Gordon Weiss

The United Nations has I gather taken note of my detailed account of Chris du Toit and his network of observers, as have others in the Congo who I presume came across him later, after his involvement in what his disciple Gordon Weiss describes as ‘the illicit wars fought by South Africa in Angola’. I have however been reminded that, perhaps more even than Weiss, the responsibility for the attack on Sri Lanka with regard to ‘its shelling of the United Nations hub’ rests on the other colonel who reported to Weiss, namely the retired Bangladeshi colonel Harun Khan who ‘had led brigades into battle and managed counter-insurgency operations in his own country’.

I myself continue to believe that Harun was comparatively innocent, and it was his boss Chris du Toit who was the linchpin of the operation to pile allegations on Sri Lanka. But certainly Weiss quotes Harun directly, and it would seem that it is his evidence that has contributed to the criticisms contained in Paragraphs 80 to 94 in the Darusman report.

The Darusman report leaps from place to place in its account, indicating the vague nature of the panellists’ knowledge. Para 80 begins On 20 January 2009, the Government unilaterally declared a No Fire Zone (NFZ) and remarks that The LTTE did not accept the NFZ as binding. The rationale for the location of the NFZ, which encompassed the LTTE’s western and southern defensive lines, and the boundary of which along the A35 was only 800 metres north of the advancing SLA frontline, was not clear.

That last line suggests that the panellists had some sympathy with the refusal of the LTTE to accept the NFZ, a refusal that led to concerted use of the NFZ for its own military operations. Then in Para 81 the Panel concentrates on the hospital at Vallipuram, declaring that On or around 19 to 21 January, SLA shells hit Vallipunam hospital, located in the first NFZ, killing patients. Throughout the final stages of the war, virtually every hospital in the Vanni, whether permanent or makeshift, was hit by artillery. Particularly those which contained wounded LTTE were hit repeatedly

This unequivocal claim is belied by what Tamilnet reported on 22nd January. As I have noted before, the assumption of the panellists that they alone care about civilians, is belied by the care taken by our forces. I have also pointed out that I would monitor Tamilnet every day and get reports of allegations, for which I would ask for explanations if they seemed serious. Whilst obviously this was not a comprehensive nor entirely reliable methodology, I believe it represents a worst case scenario. Certainly, when I showed my documentation once to Al-Jazeera, they affirmed that this was pretty much the same information they had received.

On 22nd January what Tamilnet said was ‘The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and the surgical site of the Mullaitheevu hospital, functioning as a makeshift hospital at Va’l’lipunam school, were damaged in Sri Lanka Army (SLA) artillery fire Wednesday night and Thursday around 12.20 pm, after the Sri Lanka government declared that the area where the hospital is situated is a “secure zone”, medical authorities at the hospital said Thursday. Five civilians were killed within the hospital premises Thursday’.

If this is true, it can only be collateral damage. Had the hospital been ‘bombarded’ as the headline proclaimed, it is not possible that there could have been only five dead, and fifteen wounded, as asserted. Rather, the implication is that even the LTTE could claim nothing but some damage to the hospital, which might have been caused by a single shell.

I have noted previously that the allegation of the panel in its introduction, that ‘The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Governmentis completely false. With regard to Kilinochchi for instance, taking which involved long and protracted fighting, there were no allegations at all of damage to the hospital by the army, though on October 31st it had been alleged that ‘Two artillery shells fired by the Sri Lanka Army exploded Friday morning close to the wall of the Ki’linochchi hospital, causing panic among the patients and the staff’. With regard to the airforce, there was just one allegation, namely that jets dropped bombs near Ki’linochchi hospital’ and three persons ‘were wounded in the bombardment. Shrapnels hit the hospital building causing damage.

To get back to the work, if that is the right word, of Colonel Harun’s convoy, the Darusman panel notes that, after ‘ the LTTE refused the convoy permission to proceed to Vavuniya due to the presence of national staff’ most international staff returned to Vavuniya but two members stayed behind. Government was told that they wanted to persuade the LTTE to let national staff leave, but this of course never happened. Instead, the panel claims that ‘On 23 January 2009, the United Nations staff relocated to the first NFZ, as a large SLA offensive on PTK seemed imminent. They set up a hub near Suthanthirapuram Junction along the A35 and relayed their coordinates to the Vanni commander. A large number of civilians also relocated to the NFZ and set up their shelters around the United Nations hub. Most civilians settled in just north of the A35, since other parts of the NFZ were not suitable for erecting shelters. The Additional Government Agent (AGA) established a food distribution centre nearby. During the day, shells fired from Government-controlled areas in the south started landing occasionally in the NFZ. In the evening, shells fell on the food distribution centre, killing and wounding a large number of civilians.’

