Part 4 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: The Final Phase
Deception over Civilian Safety
Having taken Valaignarmadam after overcoming strong LTTE resistance, which gave it time to build three defence bunds, the Army on 28th April launched a fierce attack on the first bund at Irattaivaykkal. The result as civilians had experienced repeatedly was a rain of army shells falling among IDP camps in Mullivaykkal, two miles south, causing enormous civilian casualties. The Government denied using its heavy weapons while blaming the LTTE of using its. President Rajapakse the previous day pledged that the Government was abandoning the use of heavy weapons.
If there was a military method in this madness, one needs to look back at the experience of civilians in the Udayarkaddu-Suthanthirapuram-Thevipuram safe zone during January and February 2009. In the reality of things, calling the war zone a safe zone was a mere piece of deception for the international community. The civilians were in their bunkers listening to the music of falling shells, having no idea where those shells were coming from. It was when they saw withdrawing LTTE cadres that they knew the Army was very close, perhaps just 50 yards away.
In normal war, shelling the roads far behind enemy lines made sense to obstruct enemy supplies and reinforcements. In this instance those who got killed were civilians fleeing with their meager belongings. At the same time fighting was fierce and army casualties were heavy. The Government had placed all its eggs in the basket of absolute victory and was prepared to go on at any cost, using patently the most ridiculous deception.
When it came to the fears and nervousness of the troops against the Government’s obligations to the civilians it purported to rescue, the former meant everything and the latter did not matter at all. Firing its cannon freely into the cowering IDPs became a small matter, if it made the troops a little readier to advance towards the prize of absolute victory.
At the same time the LTTE showed no mercy in deterring the escape of civilians, as if in the hope that the cries of genocide and humanitarian catastrophe by its expatriate lobbies would buy it a reprieve.
In this final phase, a major element in the Army’s nervousness consisted of the Sea Tigers and Black Tigers. The LTTE’s land based offensive capacity had been broken after the victory at Anandapuram. Since then much of the LTTE’s defensive capability had shifted to the Sea Tiger and Black Tiger units.
Once the LTTE lost Chalai and Putumattalan, the Sea Tiger assets were shifted to the Mullivaykkal coast. The military surveillance (e.g. by UAVs) was so high that launching out a boat and later dragging it up the shore and camouflaging it became very risky. At the end of April, the Navy gun boats were stationed off the coast to cover the Army’s advance. This meant that the civilians got a heavy dose of firing from machine guns and cannon from both land and sea.
According to persons from the area, another strategy used by the LTTE during the protracted battle for Puthikkudiyiruppu was to station disabled suicide cadres with explosives in bunkers of the kind used by civilians, with instructions to explode themselves when a large group of soldiers passed that way. This might explain in part the Army ordered to finish the job in a hurry, reportedly running their heavy vehicles over civilian bunkers, thus burying a significant number of people.
A Tenuous Link to the Outside World on the Brink
Bearing Witness: Mr. and Mrs. Kailash: Towards evening on 28th April, amidst the rising tempo of war, Mr. and Mrs. Kailash went to Mullivaikal hospital and then walked down to the beach on the east coast where boats were picking up people for the ICRC ship anchored in the deep sea. LTTE cadres who were giving clearance would not allow them arguing that the lady’s injury was not serious enough. They had to in the end pay them money, a little more than Rs. 100,000/=, before receiving clearance. They say that most of those who came with them did not qualify, but had all paid the LTTE large sums.
There had been two other boats that had followed theirs’ to the waiting ship. As they had just set off into the sea, the military commenced heavy shelling which affected the ICRC’s pick up area. The ICRC could not take in most of the people from the second and third boats as the ship had already reached capacity. The two boats had to return to the coast with virtually all their passengers. The Kailash’s felt that because of the shelling those who returned in the two small boats were at immense risk.
The same day Mullivaykkal Primary Health Centre was shelled killing six previously injured patients who were receiving treatment. The next day, April 29th, the same Centre and the Hospital were both shelled, killing 15 persons. The Hospital was shelled again on 30th April and 2nd May, killing about 9 and 68 persons respectively.
A part of the background to this shelling was the large number of army casualties when the Army attacked the first bund on the 28th and when the LTTE tried to take it back using human bombs and explosive-packed vehicles, along with suicide boats to break the navy blockade. The Navy towards the end of April deployed boats to seal off the coast, resulting in confrontations between the Navy and the Sea Tigers opposite Mullivaykkal.
A likely reason for the massive shelling of Mullivaykkal suggested by an observer present is that the LTTE was planning an offensive operation, which later did not materialise. He thinks the Military would have found out by analysing UAV pictures, showing significant movements of persons and objects. Another reason is the routine shelling when the Army plans to advance. These are text book responses with no cogniscence of political and humanitarian objectives and obligations.
The Defence Ministry reported a naval confrontation early morning on the 29th. Around 4.00 PM, 100 mm naval cannon struck Mullivaykkal, which was so crowded that any explosion was potentially lethal, hitting also the Hospital, killing according to TamilNet more than 150 civilians. In the afternoon of the 30th, the LTTE claimed sinking one of the Navy’s water jet gun boats and also a Dvora fast attack craft. The Defence Ministry claimed the next day (1st May) that it sank three Sea Tiger craft at 1.00 AM. 110 injured persons were admitted to hospital on the 1st; and on the 2nd, the hospital was shelled twice in the morning killing 68 patients.
The ICRC carried out evacuations on 28th, 29th and 30th April. On 30th April, ICRC said in a statement, “Given the catastrophic situation of thousands of displaced, sick and wounded people still in the conflict area, the parties must do more to protect them and must allow more food and medicine into the area”. The service was evidently under strain. After negotiations with both parties, the next time the ICRC came was on 7th May and it was a hazardous exercise. Its statement said that it could not perform this operation for seven days due to security constraints. Its head of operations for South Asia in Geneva Mr. Jacques de Maio said after the evacuation:
“Heavy fighting is taking place near the medical assembly point at Mullavaikkal, which puts the lives of patients, medical workers and ICRC staff at great risk. This hampers medical evacuations of wounded civilians and their families. Not all the wounded could be evacuated today, and it is of the utmost importance that more evacuations take place over the coming days.”
The next day, 8th May, saw a new burst of shelling following a lull, when the Army took on the final, 3rd, bund at Karaimullivayakkal, two miles north of Mullivaykkal. Food was scarce and on this day, a large number of children were lined up to receive each a ‘bonda’ (made from flour and yam) from a cart that was distributing them, when barrage of shells exploded killing many. A witness told us that a UAV, known to civilians as ‘vandu’ (beetle) was flying overhead and the queue of children waiting for the nutrients would have been clearly seen by those who decided to fire. Our witness saw more than a dozen dead bodies, most of them children.
The Defence Ministry which denied the shelling reported on the following morning, 9th May, that about 300 civilians escaped south past the LTTE bunds and surrendered to the 59th Division which had already come across the causeway and established a position on the southern extremity of the ‘safe zone’. It added that nine died of LTTE fire and another 19 touched base with injuries.
Bearing Witness: Nick:Nick’s family together with the mother and five children, all less than 7 years of age, of another family were holed up in adjacent bunkers during a bout of shelling. Nick was seated on a log at the entrance to his bunker and the father of the other family (who was from Puthukudiyiruppu) was seated on the ground at the entrance to his bunker. The two men were talking. This happens often due to the want of society and the stultifying heat of bunkers. A shell came silently and grazed the Puthukkudiyiruppu man’s head. Bleeding heavily he fell unconscious, as though dead. Nick feels that if not for the victim diverting the shell, it would have fallen clean through the entrance to his bunker and killed his whole family. Thinking that the man was dead or dying, and being conscious of imminent danger of another shell landing in the vicinity, Nick promptly dragged out the mother and 5 children as well as his own family and moved elsewhere. Months later, Nick met the other man in Manik farm IDP camp, reunited with his family. He had been rescued by some Good Samaritan, and through the ICRC eventually transferred to a proper hospital, where he gained consciousness.
Saturday 9th May was the last time the ICRC was able to transfer the injured. It said on12th May: “Last Saturday, 9 May, was the last time the ICRC-chartered ferry was able to reach the conflict area. It offloaded food and life-saving medical supplies, and evacuated 516 wounded and sick patients and their accompanying relatives. Fighting also made it impossible for the ferry to approach the shore on the previous day, 8 May. As the fighting draws ever closer, thousands of people trapped along a narrow coastal strip north of Mullaittivu are forced to take cover most of the time in improvised trenches and shelters in order not to be hit by exchanges of fire between government troops and fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The civilians also suffer from a lack of food, drinking water and proper medical care.”
