different expectations of the Leader and normal cadres and officers. The Leader had driven himself to a point where it would become difficult for him to justify his prolific record of killings if he settled down to a federal settlement, where he would ultimately be held politically accountable. A more immediate problem was the section of the Diaspora that had financed and feted him to deliver Tamil Eelam. Disappointing them would have meant some loss of face that could have been ignored. What the people wanted was a federal settlement offering them dignity and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Thus even during the peace process the active section of the LTTE concentrated on furthering their control over the Tamils, conscripting children, training suicide cadres and killing opponents. Many experienced cadres on the other hand left the organisation after going through the punishment, got married and started raising families. The same applied to officers who wanted to live as officers in peacetime, raising children, sending them for an English education and university, ensuring good career prospects.
In going into the peace process, Prabhakaran could not have it all his own way. He could not help constantly provoking the security forces, creating tensions and stirring up his organisation to be in a constant state of war readiness. Not many officers and cadres would have fancied spending a lifetime in warlike activity. The Karuna split of his Eastern Wing in 2004 was a symptom of divided expectations in his organisation. His provocations in 2004, 2005, and his calculation in bringing Rajapakse to power by electoral fraud, could be seen as a single do or die move before matters got worse. The Karuna split and the uncertain dispositions of several senior leaders showed how the drift during the peace process might easily go beyond Prabhakaran’s control.
When the undeclared war began in 2006, the LTTE was no longer the confident organisation that brought about the Army’s Vanni debacle in 1999 and went on to capture Elephant Pass in 2000. When Tamilchelvan was sent in 2006 to appeal to the 5000 or so cadres who left the organisation during the peace process for civilian life, they refused point blank and complained angrily about the way they were humiliated and punished when they wanted to leave. Some skilled ex-cadres who refused to rejoin were even abducted and tortured.
An inside description of the state of the LTTE in its final year said that out of say 10 000 cadres, 5000 would have been fresh conscripts, who were inadequately trained or unfit for battle. Of the 5000 trained, about 3000 were those unwilling to fight and looking for some means of avoiding it. An option many of them took for exemption from fighting was to become recruiters. The price they had to pay was to bring in 20 conscripts/recruits every month. This figure was raised to 50 once the LTTE was cornered in the NFZ from February 2009 to keep the number at 15 000.
Finally out of 10 000 it was only about 2000 who were willing to fight and die for the cause. Even here there were many problems. Earlier in Killinochchi, the officers were pampered. Each had a batman and support staff, who attended to household needs and tasks such as taking children to school. After the fall of Killinochchi they lost all this. Besides their families were on the run and their children got injured like everyone else. Often the officers had to take time off to visit their families, check on their safety and attend to urgent needs themselves.
Another matter that was deeply upsetting particularly to those who believed in the LTTE’s cause, despite misgivings about its methods, was the treatment of dead cadres. Earlier they used to be interred ceremonially in well-kept mausolea. It gave the dead a religious aura as eternal children of the Leader, and gave their families dignity and the means to come to terms with the loss.
However in the NFZ, dead cadres, who were conscripted and used briefly like disposable objects, were brought by the dozens, about 50 a day on the average, on trailers of tractors and buried unceremoniously, about three in the same hole, one above the other, covered and forgotten. Many felt impelled to ask how a movement that treated its cadres so cheaply could justify the burden it was imposing on the people.
The LTTE had become a shadow of what it had been and was in no fighting shape. The Leaders themselves were not sure towards what end they were imposing all this suffering on the people. This is why invading the NFZ was poor strategy and a failure to use the intelligence the Government would have obtained from escapees, causing the deaths of many civilians and young conscripts who did not want to fight.
Bearing Witness: Muhunthan: Muhunthan, whose younger brother was an LTTE cadre who died a few years back, and was helping to transport the injured at Putumattalan Hospital, told us that military wing cadres who came to see the injured, openly voiced dissent against the Movement, its policies and the fate it had brought on the people. He identified an important source of this disillusionment as conscription. At one time the LTTE had left alone the siblings of persons who served in the movement. But lately it had been conscripting persons indiscriminately, even if two or three in the family had served in the Movement. Often, a front line soldier who believed he was fighting for a just cause, received news that his conscripted younger brother or sister had been killed. This upset serving soldiers badly.
In May 2009 for example, four members of the LTTE police and two cadres came to conscript the younger brother of an LTTE poruppalar (divisional or departmental head). While the younger brother was in the van, his father came and fought with the conscription gang, who shot him dead. The younger brother jumped from the van, grabbed the gun of one of the gang, shot dead five of them and escaped. He is now reportedly in an army prison.
Bearing Witness: Father of “Raj”: Conscription also gave rise to dissension in other ways. Raj from PTK was conscripted by the LTTE in October 2007. A month later he escaped with a Sea Tiger girl “Mala” who was a body guard of the Woman Sea Tiger leader Urani. They lived in hiding for about eight months as man and wife. They were detained by the LTTE in Nachchikuda while attempting to escape to India. Raj served six months in prison and was then posted to the LTTE’s vehicle division. His father met him again in Putumattalan in February 2009. He told the father that he was trying to save people by warning them whenever the LTTE planned to conscript in a particular neighbourhood. The father learnt that his son was seen by an aunt in Valaignarmadam on 26th April and heard from others that he was seen with those who left around 17th May in Vattuvakal and then in Omanthai, but has been unable to trace him. Mala, who is from Valvettithurai, entered an IDP camp and was released through the agency of a Tamil group close to the security forces.
Despite continuing losses, the LTTE kept up an illusion of a strong organisation through its worldwide propaganda machine. Even before Anandapuram the elite Charles Anthony Brigade, the Black Tigers under the Intelligence Wing and the women’s Malathy Brigade had been largely decimated. The LTTE was very low on cannon shells, mortar shells and mines. The LTTE artificially increased numbers by conscription and these began to dominate casualties, often in the age group 15 – 20. When they ran away the LTTE began conscripting other family members or imposing severe punishments on others as deterrence. By such reckless means it was enabled to maintain a nominal strength of around 15000. Conscription went until almost the last, until about 17th May, when anarchy prevailed within.
Early March 2009: People Take Matters into their Hands
One looking through the course of the war would notice that the LTTE’s repression of its own population succeeded best when the violence of the State was at its worst. The LTTE understood this and it formed a part of its calculations in breaking off every peace process and restarting war. Under heightened levels of violence, the people were on the move or were too busy trying to keep their families safe and fed. Whenever the violence diminished, people talked more to each other and began to wonder why they accepted this level of repression that often involves surrendering their children to the LTTE for cannon fodder.
If governments had understood this, they would have had some ready political options for dealing with the LTTE. But they were so undisciplined that whenever war began, they lost all control and rushed headlong into indiscriminate violence against the Tamil people.
From late February to mid-March 2009, the people had somewhat settled down in the new no-fire-zone, and there was a notable drop in casualties due to government shelling. After heavy civilian casualties during January and February, the casualties shipped by the ICRC touched a low rate at February end, which lasted till mid-March. The number of casualties shipped by the ICRC was 400 for the first half of March, which almost doubled during the second half, and the half monthly figures subsequently were higher. One reason for this was that the Army was preoccupied with taking Puthukkudiyiruppu and there was a buffer zone between the Army and the NFZ. Later on the Army’s artillery units had nothing else occupy them, except to fire into the NFZ.
