Victims of an underreported war

By J. Sri Raman
TruthOut.org | Perspective

A Tamil woman holds a malnourished child in Putumattalan, Sri Lanka. (Photo: The Associated Press)
A Tamil woman holds a malnourished child in Putumattalan, Sri Lanka. (Photo: The Associated Press.)

When a war goes underreported, the agony of its civilian victims goes almost unrecognized. The plight of the Tamils of Sri Lanka provides a poignant illustration, which the civilized world can no longer ignore.

There are obvious reasons, of course, why the Sri Lankan conflict is not the same as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to international observers. The 25-year-old conflict has been too much with us, and it has come to be regarded as an internal disturbance, in which outsiders cannot show much interest without appearing to be interfering. But all this is no consolation to the hundreds of thousands of the island's ethnic minority condemned, right at this moment, to the status of hostages in their own homeland.

Nor is their suffering, it may be added, a matter of satisfaction to sections of the Sinhala majority and their media that do not celebrate the war and that voice concern over the casualties in terms of economy and civil liberties for the entire country.

The underreporting of the war means that many basic questions about it remain unanswered. We have the word of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime that the war was nearly won, when a two-day Sri Lankan New Year truce was declared on April 13, with the final victory to follow the resumed army offensive against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

We have no final word, however, about the whereabouts of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. Newspaper clippings of the past four months on the subject would make funny reading, but for the sad fallout of the war for a people caught in the crossfire. Almost every day has brought a new theory about the elusive "Thalaivar (Leader)."

Speculations have ranged from his escape by air or water to the south of India or Singapore to his suicide through a cyanide pill. Sections of the media have manufactured stories about the Tiger chief shedding his striped camouflage for civvies and melting into the masses or sending his son to the battle front. In between, a photograph showing him with the pilots of an LTTE plane sent to raid Colombo was circulated. The other day, we even had an imaginative account of Prabhakaran on the verge of insanity.

While we must wait to know the truth about the possibly most loved and hated man in Sri Lanka today, a more serious question about the conduct of the war cannot be left unanswered much longer. The use of banned weapons in the conflict has been alleged several time over the years, but without evidence enough to compel an examination of the charge by appropriate international agencies.

In February 2009, the UN confirmed reports about the killing of 52 civilians in a shell attack at Suranthapuram (in the war-torn Vanni region), though it had no information about who was responsible for the attack. It was a cluster-bomb attack on a hospital.

Pro-Tamil sources then made the point that Colombo had never explicitly denied the use of cluster bombs. These sources also claimed that the banned weapons had been used in the Sri Lankan war before and discontinued for some time, but resumed after the collapse of a Norway-brokered ceasefire in 2007.

It has also been claimed that, in an interview to Karachi's Dawn newspaper in July 2008, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Farooq, director-general of Pakistan's Defense Export Promotion Organization, had talked of Sri Lanka purchasing cluster bombs, among other things, from his country. Sections of the media, it is also said, had reported even in 2006 about Colombo placing orders for cluster bombs with Pakistan, though the reports went almost unnoticed.

Also alleged is the use of other banned weapons. The Concerned South Asian Citizens, a pro-Tamil Indian forum without any political affiliation, for example, has recently voiced fears that the Sri Lankan army was using thermobaric bombs, which use fuel-air explosives. An explosive of this description is defined as "a device consisting of a container of fuel and two charges - the first bursting open the container at a predetermined height and spreading the fuel in a cloud mixed with atmospheric oxygen, and the second detonating the cloud and creating an enormous blast wave, incinerating everything below." The weapon is claimed to be "capable of creating pressure equal to that of an atom bomb."

The Sri Lankan army has also been accused of using chemical weapons. The pro-Tamil War Without Witness claims prima facie evidence for the serious charge, yet to be subjected to an international scrutiny. It said that two victims of a chemical-weapon attack were examined by a qualified doctor in the "no-fire zone" of Vanni on April 5 and that the initial results were "peer-reviewed" in the UK. According to it, two tell-tale chemical substances - triethanolamine and phosgene - were found in the wounds.

The preliminary finding was that the patients were possibly victims of a mustard-gas attack. The War Without Witness regrets that "a comprehensive analysis" report cannot be produced as Colombo has banned access to the combat zone for all independent monitors including the UN and the media. If the government has nothing to hide, it should have no problem allowing The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to investigate the issue.

Another measure of the underreporting of the war is that even India's media are unable either to confirm or to deny reports of the country providing undeclared assistance to Colombo even in the current stage of the war. A recent memorandum to the UN secretary general by signatories, including some eminent Indian academician and rights activists, takes notes of such reports and warns New Delhi against participating in this war.

In a recent article on "the silence surrounding Sri Lanka," articulate activist Arundhati Roy said, "From the little information that is filtering through, it looks as though the Sri Lankan government is using the propaganda of 'the war on terror' as a fig leaf to dismantle any semblance of democracy in the country and commit unspeakable crimes against the Tamil people."

