The bund built by the LTTE along the Chundikkulam lagoon - courtesy Army media

One of the most astonishing factors about the determination of the LTTE to keep the people of the Vanni hostage was how little opposition it encountered. I am not talking here of a lack of opposition from the people who were victimized. If the price of trying to get away is death, then obviously you would be inclined to give in and stay. In such a context indeed it is remarkable that so many people had the courage to try to get away, and that some at least succeeded without the assistance of the Sri Lankan forces.

To cite just two incidents mentioned in the December 2009 report of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, who are certainly not indulgent towards the government –

In describing something that seems to have taken place in January, UTHR writes that ‘A group of people from Jaffna was trying to escape towards army moving west from south of the A 35, lines when some LTTE cadres stopped them. A woman was with her grand daughter and the latter’s two younger brothers in their early teens. The grand daughter prostrated herself before an LTTE man and pleaded wi0th him to let them go. The LTTE man pushed her with his foot. Her grand mother then lay at his feet and repeated the same plea. The LTTE man then opened fire injuring the three children. The injured grand daughter and the two children were helped by others to the army line and were dispatched to Vavuniya Hospital. The boys recovered. The grand daughter was sent to Colombo Hospital where she succumbed. One of the young boys who survived says that he would recognise the LTTE man who shot them anywhere and he would kill him.

 

Later, in April, in the first of the two large scale escapes, Once the Army controlled parts of the bund, about 7.00 AM, soldiers at certain points showed white flags, signalling the civilians to exit the zone at those points. Soldiers helped them to scale the bund and instructed them to lie low and move when they told them it was safe. They also saw the dead bodies of many who had perished from the fire of one party or the other. At the same time, LTTE cadres who had withdrawn east away from the bund started firing at the soldiers with small weapons and RPGs. In this exchange many civilians too were killed.

 

With all this going on, the LTTE holding people back and firing on those who tried to get away, the army trying to help them to escape, those who had found excuses for the LTTE, through years of horror, engaged in the old casuistry. The claim was that the civilians actually preferred to stay with the LTTE because of what they would suffer if they came over into government controlled territory.

During 2008 we had agencies claiming that conditions in the centres set up for displaced persons were so awful that the people of the Vanni preferred to stay with the LTTE. This was even repeated by some agencies who were at the same time pleading with the LTTE to allow the families of their own staff to go free.

Incidentally as evidence that the claim of indiscriminate killing of civilians was false, I need only cite the fact that all the NGO workers whom the LTTE had forcibly kept back got out safe and sound at the end of the conflict. There were I believe 535 of these.

Despite all this evidence, there seems to have been a pernicious effort to claim that people actually preferred to stay with the LTTE rather than get to safety.  The Darusman Panel exceeds its usual levels of illogicality in pressing this point.

The reasons they advance are various, as though they are trying to shore up their own disbelief. Having almost in passing mentioned the ‘LTTE pass system’, as though that were not barrier enough in itself, they first claim that ‘For most of these people, the Vanni was their home.’ They then claim, which might seem contradictory, that ‘Many had experienced the military occupation of Jaffna and had moved with the LTTE since 1995’, ignoring the fact that that too had been a forced evacuation.

 

They then go on to say that the civilians‘feared what would happen to them if they crossed into Government-controlled areas, knowing that they would be subject to internment.’ Since that is obviously not enough to have held people back from fleeing the possibility of being used as human shields, the Panelists lay it on thicker by claiming that civilians ‘also feared the white vans and feared being raped or tortured by the army.’

What takes the cake is the addition of fear of the Sri Lankan government because of  the LTTE policy of forced recruitment. The Panelists declared that this ‘meant that many families had relatives in the LTTE.’

And finally the Panelists claim that going towards Government held areas ‘would have, in many instances, required heading into, rather than away from, incoming artillery fire, active combat and minefields.’  They say this even while asserting confidently that Government was firing on the civilians anyway, which means that those civilians must have realized there was no point in retreating into ever smaller spaces.

Abandoned earth moving equipment - LTTE bund construction. Courtesy defence.lk

I suppose the Darusman Panelists are simply being naive in this instance, not actually wicked, as were those who found excuses for the LTTE when a little bit of sternness might have got more people away, in particular in the early days. But that was when at least one NGO allowed its earth moving equipment to be used by the LTTE to build high walls to stop the advance of the army, so perhaps they thought it no bad thing that people should be forced to stay behind.

And in case we under-estimate the sheer horror of what was going on, let me end by quoting yet another passage from the UTHR Report –

The principal described something else he had seen. 15 escapees had been shot dead opposite the Putumattalan Hospital. Along with the daily quota of dead resulting from army shelling, these bodies too were placed in a space ringed by ropes on a side of the hospital. With the help of labourers, the doctor looked at the bodies and pronounced the cause of death. The distinction was clear between shell injuries and bullet injuries. The doctor regularly pronounced all of them to have died due to army firing. The principal remarked, “I wonder how he did it?” This went on day after day and perhaps above a thousand died trying to cross the strip of water.’

So, not only were those who tried to get away shot, they were then added to the lists of civilians killed by the army. And if they could not serve the LTTE cause through their deaths then, they are now brought into the lists by the Panel to finish what the LTTE failed to do in those awful days.

Daily News, 10 May 2011

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