The first half of March, having a lower level of shelling into the NFZ, also saw open rebellion against LTTE conscription gangs. During the first week of March, a conscription gang of about 50 police and intelligence men came near Pillayar Temple in Putumattalan, in two Hiace vans and seven motorcycles. The local folk attacked them, burning three motorcycles and one van. Three policemen were injured of whom at least one died according to local sources. The attackers were heard saying angrily, “Ivangal engalai vaala vida maataangal (These fellows won’t let us live)”.
A few days later, a conscription gang, including an administrative head, tried to abduct an 18-year-old boy in Valaignarmadam. The boy grabbed the gun from the administrative head, shot him dead and ran, firing at his pursuers, injuring three of them. Finally before his ammunition ran out, he took his own life. Maniam was later told by the boy’s uncle that the LTTE came the next day, took the boy’s 55-year-old father and executed him.
During this period, a mother near Pillayar Kovil, attacked with an axe a conscription gang of five who came for her son, hitting one of them on the back. The injured man ran away with the rest, his dress dishevelled, when according to the same report, a mortar shell from the Army exploded, injuring all of the gang.
In the coming days a clash broke out between the LTTE and the people over conscription. The LTTE shot dead three protesting civilians. The people, who were bursting with anger, carried the dead to the beach to show ICRC representatives who had come to collect injured civilians. LTTE Police tried to block the demonstrators carrying the dead, and in the clash the Police killed one youth. During these disturbances civilians boarded several small boats and put out to sea as the LTTE fired at them. 643 civilians, about half of them children, in 35 boats were found by the Navy on 18th March and taken to Pt. Pedro in the Jaffna Peninsula.
People clashing with the LTTE and burning their vehicles happened regularly, while the LTTE shot and killed hundreds of those who tried to escape. Persons so injured though hospitalised were not allowed to board the ICRC ship which came to collect the injured. Sometimes escapees were attacked with RPGs. The author of Vanni Experience says, “At this juncture, the people began speaking openly about the LTTE’s repression against Muslims, their anti democratic activities such as banning and physically eliminating members of other militant groups, and their killing and intimidation of intellectuals. Several of them cursed Prabhakaran openly.”
Even months after the experience, many people from the state education sector whom governments and NGOs took for granted to be pro-LTTE elements, though when called they had no choice but to perform on the LTTE’s Pongu Thamil (Tamil Ferment) platforms, show deep feelings of anger against how the LTTE treated the people.
One is reminded of Central College Principal Rajadurai and Kopay Christian College Principal Sivakadatcham who were both killed by the LTTE in late 2005. The latter was reputedly a very good man who resisted the LTTE taking his students out for functions and demonstrations and offered himself instead to speak on their platforms.
A senior officer who lost close relatives due to army shelling, and is just coming out of a prolonged depression, blamed the LTTE for much of the suffering and said emphatically that the LTTE fired shells on civilian institutions such as hospitals. A woman officer came out even more strongly. She recounted angrily the violence used by the LTTE during conscription, dragging people out of bunkers, beating them along with their parents and shooting those who followed the abductors pleading and protesting. She spoke of an instance where a mother who had given birth five months earlier, ran after a conscription gang who abducted her son. The abductors beat her up with a pachchai mattai (the raw stem of a Palmyra leaf). The officer herself saw the mother’s injuries. This officer had been interrogated by the Sri Lankan military.
Generally, people were angry and so negative about the LTTE that they were quite ready to say and believe that many cases of civilian places being shelled were the work of the LTTE. One man said that the LTTE would fire two shells at civilians from Chalai and then two shells at the Army, provoking it to fire at the civilians, so that the people would blame the Army. He was very positive that the shelling of PTK Hospital was by the LTTE.
Bearing Witness: Maniam:We once more checked with Maniam who impressed us as a critical judge. From our earlier sources there was little doubt that the shelling of PTK Hospital, as also suggested by the Government’s puerile cover up, was mainly the work of the Army. Maniam again confirmed that it was the Army that shelled PTK Hospital on 1st February. His cousin who was a female attendant had been injured. As to the RPG shell that hit the roof of Putumattalan Hospital on 24th March injuring two patients, Maniam was again sure that the Army fired it from just across the Hospital. He explained that how the LTTE operated was more subtle.
During mid March nearly a thousand people had escaped by boat to Jaffna from the coast near Putumattalan. Once even two or more Sea Tigers had taken one of their boats and escaped to India. In order to stop this, the Tigers wanted to shift the civilians further interior from the coast. Around 20th March, the LTTE brought some of its mortars near the coast in the area of St. Anthony’s Church and fired towards the Army. The Army fired with cannon paying back many times over. While Maniam cannot say how many were killed, but he is aware that seven persons including a mother were killed when a shell blasted a vehicle. TamilNet gives several instances during this period when the coast was shelled.
Maniam said that it was because the people fought the LTTE openly that he was able to save his 17-year-old son from conscription. But after mid-March as the violence of the State increased, the LTTE had greater opportunity to tighten its control. Maniam’s own story is an example of how the State’s mindless violence served the LTTE’s purpose.
Maniam kept his family with a group of people who were, towards March end, planning to run up to the lagoon and wade across. The LTTE which observed them came to know this. The LTTE went near the group, fired mortar shells towards the Army and withdrew. The Army’s shells came back like an answer to a prayer. One fell into a bunker where civilians were sheltering killing seven persons. Maniam was himself injured in a leg.
It is well to remember that the people have always resisted the LTTE in their own way. What they needed was help that was both sympathetic and politically astute – Certainly not the kind of appeasement tried by peace actors or the blundering violence of the State miscalled hostage rescue and counterterrorism. Both ultimately held the people in contempt and led to disastrous outcomes.
Civilians at Putumattalan: Waiting in the Rain for Storms of Bullets and Shells
After Anandapuram, the Army occupied the west side of the lagoon with the civilians on the east side. The civilians were mainly between Putumattalan and Valaignarmadam on the north side of the NFZ where the lagoon separating them from the Army was very narrow. The south side around Vellaimullivaikkal had houses from the tsunami housing scheme and was used mainly by the LTTE, which had also brought its weapons to this area. Civilians largely avoided that area.
Although called a no fire zone the civilians barely had a moment of peace. The LTTE made sure the civilians were an obstacle to the Army literally decapitating the LTTE leadership. Civilians who were present had a range of perceptions about shelling by the Army. Some saw shelling as inevitable when an army confronted them and thought ‘if our people did not shell, they would have shelled less’. Some believed shelling to be a part of the Government’s genocidal programme. The most charitable interpretation was to see shelling by the Army as intended to mentally harass them to break out from the LTTE’s control and flee into the army’s control no matter how many were killed or maimed – a matter of counterbalancing the LTTE’s threat (regularly carried out) to shoot those who escape by making it intolerably risky to remain. The hard reality was that the civilians faced regular firing of cluster shells and white phosphorous shells besides regular shells, the former not precision weapons.
One of the most heart-rending instances of inhumanity seen in the NFZ is that of a mother who had been killed and her infant trying to suckle her lifeless breast.