According to persons present, an issue that prevented the ICRC from evacuating patients in early May was the determination of a safe point. The LTTE wanted it south of the earlier location and the Government reportedly did not agree to it. The new phase beginning on 9th May heralded the worst times for the civilians, without any hope of relief, while the Government and the LTTE, having other preoccupations, were the least concerned.
On the night of 9th the Army’s 53rd and 58th Divisions began moving towards Vellaimullivaykkal, 1.4 miles south. Advancing along the sea coast, the Army had come within 500 yards of Pillayar Kovil Rd, the ICRC pick up point. But the Army did not use the position to launch offensive operations for several days. The move was preceded by heavy shelling.
On 9th May, the heavy shelling and the Army’s manner of advance was such as to brook no delay, even though there were 100 000 civilians cramped in what was left of the NFZ. In the absence of further bunds north of Mullivaykkal, the LTTE offered heavy resistance from the Tsunami Housing Scheme, which stretched from Karaimullivaykkal to (Vellai)Mullivaykkal, east of the main road. This slowed down the Army’s progress until 13th May.
At this time the LTTE’s treatment of escapees had become very harsh. A man from Mullaitivu said that frequently persons attempting to run away had been caught by the LTTE, dragged back and shot. He also said that in the latter stages any parent who tried to appeal against the conscription of his or her child was handled very roughly. Whenever people were bold in their protestations, they were threatened with punishment in the “Pannai” (cattle farm) (“Pannaiku vaariya?”). This meant that they were taken to the front lines and told to build bunkers, carry food and supplies for men on the front lines and given other risky chores. Given the current intensity of fighting, virtually all those serving in the Pannai ended up dead.
Sivalingam (not real name) is from 8th Channel, Uruthirapuram. His testimony is taken from Thesam.net of 30th October 2009. It comes across as the plain, honest testimony of a simple man. Like with most others escape was high on his mind. The question was how and when. Earlier in May, he with his family, his wife, a boy and two daughters, had gone to Nanthikadal Lagoon to escape. The Tigers stopped them and conscripted his son. The rest went back to where they stayed, as they had no heart to escape without the son. In order to get hold of his son, Sivalingam hung about places frequented by the Tigers. The Tigers needed logs from cocoanut trees for their defences and they got Sivalingam to use his tractor to transport them.
During this interlude, after transporting some logs, Sivalingam was idling at the bank of Nanthikadal, when he saw an Irrigation Department employee from his village. The Tigers then brought the Irrigation employee’s son of 22 years. The boy was an innocent, who had spent much of his time at home singing thevarams (devotional hymns) in the temple and cleaning up the place. When the LTTE began conscription, the father had hidden him in Mallavi. A long time later the LTTE discovered the boy and conscripted him in Mullivaykkal. The Tigers also brought a girl conscript from the same village, whose parents had escaped to Vavuniya earlier. The Tigers told the irrigation man to take his son and the girl and go. The Tigers waited until they were knee deep in the lagoon and opened fire, killing the girl on the spot. The boy who was injured in the ear and chest, clutched his father’s feet and shouted, ‘Appa (Father), Amma (Mother)’! Sivalingam helped them to take the boy to an LTTE hospital nearby. The Tigers told them, ‘We don’t have any medicines, go away.’ The boy died and they best they could do was to bury him in a grave half a foot deep, dug with their hands.
On 9th May, while Sivalingam was transporting and delivering logs, he saw his son dressed in a uniform stitched from a bed sheet. His mother promptly ordered him to climb into the trailer, where she covered him with tarpaulin. They drove away and quickly moved residence elsewhere. Sivalingam observed that they did not receive any food over the next 5 or 6 days. He also observed that there was hardly any burying of the dead after 8th May and numerous dead bodies were lying all over the place as also said by others.
Bearing Witness: Gunam: A grandmother from Thirunagar, Kilinochchi, was to take the ICRC ship on this day, 9th. She was in charge of her little grand daughter, who had a leg amputated after being caught in a shell blast. The ship, having to carry accumulated numbers of injured and loaded to capacity, left without them. The ICRC promised to return the next day, but the continuous rain of shells ensured that it was to be the last journey.
After the ship left, the grand mother took her grand daughter and went to a nearby house close to the embarkation point, left their things and stayed in a bunker with others. After nightfall, the tempo of shelling increased. The grand mother left the bunker and rushed to the house saying that she wanted to collect their documents and money. While she was inside a shell fell on the house, severing the lower part of her body. The story was told to us by Gunam, a friend of the family who was with the grand daughter.
The shelling that night became an international issue. It later led to the Government forcing the doctors to recant all they said from the war zone after they left the NFZ on 15th or 16th May. The doctors, according to others who had spoken to them, believed that facts stated with regard to accuracy are the most effective. Other witnesses present have confirmed the high death toll during those days.
A report by Ravi Nessman of the AFP quoted Dr. Shanmugarajah, one of the doctors at Mullivakkal Hospital: “Two overnight artillery barrages (9th, 10th May) pounded the area over the weekend, with several shells landing inside newly demarcated ‘safe zone’, where the government had urged civilians to gather, according to Dr. V. Shanmugarajah, another doctor at the hospital. A total of 430 ethnic Tamil civilians, including 106 children, were either brought to the hospital for burial or died at the facility after those attacks, he said. But the death toll was likely closer to 1,000 because many of those killed would have been buried in the bunkers where they were slain, and many of the gravely wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment, he said.”
Once the Army began advancing on 9th May, government run medical facilities ceased to be any indicator of civilian casualties. After the shelling of 9th night, Dr. Shanmugarajah spoke of 1100 new admissions. Taken together with details in TamilNet, different aspects of the story, along with the doctor’s claims, are remarkably consistent.
The Army began moving again on 13th May. A relatively small number who came out of their bunkers with their hands up were sent northwards into the army-controlled area. According to defence.lk of that date, “A total of 76 Tamil civilians held under LTTE hostage sought protection with security forces yesterday, 13 May, military sources said.”
10th to 12th May
Sivalingam and family had to keep moving trying to choose every time a new place that seemed safer. In front of his tent were a father, mother and three children who were all killed when a shell fell on them. There had also been a business family, who were in a tent next to his. A shell fell killing all 16 of them. He said that at this time the LTTE was killing escapees mercilessly. There were many instances when the Tigers waited for the escaping family to get into the water and fired bursts at the children, watching them writhe and die, in convulsions of hands and legs.
Bearing Witness: Komathy: An elderly retired lady teacher, whom we call Komathy, was in an evangelical Christian group that abhorred violence, but her son had two years earlier during the conscription drive become involved with the LTTE. The lady was looking after the son’s four children, daughter-in-law and a senior niece who had been a long time cripple. If not for the latter she would have attempted to escape earlier. During these latter stages, her son in the LTTE had developed extreme anxiety for the safety of his children and suffered psychologically. But he kept bringing the mother news about the goings on that came to his ears.
Komathy, who was originally at Valaignarmadam, had when the Army was moving in, shifted near Karimullivaykkal, north of Mullivaykkal. She said that the LTTE resisted the armed forces’ attempt to break the defense bund very fiercely and successfully. She says that about 14 Kfirs were used by the armed forces in addition to heavy shelling and the use of tanks and ground troops. She had seen the jets swoop down and re-ascend as the Tigers, including their girls, fired fiercely from the ground.
On the 12th, the waiting room at the hospital was hit by a mortar shell, killing scores of civilians sheltering in the admission room. The same day, a young man joined Sivalingam’s family. He had sent his wife and mother out and stayed behind. He felt that his presence would have made them more vulnerable to punitive measures by the LTTE against escapees. At that time sugar cost Rs. 5500 (USD 55) a kg. On the morning of 13th May, the young man went to a tea shop to get himself a cup of tea. A shell fell on the shop killing all who were there. Sivalingam said that out of the eleven sandbags they had to protect themselves against shelling, they undid one, covered the young man’s body with it and moved away. They never found out who he was or from where.
