Part 2 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu (continued from Part 1)
The fall of Kilinochchi and After
Soon after Kilinochchi fell on 1st January 2009, senior LTTE leaders conferred in Visuamadu. While several of the senior leaders reportedly believed that the war could no longer be won and that it was time for a new approach, none was in a position to tell Prabhakaran, who had acquired a reputation of invincibility to live up to.
Sources who had access to senior leaders said that the counsel of men like V. Rudrakumaran and K. Pathmanathan would have been of little consequence because they were not on the ground and it was often easy for those like Castro and Nadesan to discredit them by dropping innuendos suggesting they were agents of outfits like CIA or RAW. If a difference was to be made it need have come from persons like the late Anton Balasingham or Shankar who had the capacity to force the leader’s attention and carry through an argument to its end. The talk got around among the people that Prabhakaran had become mentally unbalanced after the fall of Killinochchi. Other reports said that he was refusing to meet groups like the Christian clergy and intellectuals, who were pressing for course change.
A former left activist, with access to LTTE advisors, who was an eyewitness in the Vanni confirms in What happened in the Vanni? An Experience from the Battleground (Vanni Experience) that many advised the leadership to stop forced conscription, mend relations with India and to proceed in a new direction, but to no avail. The writer notes that among the first things the LTTE started when the war began in 2006 was forced conscription, openly justified in LTTE propaganda, while also claiming contradictorily that youths are joining voluntarily in large numbers. Conscription became worse after the UN and many INGOs left the Vanni in September 2008 on the Government’s order. The article to which further reference will be made appeared in the Madras based Tamil journal Kalachchuvadu, August 2009.
An outcome of the meeting, according to sources with access to senior LTTE leaders, was a decision to go on fighting. One assumption was that if they made life difficult for the Army, they might be content to hold the A9 (Jaffna – Kandy Road) and not move east. No decision of consequence was taken. Pottu Amman, according to our source, put forward a plan to stop the Army by using their assets to foment terrorist attacks and paralyse the South. Not perhaps wanting to risk turning international opinion against them, Prabhakaran vetoed the plan.
The area to be defended was divided into three zones. The one furthest west, Visuamadu, was under Ratnam Master. Ratnam Master had been responsible for two operations in Vavuniya, one against a communication facility and, according to these same sources, the suicide assassination of Genaral Janaka Perera Rtd. in 2008. The latter is however contested by army circles close to the late general. Latterly, Ratnam Master had become a new right hand man of Prabhakaran, commanding a new intelligence unit, partially sidelining Pottu Amman from 2007. The middle area around Udayarkattu was placed under Sea Tiger leader Soosai.
Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) and a ring around it were placed under Pottu Amman. The first two were unable to hold their areas when the Army advanced. An observer suggested that Ratnam and Soosai in their given state with heavy ammunition becoming scarce, lacked the confidence to execute offensives as a means of defence.
A conscripted LTTE soldier who was later killed, told his family that they were almost never ordered to advance at this point. When the Army advanced they fired at them with small arms and ducked into their bunker. Government soldiers who were well equipped and had LMGs, let loose continuously. When the Army stopped, the LTTE made their escape. Another observer told us that LTTE units at this time often comprised three experienced cadres and about 15 newer conscripts. When attacked, the seniors began to withdraw. The others often died or surrendered to the Army. When civilians asked the seniors why they are coming back alone, they didn’t answer, only replied that they would soon chase the Army back! Observers present also told us that it was army shelling during advances that caused the largest casualties among the LTTE.
Pottu Amman held his area in early February 2009 by launching an offensive that also used suicide cadres, many of them women. They were deployed to halt a northward army advance from Mulliavalai and pushed the Army back a few miles after inflicting a heavy loss of men and weapons. Pottu Amman eventually had to let go, after the Army outflanked him by moving through Soosai’s area towards the east coast, bypassing him to the north. But he ensured that the battle for Puthukkudiyiruppu, a built up area, was costly to the enemy.
The author of Vanni Experience writes that senior LTTE military leaders continued the fight under duress, but their actions lacked the force or will to stop the army advance. Meanwhile conscripts were escaping regularly from training camps and the battlefield, which the LTTE tried to check by imposing severe punishments on the families. Such raw conscripts, aged 15 to 22, were in no position to stop a determined and well-equipped army advance. Their training, which at first took a week, was reduced to three days and in the final stages, was confined merely to being taught to fire a gun.
Conscription: from the Realm of Black Humour to the Calamitous
The war escalated from August 2006 and the LTTE once again stepped up conscription, a tactic it first resorted to on a large scale when it began abducting large numbers of children from the East in 2001.
There the LTTE started conscription in the rural and poorer parts of Batticaloa District, where people had been beaten down by army atrocities during the war and the LTTE’s bloody crusade against other groups. Karuna, now a government minister, was the LTTE’s Batticaloa leader at that time, and he had a relatively easy time snuffing out public resistance to his conscription drives with raw thuggery.
In the Vanni the standard methods had been to force school children and adults to undergo mass military training and importuning captive audiences of school children for long hours through propaganda. But public resistance had been building up and international pressure had forced the LTTE to agree to sign formal arrangements with UNICEF to release child soldiers. Among those who had left the LTTE during the peace process and were being called back, the mood was sullen. Although the Government later detained teachers and educationists from the Vanni in IDP camps arbitrarily, practically all of them were horrified by what the LTTE did to children, irrespective of their political views.
Prabhakaran was worried about public resistance and his first move was cautious. He ordered the conscription of unruly or fun-loving types.
Just after August 2006, some young men in Mallavi were having drinks at the ‘company’ (tavern), when they were approached by a man. The man asked if they were married. The young men were amused thinking that this was a marriage broker trying to get them fixed and began speaking in a lighter vein. Suddenly the putative broker’s companions came from the shadows and abducted them. Soon they came to realize that papers had been made up and they had become members of the LTTE.
One of the young men named Tharmarasa was sent for training. He told the trainers from the military wing that he has no desire to become a soldier. The trainers sent him back home. Such instances were indications of friction between the military and political wings. It was the latter, with the kaval (police), who were involved in conscription. Tharmarasa (30) originally from Chettikulam was conscripted again around the time of the fall of Visuamadu (January 2009) and was killed in action a month later.
The people generally believe that it was Tamilchelvan who was the prime mover for conscription. When he addressed a meeting for ex-cadres in 2006 asking them to rejoin, the meeting became riotous and armed LTTE guards were summoned to restore calm. It is also said among the people that upon Tamilchelvan’s suggestion to start conscription Prabhakaran became worried about the repercussions from the people who had begun to show open anger against it in recent years. Tamilchelvan, it is reported, said he would see to it that there are no repercussions. Prabhakaran, they believe, told him to stop potential recruits on the road and talk to them even for many hours, but not to take them by force. But as the Army advanced, all inhibitions were lost. Tamilchelvan, by then dead, became a convenient scapegoat.
The methods used as we had previously reported were brutal and crude. Houses were invaded and searched. The victims were taken away crying with the family in tears going behind them. Conscription age, first 18 years, and later 17, finally dropped to even 12 years, if the person had the strength to carry a gun. At the latter stages, during the height of displacement,, the people saw young children calling their mothers upon being taken away, and screaming parents following close behind only to be turned back by violence and intimidation.
Parents desperately hid their children in covered in bunkers or under mats and sat on them. Reports from the displaced speak of children so hidden dying due to suffocation. Their lore speaks of young women being married off early to avoid conscription, and sometimes, if with child, being made to jump from trees to abort the foetus, with fatal results.
Some of the conscription methods used were very offensive. There was a place on the strip near the lagoon shore south of Putumattalan where there were trees. The male IDPs used to go there in the mornings for their compulsory ablutions. Parents too accompanied children whom they kept hidden to this spot. Conscription gangs at times hid there and waited for the victims to show themselves and promptly abducted them.
It was the Political Wing and scores of organisations under it that were responsible for conscription and came to be hated, so much so that when its leader Tamilchelvan died due to aerial bombing in November 2007, there was silent jubilation.