The LTTE regularly moved its gun-mounted vehicles through the NFZ, sometimes firing at the army line and quickly reversing them eastwards next to civilian dwellings. A woman told us that when that happened, there was nothing they could do except to sit it out keeping their fingers crossed.
The LTTE had established some mortar positions in the NFZ in a circle-shaped space from which the civilians were kept away. When the LTTE fired and the Army fired back, the shells fell close, but according to those present, hardly ever harmed the LTTE who jumped into their bunkers in good time. It was almost wholly civilians that suffered. But the Army kept firing shells frequently and without provocation. These fell indiscriminately all over the place and in much greater number. The LTTE was short of mortar shells.
Worse than shelling from the army side was regular small arms fire. People moving within the zone, which was open and clearly visible to the Army, had no choice but to use the main road. One did not know when a bullet had been fired until it whizzed past the ear. Until 19th April, the number of people dying from small arms fire was of the same order as of those dying from shelling. Parents were nervous about letting a child out of the bunker. There have been cases of children playing on the beach who simply collapsed without any sound. The cause being a bullet was discovered only upon examination. It was almost impossible for parents to keep their children in bunkers all the time. And for this reason a high proportion of those killed in the open were children and mothers keeping watch over them. The firing of small arms by the Army changed positions but was usually not a response to LTTE provocation.
Bearing Witness: Mr. and Mrs. Kailash: Mr. and Mrs. Kailash (name altered), aged 60+ and 50 respectively, are from the west of Mallavi. Mrs. Kailash had sustained a shell injury during their earlier sojourn at Iruttumadu/ Suthanthirapuram and carried a piece of shrapnel in her leg. She was injured again in Putumattalan. The way it happened was according to many a general phenomenon, but was also dismissed by others. The popular belief is that many civilians got killed and others maimed as a result of LTTE men ducking into a place having a group of civilian tents after some incident or provocation, leaving the people huddled together in a state of extreme anxiety. According to several accounts, the LTTE man would then converse on his walkie-talkie, and as soon as this wireless communication started, a shell would fall in the area. Such were the circumstances under which Mrs. Kailash received her second shell injury.
The injury having occurred in the night, Mrs. Kailash had to crawl under barbed wire into an LTTE women’s camp and get them to bandage it and stop the bleeding. The next day Kailash with much difficulty took his wife to ‘Mattalan Hospital to have a proper dressing done.
The Kailash’s moved to Valaignarmadam and pitched their tent alongside those of two of their relatives’ to the east (sea) side of a short and stout Palmyra tree, giving some minimal cover against army missiles from the west. One night they heard a shell fall and burst close to the palmyrah tree. They were scared and talked among themselves and decided on the inadvisability of venturing out at night left things till morning. They felt that if not for the Palmyra tree the shell would have consumed their lives.
Incidents of the kind above belonged to some of the people’s dreaded experiences in Putumattalan, besides the widely talked about cluster shells – the 5 inch or 122 mm shells. The latter they say come silently without warning and make a noise only on striking the target, but the destruction is enormous.
The Kailash’s said that they among many people had on occasion spent two or three days in bunkers, going without food and very little water because of virtually non-stop shelling. The whole process of bearing up under the tension, sitting up for days in a crowded, hot bunker, meant that the desire to fall down and sleep became the overwhelming. By doing so they thrust into the oblivion of slumber, the insatiable craving for food or water.
Bearing Witness: Nick: Nick was a successful farmer from west of Madhu, whose gardens were the envy of others of his trade. Nick has a son and two younger daughters. The son was conscripted around early 2007. Of the two daughters he had the elder married early to a government officer partly to protect her from conscription. He carried with him his worry about the younger daughter. The family followed the IDP movement, through Suthanthirapuram, Vallipunam and Thevipuram, pitching a new tent every three days. When the family reached Puthumattalan, Nick’s son deserted from the LTTE and the father protected him by shifting him from bunker to bunker.
Following the son’s desertion, the LTTE came for the youngest daughter. Nick kept her in bunkers and whenever the LTTE came he put them off with a story and quickly moved by night to another place. He had to keep this up even when they moved to Mullivaykkal in April, until they finally came out in May. By then the daughter was sick and thin, having spent nearly three months in bunkers, coming out only for meals.
While in Valaignarmadam, a shell fell near Nick’s tent sending a piece of shrapnel into his thigh. The explosion also lifted his motorcycle which had a full tank and dropped it by his tent, causing it to burn. The clothes of Nick’s younger daughter who was inside the tent also caught fire. Nick, despite his bleeding injury found the strength to jump up and drag his daughter away from the tent and push her to the ground and dowse the flames by rubbing her with sand.
Nick on his own took out the shell piece which was protruding from his thigh and went to the hospital bleeding all over. The deep wound which was continuously oozing in spite of several clean-ups was eventually dug up to the point of the bone and tied. Nick understood that the penetration of the shell piece with the smoking substances it carried cause severe toxic effects. The doctors too went on cutting up further, thinking that the oozing was caused by some small shell piece hiding inside. After some time in Manik farm, still experiencing pain, he managed to show him-self to a visiting foreign surgeon, who said after examination that he would experience pain for some time until the cut up muscles develop properly and he moves around and uses them more. He was advised never to allow any doctor to cut any further, thinking that he may still have some alien particles inside. This would again be detrimental to the progress achieved.
The Infant Food Incident: On 8th April about three shells hit a queue of people who were required to bring their very young children to receive packets of powdered milk that were being rationed out. This was because people no longer had cards to prove their entitlement to infant milk food. A witness who was nearby and saw the dead and injured being transferred to Putumattalan Hospital told us that a UAV had been flying overhead and the Army, which was within hailing distance, would also have heard the loudspeaker announcements asking people to assemble at the primary care centre for milk food. The Army it seems deliberately fired into the area. Another eyewitness who saw the incident told us that over a dozen were killed including children.
We had earlier independently, in April, reported in Bulletin No.47, “Persons who escaped on 8th April said that about the same day, the Army announced over speakers tied high up on palmyrah trees instructing the public to come across the lagoon into their area immediately, as they were going to advance into the no-fire zone. Soon afterwards, they fired a large shell right into the midst of the public, apparently to goad them into complying. This reportedly caused heavy casualties among the public.”
The Health Ministry took issue with the doctors for discrepancies in casualty figures given out by them in two different contexts, from the incident attributed to the government forces. Besides tending to an admission, it was being petty over an issue that was best left alone. The lowest tally quoted was 13 dead and 50 injured. In such a situation, 25 of the injured might succumb within a day, bringing the tally of dead to about 40. But that would no longer have been news.
Vanni Experience says about civilians during this period: “They were people who had lost their hands, legs or had in a moment lost their sight or their kin. Daily the streets, the hospital and tarpaulin tents filled with corpses. Death teased and played with us. The thought that we might escape with our life had left our minds. All that was certain is that until that very moment, death had given us a miss. Except for this, we were all living in an arena of death, which could strike any moment. We wondered hope against hope whether India, Tamil Nadu, the UN or the international community would forge an arrangement that would give us some peace…”
Other witnesses told us that on occasion when not observed, young conscripts who had no sense of belonging to the organisation, but whose attachment was to their families and the people, helped escapees by showing them the safest way out. Muhunthan married Premila to whom he had been proposed in 2007, at Putumattalan on 11th April 2009. Muhunthan had lost a younger brother who joined the LTTE on his own and died a few years ago. Premila from Mankulam lost an elder sister who had fought for the LTTE, and another sister was widowed at Suthanthirapuram in February. They both wanted to escape from the LTTE on their wedding day with another 2000 of the same mind, but were ultimately deterred by shelling.