The Tigers had also built three bunds for their southern defence at Vattuvakkal, facing Mullaitivu. The Army’s 59th Division had before 9th May, obtained control of the bridge connecting Mullaitivu and Vattuvakkal and had breached the first of the bunds by 12th May.
13th May — Being Killed in their Bunkers
Bearing Witness: “Komathy”: Later when the Army began moving south on 13th May in the face of continuing LTTE resistance, Komathy also confirmed that civilians running south to Mullivaykkal told others that advancing soldiers popped grenades into civilian bunkers as a precaution against the LTTE using these bunkers to attack them. She observed that LTTE resistance petered out on 14th May leading to a lull.
Komathy also heard of the Army reacting to fierce Tiger resistance, and heavy casualties on their side, by firing into and closing up civilian bunkers during their latter advance.
Bearing Witness: “Revathy”: Revathy (name altered) is a worker for an evangelical church, who was north of Mullivaykkal with her two brothers, the family of one of them including his mother-in-law and children, and another sister. A fellow worker from the church who was helping them had been killed by a missile while transporting timber with other men to strengthen their bunker.
Revathy and her siblings said that most of the people at that time had been hiding in bunkers because of the heavy shelling. On 13th May those who came running south from near Karaimullivaykkal said that the advancing army had run their heavy vehicles over these bunkers, turning the bunkers into graves for so many. Although the ground was soggier to the west of the main road, the Army’s tracked vehicles were able to operate off the main road, particularly to the east of it.
Bearing Witness: Muhunthan: Muhunthan had in the IDP camp met several people known to him from Mallavi, who had left the NFZ at the very last stages. The LTTE offered fierce resistance using also Black Tiger suicide squads. The Army was panicked into not taking chances and fired RPGs at any structure that looked a possible LTTE defence point. The ground being soggy or sandy, the bunkers had been constructed by reinforcing the sides with wooden posts raised above ground level and thatched to give shelter, which made them look like defence points.
Other sources told us that during the earlier battles in Puthukkudiyiruppu, disabled Black Tigers used to stay in bunkers and blast themselves when a large group of soldiers passed them. They stayed several days until a sufficiently large group of soldiers came their way. But in Mullivaykkal, Black Tigers used to run into the Army on motorcycles or small vehicles and blast themselves. They could not use larger vehicles as a large number of vehicles were parked on and along the main road. At this stage Black Tigers were used chiefly to provide security for senior leaders. By blasting themselves when troops came too near, they gave time for other security persons who ringed the object protected, to get the object away.
Sensing that the oncoming troops from the 53rd and 58th Divisions were in a rough mood after taking many casualties, most of the civilians to the north of Mullivaykkal fled southwards where the LTTE still remained. Their reports further alarmed the people. Consequently, the people began edging southwards despite the lack of space. The people wanted to get out and surrender to the Army so that their immediate ordeal would come to an end. Afraid of the advancing troops, they thought it safer to move south and surrender to the 59th Division at the Mullaitivu end, which they perceived as more accommodative towards the civilians’ plight.
On 13th May the Mullivaykkal makeshift hospital in a school building closed, after the hospital was hit and the hospital staff, family members began to be affected and medical supplies ran out. There were nearly 2000 injured about the hospital awaiting ICRC shipment, when the hospital was hit by a mortar shell.
The Defence Ministry kept on putting out claims about civilians surrendering to them as they advanced, but did not tell us that they had stayed in bunkers while the two sides were hammering it out over them, killing many of them as they did. It said (defence.lk 15th May) that the 58th Division rescued over 1590 civilians from the Karaimullivaykkal tsunami housing scheme. Obviously, most of those there had fled south.
Bearing Witness: Maniam: Maniam met some people in Manik Farm who on 13th May, had tried to reach the army line by walking north towards Irattaivaykkal through a panai vadali (a nursery of young palmyra plants) close to Nanthikadal Lagoon. They were confronted by LTTE men who scolded them and opened fire killing an eight-year-old girl and injuring some others. The group turned back. They identified the man who shot the girl as Sivaji Prabhu from Supermadam, Pt. Pedro. This man, they said, entered Manik Farm and paid his way out.
14th May saw a lull in the fighting. Talk began to get around that the LTTE would soon allow the people to leave. Sea Tiger leader Soosai was widely reported saying that the LTTE would soon give up arms as the means of liberation. At this time there was also confusion among the LTTE cadres about whether or not to let the civilians go. A community leader told us that on 14th May, the LTTE discharged most women cadres.
Confusion among LTTE ranks was also confirmed by the retired lady teacher Komathy above. The LTTE also for the first time, on 14th May, announced that civilians who wanted to leave could leave. However, there were some instances after that where they had ordered would be escapees not to do so. We reported in Special Report No.32 that a large group of civilians, who went to a palmyra nursery near Nanthikadal Lagoon before dawn on the 14th to cross to the other side or to Vattuvakkal to the south, were shot at by the LTTE killing about 500 of them. We have had further confirmation of this.
The three bunds to the south had been under the Sea Tigers, who had so far lost one. They apparently allowed about 1000 people to go across to the Army on the 14th evening.
15th May was a day of confusion even for the Tigers. There were negotiations and several variations in how the Tigers handled civilians who wanted to escape. Some appeared to think that some deal had been almost worked out, while others saw it as important to hold on to the civilians for a successful outcome.
Sivalingam and his family tried to leave. Another young unmarried woman joined their family of five along with another relative. Near the Nanthikadal lagoon, some LTTE men confronted them saying that the ICRC and US ships are coming to save them and told them to go back. There being just a few of them, they did not argue, even as people were leaving by various other ways. They went back a little and sat among some palmyra logs.
When some Tigers came that way, the young woman who was part of Sivalingam’s company, argued with them, “We are hungry and suffering much, please let us go.” The Tigers shot her dead, while the others stared in terror, and ordered them to go back to Mullivaykkal town. They went back and lay down beneath their tractor-trailer. They saw many dead beneath the tractors and lorries where they had sheltered. The streets too had corpses everywhere besides torn pieces of flesh.
On 15th May afternoon, Dr. Varatharajah said in an audio interview with an expatriate journal: “Shells are coming close to hospital; three to four of our staff were killed within the last three days. These three days we didn’t treat the patients. Wounded are dying without treatment. Both wounded and dead are in the same place, still they are not separated. Around 300 to 400 patients and dead bodies are mingled lying here and there on the floor.”
This meant that most of the 2000 or so injured in the hospital three days earlier had been taken away by relatives, many no doubt died. Those still in hospital were dying or had no one to care for them. The absence of medicine and the pain of separation would have prompted people in a crowd slowly edging its way south to bear injured relatives along in the hope of treatment once in the government-controlled area.
There was no working system there by means of which one could quantify human suffering. Witnesses said that because of the dense crowd pressing south from 11th May one could not even wait in a place for half an hour. There was no food or medicine available. The people were on or close to the main road to Vattuvakal, which itself was choked with vehicles. People crept under the vehicles for shelter as shells fell everywhere. Occasionally a vehicle that was close to a shell explosion caught fire. About 20 shell explosions could be heard every minute. Occasionally when a vehicle was hit, the road would be blocked for a short time, and then the crowd surged forward preoccupied with their own concerns such as locating separated family members.
On the 15th morning the people tried to break through towards Mullaitivu. Thrice the LTTE chased them back and also resisted the advance of the 59th Division using suicide bombers.
Witnesses have testified that on the 15th and 16th, every time a group of people set off to flee, a line of Tigers would face them and block their path. When the crowd pushed forward they would shoot at their legs and damage a few legs and even kill others in order to scare them away. Even then there were many who had become desperate beyond control. They just pushed through the space between adjacent Tigers in the line and marched towards the Vattuvakal Bridge, where the 59th Division was. Frequently the Tiger line moved backwards under pressure and stayed facing the advancing people to shoot again. By the end of the day’s battles, the 59th Division had got hold of the second of the three bunds to the south, leaving the Tigers in control of the remaining bund.