Senior military wing cadres fighting on the frontlines frequently did not approve of conscripts, most of whom were waiting for a chance to run away. On several occasions when a conscript told them that he was a hard pressed family man or a young conscript who did not want to be there, the seniors showed them escape routes and sent them off.
The difference between how people regarded the political wing cadres responsible for conscription and military cadres who fought the State but otherwise caused the people no harm or inconvenience, showed itself in the IDP camps.
Mathulan (31) from Vattakachchi was in the political wing and had been close to Tamilchelvan. A handsome actor-like figure, he was notorious for conscription. He left the NFZ with the people when the war ended and entered a ‘welfare centre’ in Manik Farm, where he was living in a room with a woman as a married man. He seldom went out. In time the others came to know. About 30 men, many of whom had a near relative conscripted and killed in the fighting went to his room, pulled him out and thrashed him. One of them said that for all what they suffered, this man should not use his right hand to eat and damaged his hand.
Another senior military cadre B was also in the camp. The people had a good opinion of him as someone who fought for them and did them no harm. Whenever he came home on leave, he was good to the neighbours and if he came to know that someone was being hidden, either from conscription or for some other reason, he ignored it and did not let them down. As of this writng, no one had betrayed him to the Army.
Caught between the Army and the LTTE, the Fate of LTTE Prisoners
For civilians who had been displaced many times, the fall of Killinochchi began a long period of uncertainty. Civilian deaths became very high as the Army from 15th January moved westwards, towards Visuamadu. The intensity of shelling caused heavy civilian casualties. Constantly on the move the civilians often found themselves caught between the Army advancing east and the LTTE defending from the west.
In one typical experience, a highly traumatised lady in her late 50s with whom we later spoke, was with some others was caught between advancing troops and the LTTE defending fiercely. She spotted a bunker and crouched inside it for over six hours under a heavy exchange of fire overhead. Finally, the defenders retreated and the troops passed over her bunker in pursuit. She climbed out after some time, walked over dead bodies, some of them her kith and kin, to the army defence line.
Bearing Witness: a Left Activist:Maniam lived with his family in Iranapalai, a suburb to the north of Puthukkudiyiruppu. This was a time, first week of January, when people displaced or in anticipation of it were moving into Putumattalan – a place by the sea which later was made nominally a safe zone. It normally has few inhabitants, except during the South-West Monsoon, when fisher folk moved into temporary huts. It was latterly also used by the Sea Tigers.
An exchange of shell fire was going on which most people had learnt to ignore. The Army was planning to take Puthukkudiyiruppu and was firing from the south. LTTE artillery was firing from Pacchaipulmoodai just north of where Maniam was. While listening to news from Sooriyan Radio, he noticed that at 6.11 PM LTTE cannon changed direction and fired three shells to the southeast. He later found out that the shells landed in Putumattalan, killing 17 civilians and injuring 23. Maniam confronted a strong LTTE supporter about this. The answer he got was that the whole of Puthikkudiyiruppu should be displaced and the people must suffer. This has been a regular LTTE refrain since the mid-1980s.
The LTTE also had over a thousand detainees starting from Vanampadi in Visuamadu all the way to Puthukkudiyiruppu. When the Air Force started bombing Visuamadu bombs also fell on Vanampadi. Some prisoners escaped, but scores of others were transferred to a camp in Suthanthirapuram. Among those who escaped is Ravi of whom more will be said in the Addendum.
A joint family from Mannar District who had for over two years been fleeing from place to place in search of safety got into a bunker, late January, to take cover from a heavy exchange of shelling overhead. One shell fell right into their bunker killing every one. Their only surviving sibling is an agonised Roman Catholic nun.
The civilians had been so caught up in a pincer movement where they got no relief, but have been continuously either kept on the run or confined to bunkers. Though all of them had some dry rations, money was in short supply, and given the collapse of the agricultural economy, purchase of other essentials was difficult. They survived by boiling rice with either soya meat or dhal and salt. This was prior to the fall of Tharmapuram on 15th January, followed soon by the Army’s move on Visuamadu. At that stage, the trapped people rarely got the opportunity for a cooked meal. Many were maimed or killed when they were utterly exhausted by hunger and thirst after spending prolonged periods in bunkers, and had crawled out to have a cup of tea or to cook a meal.
In one incident reported by IDPs, a mother who left her family in a bunker and came out to prepare a meal was stuck by shrapnel from a shell and died. In another incident a whole family called up by the mother to have a cup of tea in the evening, were similarly killed.
On 16th January the LTTE engaged the 58th Division moving from Tharmapuram towards Visuamadu. Heavy resistance resulted in the Army being stopped at the Nethali Aru Bridge on 19th January. Nethali is a perennial river flowing north from Kalmadu Tank. The Army’s losses were evidently heavy. It abandoned the direct approach to Visuamadu and proceeded east from the south of the A 35 road. It went from Ramanathapuram along the bund of Kalmadu Tank, taking Visuamadu on 29th January. A section of the Army also moved east along the bund of Visuamadu Tank. LTTE estimates placed the army losses in the region of 350 killed. It displayed the bodies of about 30 soldiers it had recovered.
The setback at Nethali Aru was followed by Army shelling into areas east of Nethali Aru where IDPs had taken refuge, including Visuamadu and Piramandal Aru from 18th January. The IDPs were forced to move three miles further east to Udayarkaddu and Suthanthirapuram. These same areas were shelled heavily on 20th January, the date of the swearing in of US President Elect Barak Obama, when the people hoped dearly for a happier turn of events.
Thevipuram Safe Zone and the Battle for Visuamadu: Escape Debarred from the Rain of Shells
In response to international pressure arising from mounting civilian casualties, the Government on 21st January established a safe zone at Thevipuram, ending two miles east of PTK, lying north of the Mullaitivu-Paranthan Rd (A-35). It bordered a 2 ½ mile stretch of the same road, east from Udayarkattu junction to the Yellow Bridge on the south and extending northwards to Iruddumadu and Thevipuram. It only made matters worse. From 21st to 29th January, this zone experienced intense shelling by the Army, which was then battling for Visuamadu three miles west, resulting in astounding levels of civilian casualties. Civilians, who experienced intense shelling on 20th January, said that it became even worse once the area was declared a safe zone the next day. It quickly became an international issue, prompting the Indian foreign minister’s hurried visit. It did nothing to stop the punitive retaliatory shelling. As though to appease Indian sensibilities, President Rajapakse announced a two day bogus ceasefire, asking the people to come out.
Bearing Witness: a Teacher: A teacher spoke of an instance where a man of about 50 was standing with a crowd when the Army began shelling, killing many in the crowd and making the others restive. The man appealed amicably to an LTTE commander standing nearby, “Thamby (younger brother), at least at this stage, you must let the people go.” In a move apparently to suppress any desire in the crowd to leave, the commander pulled out his pistol and shot the man dead.
As the shelling became unbearable, the people became desperate to escape into the army-controlled area. One factor that often held people back was their conscripted children they did not want to leave behind. This is where the LTTE showed its ruthless side, which by May had also become sadistic. When the people advanced as a group to leave, a line of LTTE cadres blocked their path. If the people persisted, the LTTE opened fire laming several of them and killing some as an example. This method was later repeated in Mullivaykkal.
Bearing Witness: Refugee from Kattapirai, Jaffna: A group of people from Jaffna was trying to escape towards army moving west from south of the A 35, lines when some LTTE cadres stopped them. A woman was with her grand daughter and the latter’s two younger brothers in their early teens. The grand daughter prostrated herself before an LTTE man and pleaded with him to let them go. The LTTE man pushed her with his foot. Her grand mother then lay at his feet and repeated the same plea. The LTTE man then opened fire injuring the three children. The injured grand daughter and the two children were helped by others to the army line and were dispatched to Vavuniya Hospital. The boys recovered. The grand daughter was sent to Colombo Hospital where she succumbed. One of the young boys who survived says that he would recognise the LTTE man who shot them anywhere and he would kill him.