Running the Gauntlet: the Lethal Game of Escape
Many of the IDPs decided that whatever the risk, escape was preferable to what seemed slow and certain death in the NFZ. Vanni Experience says, the ‘people were defying the LTTE’s punitive surveillance and trying to escape from the Vanni. It was not a large number. They did so facing heightened danger using less known jungle routes, sea routes and treacherous paths through the marshland…The Tigers could not prevent people escaping to the Army even as the LTTE fired at them. Some succeeded while the rest of their family succumbed to gun fire. Some were injured or caught by the LTTE. While the Tigers obstructed escape, the Army’s attacks on the people too intensified amidst dwindling supplies of food and medicine… Persons conscripted and forcibly taken to the battlefront died by the hundreds. There was among the Tigers not an iota of remorse for these deaths. They roamed as drunken men abducting persons without number, showing no trace of civilization or humanity. A Tiger media man himself admitted that with their end so near, they no longer needed the people’s support.’
Persons who were present told us that every day scores of civilians found guard points in the bund that were unmanned or the LTTE sentries asleep, climbed over waded across the lagoon and surrendered to the Army. Some became virtual experts, who if someone in their family had been left behind, asked those who had succeeded in crossing to go on further and surrender to the Army and came back to help the rest stuck in the NFZ even if it took several days. Several experiences have been documented in Section 6 of Bulletin No.47.
Bearing Witness: Francesca: The experiences themselves speak of the desperation people felt. Francesca, a mother of over 60, had a son who was an injured LTTE cadre. The leg injury though not grievous, required time to heal and meanwhile he could not set his foot on the ground. He was sent home to rest and get back, but the mother was determined that he should not. About mid-April she made the escape attempt with the boy who could do no more than crawl. Another escapee felt sorry for her and carried the son. Once over the bund, they both fell down after which the man excused himself and proceeded on his own. The mother helped the boy to the lagoon, which was shallow at that point. She held the boy’s legs while he propelled himself across the water with his hands walking the bed.
Bearing Witness: Rajaratnam: Rajaratnam from Puthukkudiyiruppu, whom we encountered earlier, was with his joint family, but when it came to escape different members decided separately. Rajaratnam, his wife, with the wife’s mother, decided to escape with their three children. Rajaratnam’s mother, Thavamany, decided to stay on with her 85-year-old father, her two sisters and the family of the one who was married. Rajaratnam decided that he would even fight with the LTTE to get out.
They were about to leave about the end of March. Two LTTE cadres told Rajaratnam, “When on the border, don’t stop. If our people come, grab their gun and fight. Keep going, never look back. There may be small groups posted further up front specially to shoot those who have got close to the other side. These are mainly orphans brought up by the movement. They will do anything the movement tells them and will show no pity.”
Rajaratnam’s group went in a line with others, crossed the barbed wire, and climbed over the bund. Rajaratnam got his party into a small ditch before the water and looked back. He saw civilians who had come behind them on top of the bund fighting with the LTTE, trying to grab their guns. Using the distraction, Rajaratnam’s party began to cross. He had told his wife and mother-in-law that they are for now on their own, while he rushed forward as fast as he could carrying his three children.
Rushing forward, when Rajaratnam got close to the other side, he saw a girl whom the LTTE had shot in the leg begging for help. No one stopped. Close to the other shore, he saw a mother who was shot, fallen dead in the shallow water, while her infant was crawling upon her. Most people passed by, but one youth picked up the infant and he saw them later in the IDP camp, where the youth had adopted the infant, another Moses from the bulrushes.
Rajaratnam’s wife had been weak after childbirth. Rajaratnam had gone ahead and she was feeling faint while crossing the water. She clutched at a man who was passing her and asked, ‘can you help me’? The man paused and told her politely, “First take a look at me, and if you feel like it, ask me again.” Mrs. Rajaratnam looked at him and noticed for the first time that he was carrying a child on his shoulder and one in each arm. She let him go. Weak as she was, she struggled on and made it to the other shore, when Rajaratnam came back to help her.
Mrs. Rajaratnam’s mother was slightly lame after she had fallen into an unprotected well in Puthumattalan. To cater for the huge number, people had dug wells and simply left them open. The lady struggled on behind her daughter, and at one point fell into a pit where the water came up to her mouth. Fortunately, she found an elevation which supported her and made it to the other side. Then they all walked a little distance to the army line.
Bearing Witness, School Principal: It must be placed on record that, in the estimate of a school principal who was there in the NFZ, about 25% of the civilian casualties in the NFZ, averaging about 15 to 20 a day, were of people killed by the LTTE when trying to escape. Other estimates are similar.
The Principal told us that every dawn about a thousand were ready and waiting to make a run for it and escape. The bund by the narrow strip of lagoon was 2 ½ miles long. Whence there were bound to be places where the LTTE’s guard was weak.
When a weak spot was identified, the people ran to it clutching their children and meager belongings to jump over the bund and into the water. When the LTTE noticed it, often their police or military wing whose job it was to prevent the civilians from escaping would come running to the place and open fire. About 50 to 100 would make it, 15 to 20 would get killed. Some would return with injuries and a few would also make it with injuries.
He said that he had seen soldiers wade into the water risking LTTE fire to help injured persons on to the other shore of the lagoon. Impressions about the Army too vary with such experiences.
The principal described a typical scene he witnessed. After waiting for a chance of escape, a father ran clutching his grown up daughter and son, who was an LTTE conscript. The latter was the principal reason for attempting escape. His wife followed clutching a four-year-old child on her waist. Behind the wife followed her aunt and another lady. Being quicker, the father and two grown up children made it. An LTTE man shot at the wife hitting her on the head. She fell dead with her child who suffered an injury. The aunt and the other lady picked up the child and went back.
A bystander in an astonished whisper remarked on the element of ruthlessness he had witnessed, “Did you notice, it was not the same bullet, but a separate one that hit the child on the hip?” The principal reflected to us, “Those were their orders. They have to obey or be punished.” The principal was a keen Roman Catholic layman. One could almost hear his unspoken pain. His son had been conscripted just after he turned 18, and died of army shelling in Pokkanai during March 2009. Had his son lived, he too may have had to do this thing he found so absolutely abhorrent.
The principal described something else he had seen. 15 escapees had been shot dead opposite the Putumattalan Hospital. Along with the daily quota of dead resulting from army shelling, these bodies too were placed in a space ringed by ropes on a side of the hospital. With the help of labourers, the doctor looked at the bodies and pronounced the cause of death. The distinction was clear between shell injuries and bullet injuries. The doctor regularly pronounced all of them to have died due to army firing. The principal remarked, “I wonder how he did it?” This went on day after day and perhaps above a thousand died trying to cross the strip of water.
