The tendentious nature of the accusations against the Sri Lankan government is most apparent in the accounts given by the Darusman report and Gordon Weiss of the last couple of months of the war. Weiss indicates that he depends heavily on information obtained from ‘a small cell’ set up by his hero Chris du Toit (who had cut his teeth on advising the notorious Angolan terrorist Jonas Savimbi, on behalf of the apartheid South African government) to ‘monitor the progress of the battle, gather reports of casualties and weigh the information it received’.

Despite disclaimers that this ‘seemed to be the equivalent of listening outside a door to a fracas and trying to guess the events from the exclamations, sounds of splintering furniture and hoarse shouts of those inside the room’, Weiss seems to think the conclusions of this shell should be believed. The refusal of the UN to deem all this credible has prompted the Panel to also attack the senior UN leadership in Colombo.

Weiss’s purple prose is at its most emotive in the chapter entitled ‘Managing the Siege’, which begins with a reference to ‘the bombed and smoking wards of PTK hospital’. Which one he refers to is not made clear, nor why he must refer to this when talking about the village of Kombavil some distance away.

Weiss then engages in a long excursus on the number of civilians left in the Wanni, in which he culls selectively from various statements to insinuate that there were well over 300,000 left while the government claimed there were about 70,000.

While certainly there were conflicting estimates, the UN suggests 230,000 even in its internal minutes (Weiss claims the ‘UN had half-heartedly agreed’ to this estimate), while that is the figure to which government agencies concerned with supplies worked.

Conversely even the Tigers, in an 18th February news item, said only that ‘More than 100,000 people have been forced into a plain and narrow strip along the coast‘.

 

He also indulges in philosophical reflects about civilians in warfare, culminating in comparisons between what happened in Gaza and the events in Sri Lanka.

What he conveniently forgets is that, while the Palestinians did not deliberately target their own civilians, nor prevent them from getting away into Israeli territory (for obvious reasons, which Weiss omits in his pointed comparison, the Tigers had made it clear that they would use Tamil civilians ruthlessly – precisely because they were counting on people like Weiss to provoke international intervention.

Though obviously this does not count as a war crime in any conventional sense, the encouragement offered by those like Weiss and David Miliband who encouraged the Tigers to think they would be let off the hook should be examined carefully, so that similar bad behaviour is never repeated.

 

In the next chapter Weiss makes clear where he is coming from, in attributing what he terms the ‘unassailable confidence’ of Sri Lanka to its relations with China.

What proved a common refrain in those days and now, efforts by Western commentators to insinuate rivalry between India and China with regard to Sri Lanka, figures large in Weiss’s world view, conveniently ignoring the fact that India was equally solid in its support for Sri Lanka’s efforts to get rid of terrorism on its shores.

Weiss stresses ‘Sri Lanka’s ties with China, Myanmar, Iran, Venezuela and Libya’ while forgetting that Sri Lanka was supported by most countries in Asia and Africa and the Middle East, and several others in South America.

The fact that the West was isolated in its efforts to pin blame on Sri Lanka in 2009 is conveniently forgotten to promote the polarization in which characters like Weiss delight.

Without giving any details Weiss then perpetuates the myth that ‘Hospitals and medical facilities were struck so often during these months, and with such repeated accuracy‘.

In actual fact, during the six weeks after the reported bombing of the Ponnambalam hospital, which had never been officially identified, there was only one attack reported on a hospital, namely on February 9th, when ‘Puttumattalan was hit by shelling that killed at least 16 patients‘.

This was clearly not the target, for there was no repetition of such an incident. The next allegation as regards the hospital was on 3rd March, when it was claimed that ‘shells hit the IDP settlement, located 200 metres near the hospital, claiming the lives of 13 Tamil civilians.

Allegations of shells in the vicinity of the hospital continued over the next few days (a shell ‘exploded 500 metres from the hospital’), while on 10th March it was alleged that ‘The medical store at Valignarmadam has sustained damage and the son or a doctor was reportedly killed there, according to initial reports’.

This is a far cry from the Darusman claim of systematic shelling of hospitals, and is easily understood in the light of the Tiger tactic of using weapons from the vicinity of hospitals.

Indeed, given the need to respond to fire from ‘IDPs or civilian installations such as hospitals’, the relative paucity of collateral damage should surely be commended.