The reasons for people to escape at great risk were tied to problems apart from shelling. A family, whose eldest son was already dead, had qualified as a Great Hero’s family in virtue of their second son, who was in the LTTE, having recently died in action. The LTTE came asking for the third boy. The father showed them the picture of the Great Hero and explained his trepidation at sending the 3rd son and was pleading with them to spare his boy. The leader of the conscription gang, in a show of contempt, threw down the photo frame depicting the hero, broke it and asked, “Can a great hero fight”? They proceeded to drag the third boy away from the parents moaning in agony.
Mullaitivu: Civilians had left Mullaitivu before there was significant shelling. They had not planned to leave, until around 30 civilians were killed in the surroundings. Here again the Government adopted its mean and drastic way of asking people to move. It shelled the hospital compound, where they fell barely 30 feet from Dr. Shanmugarajah’s quarters. He and his wife were in two rooms at different sides of the house with a child each. Both children received injuries. The people of the area, on seeing the LTTE removing things from their offices, took whatever they could of their possessions and left. Some had gone nearby to Mullivaykkal long before it was declared a safe zone. The Mullaitivu Hospital was moved to Vallipunam and Suthanthirapuram.
Bearing Witness: a Religious Leader: A religious leader arrived in Udayarkaddu and Suthanthirapuram with 63 families. He said he had seen the LTTE firing small arms into the air from among civilians and the Army’s response, which was to fire shells indiscriminately over a wide area.
Bearing Witness: a Science Teacher: A science teacher, who was also in Udayarkaddu, related an incident where the people had a bitter argument with the LTTE. An LTTE man went away threatening that they would soon see what happens. A little later the LTTE fired mortars from an area behind the tents, out of his sight. The teacher said the Army fired into a radius of a little over 100 yards from where the mortars were fired. This caused damage to the tents some fell near entrances to bunkers.
The general experience of civilians was that if the LTTE fired two or three, the Army replied with scores of shells into a wide area and moreover, much of the shelling was independent of any provocation. This pattern was confirmed by Muhunthan, who having received a shell injury in Murukandy had been moved the second time to Udayarkaddu Hospital, the new location of Kilinochchi Hospital, which first shifted to Tharmapuram.
Vanni Experience says that the people were completely broken and demoralised, having to move every three days. The medical services, which regrouped in temporary field hospitals were inundated with casualties and were unable to cope. He placed the number of civilians killed in Udayarkattu, Suthanthirapuram, Vallipunam, Thevipuram and Puthukkudiyiruppu at around 2000. He observes: “The attacks by the Army from around Udayarkattu were extremely venal. This was the time the Government adopted the strategy of using cannon fire as a means of causing utter perplexity among the people and thereby to separate them from the Tigers. This was scandalous and contrary to every humanitarian norm. No excuse could offer any extenuation of this inhumanity.”
We shall see that estimates by civilians speaking from a limited perspective seldom captured the full horror of their situation.
On 25th January many civilians had slept in the Nirojan sports grounds at Suthanthirapuram, a short distance northeast of Udayarkaddu inside the safe zone, as part of the queue to collect food supplies that had been brought there the pervious day by two officers of the UN WFP and stockpiled at a tent in the grounds for distribution. Shells falling in the ground killed 12 persons including five from a single family and several others elsewhere.
Killinochchi Hospital had been moved to Udayarkaddu and Mullaitivu Hospital to Suthanthirapuram and Vallipunam, the latter two miles east of Udayarkaddu. All were in the safe zone. On 26th January Dr. Varatharajah sent an urgent appeal to the Government informing them that 300 civilians had died in the recent shelling, asking for urgent supplies as they were running out of medicines to treat 1000 persons lately injured. The hospitals were unable to cope and the ICRC which had set up office in the road connecting Thevipuram and Suthanthirapuram to ensure that safe zones were safe, found themselves helpless, virtually confined to bunkers.
Dr. Varatharajah’s appeal was backed by an ICRC statement on 27th January: “Hundreds of people have been killed and scores of wounded are overwhelming understaffed and ill-equipped medical facilities in Sri Lanka’s northern Vanni region, following intensified fighting between the Sri Lanka Security Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)… 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”.
UN sources too confirmed (New York Times (NYT), 27 Jan.09): ‘The people were being killed by army shelling (one killing nine persons near the UN compound on 25th January) in response to shelling by the LTTE.’
We recently checked with a witness who was present in the safe zone during the shelling and later moved to Putumattalan. She insisted that the LTTE did not bring their guns into the safe zone, but had fired from its eastern boundary. This agrees with what the UN official told the NYT, the ‘rebels were firing at government forces from close to where civilians were taking shelter’.
On 28th January Rev. Anukoolan, the priest in charge of the American Mission Church at Suthanthirapuram reported that an air force bomb fell in the church premises with many displaced persons, killing 17 and injuring 39 persons, including a priest Rev. Anandarajah. The LTTE’s artillery point was quite some distance, in a jungle patch about a mile from Suthanthirapuram.
Bearing Witness: Muhunthan and Premila: Vallipunam Hospital was shelled on the 19th, 21st and 22nd January, killing five in the premises on the last occasion. Udayarkaddu Hospital where Muhunthan was came under repeated shell attack. On 26th January morning, the Hospital was shelled, killing 10 patients and two others. On 2nd February, a nurse was killed by shelling. On 5th February, even as the load of injured on the Hospital recorded a tremendous increase shells falling in its vicinity killed about half a dozen people and damaged parts of the Hospital, including its stores. Although needing further care, the doctors discharged Muhunthan, sent him in a vehicle to Suthanthirapuram and left him with his relatives after giving him a pair of crutches.
The area where he arrived had been hit by MBRL fire on the night of 2nd February, killing several people. Among them was Thamotheran, brother-in-law of his wife-to-be, Premila. Also injured were Thamotheran’s wife and his year old daughter. This was the period when it became a common experience for doctors to remove dead foetuses from shelled expectant mothers.
On 7th February, two days after Muhunthan was discharged, a shell fell on the house next to his in Suthanthirapuram. The victims were a family from Skandapuram in Kilinochchi. The mother and two children died instantly. The father whose legs were mangled, died later in Udayarkaddu Hospital. Many people left the area on that day.
By this time the fighting had come closer. The LTTE did fire its mortars from isolated positions among the civilians, but the Army responded with indiscriminate weapons such as MBRLs among the civilians. During one attack, some who were close to Muhunthan fell on his lap and died. By 10th February, with no prospect of the fighting easing, and the Army being very close, the people left en masse without any instruction from the LTTE.
Muhunthan and Premila, who was to become his wife, told us that the people were shelled mercilessly, when they were on the road with nowhere to escape and delay was pointless. Once the exodus from Suthanthirapuram began, the A-35 was bulging with people and vehicles bearing their remaining possessions. But shelling continued targeting the road, leaving masses of corpses and damaged vehicles. Muhunthan’s group left for Thevipuram on 12th February. Like many others, they avoided the road and went through fields and houses, wading through channels. The shelling in Thevipuram too was unbearable. They left east for Iranapalai on 15th February.
The Government could offer far-fetched military reasons for the shelling as cutting off supplies to the LTTE on the front lines (the LTTE had other routes). But that would be an unacceptable reason for killing people in what was yet the ‘safe zone’.
It became the common civilian wisdom that government-marked safe zones were the least safe. One of their surmises was that the Government was acting on rumours that Prabhakaran was in the safe zone and wanted to finish him off whatever the cost to civilians.
That was the last straw. According to persons in the safe zone, the ICRC negotiated an hour’s cessation of shelling with the Army to withdraw towards Puthukkudiyiruppu and then Valaignarmadam, through the zone declared safe by the Army. Many people followed along with the patients. As the LTTE lost ground, it was forced to move its prisoners, some of whom it released. Many others, it executed. Some were also sent for work on the frontlines.