Before we judge, we must keep in mind practices that had come to be accepted as normal under the provenance of terror. No doctor in an LTTE-controlled area dared to certify the LTTE as the cause of a death. Often they were spared this dilemma. When the wife of someone executed by the LTTE for political reasons went to the local headman in Jaffna, which was by then under army control, to make an application for a death certificate, he without batting an eyelid wrote or altered the cause of death to army shelling. Practices in the Sinhalese South during the late 1980s JVP insurgency were not very different. There it was often a question of whose terror was more potent in a particular place at a particular time. Such dilemmas paralysed human rights groups in the South and led to deaths of lawyers and human rights advocates.
Escape experiences have been so varied and often so tragic that they cannot be limited to a few categories that were widely witnessed. Mr. T.T. Thiagarajah was assistant educational development officer in Mullaitivu. Owing to illness, his wife and daughter left Putumattalan earlier by ICRC ship. Mr. Thiagarajah crossed the lagoon about 20th March with his son and his sister’s son. Nothing more has until now been heard about any one of the three.
Mr. Deivendram was the director of education, Mullaitivu. He had with him his elder sister, wife and daughter. During late March, the four left towards the lagoon. The Tigers accosted them and sent them back, along with several others. Deivendran’s party found an empty tent close by, abandoned by owners who had escaped. They spent the night in the tent, hoping to escape in the morning. During the night a shell fell on the tent. A colleague who went to the scene said that the wife’s body was ‘smashed’. The elder woman and the girl were admitted to Putumattalan Hospital, where they succumbed to their injuries.
20th April, Army enters the NFZ
Even after Anandapuram, direct confrontations between the Army and the LTTE were constantly going on. The bund along the LTTE side of the lagoon had been built a month earlier by using earth movers, which in the dark moved along the lagoon, lifting earth and piling it along the lagoon’s edge. The LTTE continued to hold roads crossing the lagoon into the strip where the civilians were. The LTTE had constructed bunds about a quarter mile west of the lagoon on the three roads leading to the NFZ. These were scenes of constant fighting killing in all about 50 LTTE cadres a day, mainly conscripts. It was a debilitating war of attrition. The Army’s shelling constantly breached the bunds which LTTE cadres had to repair again at high risk.
Final preparations for the Army’s entry began on 16th April which witnessed considerable shelling. There was no day that the civilians were free of shelling. Since toilet facilities were scarce, women and children used to go to the sea shore early in the morning to perform their ablutions. An Air Force MI 24 helicopter took up position above the army-controlled zone out of reach of LTTE guns and swept the seashore with its cannon creating pandemonium. 15 to 20 of the women and children were killed. The following from defence.lk on 19th April gives the original plan for the Army’s entry into the NFZ:
“Sri Lankan soldiers of 53 and 58 Divisions were just 700m to 800m short of the bridge on the A-35 road (Paranthan – Mullaittivu) at Vellaimullaivaikkal last night (Apr 18)…troops after a daylong march along the A-35 axis readjusted their forward boundary that extends across A-35 to the northern bank of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The manoeuvre is aimed at opening up a main road access to the No Fire Zone…Battlefield reports indicated that troops have encountered stiff resistance from the terrorists. Intercepted LTTE radio transmissions revealed that 17 LTTE cadres were killed and 22 others suffered injuries in the day’s fighting.”
This meant that the Army planned to enter the NFZ along the A-35, which would have brought it into the NFZ at Irattaivaykkal, which would have led to the Army acquiring 4½ miles of the 7½ mile long NFZ. Irattaivaykkal is the point where the narrow lagoon links with the much broader Nanthikadal. It would also have cut off the LTTE’s supply line from Mullivaykkal, forcing an LTTE withdrawal from the area. The LTTE sensing disaster fought tooth and nail to hold its bunker on the A-35 Rd.
Owing to its failure to take the A-35 entrance, the Army seems to have scaled down the original plan to entering the NFZ along the road to Ampalavan(Pokkanai), perhaps hoping for an element of surprise, but it meant taking control of just the northernmost two miles of the NFZ.
According to sources with access to the LTTE, the latter were expecting the Army to try to take out the civilian population in one go, which would have meant entering through Irattaivaykkal. For practical purposes it was from Putumattalan to Irattaivaykkal that the IDPs regarded as the NFZ. South of it was mostly occupied by the LTTE. The part of the NFZ on the east between Valaignarmadam and Irattaivaykkal was also soggy land where the IDP density was lower. Thus the original plan would also have entailed considerably fewer civilian losses.
The LTTE did not take seriously the Army’s possible entry along the narrow Pokkanai road, as it would have meant taking out only a section of the IDPs. Besides the Army had edged closer to Putumattalan and were only 400 yards away, but never showed signs of wanting to enter there. The LTTE protected the Pokkanai Road by having two bunkers out into the Army’s side of the lagoon, about 60 yards apart, on either side of the road. Even if the Army entered the NFZ that way, the LTTE had figured that they could close the gap along the lagoon and cut off the troops that came in.
The people were expecting the Army to try once again to make an entry. Many of them had moved close to the main road through the strip, hoping to get away by crossing the gap between the road and the lagoon, which had much of the time been subject to constant army fire from across the lagoon. For most of its length, the road was 300 yards east of the lagoon. But in Pokkanai, it was just 10 yards from the lagoon, and in Putumattalan it was about 50 yards from the lagoon. In these two places the people’s bunkers were close to the lagoon. The LTTE was also expecting an attempt by the Army. The Army finally entered the NFZ on 20th April. Vanni Experience describes the event thus:
“When the people were under the LTTE’s control, they saw themselves completely as hostages. That too was how the Tigers treated them. (They are now in the Government’s internment camps.) In the course of rescuing over a lakh of hostages, over a thousand civilians were killed.”
The night of 19th April was pitch-dark under an overcast sky and a heavy downpour. Most bunkers were flooded and people were crouching inside them, holding their infants on their shoulders. Since a move by the Army was expected, the LTTE had wanted to place before dawn, experienced fighters at the bunker points out on either side of the road going west from Pokkanai to PTK. Due to a delay in the arrival of replacements, there was a gap in the defence of the road into Pokkanai. Noticing this, several persons who were waiting to flee, went past the unmanned points to the Army through the lagoon. On hearing their report, army commandos got them to come back part of the way and show them the gap. Army commandos took over those points by 4.00 AM.
The LTTE sensed something amiss leading to a blind exchange of small arms fire. Others who were present said that commandos had also waded through in the pitch dark and rain, and positioned themselves unseen along the bund. Until 5.00 AM there was a stand off between the two sides. With the first glimmer of dawn, the commandos who were hiding in the water beside the bund pitched grenades over it. Most of the LTTE sentries, who were young and inexperienced, ran back east from the bund to where the people were. Meanwhile the Army moved into Pokkanai between the secured points. At the same time intense shelling was directed towards the coastal strip east of Pokkanai. Vanni Experience records:
“At the same time the Tigers used violence to drive forcibly a section of the people towards Mullivaykkal. Under these circumstances the people who lacked the means to feed themselves, reasoned that rather than die of starvation under the LTTE, it was wiser to attempt escape even if it cost them their lives. They instinctively resisted the Tigers’ attempt to drive them south towards Mullivaykkal. The Tigers, who were in no mood to relent, drove many people under duress to Mullivaykkal, the place of their last stand.”