As we reported in Special Report No.32, the Government had informally agreed to a surrender deal worked out by intermediaries including some Tamil MPs and senior aid agency figures. By this time Pottu Amman was in charge of military matters. Later in the day the fighting and shelling eased and the LTTE began burning its equipment, a signal that it was implementing its side of the bargain, whose outlines we described in Special Report No.32:
“The Government would accept the surrender of the remaining LTTE personnel and leaders, with due consideration to prevailing norms of surrender, and allow a certain number of leaders to leave the country, the conditions being: 1.) Surrender of Weapons and equipment, 2.) Release of Civilians and 3.) Release of prisoners from the government forces the LTTE held. The LTTE agreed to destroy its weapons and equipment instead of surrendering them, and apparently this was agreed. On Friday 15th it began complying with 1.) & 2.). It also complied with 3.) as would be seen. According to our information three TNA MPs, including Chandra Nehru Jr., were among those involved in making these arrangements.”
During the lull the crowds began surging south towards Vattuvakal. The Sea Tigers who were in charge of the remaining bund allowed hundreds of civilians to go to the 59th Division. We learn that they were faulted for this and on the 16th night, the Sea Tigers were taken out and another group was placed in charge of the bund.
At 9.00 PM, Sivalingam’s company rose from beneath the tractor-trailer where they had taken refuge and went back to Nanthikadal to make another effort at crossing the lagoon. They had slept under a tractor-trailer with other people in two or three groups. The sound of shelling had been constant. They did not rouse themselves in the night to check even when a shell fell close by. Later they found that entire families had been killed, except perhaps a child. On the 15th night many who were under tractors were killed or shredded. They went to the place where they had lain among palmyra logs the day before, where the Tigers had killed the young virgin.
Bearing Witness: “Revathy”: In the night of 15th May, south of Mullivaykkal, Revathy, her siblings and brother’s family crossed from Vattuvakkal to Mullaitivu. She had been traumatised by the escape experience expecting at any moment to be cut down as they scrambled over dead body after dead body. She said later in tears and loud moaning that on that particular day itself, around 3000 civilians would have perished.
Revathy’s impression was that the shelling was done by both parties, the LTTE shelling from among the civilians at advancing troops. Thus the civilian deaths were caused by the Army’s indiscriminate shelling, though they were provoked by the LTTE in much smaller measure. The Army took in Revathy’s party at Vattuvakkal and sent them across the bridge after asking why they came so late in the day. They accepted their explanation that they had hesitated and delayed because of having so many young children. Revathy’s family were sent to Omanthai and then to an IDP camp in Chettikulam by 16th night.
16th May: Uncertainties of Escape
Having spent the night among Palmyra logs close to Nanthikadal, Sivalingam’s party found themselves in the morning in the company of several others, all in readiness to run towards the Army. As the sun rose, there were about 20 of them sheltering from the sun in the shadow of one Palmyra tree. Later they noticed the Army at hailing distance. The Tigers, who were also around, shouted, “Go away, don’t wait here”! Subsequently, they threw a grenade at the Army. The Army replied with a shell that fell close to the people, killing about 17 persons. The time was 1.00 PM on Saturday 16th May. Sivalingam felt they had made a mistake in coming there, “Many others had escaped by other ways, and only a small number of us got caught to these few brutes. We had no choice but to hang around.”
Bearing Witness: Nick: There were people constantly crossing Nanthikadal from different points. Nick related the tragic story of Kumarasamy (names altered), whose father, Periyathamby, was a sickly old widower from Nick’s area. Kumarasamy was looking after his own family with young children as well as the sickly father. With much caution and difficulty he was making good his escape towards Nanthikadal with his family and was supporting his flagging father. As he came to Nanthikadal the son found to his dismay that the father had become too weak and felt that he would not bear the strain of crossing. He left the father under a tree by the shore with a sheet for cover, 6 or 7 biscuit packets, and two cans of water and crossed over with his family. Nick later met Kumarasamy among IDPs at Manik farm inquiring with tears from people as to whether anyone heard anything about his father’s presence among the IDPs.
16th May: A Deceptive Truce and Denial of Relief to the Injured
The LTTE had requested the ICRC to come and take away the injured civilians and cadres. The ICRC ship had been in the vicinity for some days, but did not receive clearance from the Government to deliver essentials and take away the injured and others with urgent complaints. The refusal also suggested that the Government was not taking its side of the bargain (above) seriously. It wanted to get the civilians away so that it could use indiscriminate firing without international repercussions.
That third party negotiations were going on, as we reported, was further confirmed indirectly by a civilian who knew some senior LTTE men. We pointed out earlier that the Sea Tigers were removed from the southern bund for allowing civilians to leave prematurely. However on 16th May, about mid-day, the civilians were in a confused and disorganised manner allowed to leave, even as some groups took punitive action into the afternoon. The civilians in Mullivaykkal began moving south towards Mullaitivu.
Meanwhile the Army’s 59th Division moved north and later in the day linked up with a section of the 58th Division moving south along the sea coast (the 53rd was moving parallely south along the lagoon coast of the strip).
Our civilian source noted that senior LTTE members were staying behind, seemingly not very perturbed. When he asked them, they replied that talks were going on after which they would leave. They expected a favourable response by late morning. To most observers, even if the Government made promises through third parties, it would have been to facilitate decapitating the LTTE leadership rather than to hinder it. In this instance the LTTE had let the civilians go, making the Government’s work easier. Why the LTTE misread the signs says something about their cutting themselves off from the real world.
An Aborted Escape Attempt
Our source also told us that if not for their hope in the negotiations, they would certainly have attempted to make a break for it in the early hours of the 16th instead of the 17th morning, when several of the senior leaders crossed the lagoon and tried to break westwards into the jungle. The attempt failed with senior LTTE leaders being captured or killed. According to numerological beliefs the LTTE long took seriously, dates on which the digits added up to 8, e.g. 8th, 17th, and 26th as unlucky days for operations (digits totalling 5 were the lucky days). It was for the urgency caused by the delay that they attempted it on the 17th.
There were also stories circulating among civilians who remained to the last that there was an attempt to get the LTTE leader away on the 15th or 16th May. The retired lady teacher whose son was in the LTTE heard a story that the leader came pretty close to perishing about this time as there was an unexpected hole in the 7 ringed security ring around him and the troops almost got him. They were apparently trying to smuggle him away and important people were put in command of each ring and there was a failure in the passing of information. The commander of a particular ring had not been present at the designated spot. There was a story of betrayal. The lady teacher heard that Prabhakaran had later called up the commander and questioned him, and then killed him. She remembers the name as Bhanu, though she was a little hazy about it.
Another source with good information said that there was an aborted attempt to get the leader away across Nanthikadal on the 16th. He had heard the story about Bhanu but dismissed it as speculation. He thinks Bhanu fell into the Army’s hands, although there is no confirmation from the Army. Negotiations, there were, but the Leader had not apparently relied on them fully. Interestingly, many IDPs had heard the story that it was the treachery of Bhanu that caused the Anandapuram disaster in early April. This discredited story points to some apologists for the LTTE using Bhanu as a scapegoat. The LTTE have always paraded ‘traitors’ to explain the inevitable consequences of their politics.
Bearing Witness: “Kannan”: Kannan, a family man from Visuamadu, set off with his family and younger brother from Mullivaykkal along the Nanthikadal coast towards Irattaivaykkal at 2.00 PM on the 16th. There were no noises from gun fire at that time. He was from a family of nine siblings and the rest of his family had gone to Vavuniya before 2009. He set off from Visuamadu with the refugee exodus to Suthanthirapuram the previous January and began moving to Putumattalan after 12 days. His younger brother was riding a bicycle in Thevipuram ahead of them when a shell exploded injuring his brother, after which he was unable to use a leg and a hand. The LTTE would not have allowed young persons with a chance of being cured to board the ICRC ship. This was a reason why Kannan had to wait. He managed to reach the 53rd Division with his younger brother without incident. He has improved steadily under medical treatment. Along the Nanthikadal shore he saw about 500 corpses.
Once the ICRC was disallowed, hundreds of injured too weak to be taken away or with no family or friends at hand were left in the lurch. Since medicines had run out and the hospital ground to a halt, it was four days since the injured had received even the most rudimentary treatment. It was time for people to get away if they could and the surviving medical staff (about three of them had been killed) joined the milling crowds edging their way out. An eyewitness testified to seeing scores of injured cadres left on the sides of the road begging people to help them. Civilian injured usually had some known persons to carry them in improvised stretchers made with sheets.
Bearing Witness: Gunam: Among the most tragic sights were hundreds of young injured LTTE cadres, many of them girls, who were brought early in the morning of 16th May and stretched out along the sides of the road near the southern end of the NFZ. The LTTE originally hoped that the Government would give the ICRC clearance to come over the Vattuvakkal Bridge and pick them up. This did not materialise although as late as 11.00 AM, they were still hopeful.