Some Developments Concerning LTTE’s Detainees
Bearing Witness: Satheeshkumar — The Execution of 140 Prisoners from Vanampadi and Tango Ten: We noted earlier that scores of prisoners were moved from Vanampadi in Visuamadu to Tango Ten in Suthanthirapuram. On 8th February the Army had entered Iruddumadu and was on the doorstep of Suthanthirapuram. Satheeshkumar was a prisoner on a non-political charge. Intelligence chiefs Pottu Amman and Kapil Amman came to Tango Ten. The prisoners pleaded with them to be freed. After discussing among themselves, Pottu Amman decided to free all those arrested on non-political charges not dealing with security. The remaining 140 were to be executed. This group included members of rival Tamil parties, especially the EPDP, and Sinhalese and Muslims detained over allegations of security connections. Satheeshkumar said that they were killed and burnt in the nearby jungle.
There were also other categories of prisoners, a spin off from the LTTE’s conscription. These were people who helped deserting LTTE conscripts to escape. Several of them were pastors from evangelical churches who enjoined their flock to renounce violence. We have documented long-running tensions between these churches and the LTTE (e.g. Bulletin No.25). Particularly from 2006, the LTTE took a hard line and began conscripting the young of these churches. Some conscripts gave pledges that they would die rather than kill their enemy.
Bearing Witness: an Evangelical Pastor from Mullaitivu: This pastor, who kept with him about 15 escaped conscripts, took them to certain locations and instructed them how they should proceed towards army lines. The LTTE found out and detained him at a centre close to Puthukkudiyiruppu. Six of them were placed in one squat dog cage. Even the floor was wired so that their flesh hurt whether sitting or squatting. There were many such dog cages holding prisoners, among whom there were eight pastors like him. After three months they were taken out and sent to the front lines, and given work such as carrying tiffin and digging bunkers. From here many escaped and hid among civilian IDPs. Others got killed.
Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, Battle for the Town and the ICRC Pullout
On 1st February afternoon between 3.00 and 4.00 PM Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital was struck by two shells, according to ICRC statements, hitting first the kitchen and then the church. Two persons were killed. A statement on that day quoted Morven Murchison-Lochrie, an ICRC medical coordinator present in Puthukkudiyiruppu, “The staff are under acute stress, surrounded as they are by the sound of the ongoing fighting and the influx of new patients. Ambulances are constantly arriving, but people are also being brought in by wagon, pick-up truck, tractor and even motor scooter.” She added that despite this, the staff remained inventive and committed to caring for the injured and sick who had made the dangerous trip to the hospital.”
ICRC reported that a few hours later at 10.20 PM the same day (1st February) a ward with women and children was hit. This time the Hospital had more than 800 people sheltering there, including 500 in patients. In all nine persons were killed and twenty injured on that day. On 2nd February at 6.40 PM the Hospital was hit again and a nurse was injured. One factor behind the shelling was that the Army’s 59th Division, which advanced from Mulliavalai, eight miles south, was trying to fight its way and take Puthukkudiyiruppu. The Army was then not far to the south of the Hospital. The LTTE had gun mounted vehicles which were used to fire at Kfir bombers coming in support of the Army, even though the firing had, if anything, no more than a slight deterrent effect.
Bearing Witness: a Senior Educator: A senior educator familiar with the hospital told us that the LTTE largely disregarded the ICRC’s request not to drive or park its vehicles in front of the Hospital, as these could be spotted by UAVs leading to shell attacks. At the time the first two shells hit the Hospital, he is quite sure that there was no firing from the LTTE. The same witness told us that the Hospital also had over 200 injured LTTE patients, one of whom was his nephew, who used a separate building and additional tents had been erected to accommodate the overflow. They were behind the church where the second shell had fallen, killing about 15 of them.
Monica Zanarelli of the ICRC told Tamil Insight, referring perhaps to the LTTE injured not covered by the ICRC’s mandate (3rd Feb.): “It is likely that there were casualties outside the Hospital too, but we do not have exact figures yet.” The third shell which fell the same night, struck a bunker killing about seven people including a nurse and a child. At this time the families of many hospital employees were spending the nights in the hospital.
An eye witness told us that although he had heard that cluster munitions had been used from about 21st January 2009, it was on this occasion that he for the first time saw unexploded cluster sub-munitions in the vicinity of the Hospital. This he subsequently confirmed by checking their appearance and properties on the internet.
The LTTE then hurriedly removed their patients from Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital probably to Ponnambalam Memorial Hospital, which was close by. During this period the Hospitals were under heavy pressure, both with patients and shelling which took little account of hospitals that were hit several times. On 5th February a nurse at Udayarkaddu Hospital was killed. There was pressure on Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital to move to another location. The ICRC being unable to send patients needing advanced care to Vavuniya by land due to constant shelling of the A 35, the sea route was the other possible option. The Government we learn did not want the Hospital moved as they hoped to be in control of Puthukkudiyiruppu soon. The LTTE on the other hand wanted it moved so that it would have some assistance for its injured.
When the Hospital was hit for the fourth time on 2nd February at 6.40 PM or on a subsequent occasion, the hospital staff and the people around soon became quite sure that it was this time the LTTE that fired. Our sources do not have direct evidence, but the LTTE is linked to the people and information that filters down has considerable authority for them.
The Hospital was functioning with assistance from ICRC personnel who had a few days earlier pulled back from Suthanthirapuram. An ICRC statement of 4th February stated, “Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, in the northern Vanni region, has been shelled repeatedly in the last 24 hours, forcing patients and staff to flee towards the north-eastern coast…Over 300 patients and hospital staff fled the premises of Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital this morning. Accompanied by 18 ICRC staff members, they made their way to a community centre in Puttumatalan, in the north-eastern Vanni – an area that lacks clean drinking water, which puts the displaced patients and medical staff at even greater risk.” On this same day, the ICRC helped the staff at Puthukkudiyiruppu to relocate to Putumattalan.
Meanwhile as pointed out, by the end of January, the 59th Division under Nandana Tudawatte had advanced from Mulliavalai along the coast of the lagoon and was on the outskirts of Puthukkudiyiruppu. At this time Pottu Amman who was in charge of the defence, used a manoeuvre in which the LTTE was well practised. A diversionary group was sent to attack the Army’s artillery positions at Mulliavalai and Oddusuddan which damaged about six of the Army’s guns. Meanwhile, during intense fighting lasting the first five days of February, an LTTE group including suicide cadres crossed the Nanthikadal Lagoon on 3rd February to Kepapulavu and attacked the Army. They cut off the soldiers who had advanced north from supplies and reinforcements.
Sources close to the LTTE estimate that about 400 soldiers were killed. The Army was pushed back about three miles and lost much ammunition and equipment. Its survivors escaped by going west and walking through the jungles of Kepapulavu to Mannakandal. The blow was so severe that plans for taking Puthukkudiyiruppu were delayed by several weeks. The 59th Division was sent back to Mullaitivu and the 53rd Division under Kamal Gunaratne was given the task of advancing towards Puthukkudiyiruppu. It did so with great caution.
An important outcome of all this for civilians was punitive shelling although they were well outside the fighting. 2nd February saw once more intense shelling of Udayarkaddu, Suthanthirapuram, Vallipunam and Thevipuram. A nurse was killed when Udayarkaddu makeshift hospital was hit. This was the period during which Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital was hit. On 3rd February Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse famously told Sky TV in answer to a question about the shelling of Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, “No hospital should operate outside the Safety Zone…everything beyond the safety is a legitimate target.”
On 5th and 8th February, the safe zone experienced enormous shelling. On the latter day the 58th Division came through the jungles north of Udayarkaddu and entered the safe zone. Through loudspeakers they invited the people to come. An estimated 20 000 who were at Iruddumadu went to the Army as the LTTE had withdrawn. Many civilians had fled east because of the shelling. Others who tried to escape were shot at by the LTTE – a phenomenon that was to last until 16th May. At Iruddumadu, civilians commended the conduct of the Army.