A part of the Army’s plan was to have two groups fight their way eastwards, one towards the sea from Pokkanai and the other from Mattalan, along the harbour road just south of the hospital, and thus to box the civilians inside. This they accomplished by late or mid morning on the 20th, but at heavy cost to the civilians. On the 20th the Army did no more than to control the west, north and south sides of the box. They avoided the middle for the fear of Black Tigers and went deeper inside the box only the next day.
As explained above, the main point chosen for the Army’s entry was Pokkanai. The bulk of its shelling was directed towards the east of the NFZ strip at Pokkanai, opposite its intended place of entry. Its military purpose would have been to prevent the LTTE regrouping in that area and offering resistance, and also to deter LTTE reinforcements moving north from Mullivaykkal into the box, and marginally perhaps expecting the civilians caught up in the shelling to move into the box where the shelling was less.
Such an action is justifiable in purely military terms, but here the area shelled had a huge population of IDPs, ostensibly in a safe zone and to be rescued. As pointed out earlier, people avoided the main road close to the west of the strip because of constant sniper and missile attacks by the Army across the lagoon. They therefore built their shelters closer to the secondary road from Valaignarmadam to Putumattalan nearer the sea, which was the area shelled. There were an estimated 1000 or more civilian casualties from this quarter.
A witness, who went to the Pokkanai area from Mullivaykkal to help a friend rescue his wife and children, saw white phosphorous shells falling into this area with their characteristic white flame. When he got closer, he saw people with burns and in great pain dipping themselves in the sea. They complained of feeling faintish afterwards.
Once the Army reached the sea at Pokkanai, the LTTE cadres to the north of it were cut off. Taking Putumattalan was then an easier task, which began a little after the advance to Pokkanai. There too the army advance to close the box followed intense shelling. The following testimony given by a woman to the BBC was quoted in Special Report No.32:
“We were staying near Puttumatalan hospital. On the night of the 20th there was heavy shelling. I thought I won’t survive. There was continuous shelling from midnight to the early morning. Many civilians have made a harrowing journey from the war zone. During that time we took shelter inside a bunker. At around 6am, when I came out of the bunker, I saw people running all around amid shelling. I also joined them. But soon I got injured in the legs and arms. My husband got injured in his head. Some shrapnel is still inside his head. Still, we came out of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)-controlled area along with our son. My mother and brother also started with us, but I don’t know what happened to them. I have lost all contact with them.”
Bearing Witness: Muhunthan and Premila:Muhunthan and Premila were in a bunker just south of Putumattalan Hospital, just 50 yards from the lagoon. From the first light of dawn, commandos who had taken up position in the lagoon, which was close to civilian bunkers, began throwing grenades, which included bombs that emitted a gas causing people to lose consciousness. Muhunthan began to feel faint, at which time several army grenades also fell into neighbouring bunkers, killing or injuring entire families. Apart from closing the box, the Army did not move inside it immediately. They feared the presence particularly of Black Tigers. The inside of the box was subject to artillery attacks by 5 inch shells (122 mm), resulting in many deaths.
Once the Army controlled parts of the bund, about 7.00 AM, soldiers at certain points showed white flags, signalling the civilians to exit the zone at those points. Soldiers helped them to scale the bund and instructed them to lie low and move when they told them it was safe. They also saw the dead bodies of many who had perished from the fire of one party or the other. At the same time, LTTE cadres who had withdrawn east away from the bund started firing at the soldiers with small weapons and RPGs. In this exchange many civilians too were killed.
Muhunthan and Premila crossed the lagoon about 9.00 AM. Muhunthan’s uncle Chandrapalan, who too had been in a bunker close to Putumattalan Hospital, had waited and set out to cross with his family at 10.30 AM. The LTTE who were about 150 yards behind in Charles Mandapam (Hall) shouted to the group, in which the family was, not to proceed. In their desperation, they ignored the order and proceeded towards the lagoon. The LTTE fired an RPG aiming it at a wall near the group. The shell exploded scattering shrapnel, killing Chandrapalan’s son Sujeevan (13) and injuring his wife in the stomach. Chandrapalan, who lost an eye, went across taking his wife who was later hospitalised in Vavuniya. Other sources said that many were killed by both LTTE and Army fire.
One of our sources was told by a man in the LTTE who was near Charles Mandapam that at 11.00 AM (20th April), they were ordered to stop shooting at escaping civilians. He also said that some civilians touched his feet and told him apologetically that they are leaving not because they reject the LTTE, but because of hunger. It may well be the local wisdom to avoid confrontation when one’s position is very weak. If correct, it explains the fewer casualties among those who left the zone over the coming two days.
Another witness told us that the shelling inside the box was aimed mainly towards the sea coast. The purpose was evidently to force the civilians to break through any LTTE obstacle and exit west towards the lagoon. The witness saw in this strategy an indifference to any number of civilians being killed, as long as the Army could parade the number who made it out as a major success of rescue.
About 2000 civilians also put out to sea in 100 boats and were escorted by the Navy to Jaffna. Several young LTTE cadres threw away their weapons, begged civilians for normal clothes and went with the civilians, in uniform when unable to procure normal clothes. Some looked pleadingly at civilians to take them along as part of their family. Muhunthan and Premila crossed the lagoon about 9.00 AM, climbing over literally countless dead bodies from both army and LTTE fire. Many bodies were left behind in bunkers, making the total dead a mystery.
The people who were leaving briskly waded through the lagoon. A woman was carrying her 1 ½ year old child and a bundle of their possessions on her head. The child slipped and fell into the muddy water stirred up by the surging crowd. She stood and looked for a while and moved on. A woman coming behind remarked, ‘What sort of a mother is she?’ Others who saw it took a charitable view. The crowd surging forward urged on by the LTTE’s firing gave no opportunity for anyone to pause, and had they done so they would have been stampeded over. The deaths of several people who fell into the water because of the stampede have also been the talk of escapees.
When they got to the other side, they were well received. At that time army casualties were low. An officer speaking in English asked Muhunthan what he had studied, and on finding out that he had passed his A. Levels told him that he could now study computer science. It felt very good then, until they began experiencing the squalid hopelessness of the IDP camps.
Among those who stayed behind in their bunkers at Putumattalan, their experience with the Army had different sides. In an instance reported to us, when the Army came in and the people tried to scramble out of their bunkers, the soldiers ordered them to stay inside. A section of the soldiers then came round and forced the women to hand over their jewellery, before letting them go. On the other side of the lagoon the escapees had to get into a trench and leave their bags on top to be searched separately. This was a routine started after the Military claimed that three suicide bombers joined the exodus and blew themselves up killing 17 escapees. Several of those who left their bags out for checking lost valuables.
The Army appears to have been thorough in evacuating the injured. They were taken and hospitalised in Vavuniya. A relative told us about an old man who was with his wife in a bunker. He was weak on his feet and while in the bunker he had been injured in his leg by a missile and was bleeding. His wife did not want to leave him and she did not have the strength to take him. They waited till 8.00 AM. Then the husband ordered his wife to leave him and go. The wife went to an IDP camp and relatives assumed that the husband was dead. However the Army had taken him and warded him at Vavuniya Hospital. Having no one known to him, he only remembered his son’s phone number in Europe. He gave this to a well wisher and asked him to pass on the message that he was alive. It was thus that the family was reunited with him.