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders makes the same point, more or less, if in less strong language. It said, "It is a disgrace that this war is being waged without independent journalists present." It added, "By limiting media coverage to guided tours with the purpose of confirming military victories, the armed forces are preventing the press from doing its job. They are disregarding the public's right to be informed in an independent manner."

It is not only the foreign media that Colombo has kept out. Their local counterparts have fared even worse. In January 2009, the government admitted that nine journalists had been killed and another 27 assaulted over the past three years, while independent activists say that at least a dozen journalists have been killed.

In January, too, a courageous newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, critical of the government's military campaign, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. His posthumously-published editorial in the Sunday Leader, where he prophesied his violent end, is now unofficially prescribed reading for Sri Lankan media persons of either ethnicity.

"It does not matter which language they work in, the press should not be prevented from carrying out official work. We have seen in the past month incidents where Tamil journalists were assaulted, newspaper offices searched and the military not respecting official accreditation," Sunanda Deshapriya, spokesperson for the country's main media rights group, the Free Media Movement, said.

In a blog for Sri Lankan citizen journalists, one of them recently wrote: "Our media overwhelmingly supports the defeat of the LTTE. But what does defeating them mean? Should everyone in their ranks be killed? Doesn't it matter that some of them were forcibly recruited as child soldiers a few years ago? Doesn't it matter that some of them may be forced to fight now? Are we agreeing that it is perfectly acceptable that, while being screened, suspected people should be taken away to some unknown place without any record or any monitoring?"

What is known for certain about the war and its victims, despite the officially enforced underreporting, should still suffice to shock the world community and conscience.

To go even by the conservative UN estimate, 100,000 people are trapped in a strip of less than 14 square kilometers along Sri Lanka's north-eastern shoreline. We have some idea of the sufferings of these inmates of the "safe" or "no-fire" zones or of the about the 300 "welfare centers" surrounded by barbed wire. Virtually unknown are the "vulnerabilities" (as officialese puts it) of the unknown hundreds of thousands in what the army calls "uncleared areas."

What is life in the "welfare centers" like? In her testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (February 2009), Anna Neistat of the Human Rights Watch described these camps as "de facto internment camps." She said, "The perimeters of the sites are secured with coils of barbed wire, sand bags, and machine-gun nests. There is a large military presence inside and around the camps ... Upon arrival in Vavuniya, all displaced persons, without exception, are subjected to indefinite confinement ..."

According to eyewitness accounts, the camp is usually a treeless site, with the day temperature hovering around 35 degree Celsius. Each family is given a tarpaulin tent, with a height of six feet right at the center, or standing space for one person at a time. The inmates are told not to leave the camp and to be prepared to stay put for a period of one to three years.

The UN's World Food Program provides a 1,880-calorie package for an internally displaced person and the fare consists of rice, wheat flour, lentil, 20ml oil and 20g of sugar. The food has been reduced now to one meal a day, say some reports.

The victims suffer far more than physical hardships. Quite often, the fugitives from war lose their families as well. The Sri Lankan forces separate men and women for screening before herding them into vehicles for transport to transit camps. In several cases, they are not taken to the same camp. Many of the camp inmates cannot find their children, husbands, wives or parents again.

Said an informed observer, "After the tsunami (which hit the Sri Lankan shores in December 2004), the government services and UNICEF registered every single separated child and rushed to reunite most children with their living relatives. Now UNICEF and the government authorities do not even know the numbers of children injured, without limbs, separated from their families or seriously sick and dead."

A government health official in the war zone was quoted on April 17 as saying that at least five children were dying every day from diarrhea and malnutrition, while many mothers were too emaciated to nurse their babies

Among stories about the state of victims, which no one will dispute, are the deeply sad ones told by MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers or Doctors Without Frontiers) head of mission Annemarie Loof. She talks, for example, of a woman approaching her one day. This woman's children were away at a boarding school in Mannar, on the western coast. She had not spoken to them in two years and her children did not know if she was still alive. " I gave her my mobile phone so that she could call them. I will never forget her relief after she was able to reach them."

Loof talks of many others as well. "People are extremely upset. They ask: 'Can you help me? I am looking for my child,' 'I am searching for my husband,' 'Do you know who is in the other camps?' I spoke to a woman who had eight children. She had been separated from her husband. Her eldest child, age 17, and her youngest, only four months old, were both dead. Her 15-year-old son could no longer speak. They come up to you, hold you tight and begin to cry."

Said Loof, "Imagine not being able to make a phone call to anyone, not being able to talk freely to the few aid workers who are allowed to visit the camp. Imagine having a post office but not knowing by memory an address to which you could send a letter saying you are there." She added, "Imagine being a child who doesn't know where to send the letter ..."

Imagine being the victims in an apparently interminable and underreported war, without an informed world community to which they can turn for urgent assistance.

18 April 2009 — Return to cover.
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