Bearing Witness: Ganeshapillai: Ganeshapillai was among civilians advancing towards the army line in Iruddumadu. Four LTTE cadres joined the civilians and kept firing, deliberately provoking the Army. A group that had gone ahead of them had told the Army that more civilians are following along the road. The Army kept shelling but was then careful not to shell the road. As they got close, the four cadres ran back and turned into snipers. As the Army was receiving the civilians, the snipers opened fire killing four soldiers. But the other soldiers betrayed no signs of reacting against the civilians. They calmly carried their dead, loaded the civilians into tractor trailers and sent them on. The LTTE seemed to pin their hopes on ensuring maximum civilian casualties, in the hope that Uncle Obama would intervene.
On 9th February, the Sri Lankan military declared that a female suicide bomber blasted herself among escaping civilians at the army reception centre at Visuamadu, killing several military personnel, 23 civilians and injuring about 60 persons. As far as we know this version has not been corroborated by escaping civilians. We have recently received authoritative testimony that two injured witnesses, a woman and a child, contradicting the army version were removed by intelligence men operating inside Vavuniya Hospital (see VI.7).
On 12th February again those who remained at Suthanthirapuram were shelled. On 16th February, the IDPs at Thevipuram and Vallipunam in the safe zone, TamilNet reported, were boxed in by shelling around the perimeter of a box containing them. The apparent attempt to corral the civilians and take them out appears to have been aborted after causing heavy casualties. By 20th February most civilians had withdrawn east to the new no fire zone.
Thus we might say that Putumattalan being declared a safe zone was pre-empted by the events described above and also a need to take the injured civilians out by sea. The Government was experimenting with ‘hostage rescue’ with no concern about how many of the civilians they killed. A final incident suggests that the Government kept trying by means that do it no credit, to stop the civilians and the Hospital moving to Putumattalan.
Bearing Witness: Maniam: On Monday 9th February afternoon, the ICRC set off to Putumattalan after reportedly informing the Defence Ministry to supervise the dispatching of injured by sea. Maniam, who reported the LTTE shelling during the first week of January, said that first two shells were fired on this day, which fell near the road ahead of Putumattalan school (which was by then a makeshift hospital) killing a child and injuring its mother. Within three minutes shells were fired by an MBRL further east of where the first shells fell, just north of Charles Mandapam (Hall), killing all together 16 persons. He is certain that the shells were fired by the Army from Kalliady, which is across Nandikadal lagoon, south of Puthukkudiyiruppu.
The next day the ICRC said in a statement: “On Monday, Putumattalan was hit by shelling that killed at least 16 patients. ‘We are shocked that patients are not afforded the protection they are entitled to’, said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC delegation in Colombo. ‘Once more, we call on both parties to meet their obligation under international humanitarian law to spare at all times the wounded and sick people, medical personnel and medical facilities at all times’…Most of the population is now displaced and completely dependent on outside aid, yet none has reached the area since 29 January.”
The ICRC sailed with injured patients that day and presumably was not allowed to get back on a permanent basis. Its last few statements were very damaging to a government which did not want anyone to report on deaths by bombing and shelling and deliberate shortages of food and medicine. It thereafter became a war with no witnesses from outside, except when the ICRC ship called. Whenever the doctors spoke of casualties or shortages of medicare, there was no one to back them up. The Government routinely accused them of lying.
New No-Fire Zone (NFZ): Prior to advancing towards PTK, the government on 12th February announced a new safe zone, a 7 ½ mile stretch of the sea coast east of PTK. PTK Hospital was closed and moved to Putumattalan by the sea in the new NFZ. The ICRC became the last organisation to dismantle its permanent expatriate presence. The LTTE too began moving its assets into the NFZ. The Army took Puthukkudiyiruppu Junction on 2nd March. Civilians in the NFZ, just a short distance east of the fighting were the victims of shelling by government forces throughout this period. ICRC worker Vadivel Vijayakumar, father of three, was among those killed in the NFZ at Valaignarmadam on 4th March, whose son was injured. An ICRC bulletin on 17th March stated, “The area is affected by shelling every day, and the cramped conditions and the lack of water and proper sanitation are putting people at risk of epidemics.”
The Bombing of Ponnambalam Memorial Hospital
Defence Secretary Lt. Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapakse Rtd. appeared to believe that it was his right to make up rules of war as suited his whims. One wonders at his excuse for shelling PTK hospital, the only major hospital in Vanni left functioning in its premises, being left just outside the safe zone declared by him in January and his insistence that no hospital should function outside the safe zone and anything outside is a legitimate target. All hospitals were hit and one would look in vain for any traces of restraint. One instance of a hospital that was bombed and has not received due attention despite the ICRC presence is Ponnampalam Memorial Hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu. The Hospital though funded and built by LTTE supporters abroad, was maintained as a first rate hospital serving both civilians and LTTE injured.
The Government by its actions was criminalising the treatment of injured LTTE cadres. The latter were normally brought to government hospitals and taken away after about two days. Previous governments had not made this an issue. International law and basic humanity forswear attacks on those who are weak, disabled or under medical care. Doing otherwise sends a country on the fast track to barbarousness.
After the shelling of PTK Hospital, the expatriate media Athirvu.com on 3rd February produced a video on the incident. In their introduction they showed a map taken presumably from Defence Ministry graphics used also in defence.lk. The map showed a hospital north of PTK Junction. PTK government hospital is in fact situated on the PTK – Mullaitivu Rd. That is, going 500 yards east from PTK Junction. Two days later on 5th February the Defence Ministry produced a video in response to Athirvu introduced as ‘Air Force beach craft exposes how LTTE has taken UN for a ride’. The Defence Ministry video was a childish attempt at propaganda. The beach craft (UAV) was set to fly over the hospital and take continuous pictures. Any discontinuity of position or time in the video display, points to sections being censored out. We note first a gap of 2 minutes, then one of 34 minutes. Lastly it runs from 14 36 30 hrs to 14 36 47 and gives a quick glimpse of a fork of a road taken earlier at 14 34 56, which points to clumsy editing. The Defence Ministry announced ‘Video footage clearly shows the Puthukkudiyiruppu government hospital with no damages’.
The very next day after giving ‘proof’ that it had not bombed PTK Hospital, the Air Force, 6th February, bombed Ponnampalam Memorial Hospital (PMH). The news appeared in TamilNet only on 7th February, saying little more than 61 patients being killed. Against this the Defence Ministry put out a news item “Sri Lanka Air Force Kfir and F-7 fighter jets yesterday (Feb 6) destroyed a hideout of senior LTTE leader Soosai located 1 Km northeast of Puthukudduyiruppu junction.” t put out a video. It added, “the target was registered after through analysis of intelligence obtained through technical and human sources”.
It described the attack: “According to the Air Force spokesperson [Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara], the initial air strike was taken on the target at 1.45, last afternoon. The mission was to destroy an underground bunker and a luxury house of one of the LTTE’s senior leaders. Following the attack, it was observed that the terrorists were making a desperate attempt to dig out the location with three earth moving vehicles. The fighters again hit the target at 4.45 on the same day evening destroying the three terrorist vehicles.”
This corresponds closely to what sources on the ground told us about the scene near PMH. After the bombing, rescuers were trying to pull out the victims in the rubble when the Air Force bombed again.
PMH is situated on the right, about half a mile N25*E from PTK Junction on the road to Putumattalan (PuM Road). Almost opposite to it (on the left of the road) are government offices including the AGA’s office and the Mullaitivu GA’s office, which was moved there after hostilities broke out in Mullaitivu. Another road going N20*W from opposite PTK Hospital (Link Road) meets PuM Rd. just north of PMH. According to persons native to the area, several houses around PMH were taken over by the LTTE because they considered these safer once hostilities began and had meetings in some of them. Doctors from PMH also lived in nearby houses.
The LTTE was having many casualties for which the PMH had no space and some adjacent houses were used to treat injured cadres. The large luxury house opposite PMH on the Link Rd., whose owner is resident abroad, was also used for treating casualties. The house next to PMH to the south and on the same side of it on Link Rd. was used by doctors at that time. PMH sustained bomb damage from behind, and some of the neighbouring houses, including the two above used for patients and doctors were also badly damaged. Another house severely damaged was the fourth on the left of Link Road going towards PTK Hospital from PMH, which according to local sources was used by the LTTE leader Sornam. Local sources place the number killed as around 75 patients and visitors including 14 members of the LTTE.