After the Army boxed in a section of the NFZ bounded on the west by just over a mile of the lagoon between Pokkanai and Putumattalan, a group of the LTTE as well as civilians, who were around Palamattalan, were caught between the box and the Army’s 55th Division at Chalai to the north. LTTE cadres in the box escaped south by the sea in small boats without significant loss. Some stayed on in Palamattalan north of the NFZ and fought fiercely for one and a half days, to give them time to remove their equipment south by sea to Mullivaykkal, before pulling out. In all about 100 000 people got out of the NFZ from the 20th to the 22nd beginning with 30 000 on the first day.
The Putumattalan Hospital too was just north of the box. Dr. Athirchelvan, who had served six years at Mallavi Hospital, being a very skilled surgeon, had thus far taken a heavy load of the operations. Athirchelvan was never quoted publicly and remained largely unnoticed. He left after the Army’s entry on 20th April with other evacuees and several hospital staff. Other government doctors and medical staff, who wanted to stay behind, moved by sea to Mullivaykkal. The Hospital had already been in the process of moving to Mullivaykkal, because the approach road to Putumattalan was opposite the hospital, thus making it more vulnerable as the Army got nearer along the road.
There were not enough buses to take the people who had got across the lagoon to Omanthai on 20th April. Many people were housed in a school at Iranapalai. Premila and Muhunthan had to wait three days to be transported in buses crammed with humanity. The last to go were made to clean up the refuse left behind by those who had gone. By the time they got to the checkpoint at Omanthai prior to entering Vavuniya, many of the men were beaten by the soldiers. One who had fallen into the barbed wire while moving through the crowded corridor was so beaten. They later found out that the Army while advancing south in the NFZ, they had left behind, met with stiff Tiger resistance at Valaignarmadam and suffered heavy casualties.
At Omanthai, the IDPs were detained overnight. Unarmed men in plain clothes, who identified themselves as members of the Karuna group, walked about among the exhausted IDPs trying to get some sleep, flashing torches and frequently pulling out young persons who were then separated. The Army were also around observing this. Persons with injuries, frequently from government firing into civilians, were among those separated as LTTE suspects. Muhunthan, being young, was the next day taken away into the group of suspects. Premila refused to leave him, pleaded and cried, and managed to get him released before anyone identified the prominent shrapnel injury on his calf, received at Murukandy.
There is no account of those killed especially on 20th April. While most died from the Army’s shelling, the Government puts all the dead on to the LTTE’s account. 600 and 1000 are just round figures of convenience. Those who saw the shelling in Pokkanai believe that most casualties were from that area. Those near Putumattalan had a different experience, including death due to army shelling and throwing grenades blindly, several of which fell into civilian bunkers. Those in the centre experienced shelling. Figures given are based on subjective experiences. No one really knows.
The Church of Our Lady of Rosary, Valaignarmadam:
This church played an important role in the NFZ until its evacuation after 23rd April. It is also important to clear some misunderstandings about the role of the Roman Catholic clergy. Catholic laymen who wanted the church to stand up to the LTTE were very angry with the compromising attitude of some clergy, one of whom told the BBC Tamil Service in 1999 that the shell killing dozens of civilians at the Madhu shrine was fired by the Army, when Bishop Rayappu himself admitted when asked that it was the LTTE that fired the shell. But stories in some media naming priests and accusing them of recruiting children for the LTTE are slanderous.
A senior priest explained that the real difference was in approach. Bishop Savundaranayagam of Jaffna had an aversion for the LTTE, but Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar wanted to engage with them, and because of this he was dubbed pro-LTTE and sidelined under the present dispensation in Colombo. On matters such as child conscription, Rayappu had taken a public stand critical of the LTTE. There was always the question of how much one could gainfully engage with an organisation such as the LTTE – something that we had long discussed and on which we had frequently differed with peace groups.
The experience of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary (Valaignarmadam Church) has something to tell us:
Many of the Roman Catholic clergy, nuns and ICRC workers made the church their place of refuge. In addition, numbers at the church were swollen by civilians needing a roof over their head, runaway LTTE conscripts and the families of young persons seeking refuge from conscription. The number of such fugitives in the church rose to an estimated 900.
Fr. James Pathinathar was the senior priest there. The ICRC had built some temporary shelter near the church when it was forced to vacate PTK. It became also the quarters for the AGA Parthipan and also the doctors. The priests fenced it off for some privacy from the huge crowd in the church and surroundings. They supported those in the church by feeding them Kanji and preserving its status as a sanctuary..
Illamparithy and Elilan of the LTTE’s political wing had several times called on the church fathers and asked for permission to go into the church and take the runaways and those evading conscription. The fathers refused, taking up the position that the Church must protect anyone who comes to them for sanctuary. This tug-o-war was going on for some time. Finally, Illamparithy, Elilan and Malaimakal, a senior woman cadre, came at the end of March and gave notice to the fathers that whether they allow it or not, they are coming to take what they regarded as their property.
A leftist who was there told us that Malaimakal was a writer, who had been sent to South Africa for a conference and was normally reasonable in her speech. But on this occasion she took a tough line. She asked the fathers what assurance they had that the church was not becoming a refuge of banned political groups. When it was pointed out that the Tigers were in the wrong, Malaimakal made her repartee, not without a fatalistic note of pathos, “There is no other way. Justice is always on the side of the victor. That is the way of the world.”
Finally, late morning close to March-end, a large number of LTTE cadres, including police and military, surrounded the church in the style of a military operation. They barged in. They went into the church with their guns, but the victims evidently did not want to give up without a fight. The LTTE opened fire and killed four persons inside the church. As panic and terror spread the church emptied. One observer described the scene of wailing and mourning as one, whose profound imprint the shore and landscape would long remember. The LTTE brought a stream of buses, packed the young and moved them away in quick succession to Mullivaykkal.
Observers also told us that this time the fathers kept away from the pandemonium and were in a bunker in the fenced off area. Only two young priests stood outside watching. The people were at boiling point. By then the LTTE was conscripting randomly whether or not other children from the family were in the LTTE or even in the Black Tigers. The people gathered at the church, began shouting at the LTTE and threw stones at them. The LTTE police was called in to clear the environs of the church of irate civilians by firing into the air and manning a barricade.
Any engagement between the fathers and the LTTE took a sharp downturn. The church was south of Pokkanai and connected to it by a secondary road close to the sea, the main road being subject to shelling and sniper fire from the Army across the lagoon. On the day the Army entered on 20th April, a large number of their shells fell around the church during the morning and several people were killed. The Army’s purpose may have been to drive the people there north into their box. But the situation was not conducive for anyone to go. Some LTTE families were also evidently in the church. An LTTE colonel too had come there in search of his family.
Since the Army was expected to move south, many who wanted to get out of LTTE control remained in the church. Ilamparithy and Elilan once more came to the church and wanted the fathers to move to Mullivaykkal. The fathers refused. There was at this juncture nothing but mutual aversion between them and the LTTE. On an earlier occasion the fathers had wanted the LTTE to surrender in order to spare the civilians the enormous suffering imposed on them. The LTTE had become very angry.
