In the claims and counter-claims swirling around about what happened in the last days of the conflict, logic and intelligence seem to have gone by default. There is little effort to look at evidence, and to consider the wider implications of the few facts that can be discerned.

One assertion that there is no reasons to think false is the fact, as reported in Wikileaks, that the ‘Norwegian DCM told PolOff that a priest in Jaffna had called her to say that another priest in the conflict zone had called him on a satellite phone. He said he was with a group of 40 children, who were pinned down in bunkers in the conflict zone and dared not move because of intensive incoming shelling.’ Wikileaks does not tell us what happened afterwards, but the Norwegian DCM is now the ambassador and, when I asked her about this statement, she was able to tell me that the story had a happy ending. The pastor and the children were brought to safety. This happened, she said, after a message about their existence was conveyed to the Sri Lankan authorities, though it could not be affirmed that it was that information that had led to the children being kept safe.

Corroboration of this story comes from an article that appeared in the ‘New Yorker’ in January 2011. The author, Jon Lee Anderson, writes that A survivor of the final stand at Mullaittivu, a young pastor, described the scene to me. He and four other pastors and a group of sixty orphans in their care had been dug into shallow bunkers on the beach. “It was the first thing we did whenever we reached a new position—digging and making bags with cut- up women’s saris,” he said. “Only afterward would we go and look for food or water.” The Tamil fighters were in bunkers all around them. “Most of them were Black Tigers,” he said, referring to the Tamil suicide squad. “Prabhakaran was among us, too, but none of us saw him.”

He described a charnel ground, with artillery shells landing at random. “All we could see was dead people, people crying for food and for water, and burning vehicles everywhere.” On May 16th, Army troops took the last coastal positions, and, as they pursued the remaining Tigers, the Army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, declared victory. The next day, a Tiger spokesman posted a statement on the organization’s Web site: “This battle has reached its bitter end. . . . We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer.” In the bunker, the pastor’s group talked by cell phone with a brigadier general in the Sri Lankan Army who told them to stay there until they saw soldiers, then identify themselves with white flags. The group had run out of food and went foraging in an abandoned bunker nearby. “We found food packets—meat, chocolates,” the pastor said, and they took as much as they could carry, dodging incoming fire.

The next morning, a young man in their group was fatally shot as he defecated outside. By evening, they could see soldiers approaching. “Two or three of us went out with several children, and we took white flags, as the brigadier had suggested,” the pastor recalled. “But as we approached they said, ‘Don’t come,’ and fired guns in the air.” The soldiers had been told there could be suicide bombers among the last Tigers, and in fact several insurgents blew themselves up in the midst of civilian refugees turning themselves in to the Army. “We fell on the ground. They were about fifty metres away. We crawled back to the bunker, and then they fired at the bunker. The whole night, I could hear the Army throwing grenades in the bunkers near us. There were explosions, and people were crying and saying, ‘Help us.’ ” At dawn, the pastor said he “felt courage” and decided to go out and confront the soldiers. “I went with another pastor and a white flag,” he said. “We explained who we were, and they told everyone to come forward out of the bunker. They ordered us to kneel down. There were about fifteen soldiers. Their faces were covered with black cloth. One soldier said, in Sinhala—I understand a little—‘We have orders to shoot everyone.’ We were shouting for them not to shoot.” After a tense standoff, the pastor was strip-searched, along with the children, and then allowed to collect his belongings from the bunker. “A pastor came behind me, but he was punched in the chest by a soldier. He fell down. He died later that day. The same soldier who hit him stuck his fingers in the wounds of the young men with us who had been injured.” After another strip search and a long interrogation, the pastors were reunited with the children and put in a detention camp.’

Jon Lee Anderson’s article is a forceful attack on the Sri Lankan government, designed to prove that Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency efforts were ‘hideous in practice’. Having then set up a spurious contrast with a ‘drink lots of tea’ with the locals approach he claims General Petraeus was trying in Afghanistan with ‘at best mixed results’, he declares that the  manner in which ‘Petraeus rolled back Iraq’s insurgency in 2007 and 2008…. involved a great deal of outright killing, both on and off the battlefield. In the end, it mostly worked.’ In short, while being nasty about Sri Lanka, Anderson seems to suggest that only brutality works.

This to my mind is a wicked approach, because it justifies the brutality that Anderson evidently suggests Petraeus should be using in Afghanistan instead of the less aggressive approach he mocks. It is wicked because it ignores the fact that in Sri Lanka a more moderate approach in fact worked. And despite the twists Anderson brings to his account, the story of the pastor and the forty children seems to justify the Sri Lankan assertion that our soldiers generally behaved admirably.

Anderson wants us to think that these are nasties, ordered to shoot everyone, and keen to do this. But the fact is that the children were spared, and all of them were taken to safety with the pastor. And anyone reading through the account will realize the pressure the soldiers were under, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up amidst civilians trying to turn themselves in to the army. There is no suggestion at all that the army shot any of these civilians.

The pastor would surely have mentioned this had it happened. As it is, he claims that the army was throwing grenades into the bunkers around him. If this was done at random, it is remarkable that the bunker with the children in it remained untouched. And we should not forget that, by the pastor’s own admission, he and the children were in amidst the bunkers of LTTE fighters, most of them Black Tigers, the dreaded suicide squads.

Significantly, when the claim is that the people were being starved, the pastor mentions the meat and chocolates that the Tiger fighters had. The warehouses we know were full of stocks of paddy but still the myth of starvation persists. Meat and chocolates and rice might not be the most healthy diet in the world, but they are not starvation rations.

The last stages of the battle were hideous. But the soldiers who had tasked with a virtual impossibility, to rescue as many civilians as possible in the face of Tiger intransigence and willingness not just to sacrifice civilians but to kill them themselves, managed to save tens of thousands even at the end, and all the children the pastor had tended for so long in the midst of the Black Tigers. Surely at some stage some appreciation should be expressed.

Daily News 18 May 2011