We checked with different sources and found that while Soosai may have been visiting houses around PMH, his so-called hideout was interior into Kombaveli Rd., which leads off from PuM Rd. a little north of PMH, going west from opposite the Hindu Cemetery. People knew that LTTE leaders lived down the place (deep down with several escape routes handy) from the fact that they were regularly seen coming out, but hardly anyone went inside. Another source who knew Soosai’s house said that unlike the house shown in the Defence Ministry video, Soosai’s house had no trees nearby. He was unable to identify the house in the video. He pointed out that it was a selective display as the bombers did at least six swoops, each time dropping two to four bombs, so that several places would have been hit.
While what happened does little credit to the LTTE, it marks a war crime as being an indiscriminate attack on a protected site (a civilian medical unit) rather than a targeted attack on a protected site. It does not speak well of a government which was doing this in the name of hostage rescue.
The action described above violates customary international law, which recognises specific protections due medical and religious personnel and objects. Sri Lanka is a party to Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which applies in the case of a non-international armed conflict occurring on the territory of a state party. It requires, among other things, that all wounded and sick be cared for. Although Sri Lanka is not a party to 1977 Additional Protocol II, which deals with non-international armed conflicts in more detail, customary international law mirrors its major points, including those contained in Article 11.1 guaranteeing the protection of medical units and transports: Medical units and transports shall be respected and protected at all times and shall not be the object of attack. And 2) stipulating protection …shall not cease unless they are used to commit hostile acts, outside their humanitarian function (the latter includes treatment of injured cadres).
The commentaries to the conventions expand the law by going beyond the letter of it to give effect to the spirit of the law. According to the commentary on Article 19 of the First Convention, Remark 4714, “…respect and protection imply not only the obligation to spare people and objects concerned, but also to actively take measures to ensure that medical units and transports are able to perform their functions and to give them assistance when necessary…To respect such units means, not to attack them or harm them in any way.”
A serious war crime of this nature did not get the attention due at that time and was forgotten in the flux of events. One weakness was that all condemnation of the bombing was based on the sketchy report in TamilNet. No photographs were sent out. This calls for a note on TamilNet. The TamilNet correspondent was the younger brother of the editor of the LTTE run paper Eelanatham, who once worked for that paper.
He very faithfully covered for TamilNet one aspect of the reality confronting the civilians in the Vanni in those harrowing times. He braved shells went to places where civilians were killed, took photographs and with help from others who knew how to operate sat-phones sent these pictures out. Estimates of civilian casualties given by him compare well with those given by other good sources. In retrospect TamiNet was, even if one-sided in not reporting matters like the LTTE shooting escaping civilians, an indispensable guide to what the State was doing then. It was all the hard work of one man. However, TamilNet supported the LTTE which made political commerce out of the suffering of the people, to a large extent its own doing, to feed the mills of expatriate lobbies. It is here that its one-sidedness acquires a sinister aspect.
Even pro-LTTE Tamil web sites of Tamil expatriate groups depended on TamilNet for their news and translated its reports into Tamil. The elite expatriate organisations too circulated TamilNet reports and relied on them to lobby with their governments.
PMH was a civilian hospital even though several injured LTTE cadres were warded there. It worked closely with PTK Hospital. Patients with broken bones needing long term nursing care were frequently transferred from PTKH to PMH. The ICRC was then present and would have likely passed PMH on the way to Putumattalan.
The Government has as far as we know not denied bombing PMH. Dr. K. Sivapalan, the head doctor at PMH was arrested by the security forces when coming out of the Vanni. He was interviewed in the scripted public confessions by Vanni doctors on 8th July 2009. Here is an extract from the Sunday Observer report quoting Dr. Sivapalan:
‘ “We were basically focusing on learning latest technologies of endoscopes, echocardiograms and the other factor was technology transfer for the rehabilitation of disabled LTTE cadres…The Ponnambalam Memorial Hospital had an OPD as well as in ward facilities. “The wards could accommodate 50 patients and every day there were 100 – 200 patients for the OPD. The OPD was run by LTTE Medical wing members,” doctor Sivapalan added. In a very organized manner the hospital was carrying out maternity clinics and other such clinics. Doctor Sivapalan was the only permanent doctor attached to this hospital while an elderly doctor T. Gnanadaran visited and was taking care of the maternity ward. Doctor Weerakathipillai Shanmugarajah (from the government hospital) was working as a visiting physician. “During the Ceasefire period in 2002 – 2006 we managed to develop the Intensive Care Unit with the assistance from the Tamil Diaspora,” he said.’
There was nothing sinister in the workings of the hospital. Dr. Sivapalan was not asked about the bombing of PMH. Nor did the circumstances allow him to volunteer information pertaining to it. We may add that the LTTE compromised the PMH’s civilian character in the public mind by using it in a cloak and dagger fashion, such as for treating prisoners whom it wanted to conceal from the ICRC (see Addendum). This suggests that the Hospital was being used more like a military hospital, but this too is protected in law.
The bombing of PMH, is a grave crime for which the Government is mainly answerable. It had not even issued a warning to those in the hospital. The LTTE too compromised the Hospital in the public eye. Given these factors, the ICRC too likely thought it wise to keep out rather than confront both sides at the same time. The ICRC had in fact asked the LTTE not bring their vehicles and weapons near PTK Hospital, but to no avail. Some of the hospital ambulances had also been taken over by the LTTE, whose leaders were using them to move around. (It makes a curious comparison with the government forces using ambulances to transport persons taken for questioning in Manik Farm.) The deplorable ethics of both sides made it difficult for the ICRC to function in the war zone.
The Battle for Puthukkudiyiruppu and Bombing of the LTTE Prison
We observed that the Army’s attempt to take control of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) was bitterly contested. The Army reached PTK Junction on 3rd March, PTK Hospital on 12th March, but did not claim to have captured the area until 5th April, after the Anandapuram battle. Once LTTE forces under Pottu Amman, pushed back the Army several miles in early February, it was forced to shun the direct approach and skirt it along the north towards Iranapalai, which it reached around 17th March. Prior to that, from mid-February, there was heavy aerial bombing and shelling of places in and around the LTTE’s key area. The places included Iranapalai, Anandapuram and Puthukkudiyiruppu, leading to again huge civilian casualties.
On 16th February there were both aerial and artillery attacks on a settlement in Iranapalai, 200 yards away from the LTTE prison where about 25 mainly women were killed (for a personal account, see Part IV.16).There was no LTTE target in the area. There was a generator plant a short distance from the settlement and lights spotted from the air may have served to identify it as one.
Another possibility is that the area is a coconut producing area. When there was a demand for bunkers, people started coming to the area to cut coconut trees. Most owners refused. But one reasoning that he did not know what would become of him during the war, asked the people to take all his trees. This led to constant activity of trees being felled and transported away. Nearly all the casualties from the bombing were women. Due to economic activity having come to a standstill, the people had no resources. With the rising demand for bunkers, not least in the safe zone, these became a source of employment. The men left the women in bunkers at home and went to earn.
Among the places bombed was the LTTE Reform Prison close to Iranapalai, adjoining PTK and a children’s home next to it. The aerial bombing of the prison took place on 18th February. Of the about 600 detained, most were persons who had deserted the LTTE and were caught, along with others involved in the lucrative business of helping civilians to escape from the LTTE-controlled area by devious means. About 50 prisoners were killed, according to a volunteer who went there, many of then in chains by which they were bound in pairs, a hand and a foot, to one another. (Curiously again, stories have emerged suggesting that it was not only the LTTE that used such methods as binding prisoners or slaves in pairs to prevent escape, such as when allowed to perform ablutions.) Among those killed by the bombing of the LTTE prison were four naval personnel held prisoner. The identity card of one of them showed that he was 19 years old, according to the volunteer above, who searched for persons who may have been alive among those covered in dust and rubble.