The victims who had lost limbs and some their sight, were by evening screaming in agony, begging for someone to take them along or at least to give them a cyanide capsule. A ten year old boy searched the road for cyanide capsules and gave them to some of the injured cadres. The injured above were the worst cases with no one to care for them. Most of the other injured, perhaps around 1000, had been taken by their families or friends.
The cadres who survived the fighting, once they knew their families were leaving, had abandoned their cyanide capsules and uniforms, put on civilian clothes and joined the exodus with their families. That was how there were plenty of cyanide capsules along the roadsides. On the previous day when the LTTE had begun setting fire to their equipment, a number of cadres, especially women, who had disabilities due to injury, had cast themselves into the flames.
16th May Dusk: Truce Ends Unannounced and a Rude Awakening
Bearing Witness: “Rani”: A mother, Rani, (not real name) who left Mullivaykkal late on the 16th evening, said that her husband was injured in a shell attack on 28th April and died in hospital on 30th April. The LTTE had conscripted her 15-year-old daughter in February 2009, whom she had not seen for some time. She had been searching for her daughter. She found two large tents full of injured LTTE cadres. Those who were nursing them had fled intending to escape with the crowd. The road to Vattuvakkal was jam packed and there was no movement as the Army had closed the entry. She set off north along the main road towards Irattaivaikkal as many others had done. Quite by chance she saw her daughter among those left along the road in the hope that the ICRC would come. One of her legs had been amputated after a shell injury and her other leg had wounds that had become badly infected. She promptly took her daughter and moved slowly with the crowd along the main road towards Irattaivaykkal.
By then the LTTE must have decided that the Government was not interested in their surrender. The road was packed with vehicles. In anticipation of the Army’s move into the final safe zone, the LTTE began exploding many of the vehicles, with a view to blocking the Army’s movement. Off the road movement was not so easy because of marshy ground to the west and sandy soil to the east. Rani saw many people on the road being injured or killed by these explosions. By then the Army too began moving south. She had been distracted looking for her ten year old son who had become separated from her and had left her injured daughter on the road for a short time. This was when soldiers encountered her and virtually pushed her behind them (to the north) not heeding her anguished plea that she had to fetch her crippled daughter.
Rani now pleads, ‘Please find my daughter’. By a quirk of fate, Rani found her lost daughter in a pitiful state only to lose her an hour later. She had run into the Army just when it had begun its final advance. This is confirmed by the Army’s claim at 5.00 PM on the 17th that the LTTE had been boxed into an area 400m x 600m. What chance did a lame mite have when an army that would brook no delay advanced behind monstrous hulks of iron?
The experience above suggests that whatever hopes the Government had given about a ceasefire were at an end and a final battle was in prospect amidst more than 35 000 civilians trapped in a small area. Given the rush and congestion of people leaving many stayed back in the belief that the apparent calm would hold, the Army would move in without firing a shot and they could surrender. Once the LTTE started burning vehicles and the Army resumed shelling there was panic among those remaining. Many decided that it was better to go towards army lines despite the shelling and small arms fire.
Bearing Witness: “Kiruban”: Kiruban (18), not real name, was in a family that had left Jaffna during the October 1995 Exodus (Special Report No.6) and settled down in Killinochchi. During the earlier shelling the family had spent much of their time sheltering under vehicles, with corpses nudging them wherever they lay. This life has been described by persons who were there as between chalam and pinam (between faeces and corpses). They had waited when the firing stopped around noon thinking it was all over.
To their surprise heavy shelling began again around sunset. In a group of about 1000 they began moving towards Irattaivaykkal along the shore on Nanthikadal. The shelling caused several deaths in the crowd of people. Kiruban too saw hundreds of corpses on the way. He estimated that about 150 of those in the crowd got killed. He too was injured in a leg by shrapnel. His sister received a bullet in her stomach. The Army met them and Kiruban was dispatched to Polonnaruwa Hospital where his leg was amputated. His sister survived after medical care.
There is hardly anything in the Government’s conduct here that suggests hostage rescue. The Government negotiated a ceasefire with the LTTE to make it let the civilians go with no intention of implementing it. The civilians were given no instructions by the Government. Had it let the ICRC in to supervise the civilian exodus it could have been done in an orderly manner and the injured left behind could have been saved. The civilians were simply allowed to take their chances and leave. After sunset the Government resumed hostilities placing those who were left behind in a dilemma. Staying or going could both spell death and 35 000 remained. The next day the Government happily announced that all hostages had left and launched its final indiscriminate offensive.
16th May Night
Bearing Witness: Nick: Nick and his family were among those who entered the Vattuvakal Bridge on the 16th night and got into Mullaitivu early morning on the 17th. Those who went in the night, including Nick’s party were all asked to sit down throughout the length of the long bridge. They were all huddled together in a packed crowd with no opportunity to observe social etiquette. The military men who had been told by the Government that there were not more than 20 000 people left under LTTE control, were thoroughly surprised that several times that number had been in the area.
Nick said that even at that late stage during the 16th night, a group of Tigers was fighting desperately. The Army was shelling fiercely. As Nick’s party ran out, they had regularly to take cover behind heaps of dead bodies, whenever there was a spate of shelling and run again desperately, holding on to dear life, when it abated. As they took cover and lay low often touching the corpses that gave them a modicum of protection, they had the impression that some of those bodies had been lying there for days, incurring decay and infection. They just wiped their hands on their clothing covering the thighs and kept running until the next round of shelling. All the bodies had large and often whole portions ripped off. It was a horrifying experience, which Nick says would haunt their memories for the rest of their days. This was also a critical time in Nick’s daughter’s pregnancy. She became a happy mother in September 2009.
Once the Army had got the people to the other side of the bridge and loaded them into buses, the noise of shells rose fiercely on the 17th morning. Nick felt that in Mullivaykkal the Army’s pressure on the LTTE had been most severe from the north, east and west and the latter had withdrawn further south into an enclave that was easier to defend and were fighting desperately.
May 17th Morning: End of the Road at Kepapulavu
With the first light at 5.30 AM, Sivalingam surveyed the scene and found no signs of the LTTE. He does not know what happened to them. 50 yards away, he saw the Army behind sand bags, who shouted at them to come quickly. Sivalingam’s family went immediately. The soldiers gave them biscuits and bottles of water and sent them on to get into buses and go to the IDP camps.
On the other side of Nanthikadal, at Kepapulavu, some key LTTE leaders, including Prabhakaran, Pottu Amman and Soosai, with a core group of fighters, had made a bid to cut their way through the 53rd Division westwards into the jungle. We said based on information we obtained through well-placed army sources that Prabhakaran and probably members of his family were captured, Prabhakaran was executed the same day or the next and his 12-year-old son Balachandran was executed in front of the father (see Special Report No.32). Nothing has since been heard about his wife Mathivathani or daughter Dwaraka, nor have there been any reports of their body being found. We have nothing more to say on this subject, except that our story has not been contradicted by evidence and the Government’s denials and its own versions about Prabhakaran’s death carry no credibility. Photographs of the dead body of Balachandran showing injuries on his body, taken apparently by a soldier’s cell phone camera, are in the public domain and are open to investigation by experts.
A witness, who had reached the 59th Division at Mullaitivu on the 17th morning, told us that he heard gunfire from the direction at Kepapulavu. He added that he also heard gun fire receding westwards, suggesting to him that some members of the LTTE got through the army lines. The escape strategy attempted by the LTTE leader was the same as that used by Pottu Amman (who was in charge of the escape) in the defence of Puthukkudiyiruppu during early February 2009. A group that crossed Nanthikadal then had cut through the line of the 59th Division in Kepapulavu and isolated a section of it in the north.
EROS leader Balakumar understood the LTTE well and had long feared them. When the LTTE provoked a war with the IPKF in 1987, Balakumar reportedly clutched his head saying that Prabhakaran had blown it. Being evidently a weak man having personal rapport with Prabhakaran, his organisation was virtually taken over by the LTTE, against objections from many EROS members. Though Balakumar made political speeches for the LTTE, his reservations were also deep; in recent times he became a source of moral support for dissidents, both EROS and LTTE. Latterly he had separated himself. His family had moved to Udayarkaddu and Balakumar suffered a shell injury in an arm, in December 2008. His wife Indrani, a trained nurse, brought him back to health. Indrani kept the family under her watchful eye, especially their children Sooriyatheepan (19) and Mahilini (18), whom she kept in hiding away from conscription gangs. Balakumar was a sickly man who suffered from high blood pressure, a weak heart and glaucoma.