This is different in some particulars from what Gordon Weiss says, though the impression he seems to create is similar to that of the panel. His claim is that Harun stopped in Suthanthipuram where there were already ‘thousands and thousands of people’ and food distribution was already going on. Harun apparently felt ‘a decreasing level of anxiety’ and set up camp, even though army artillery was firing along the road and ‘many people were killed and wounded’. Then, in the night, according to Weiss, all hell broke loose, with Harun being quoted as saying ‘”It went on for hours, hundreds of shells, I couldn’t count…the kind of indiscriminate covering barrage that is used to shield an advance. But it was non-stop, and it was striking the field full of people who had just eaten their dinners and gone to sleep”’ Weiss himself adds for good measure that Harun ‘could see the shells exploding where thousands of refugees were camped. He saw one shell tear apart a small hut housing humanitarian workers who had been distributing food and water that afternoon’.

All this is pretty strong stuff, and the panel too talks of  hundreds of shells rained down in the NFZ. It goes on to say ‘Although LTTE cadre were present in the NFZ, there was no LTTE presence inside the United Nations hub. The LTTE did fire artillery from approximately 500 metres away as well as from further back in the NFZ, but the area where the United Nations was based was very clearly civilian. The Government never gave an explanation for its shelling of the United Nations hub, which was the only international presence in the NFZ’.

The panel clearly never wondered whether the government did not give any explanation precisely because the UN at that time never made the type of claim we see in the panel report and in Gordon Weiss’s book. As I have said before, indeed at the time, all we were told about the incident – other than the calls made by the UN to which we responded, and which culminated in the UN Resident Representative sending us a text to say they believed the bulk of firing had come from the LTTE – was the description given by Chris du Toit when we called him in to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, to discuss the figures that were being bandied about of civilian casualties over a month’s period. He told us then that they could not be sure from the trajectories where most of the shells had come from, but the one shell of which they could be sure – and he showed us the crater of a blown up photograph – had come from the LTTE.

Other circumstantial evidence suggests that the narrative presented by the Darusman panel and by Weiss is gobbledegook. Weiss records that there were 132 staff members and their families’ whom the UN were asking the Tigers to release. They seem to have been with Harun when the panel claims that government was engaged in ‘shelling of the United Nations hub’. None of them was killed or injured, indeed none was killed or injured over the next four months, which suggests that there was no indiscriminate shelling of civilians.

And, most tellingly, Tamilnet does not record the scene of carnage that Weiss and the Darusman panel trumpet forth. Tamilnet said nothing about Suthanthipuram on 24th January, and on the 25th it alleged only 22 deaths, declaring that the Sri Lanka Army ‘continued artillery shelling on densely populated “safety zone” in Chutanthipuram, Udaiyaarkaaddu and Thearaavil in Visuvamadu throughout Sunday, at least twice attacking the vicinity of the supply centre, located at Chutanthipuram playground, the only centre in Vanni where humanitarian supplies brought in by the UN World Food Programme are distributed. Two shells exploded in the premises, killing five members of a single family of Mr. Jegatheeswaran, owner of a saloon displaced from Visuvamadu. Five more civilians, inclueding children and women, were also killed. Body parts were scattered across the locality and not all of them could be identified, according to medical sources. At least 13 civilians were wounded at the site’. The headline was ‘SLA shelling kills 22 cvivilians, wounds 60, targets humanitarian supply centre’.

Interestingly, Weiss records a tactic of the LTTE that seems designed to provoke fire towards targets they wanted damaged. He wites how ‘Tiger mobile artillery unites played cat and mouse with SLA artillery locator devices. They would fire a shell or two before hitching their howitzer and moving to a fresh location’ and, even more pertinently, he had also written, ‘Harun could see the barrel flashes from a Tiger heavy artillery piece just 300 metres from the hospital, quite apart from hearing its thumping reports. As the Tiger artillery sent outgoing rounds against the army’s advance, and then quickly shifted position, he could count off the seconds until an incoming barrage responded in an effort to destroy the guns’.

Any sensible observer would have understood and roundly condemned such tactics. But for a man who glorified suicide bombers, presumably this would have been another example of something ‘supra-human’, the sacrifice of other lives a mere detail in the Nietschzian vision Weiss privileges.

Daily News 12 July 2011