The incident again points to the deliberate, random or indifferent nature of the targeting, apparently based on UAV images that show crowds of people. What happened to the survivors is uncertain. The case of Tango 10 above suggests that most prisoners suspected of political or security connections were killed. Some prisoners from the security forces finally went free on 18th May just before the LTTE was decimated. One Tamil who was held for 16 years was released just before the end of the war, after 12th May. He was a businessman who was abducted, after which the LTTE made a ransom demand of Rs. 54 lakhs. Before his family could attend to the matter the man was transferred several times to other prisons and the family was unable to trace him. He is now reunited with his family. The family could not recognise him at first. It would be some time before he is calm enough to give more information.
Among those killed were four children from an LTTE-run home next to the prison as told to us by the volunteer. The planes returned an hour later to bomb again. Our witness is unable to tell us what happened this time. The New Indian Express of 7th September 2009 reported:
“The interrogation of Puvasan, the head of the LTTE’s prisons, by the Vavuniya police, has revealed that most of the 600-odd prisoners that the outfit had, were executed, some in the final days of Eelam War IV, which ended in May. Puvasan had said that there were 14 security forces personnel who were directly under him, and that these were all executed under the orders of the LTTE chief, Velupillai Prabhakaran…Among the dead was Inspector Jeyaratnam of the anti-terrorist unit of the Mount Lavinia police station… Only five military men in custody, four of them sailors, could escape by making use of the confusion in the final days of the war”.
This scripted claim hides the fact that at least four security personnel were killed by their own air force. Nor is it likely that the military men kept in custody until the last day escaped. They were kept to negotiate a safe passage for LTTE leaders, negotiations in which the Government acted in bad faith, killing those leaders who tried to surrender.
Another time when the civilians were subject to reprisal shelling was during the battle for Anandapuram during the last few days of March. As things got worse, the people’s desperation increased. In Puthukkudiyiruppu seven youths argued with two LTTE cadres over what their movement had brought the people to. According to refugees now in Jaffna, the cadres opened fire killing all seven.
Bearing Witness: “Rajaratnam”: Rajaratnam, not real name, was in charge of a large extended family. Constant intervention by Rajaratnam’s mother, Thavamany, who barged into LTTE camps and obtained letters from leaders on the grounds that her younger son died fighting for the LTTE, saved him from conscription. Rajaratnam had recently become a father of three when his wife Menaka delivered her third baby at Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital before it was shelled on 1st February. Experience had taught him to be cautious. He had decided that the safe zones were the least safe as the LTTE went about in its gun mounted vehicles firing at the Army with no thought of the civilians, who sometimes fought the LTTE openly.
Rajaratnam’s group was hiding in bunkers in Anandapuram along with many others as the Army moved in, waiting for a chance to escape towards army lines. A young man approached them and told them to go the way he pointed saying the Army was there. Many people went, while Rajaratnam was held back by his innate caution. Those who went forward were confronted by a line of LTTE men who thrashed them up with pachchaimattais (raw stems of palmyra leaves) and chased them back. Lacking any other alternative, they all went to the new safe zone at Puthumattalan.
2nd Week of March, LTTE’s Two Deep Penetration Missions
The civilian victims of shelling were well outside the zone where fighting was going on. Whether these were reprisals for casualties suffered by the Army, or responses to LTTE firing from among civilians, needs to be determined by talking to the civilians. By early March the Army was too close to the NFZ for the LTTE’s use of cannon. Our inquiries reveal that the LTTE used its cannon in the south of the NFZ (the people were generally towards the north) on the night of 7th March in support of an operation by its deep penetration unit to neutralise the Army’s gun positions at Theravil, east of Visuamadu. The LTTE claimed they used the cannon captured at Theravil to shell Kilinochchi, Muhamalai and Pallai from Visuamadu before spiking them on the morning of 10th March. The LTTE claimed that only four Black Tigers were killed during this operation which was in itself meant as a smokescreen for a more ambitious operation.
In another operation just about this time, 800 LTTE cadres infiltrated army lines from Chalai by crossing the lagoon and moving about two miles into Thevipuram. Those involved included Lawrence, Sornam and Prabhakaran’s son Charles Anthony. They had two aims, one was to capture the Army’s ammunition store and replenish their dwindling stocks. Not only were theirs critically low, but they were near or past the expiry date, after which the performance would diminish. Second, they wanted to block the A 35 and hence the Army’s supply route to troops fighting in PTK. The Army had their store near a small tank in the middle of the former (Thevipuram) safe zone, on the route of the 58th Division’s eastward march towards Iranapalai. The Daily Mirror defence correspondent quoting the Army admitted heavy fighting in which many soldiers were killed besides 125 of the attackers.
The operation failed although, according to sources close to the LTTE, the infiltrators got hold of the munitions, but were unable to carry them back. Among the reasons were the Army had been alerted shortly after the LTTE left Chalai and began taking countermeasures (Military Matters, the Nation 15 Mar.09). The more important reasons from the LTTE side are that Sornam and Charles Anthony were injured and the cadres had to pay attention to getting them to safety, and too many of the infiltrators were recent conscripts who were relatively inexperienced. Although the LTTE did not disclose this operation to the public, the talk among them was that about 200 cadres died.
A source who was in the NFZ said the LTTE fired only a little above ten shells in support of the two related operations as they were short of ammunition. Partly to conserve ammunition, they used long range guns only when there were cadres in the field to direct the gunners to worthwhile targets. During these two attacks civilians in the north of the zone near Valaignarmadam were subject to reprisal shelling, although the LTTE’s guns (130mm and 122 mm) were generally to the south of the civilians.
The general principle behind LTTE operations was not to take the troops head on, but where possible to cut off their supply lines and inflict a blow on those trapped as the result. It only meant delaying the army advance, so as to give time for their worldwide supporters to pull off something. This hope was the main inducement to keep up the fight against vastly uneven odds and an increasingly rebellious civilian population, unable to bear the draconian impositions. Such operations also meant deploying skilled reconnaissance units behind army lines.
Kilinochchi Hospital: an Astonishingly Disturbing Encounter
This encounter, which was reported to a friend by a cadre (who we refer to as R) involved in reconnaissance duty behind enemy lines during February 2009 for the operations above, was given to us by the friend. The friend, who first gave a hint of the story in passing, in the course of several subsequent conversations gave a detailed and consistent picture. To this friend, R had committed the care of his wife and child, should he ever fail to return from a mission. We judge the story to have a strong ring of truth.
By late February the Army was hammering on the gates of PTK. An LTTE reconnaissance unit wearing army uniforms had gone about five miles behind army lines to Suthanthirapuram, by then bereft of civilians. In one of the deserted houses they encountered two girls in a very dishevelled state. The girls first thought them to be from the Army and tried to run away but the unit stopped them. On learning that the youths were from the LTTE, they reluctantly told their story.
From earlier that month civilians escaping the shelling and worse to come began surrendering to the Army, initially at Visuamadu. The girls said that the Army separated some of the young boys and girls ostensibly on suspicion of being LTTE members and sent them to unknown destinations. These girls, who were civilians, were taken to the hospital in Kilinochchi, which was then under the control of the Army. The hospital had new buildings acquired during the ceasefire. The larger building had good rooms upstairs for patients and consulting rooms and other rooms for the staff on duty downstairs.
The girls said that there were about fifty girls in their position. They did not say much about the other girls. Some male detainees were also brought there for menial work. The girls were kept in the doctors’ quarters and in the nights they were taken to a larger building. This was being used as a guest house for officers. The ground floor was used as a mess serving food and drinks. The girls had said they were taken upstairs and sexually abused. The girls understood that they were rotated and the girls finishing their stint at Kilinochchi Hospital were sent away in buses, as they were told, to IDP camps. As to what eventually became of the girls and boys, one could only guess.