In Putumattalan, some of Balakumar’s friends met him on 18th April 2009 to discuss escape. It was agreed that each would take his chance as it comes as others also had families. Early morning on 19th April, Balakumar’s family got into a boat having about 20 people in Putumattalan and sailed in a southerly direction maintaining that they were moving to Mullivaykkal. The idea was to move slowly to Mullivaykkal and then make a dash for Pulmoddai. When the boatman revved up the engine to make a dash, an LTTE patrol boat spotted them. It caught up and opened fire. The two who fired were very young boys.
Mahilini’s left arm was fractured near the shoulder and another lady had a slight injury. The boat went ashore. The next day the Army entered Putumattalan and some of Balakumar’s friends went out. There was no treatment for Mahilini at Mullivaykkal. Indrani left for Pulmoddai on the first ICRC ship to call at Mullivaykkal on 23rd April. She is now heart broken that she left her husband and son.
Balakumar and Sooriyatheepan stayed with relatives north of Mullivaykkal. On the 16th May, the LTTE allowed the people to go. Like many others who were to the north, they went towards the 53rd Division near Irattaivaykkal, along the Nanthikadal Lagoon. On the 17th May morning, just after 7.00 AM, the party was a short distance away from the Army. A soldier asked those who had been in the LTTE to first come forward. Sick as he was, Balakumar went forward and identified himself. An officer was called. He spoke to Balakumar politely and shook hands. Encouraged by this cordiality, Balakumar said that he had his son.
The officer asked him to fetch him. Balakumar returned with his son Sooriyatheepan, who had nothing to do with the LTTE, and an LTTE cadre Aingaran who wanted to surrender. As far as the people could see, Balakumar was treated well. A tractor-trailer was brought and Balakumar was helped to lie down inside and the three were taken away. The rest of the party who had gone with them, then surrendered. There has been no word of Balakumar or the other two since then.
17th Night to 18th Morning: An Apocalyotic Close Close
Bearing Witness: Komathy: We return to the experience of the retired lady teacher Komathy introduced earlier. On the 15th the LTTE started to set fire to all their vehicles and weaponry. The fires were raging for 3 or 4 days. By the 17th night the raging fires, aided by the Army’s firing of burn missiles, had spread into the civilian shelters and caused pandemonium. Until this point the people who had remained had believed that the ‘boys’ would not allow the troops in. But once the fires were lit, many fled. Survivors have related tragic stories such as, a mother having to escape with her children through raging fires, without having the opportunity to look back at what became of her husband. The retired lady teacher Komathy remained because of her crippled niece, still hoping that when the troops come in, they could surrender to them.
As the troops advanced, the Tigers also fired back from among the 30 000 or so people still remaining. There was hardly enough space to distinguish between a civilian zone and a battleground, resulting in many deaths in the fierce cross fire. The LTTE seemed to be using their ammunition generously in what was their last battle.
Komathy confirms the generous use of burn shells and cluster shells, the latter familiar to civilians by their drumming noise, and had seen many perish, having their bodies badly broken up. The burn shells, according to persons who were there, burns objects within a given radius. Typically, one would leave a charred circle if it fell on grass.
Komathy was lying in their tent as she found the heat and stifling sweat in the bunker unbearable One man who had been fleeing with his family in the deep hours of the night in consequence of intense fire from advancing troops, and was helping his children into a bunker, was hit by shrapnel as he was stooping to lift up his child lying next to the lady teacher. He fell over her as he died. The lady too was hit by shrapnel which penetrated her shoulder. Being a diabetic, she has so far not attempted to remove it by surgery.
Komathy was camped with many others who were perishing in great numbers in the cross fire – both sides took no account of the civilians’ presence. They finally made a westward dash for the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the wee hours of the morning. At this time the troops moving in a southerly direction were about quarter mile away. With her son’s help they found a tractor, put her crippled niece into it and trekked to the lagoon, which they crossed and surrendered to the Army.
She thus managed to escape with her son, her daughter-in-law and four children as well as a senior niece of who had been a long time cripple. The latter was the main reason why she stayed on till late. She had been awaiting a suitable tractor leaving the place to transport her niece.
There was no uniform manner in which civilians attempted their escape. They tried all ways and means, moving a short distance, taking cover and moving again. Some went west across Nanthikadal to Kepapulavu, some hugged the Nanthikadal coast southwards and used a float to reach Mullaitivu. Some hugged the east coast to Vattuvakal and crossed the water near the bridge to Mullaitivu and some came along the main road. Several persons who went towards Nanthikadal found countless putrefying dead bodies all over, killed either by army shelling or shot by the LTTE while trying to escape.
Muhunthan later met in hospital a person who escaped with five injuries on his body at the last stages. When this person was injured, another from his village, Mallavi, had gone to pick him up, when he was cut down by a shell blast. About 300 persons gathered at the school that had been Mullivakkal Hospital and surrendered to the Army.
Those who were too scared or too weak to run away remained in their bunkers. The Army surrounded the area at dawn. Those who survived the shelling, close range fighting and indiscriminate fire by both sides were, in several testimonies, called out by the Army, prior to being dispatched to IDP camps.
A religious leader, who had left the NFZ earlier, later talked to many civilians who had been in the NFZ until the last. The soldiers they saw looked fierce and unearthly like men out of the grave. One family had been moving to Vattuvakal on 18th May, after the main fighting had ended. Suddenly they heard bursts of gun fire behind them and the sounds of victims screaming.
Those who were too scared or too weak to run away remained in their bunkers. The Army came near at dawn on the 18th but did not enter the area where the Tigers were last holed up. Perhaps they finally thought of the civilians or were afraid of any remaining suicide bombers. The Army surrounded the area and left an opening towards Irattaivaykkal for the people to come out.
Bearing Witness: Thavamany: Rajaratnam’s mother Thavamany, with her married sister and her husband, had remained in a bunker to the south of Mullivaykkal, and hence were a little cut off from those who were exiting to the north. Her 85-year-old father, who remained a strong man to the last, helping in chores like chopping firewood, had died of natural causes. Her unmarried sister and the children who were with them had left earlier. Thavamany and the other two stayed in a bunker with a vehicle parked over it with sand piled around, which made it relatively safe except for a direct hit. When it was thought safe, Thavamany crawled out, lit a fire without exposing herself too much and made tea. Shells continuously fell around them until 19th May. There were also gun shots from the remaining LTTE cadres.
Those who survived the shelling, close range fighting and indiscriminate fire by both sides were inside their bunkers. The Army moved in very cautiously, breaking up the area into boxes, and calling out the people from each box. However, many of those in the boxes felt too frightened to come out, not knowing the Army’s intentions. A man who was Thavamany’s relative was in a bunker when the Army called. He remained inside and after some time peeped out, when a soldier saw him and shot him dead. The soldiers were later apologetic to the rest of the family.
On 19th May, Thavamany heard explosions close by and fires which made their bunker extremely warm. They gathered that the surviving injured LTTE cadres, possibly with others not injured, were committing suicide by blasting themselves. The cadres knew from experience that if they tried to surrender they would not be spared. Thavamany witnessed a huge fire. The next day, 20th May, when the surroundings were eerily quiet, Thavamany led the rest and walked south towards the Mullaitivu end. The soldiers expressed surprise, but accepted their explanation for the delay and let them through.
Thavamany was too far south to see army vehicles running over bunkers. But she said that the shelling had been very intense until 19th May. From messages passed between bunkers in her area, she estimates that about 150 persons were killed by shelling in her vicinity. All those who were in Mullivaykkal at the latter end that we have spoken to, are agreed that countless deaths occurred during these days while the Army and LTTE were slinging it out at one another with no concern for the people. Odd testimonies coming from the security forces confirm that the area was awash with dead bodies.
Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, claimed without batting an eyelid (17th May) that ‘soldiers saved all Tamil civilians trapped inside the war zone without shedding a drop of blood’. The war was over and the LTTE was militarily shattered at Anandapuram in early April. The NFZ being subsequently turned into a massacre zone in the name of hostage rescue is a monstrosity that cannot humanly be accepted.