On the 26th of March it was again claimed that the ‘makeshift hospital at Puthmaththa’lan’ was attacked with Rocket Propelled Grenades, killing 5 people and destroying ‘part of the medicines recently brought to the hospital‘, which suggests the Darusman panel was talking through its head in claiming that the Sri Lankan government was not supplying these hospitals with medicine.

Its selective myopia can be seen when, protesting too much as usual, it claims that ‘While some wounded LTTE cadre were treated at Putumattalan hospital, they were few in number and were kept in a separate ward. Putumattalan hospital was shelled on several occasions after that, in February and March. RPGs were fired at the hospital around 27 March killing several civilians. In addition to civilian casualties, the operating theatre, makeshift ward and roof all sustained damage.

However, despite these claims, activity at the hospital continued into April, with regular comments on the work there between April 3rd and April 19th. On April 11th it was reported that the Sri Lanka Army was ‘stationed just 800 metres away from the hospital’, while on the next day it was claimed that shelling ‘in the makeshift hospital’ resulted in a 20 days old baby dying’.

There were no other casualties, and the hospital continued to function, and admit new patients. Finally on the 20th it was claimed that the patients were ‘forced to run away’ as Rocket Propelled Grenades hit the hospital’, though ‘A few medical staff remaining in the hospital are hiding in bunkers‘. That was the time when the civilians were able to make a massive breakthrough, and get away to government controlled territory.

Incidentally, the Darusman report had also claimed that ‘Fresh water was scarce and food was in such short supply that a few people died of starvation’, for which the footnote, which should indicate a source for such an extravagant claim, merely extols the virtues of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, which has been identified as an organization supporting terrorism – ‘The Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), an entity associated with the LTTE, helped displaced persons to move, transported the injured to the hospital, buried bodies and distributed food, mainly Kanchi (rice and salt boiled with lots of water)’.

Tamilnet however, having declared on 18th April that thousands were ‘at the verge of death due to starvation‘, said nothing more in this regard over the next month.

To get back to the narrative of the Darusman report with regard to hospitals, it records that ‘the second NFZ had three makeshift hospitals, including Putumattalan, a small clinic at Valayanmadam and a hospital in Mullivaikkal.  All of their coordinates were known to the Government, and they were clearly marked with emblems’.

This is designed to show that government targeted these hospitals deliberately, but as we have seen, no evidence is provided for this claim, and in the case of the first hospital we have noted that there were no claims that it was damaged between February 9th and March 26th. With regard to the second, after the claim of March 10th that the medical store was damaged, it next figures in a claim on 22nd April that shelling ‘killed a doctor and seven persons including medical staff’.

That report refers too to the injury caused to Father James Pathinathar, who figures large in the narrative of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights. They do not refer to there being a hospital at Valaignarmadam, though they say The ICRC had built some temporary shelter near the church when it was forced to vacate PTK. It became also the quarters for the AGA Parthipan and also the doctors.’

The UTHR narrative is clear in its description of the manner in which the LTTE violated the sanctity of the church which the priests had guarded as a refuge for those who had deserted the LTTE – ‘Finally, late morning close to March-end, a large number of LTTE cadres, including police and military, surrounded the church in the style of a military operation. They barged in.

They went into the church with their guns, but the victims evidently did not want to give up without a fight. The LTTE opened fire and killed four persons inside the church. As panic and terror spread the church emptied. One observer described the scene of wailing and mourning as one, whose profound imprint the shore and landscape would long remember.

The LTTE brought a stream of buses, packed the young and moved them away in quick succession to Mullivaykkal’.

The Darusman report is more anodyne – ‘On one occasion in mid-April, LTTE cadre, led by the former Trincomalee Political Wing leader known as Ezhilan, forcibly recruited hundreds of young people from Valayanmadam Church and put them on buses to Mullivaikkal’. And the incident does not figure at all in Gordon Weiss’s narrative.

 

There remains the last hospital in the last No Fire Zone, and we should look carefully at what was claimed about that too.

But a careful assessment of what was said at the time, and the manner in which it has been transformed into a brutal narrative by both Darusman and Weiss indicates how unreliable they are, how purposeful their assault on truth as well as the Sri Lankan forces.

Daily News 16 July 2011

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