The two girls who were from the Kilinochchi area, and knew the terrain, decided to escape along with three other boys. The Hospital, which was on the east side of the Kandy Rd., has a drain 50 yards behind, close to where they were. The drain carried rainwater northward to Kilinochchi Kulam (Tank). They waited for a time when things were quiet, broke through the wired fence, got into the drain, which gave them cover, and later made their escape eastward towards the jungle. At one point there was an alarm over an army patrol and the boys got separated from the girls. The girls were familiar with the place as far as Suthanthirapuram. They found a deserted house where the people had fled leaving behind some provisions, from which they cooked and ate.
They were in some anxiety about proceeding further because they did not know where they might run into the Army. This was when they met the reconnaissance unit. R questioned them closely and on hearing their story, believed them. Even though the girls did not have the same skills in moving covertly, R at some risk took them to Putumattalan in the NFZ, partly to expose their experience. The girls were questioned for intelligence, but R’s superior officer did not want detailed publicity on the matter so as not to alert the Army to their planned mission behind army lines. The girls were enjoined to silence and handed over to the office in Valaignarmadam that connects people with relatives, and relatives collected the girls.
A further check on the authenticity of the story is the manner in which it was featured in the pro-LTTE pathivu.com and three days later in TamilNet of 27th February 2009 under the caption, ‘Slave camp suspected in Ki’linochchi hospital building’. It said: “A slave camp consisting male and female members ‘chosen’ from the fleeing civilians by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) is reportedly setup in the abandoned Ki’lnochchi hospital building, reported TamilNet correspondent in Vanni, citing unverified information reaching Mullaiththeevu from males who escaped from the camp. According to the sources, men are kept at the downstairs for forced labour and women kept in the upstairs for abuse by the SLA soldiers who are on temporary leave. Wailing and screaming of women are commonly heard from the upstairs, the sources revealed. The screening of the civilians who fled took place at two centres, in Visuvamadu and in Ki’linochchi.”
Pathivu.com had given a similar story on 24th February without saying anything about the sources. We understand that the Pathivu report originated in the Voice of the Tigers broadcast in the Vanni which was routinely dispatched to the Diaspora in electronic form (V of T continued broadcasts until 15th May 2009). TamilNet which purports to authenticity in relaying news to the Diaspora, instead of repeating the local Tamil media, apparently went through further checking and came out three days later, giving also a hint of the story’s origins. The major operation the LTTE had planned was still ten days away.
Our source also told us that when one of the units operating behind army lines, captured the artillery point at Theravil, based on the information given by the girl escapees, its gunners also aimed artillery shells at Kilinochchi Hospital. R also said that he had been contemplating sending his wife and child out of the war zone by putting her down as a care giver for an injured patient being carried by ICRC ship. But he decided against it after meeting the girl escapees.
When journalists were given a conducted tour of Kilinochchi around mid-January, the new hospital had no signs of habitation, but was newly painted and squeaky clean.
Reports of this story in the pro-LTTE media at that time would have been treated by several readers as a ploy to stop civilians escaping to the army-controlled area. About two weeks earlier the LTTE had begun shooting at escaping civilians. However the main impact of the story was not in the locality, but in the Diaspora.
We suggest that this story should be examined alongside the video shown on Channel 4 purportedly depicting executions of prisoners by the Army. The video according to the Journalists for Democracy was taken in January 2009, which places it just after the Army captured Kilinochchi, close to the time of the story above. Although the Government has tried to discredit the massacre video on the testimony of local experts whose impartiality has been questioned by leading human rights advocates, it requires a transparent investigation. Both stories pertain to a time when the Army had suffered heavy casualties and there was considerable licence for impunity.
According to sources with close contacts in the security forces, many soldiers were said to possess photographs of naked women LTTE cadres in their cell-phone cameras, taken after they were dead. They thought it an unlikely situation that women from the war zone were herded into a brothel. They believed that male cadres falling into the hands of the security forces have been regularly executed, as several soldiers themselves have come from areas affected by civilian massacres in which both sides have indulged.
There have hardly been any reports of LTTE cadres being taken prisoner on the battle field. In a polarised country, soldiers’ inclinations may be understandable, but it is the function of a disciplined professional army to curb such tendencies. What we have witnessed over the years is an open licence to kill suspects and well over a thousand Tamil civilians have been killed by the present government’s killer squads. There is little left to the imagination on what would have happened to prisoners on the battle field.
A source who knew several LTTE leaders told us that Prabhakaran came to a decision to make Anandapuram their Stalingrad. The plan was to marshal nearly 1000 regular infantry, most of what they had left, at Anandapuram, with three heavy artillery guns and advance westwards from where they had earlier evacuated. The plan was put into operation at the end of March as is evident from heavy shelling of the NFZ during the last week of the month. The LTTE force was divided into three divisions, west, south and north. The lagoon was to the east. Commander Theepan was in charge of the northern thrust. As things turned out the Army’s 58th and 53rd Divisions boxed the LTTE into an area half a mile square, once they linked up at Pachchaipulmoodai Junction on 1st April. A day earlier, when the Army had about 200 yards to close the loop, the LTTE fought hard to keep it open until they got Prabhakaran away to safety. After the loop was closed the shelling of civilians in the NFZ diminished.
Once the LTTE were trapped in a small area, Kfir bombers ran continuous sorties for three days, dropping over a hundred bombs in the area in a day. The troops were so close that one sortie was seen by the LTTE to bomb a section of the government troops. As things got bad the LTTE called for help. Pottu Amman who was in the NFZ with the remaining Intelligence Wing cadres and Sea Tigers felt the army positions to be too strong for them to break through. Refusing to surrender the LTTE fought on. Theepan had been injured on 2nd April. With no chance of getting him away, he died two days later and was buried there. About 500 cadres, half of them with injuries, made it to safety, either by creeping through army lines or by going east and crossing the lagoon to the NFZ. This portion was marshy land containing several pools, which was not well covered by the Army and not easy terrain for those unfamiliar.
Theepan was a top ranking commander, who with the limited resources he had, held Muhamalai front in the Jaffna Peninsula against several attempts by the Army without budging. He was reluctantly forced to evacuate once the Army took Paranthan to the south. Others who have seen a different side of some leading LTTE figures who died heroic deaths can never forgive them. One woman whose husband, a left activist, was among thousands who disappeared after being detained by the LTTE in 1990, met several senior LTTE figures, including Theepan, seeking information about her husband. None of them, she said, behaved decently to wives, mothers and sisters. They were all nasty.
Some in the LTTE felt that the cause of the Anandapuram debacle was their plan being betrayed by someone at high level. The Daily Mirror Defence Correspondent denies the Army had any foreknowledge: “However, it is now confirmed that the LTTE’s main objective was to breach the 58 Division forward defense line and infiltrate the cleared areas after killing a large number of soldiers. The military initially did not know the LTTE’s plan, and the Tigers too were unaware that the troops were surrounding them by linking from behind.” An observer who had spoken to some of the commanders agrees with this. His conclusion is that apart from lacking anti-aircraft missiles, the LTTE was short of both heavy ammunition for the cannon and even mortar shells. If they had these in sufficient quantities, he felt, the two divisions of troops (about 30 000 men) who were in a small area at close range would have suffered enormous casualties from direct fire. He believes that although the LTTE suffered a defeat that greatly demolished their conventional capacity and left them too weak for any further offensives, the Army too must have suffered heavy casualties in the intense fighting. An old piece of wisdom among the civilians is that whenever they suffered heavy shelling, it indicated heavy casualties among the Army.
After the fall of Anandapuram, the remaining LTTE fighters were confined to the NFZ. With the Army so close across the lagoon, apart from the paucity of shells, their cannon had become useless. Some of the cannon were placed at the bund to facilitate direct fire. There was no prospect of their breaking out. Even though they were trying to boost numbers by conscripting, even children, indiscriminately, they were beaten and in a bad way. For the Army to take them out in the strip of beach packed with civilians could hardly be termed hostage rescue. To pretend it was a humanitarian operation after pummelling the area with standard shells, phosphorous shells and cluster munitions, is rather disingenuous.