Some Vital Questions of Humanitarian Law and Ethics
We have pointed out before that what the State inflicted on the civilians, particularly at Mullivaykkal, not only borders on wanton crime, but also has no justifiable political or military basis. The LTTE was broken and the resistance it offered was no more than a last gasp of a dying organism. We learn from the authors of Vanni Experience (the Kalachchuvadu article) who are from a left background, but served the LTTE in a cultural capacity with deep reservations, that dissent was strong even amongst the leadership. Sea Tiger Leader Soosai had walked out of the last leaders’ meeting disagreeing with Prabhakaran. Pottu Amman too felt that military resistance was doomed and wanted another way out, but did not confront Prabhakaran openly as Soosai had done.
Some of Balakumar’s friends said that during the year leading to the LTTE’s defeat, he was so disillusioned that he saw the continuance of the LTTE leadership as a grave liability for the Tamils. Many persons with dissident views found in Balakumar a source of moral support. Because of his personal rapport with Prabhakaran, he wrote to him regularly. Some who saw these letters told Balakumar that the issues are so serious and he was writing in the polite and restrained manner of a social exchange. Balakumar explained that if anyone tells Prabhakaran anything he would reject it out of hand. One needed to work on him gently so that he would feel the change as coming from him. However, in one of his final letters, Balakumar had told Prabhakaran that history would have no room for him.
The dissidents who were close to Balakumar felt that although their camp was increasing in numbers, there was little they could do while the leadership controlled the army and the intelligence service. They hoped that with addition of numbers to the dissident camp, there would be slow erosion of the structures of control.
We pointed out in Special Report No.32 that the state-owned newspaper Divaina reported that several LTTE leaders surrendered to the Army at the end of the war. Among them were Yogaratnam Yogi, Lawrance Thilakar and V. Balakumar. Nothing more has been heard about them. We have given above, eyewitness testimony on Balakumar’s surrender, along with his innocent son and a nephew.
We also said in Special Report No.32 that several senior leaders including Prabhakaran and Soosai were killed after surrender on 17th May. The sources quoted in that report and the circumstantial evidence given here suggest that there was a surrender deal which the Government dishonoured. Moreover, the political wing leaders including Nadesan, Pulidevan and many others had wanted to surrender on the 18th May morning.
Kohona told the Independent, he had learnt from troops then present in the field that Nadesan & co were shot by LTTE cadres who learned of their attempt to escape, adding, ‘this is consistent with their behaviour’. The same day the Daily Mirror quoted Kohona pointing in a contradictory direction: “The LTTE wanted to surrender their arms a little too late”. The latter seems to imply that the leaders were killed because of their failure to surrender in time. Notably, the Defence Ministry (defence.lk 18th May), far from claiming that the LTTE killed its leaders, merely reported that their bodies had been found.
High level contacts, involving the President, senior government figures and Foreign Ministry Secretary Dr. Palitha Kohona, had advised the leaders to go with a white flag and surrender to the Army. They were all reportedly killed. Kohona’s final message to the political leaders through the ICRC was, “Just walk across to the troops, slowly! With a white flag and comply with instructions carefully. The soldiers are nervous about suicide bombers.” Kohona surely said this after contacting the Defence Ministry and that is where the problem begins. Killing those who came to surrender has the appearance of being premeditated, as with the undermining of a surrender agreement.
Almost everyone in the LTTE who could speak with some authority on surrender talks between the Government and the LTTE has been killed or silenced by some other means. There is little that could be said in defence of the LTTE leaders after the manner in which they treated the people. A government cannot descend to the level of criminals even in dealing with criminals. The Government and a country lose their dignity and legitimacy when they subject anyone who is defenceless to barbarous treatment. It is also a loss to the Tamils, because they needed to question and hear their errant leaders and hold them accountable as part of rediscovering their soul. The Government has instead created conditions for the leaders to re emerge among an alienated people as potent figures of mythology.
In Balakumar’s case, he was a political person and there are no criminal charges against him. The laws of the land do not permit anyone to be detained indefinitely without sanction from a court of law and it is now more than 180 days. Persons from detainee families have told us that families now have access to most LTTE cadres who surrendered. But in about 25% of the cases there is no word about them despite numerous appeals having been made.
In Balakumar’s case his surrender to an officer of the 53rd Division near Irattaivaikkal, along with his son, was witnessed. We hold Major General Kamal Guneratne, former army commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse and President Rajapakse, directly answerable to the country for the safety of Balakumar and his son. They owe it to the families of all those who surrendered to provide access or be answerable for their loved ones. The country must make it clear to those who command institutional force that they are not above the law.
Beyond Death: A Survivor’s Experience in His own Words
From the survivors we would hear a variety of stories and many tragedies. They would all have one thing in common – it was a miracle to be alive, considering the many times death came very close.
We give below the story of one individual for whom death and life have become so intermingled, an experience for which words are inadequate. It is enriched by the fact that he did not have a family, but went about, anxious to help victims where he could. We relate the experiences the way they were told:
After the fall of Killinochchi, the people were on the run moving eastwards and lost contact with one another. During mid-January I went on my motorcycle to Piramandal Aru (River) east of Visuamadu looking for one of my friends. I inquired at a house in which the man was seated on a chair outside, while his wife, aged about 45, was cooking. There were two other young women there. When I inquired from the man he directed me to a place nearby where about 50 men and women had taken shelter. Since I used kerosene as fuel, it was taking me time to start my motorcycle. Being instinctively alert, no sooner upon faintly hearing the hum of an oncoming shell, I jumped into a nearby pit and immediately heard an explosion. When I raised myself and looked, I observed that the shell had struck the ground between the legs of the man who was sitting. No trace of him was visible. The two young women were also killed. The woman who was cooking was screaming in pain. She was aware that her legs had been blown off. Blood was mixed with the curry she had been preparing. She pleaded with me not to leave her in that condition and to take her to a hospital. The nearest field hospital was in Udayarkattu. Her life was ebbing away and she knew it. I was helpless. The least I could do was to be with her. Within a few minutes, she was gone.
I had moved to the church in Iranapalai. During February, the Kfirs came on a bombing raid. I got into a bunker. A little later a 1000 kg delay bomb fell about 15 feet from my bunker and penetrated the ground. I found myself rocked roughly like a baby in a cradle. Fortunately, this bomb failed to explode. Later the LTTE came and dismantled it to extract about 600 kg of explosive.
A few days later I was with some friends in a house at Anandapuram. When Kfir bombers arrived, I wanted to join some others moving into an open field, where there was also a cemetery, between Iranapalai and Anandapuram. The reason for moving into the open field was a surmise that the pilots would see we are civilians and leave us alone. But a friend of mine restrained me. The bomber dropped ‘air bombs’ (bombs that explode above the surface) in the field, killing about 15 of those who had gone there for safety.
About the same time a delay bomb (1 ton or 1000 kg) fell on a temple close by. I saw a goat, a man, a mat and some cooking utensils being thrown above the height of a cocoanut tree.
During my stay at Iranapalai, there were huge casualties due to aerial bombing and shelling. When a settlement was bombed on 16th February, some of us got hold of vehicles and went to rescue the survivors. Because the bombing of an area is frequently followed by artillery shelling or a return of the bombers themselves, the vehicle drivers refused to go near the settlement and parked about 150 yards away.
The victims were mainly women and children who had stayed at home when the men went out to earn their bread doing jobs like constructing bunkers. These bombs when exploding use the ambient oxygen for combustion creating a vacuum, resulting instantly in a powerful blast of wind. The blast wrenches at the clothes and renders them in tatters, leaving the injured women partially exposed. Several girls had stayed together in a bunker to avoid conscription gangs. The blast covered the bunker killing all of them. In a bid to avoid the disrespect of touching the bodies of the women, we had to place them on sacks or sheets, rush them into the van staying at a distance and get back.
One experience that left a heartrending impression on me was a young girl of 16 or 17 whose legs were blown off. As I was passing, she gripped my legs and pleaded with me to take her. She was supported by a rafter of cocoanut wood and had not realised that her legs were gone. I could see the bones sticking out. Before I could take in what happened, she asked me insistently, “If I were your sister, would you leave me here?” I have no sisters, although I wish I had. I was dumbstruck. She soon passed away.
