Catherine Philp - foreign correspondent, The Times (of London)

The most serious canard advanced against Sri Lanka is of massive numbers of civilians having been killed. This was first floated in the London Times, which gave a figure of 20,000 and gave three separate reasons for this calculation. The first was that the UN had assessed the number of those who died by the end of April at around 7,000, and after that deaths were at the rate of about 1000 a day. Later the Times claimed that it had extrapolated a figure, which was based on I think quadrupling the number of actual dead bodies. Finally they claimed to have satellite imagery of graves in the area in which the LTTE made its last stand.

This last preposterous claim belied the initial assertion that it had included those who had died in earlier months, which would of course have been elsewhere. It also made clear the determination of the LTTE to distinguish as civilians all those who died.

I have noted elsewhere that those who died would fall into three categories. The first is that of LTTE fighters who were committed members of the organization, well trained in terrorism. The second is those who were forced by the LTTE to fight. We know that the number of these was enormous. The UN was aware, though they did nothing about it, not even publicizing the fact, that from 2007 onward if not before, the LTTE was insisting that all families in the Vanni provided one member for the LTTE fighting force.  Since the number of families in the Vanni turned out to be much larger than the UN had indicated, we have to assume that, even if the LTTE was only half successful, they would have added another 30,000 or so into their fighting ranks.

Sadly we know that some of these conscripted youngsters fell victim to our forces. When storming a bunker from which the enemy is firing, soldiers cannot distinguish between those in uniform and well armed, and those who have also been dragooned into the frontline. We must regret the deaths of such youngsters, but there is no way they could have been avoided, once the international community decided to stay quiet about the conscription and about the determination of the LTTE to force everyone to go with them in their retreat.

Finally there are the civilians who died in collateral damage. Though the Report suggests that there was deliberate targeting of civilians, it is clear that this was not the policy of the armed forces. A very interesting detail in the Report by the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, on the last stages of war, describes the manner in which the LTTE would fire from amidst civilians in an attempt to provoke the army into firing back. On some occasions this may have happened, but what is remarkable is a description of an instance in which soldiers refused to fire, even though this increased the danger this was in. Given that it is unlikely that soldiers disobeyed orders to fire in such a situation, one can see that the orders were that they should not fire when there was danger to civilians, though obviously soldiers feeling in danger of death themselves may not always have held back.

The failure of the Darusman Panel to look into such evidence is deplorable. It is as though they have decided to go with the highest conceivable numbers for deaths, and then attribute the bulk of them to the Sri Lankan forces, with no care for assessing the numbers of those killed by the LTTE, the numbers of those forced by the LTTE to sacrifice themselves, the numbers deliberately endangered by the LTTE by their practice of  firing ‘artillery in proximity to large groups of internally displaced persons (IDPs)’ and firing from or storing ‘military equipment near IDPs or civilian installations such as hospitals’.

What I can only describe as the Panel’s wickedness is apparent from the fact that this description is preceded by the statement that ‘From February 2009 onwards, the LTTE started point-blank shooting of civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, significantly adding to the death toll in the final stages of the war.’ Not only does the Panel suggest that the LTTE did not do this before, it downplays the fact that the deliberate endangering of civilians in the lines that follow, cited above, also significantly added to the death toll. But no, the Panel has to hold the government responsible for that death toll.

What is also clear is that the Panel has made no serious effort to calculate the number of probable deaths based on clear, publicly available statistics. I refer to those of the ICRC, which during the last few months regularly brought down groups of sick and wounded to government hospitals. Regular bulletins of numbers were issued by the ICRC, and indicate that, between February and May, a total of 13, 826 persons were thus conveyed.

In addition to the sick and the wounded, this number included what are termed bystanders, ie accompanying persons. I remembered from last year that the number of bystanders was in fact more than that of the wounded and sick, which suggested that there could not have been quite as many urgent cases in need of better medical attention as was constantly being suggested.

Last year I had noticed that there were quite a few sick amongst the wounded, but half way through the distinction was not made in the figures that were published, and I was told that there had been some confusion after it was decided that patients should not be brought to Trincomalee, but should rather be taken to the hospital the Indians had helped to set up at Pulmoddai. The reasons for this change included, apart from protests from the people of Trincomalee that their access to medical facilities was being limited by the influx, was that government had realized that amongst the so-called bystanders were LTTE cadres who might create problems.

I was unable to obtain this year from the ICRC a breakdown of bystanders and patients, whether sick or wounded, but I knew that that distinction had been maintained, and I found on the ICRC website that there were 6.600 wounded and sick individuals amongst the more than 13,000 who had been brought down – ie, I was right in remembering that there were more bystanders than patients. I was later also able to find the figure of actual war wounded, which was 4,520, with the bystanders (including the sick it seemed by that calculation) being 9306.

Now anyone serious about assessing the number of those killed would have looked at these figures, and tried to extrapolate from standard ratios of dead to wounded, instead of engaging in the preposterous calculations of the Times and Chris du Toit, the South African intelligence expert with his experience of how apartheid worked.

If we assume a ratio of 1 to 3, which is far from conservative, we then have a death toll from war wounds of about 1,500. However, there is the possibility that the LTTE was actually preventing the wounded from getting to hospitals where they could be better looked after, so that they could send what were termed bystanders for whatever reason; and even if this is discounted, we know that the wounded would have been more than 4,500 since not all would have had access to the ICRC ships.

But, even if we double the figure, we get a figure of about 3,000 deaths in the period upto May 9th. The worst case scenario adduced by the Times adds on 1,000 a day for 10 days more, which gives 13,000, but given what we know of the propensity to exaggerate, as the ICRC figures makes clear, we can see that even half that figure, viz another 5,000, would be the maximum conceivable.

If we go back then to the fact that amongst these were not only hard core Tiger fighters but also those who had been conscripted with no one trying to save them, we realize that the number of civilians who died is far less than the tens of thousands adduced by the Panel.

The Island 27 April 2011

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