On 22nd April a single shell fell in the church and Fr. James Pathinathar was injured. Fr. James was a Tamil nationalist long involved in welfare projects with figures such as the late K. Kanthasamy of the TRRO – the Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation, founded after the 1977 communal violence by K. Kanthasamy and G. Nithyanantha, is distinct from the TRO started among exiles in India by pro-LTTE individuals about 1986, with a view to edging the TRRO out). Fr. Pathi was once in charge of the Tamil Information Centre in London and came back to Lanka to serve the people. Although wary of its totalitarian aims, nationalists generally avoided confrontation with the LTTE and were frequently cornered and appropriated by it.
After the last incident of shelling, a senior educationist who was a few hundred yards south of the church, told us that based on what the people gathered of the shell’s origin and trajectory, the general consensus was that the LTTE fired it. Another shell which fell the next day, led to the amputation of one of Fr. Vasanthaseelan’s legs. He and Fr. Pathinathar were subsequently removed by ICRC ship. Fr. Pathi is credited by several persons who were in the NFZ of having tried to protect would-be-conscripts.
The more than 3000 people remaining around the church and environs, including some Christian clergy and religious workers, were sent across once the Army moving south reached Valaignarmadam about 25th April. A person who stayed about 300 yards south of the church told us that on looking out of his bunker about 26th April, he saw a soldier near the church signalling him to come forward. Thus began his journey to an IDP camp and the end of the role played by Our Lady of the Rosary during those times.
A Background to Events in the Church
The church became a centre for discussion for persons thoroughly disillusioned with the way the LTTE was directing things and wanted to do something. One of them was Mr. Thirunavukkarasu, former assistant lecturer in History at the University of Jaffna. The following is based on accounts given by outsiders who were part of the discussions going on. Out of about thirty priests who were there, the younger priests who were the majority were very critical of the LTTE, notable among whom were Fathers Nehru and Roche. Another group of priests kept out of any discussion, believing that their role was to administer the sacraments and deliver sermons. About three priests were pro-LTTE, one of whom was considered so subservient to the LTTE that he was kept out of of all conversations.
Fr. Pathinathar being senior was at the centre of their activity. He readily accepted all the criticism made by the young priests about the LTTE. But he was held back by the dilemma long faced by nationalists who were dissatisfied with the LTTE’s leadership. At the same time they felt that if the LTTE is finished all the sacrifices made by the Tamil people would go waste.
Thus Fr. Pathi’s regular question was, is this the right time to expose the LTTE’s wrongdoings? Observers felt that this confusion was partly behind the debacle where the LTTE invaded the church and took away hundreds who had sought sanctuary. Fr. Pathi, they said, challenged the LTTE, but did not go beyond a particular limit. They feel that if the priests had stood their ground and told the LTTE that it is over their dead bodies that they would go into the church, the LTTE would not have dared to shoot them. These are very difficult questions of ethics recurring in conflicts, where one would be wise not to rush into judgment.
There was another important initiative that was undertaken by the fathers. In consultation with outsiders who were part of their circle, they drafted a document called ‘The Voice of the Voiceless’. Drafted partly in Tamil and English, it was finally rendered into English by Fr. Pathi who was responsible for the final version and its tone. Those who were aware of the document said that it was critical of both the LTTE and the Government. The criticism of the LTTE was mainly around conscription and denying the civilians the right of movement.
A creative feature of the report was that instead of demanding a ceasefire, which the Government was against, it called for a bilateral agreement on the safe zone. The LTTE was not consulted or party to the existing safe zone. Its implication was that if accepted, it would have brought in third party monitoring to enforce it. The fact that it was not pursued is an indictment especially on the Government.
The report, whose writing commenced in February, could not be sent by email. It was taken out by Fr. Roche on ship about 20th March and delivered to Fr. Jayakumar of HUDEC, Jaffna. It was distributed as an appeal from the church in the Vanni, but does not appear to have received the publicity it deserved. One individual close to the fathers, who spoke by sat-phone to both the bishops of Jaffna and Mannar, said that the Bishop of Jaffna was pessimistic that anything could be done, but the Bishop of Mannar listened for half an hour. He too had the same question of whether it would have any effect, but agreed to work on it.
April 23rd to May 8th
The remaining civilians and the Putumattalan Hospital had been moved to Mullivaykkal where the LTTE vacated the buildings. On 23rd April the LTTE put up strong resistance at Valaignarmadam, a mile south of Pokkanai, and stopped the army advance and for the moment at least consolidated their position with three successive bunds, several hundred yards apart, across the strip, between Irattaivaikkal, which is a mile south of Valaigarmadam, and Karaimullivaykkal, a further mile south. The defence was also aided by the fact that the land between Valaignarmadam and Irattaivaykkal was soggy low lying land east of the main road, not easily amenable for use, especially for tanks and vehicles.
Because of the buildings and trees to the south at Mullivaykkal, the people had better cover from small arms fire by the Army and continuing civilian deaths were mainly due to shelling. While regular shelling and small arms fire, now in addition from the north, continued, so did ICRC evacuations of injured by sea until 9th May. From then on until the end on 20th May, the people took enormous risks to escape and some got away in boats. The Army took the Irattaivaikkal bund on 29th April after heavy fighting.
In Special Report No. 32 we cited the following message of 29th April 2009 from a relief worker, which shows that civilians further south were being pummelled even as the Army fought in Irattaivaykkal, resulting in scores of civilian casualties: “Saw yesterday 10.00 – 12.00 hours, 15 dead bodies beside the road to the Mullaivaikal hospital about 50 m from the hospital. They were civilians who died from shelling. There were four deaths in hospital. Explosions continue this morning, including firing from sea. The Government does not appear to be restrained in the use of heavy weapons. It is often too dangerous to go out of the house/bunker.” The reference was to the pledge given by the Government two days earlier that it would cease the use of heavy and aerial weapons. The pledge was of course never meant to be taken seriously.
On 1st May the President appealed to the civilians in the NFZ, “I appeal to every one of you to come over to the cleared areas. My government will continue to give utmost priority to ensure the safety and welfare of each and every one of you.” It was a mere rhetorical appeal, backed up by the goad of army shelling.
IDP statistics show that the people wanted to escape, and continued to escape, but not for reasons that gave credit to either side. When they delayed it was mostly because of a conscripted child or a sickly relative who could not be moved. During March, an average of 1000 persons escaped daily, because there were more escape routes. When confined to Putumattalan, an average of 700 persons escaped daily. Even during May, when desperation contended with difficulty, an average of 800 persons a day made their escape.
The Army took a further bund on 4th May, and approached the final Karaimullivaykkal bund on the 7th. A new spurt of shelling activity on this day signalled the fighting becoming more desperate.
The safe zone, which had in effect been shrunk to half the former area, was shrunk further to one square mile in the middle of the southern half of the original 8 sq. mile zone. Lakbima News of 10th May quoting defence sources said that this contraction was done on account of senior LTTE leaders including Prabhakaran being domiciled there, and whence, “Now we can carry out air attacks and use heavy weapons to the Vellamullivaikkal South targeting LTTE bunkers”. In pointing to enhanced use of heavy weapons in the shrinking safe zone, the defence authorities were disingenuously ignoring the fact that more than 100 000 civilians remained within. They were further cramped into a much smaller area along with LTTE cadres who were going to resist fiercely from among them.