Another girl came running towards us shouting that some terrible thing has happened. She neither showed any signs of injury nor awareness of such. To my astonishment, the girl who was running normally, collapsed 10 metres away from me and died. When I went close and examined her, I noticed that a piece of shrapnel had struck the back of her head and she did not know it. I figure that about 25 mainly women were killed in the incident. I don’t know the exact number because I had gone as part of a rescue team and not to count. I also saw others who had come independently of us also taking away the injured.
Subsequently, when I was in the NFZ by the sea, staying out in the open became risky with shells exploding and bullets flying, whose sound could be heard only upon their whizzing past. But for one reason or another, we had to travel along the main road running through the length of the NFZ, especially on rainy days. This road merges with the A 35 near Irattaivaykkal and its northern part where the people were staying is generally close to the lagoon. Valaignarmadam was marginally more dangerous, because the ground was raised, giving the soldiers across the lagoon a clear view and they regularly took pot shots at road users. One was thus better advised to use the secondary road from Putumattalan to Valaignarmadam that is closer to the sea. But when it rains the secondary road becomes inundated, and if one must travel, there was no choice but to take one’s chance on the main road.
I was on my motorcycle going through this area behind a couple on a motorcycle. The woman was pregnant and they were out probably to do some shopping. The couple was coming fast. They signalled to me and I moved aside to let them overtake. I suddenly saw the couple fall down for no discernible reason and the man writhing in agony. He had been hit by a bullet from the army’s side. I stopped and the pregnant woman pleaded with me to take her husband to the hospital. Most people passed us by engrossed in their own problems and such things had become a daily occurrence. The man whose lower jaw had been blown off was vomiting blood and the situation looked hopeless. What had happened was that when we passed that area on motorbikes, it was our custom to dip our heads as low as possible to minimise our chances of being hit by an army sniper. Because the man had ridden fast and taken a curve in overtaking me, he lacked the balance to dip his head as a precaution.
The stricken man’s wife was helpless. To carry the man to the medical post at Valaignarmadam required a third person on the bike so that the injured man could be sandwiched between us. My bike being too small for that, I asked the wife to help the man onto the bike so that he could sit behind leaning his head on my back. In this manner I took the man to the hospital. By the time I reached there he was dead. It was then that I noticed my own state. A good part of my person was drenched in blood and covered in flies. The flies formed also a thick layer upon the dead man. This brought home to me the absolute squalor of the place.
I was once travelling on the main road when unexpectedly I saw an RPG shell fired by a soldier across the lagoon landing in front of me. I considered and decided that there was no point in stopping and rode on and another RPG shell fell behind me. I warned people travelling in the opposite direction not to proceed as there was an ambush waiting. But no one seemed to take notice. How does one explain such behaviour? On the one hand there is constant danger from shelling and from small weapons fire and ideally children should be inside bunkers. But on the other, you see children playing on the beach and even flying kites, indifferent to sudden death that strikes unawares.
Children could not be kept long inside bunkers and when they went out it was a time of grave anxiety with bullets flying about. Also in April, I saw a mother crying inconsolably over the body of her child. The child had been missing. When she found her child it was a corpse four days old.
On 8th April I was nearby at Pokkanai, when the Army fired a barrage of shells, causing over a dozen deaths and scores of injuries among people in a queue with children below three years, whose presence was needed to collect packets of milk powder being distributed. What struck me most was the sight of a mother who was herself injured, clutching her dead child and crying.
On 20th April, when the Army entered the NFZ, the Pokkanai area was severely shelled. I went there in the morning with a friend who was searching for his family. Earlier I had seen a prominent white phosphorous flame. As I got nearer, I saw people with burns dipping themselves in the sea. Hundreds had died in the shelling.
During the first week of May, I was in Mullivaykkal. There was no day we were free from shelling. I had a friend staying in a house close to the sea with his wife, whose leg had been fractured by a shell blast and also had an injury in his arm. He had a lap top computer which he used to pass time. I occasionally collected his computer and had its battery charged at a communication centre, which had a generator. On this day, I had his computer charged and went to his home to deliver it. It was past 7.00 PM.
A nurse from the hospital was there to dress my friend’s wounds. Because she was dealing with a man, her father, had accompanied her. He was seated on a chair, while the others were on the ground. The father got up and offered me his chair. I declined. My friend’s wife asked me to stay and have a cup of plain tea. I excused myself saying it was time for my dinner.
As I was walking away, within a few seconds, I heard the noise of a single shell being fired. That was deceptive. The Army had a timing device which fired several shells simultaneously, although the noise suggested it was one shell. I was barely 10 metres from the house and I heard an explosion. I received what seemed like a thundering slap. I was thrown down and also someone’s severed leg that was cast up in the air by the explosion fell upon me. I fell wondering whether my hands and legs were intact. I felt pain, but upon feeling about I realised that I had come to no harm. My thoughts immediately went to the folk in the house I had just left.
The shell had fallen between me and the house. Going back, I saw the nurse’s father still sitting on the chair sans his head, as though he had been decapitated. The others were unharmed. Upon seeing me, my friend, disregarding his injured leg, walked up to me and hugged me saying he was worried if I had been blown to bits by the shell blast. The strain caused a relapse in his injured leg. The severed leg had come from the man next door, who had squatted in front of the house trying to tune his wireless set. He was dead.
On 8th May I witnessed a queue of hungry young persons waiting for patties being shelled after being spotted by a ‘vandu’ (beetle or UAV), leaving more than a dozen mostly children dead.
In the days that followed there was hardly any food. People were dying all over and were hardly in their bunkers. They stopped caring about living. They wanted to get out or die. The Hospital at Mullivaykkal stopped functioning due to a lack of medicines and the staff too did not have the peace to work. At such hazardous times when sudden death is imminent, people generally choose to stay close to their family, so that if death strikes they all go together. They cannot bear separation.
The cadres had little choice. Even if they were injured, the choice was to fight on or die. The prospect of medical care and hospitalisation did not exist. I saw for the first time and have no wish to see again, dogs, themselves hungry, carrying parts of human flesh from the multitude of bodies strewn around and left unattended. The whole area exuded the stench of death and hell’s drum beat of falling shells.
On the 15th night, I with some others walked towards the lagoon to find a place to sleep. Property rights to bunkers had expired, and people were constantly edging south. They dared not go northwards as troops there had suffered heavy casualties and they feared how they would be treated. Some of us found an abandoned bunker. We got inside and dug about a little to expand the space. My hand encountered the hands and legs of a dead infant and the bloodied head of a dead woman. It seemed that a shell had fallen into the bunker and killed its occupants.
On 16th May evening, as people were moving out, I saw a sight that moved me with deep sadness and guilt. The hospital was no more. Injured cadres, many of them young girls, with no family at hand, were laid out on the sides of the road near Vattuvakal. The ICRC that was to fetch them was evidently not permitted. They screamed for someone to take them or to give them cyanide. These cadres were very young and they were not sufficiently developed to understand the world around them and the nature of their fate. Their organisation should never have allowed them to suffer in this manner.
In the night I desperately looked for a place to sleep as I had not slept for three days. I saw a man covered by a mat lying down under a tractor, whom I took to be the owner. Since there was space, I asked for permission to sleep there. I took his silence for consent and spent the night next to him. To my consternation I noticed in the morning that the man was covered with congealed blood and had been dead about two days.
I walked in the morning with the people who were moving south. As we advanced soldiers from the 59th Division going north passed us on the other side of the road. There was no exchange of fire. On getting to Vattuvakal close to Mullaitivu, the soldiers warned us not to get off the road since the sides may be mined. One man who was in a hurry, left the road to overtake us. There was an explosion just ahead of me. The man lost a leg so near to safety. We were well received by the Army at that point and were given water. We were promised a new spring in our lives.
That was the point where the Government could have won over the people by treating them like citizens and ensuring their speedy return to normal life. In confining them to the squalor of ‘welfare centres’, for what seemed an interminable length of time, the Government had failed.
Months later, enjoying a kind of twilight freedom, I went to a temple. While standing there, a well of tears long confined flowed freely, as though something in me had given way without the slightest warning. I almost died several times, and unbelievably was among the living. We had passed through death, and life would never be the same again. That experience would always bind me to the people who suffered with me. It has given me a new lease of energy and determination to work for their well being.