Ms Damilvany Gnanakumar

In writing about the various UN personnel from Britain who appeared to have other tasks to fulfil in addition to the ostensible one of contributing to humanitarian operations, I noted the fact that the way in which UN staff is sent to Sri Lanka is not always clear. Often we were not informed when particular positions were not in fact UN ones but had been specifically funded by the British for purposes that were not transparent.

In this shifting situation, with the UN being used with preconceptions and for purposes for which it was never intended, as I was first advised by a senior Indian diplomat, we need to be doubly careful, but unfortunately this shift seemed to have passed our Foreign Ministry by. I can only hope that now, with a much more thoughtful and experienced Secretary in place, we will begin to plan a bit more carefully for the challenges of the 21st century.

Lack of care seems to have contributed too to what happened with regard to Ms Damilvany Gnanakumar, about whom I first heard when I was negotiating the release of a New Zealand national, for whom I had been asked to liaise on behalf of the New Zealand embassy in Delhi. I think I spoke to the wrong person in the military, who failed to deal with the issue, but I did locate the lady with the help of UNHCR, and tried to expedite her release.

I thought the forces should check with her what had happened, and in particular what had motivated her to stay behind when other foreign nationals had left, but they failed to question her. Again, this was probably my fault, for I had thought this an issue for Civil Military Liaison, but those I dealt with had not taken the matter seriously. I said therefore that I would like to see the lady myself when I was next in Vavuniya, but when I got there I was told that she had vanished that very morning.

I had no doubt that she had made her way out of the camp through bribery and / or taking advantage of carelessness, and this seemed confirmed by the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner whom I met on my next visit to Delhi. Certainly the matter was then laid to rest, and when recently in New Zealand I met the then High Commissioner, it was clear that the lady was safely back at home.

Failure to deal expeditiously and systematically with Mrs Naguleswaran may have been compounded in the case of Damilvany. She claimed she was interrogated several times, but there seems to be no clear record of what transpired. I may of course be wrong, and material pertaining to her may still be classified, but I believe that, when the British High Commission got involved, there should have been written communications that made clear the actual situation.

For Damilvany seems to me a classic case for terrorist recruitment and indoctrination. I make no reference to material that I have seen recently suggesting that she had close ties with LTTE personnel such as Castro, one of its principal agents for overseas dealings. Even without knowledge of this, anyone reading the account of her published when she first got back to Britain would have realized that she was not the innocent idealist she is presented as being.

Gethin Chamberlain - Guardian UK

Admittedly the article was written by Gethin Chamberlain, who occasionally wrote for the ‘Guardian’ – though the permanent ‘Guardian’ correspondent in India told me firmly that he was not one of their employees, and they only used his material when there was no one else in place. This was understandable for several of his stories had to be corrected, as I noted when I checked on them recently. It was Chamberlain who reported that 11 women had been found with their throats cut, and then confessed that there was no basis whatsoever to the story and that he realized his source was unreliable – but nevertheless he would not issue a retraction.

 

Chamberlain wrote that ‘Born in Jaffna in the Tamil-dominated north of Sri Lanka in 1984, Gnanakumar and her family moved to Britain in 1994. Until 28 February last year, she had not been back. She had just completed a biomedical degree at Greenwich University, but her short-lived marriage was on the rocks and she decided it was time to make a clean break. She left the house, telling no one where she was going.

Arriving in the capital, Colombo, she headed for Vanni, the Tamil heartland, to stay with a relative she calls her brother (her real brother is back in the UK, along with her two sisters). There seemed little sign of danger, but by June 2008 fighting was getting worse: the Tamil Tigers, or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), still thought they would be able to negotiate a ceasefire, as they had done in the past, but the government had other ideas. They were determined to destroy the LTTE once and for all. Gnanakumar decided to stay on to try to help those who were trapped by the advance.

The uprooting at the age of 10, the short-lived marriage (whether arranged or chosen is not mentioned) would have suggested to the LTTE someone they could easily rouse and hold. Chamberlain however does not for a moment wonder why a woman who had not been in Sri Lanka for fourteen years decided to go back to stay with a relative she calls a brother, when the whole of her immediate family was in England. He claims that there was little sign then of danger, which is nonsense since by 2008 the army had begun its steady progress in the North. It should have been obvious then that Damilvany chose deliberately to enter a war torn area and stay on there for some special purpose.

It is conceivable that this was essentially humanitarian, but the manner in which she has behaved since suggests otherwise. There was silence after her interview with Chamberlain soon after she got home, and then she emerges as the chief internal witness in the Channel 4 film, making generalizations that are not borne out by any evidence.

The uprooting at the age of 10, the short-lived marriage (whether arranged or chosen is not mentioned) would have suggested to the LTTE someone they could easily rouse and hold

Most startling – and most fraudulent – is her claim that hospitals were repeatedly shelled, immediately after the coordinates of those hospitals were given to the army. I have already shown, using material sent by the ICRC, that this is totally false as regards the hospitals which functioned in or near the first No Fire Zone. I have also shown that the allegations made at the time as regards the hospitals in the last No Fire Zone contradict Damilvany’s assertion.

With regard to Puttumattalan hospital for instance, the allegations at the time were that it was first hit on February 9th, and next on March 26th. On the first occasion ‘at least’ 16 patients were alleged killed, which Darusman dutifully parrots. In March the allegation – which the American State Department does not seem to have registered – was of five patients killed, which Darusman expresses as ‘several civilians’.

Valayanmadam Church

Valayanmadam Church

There are no more allegations as regards Puttumattalan. Darusman claimed that there were two more hospitals, but there seem to be no allegations of attacks with regard to Valayanmadam, except indeed the shell fired into the church by the LTTE on April 22nd as alleged to the US Embassy. Long after there were claims however that only one hospital was functioning, at Mullivaikkal, what is described as a Human Rights Watch source claimed that the Valayanmadam hospital was attacked. HRW is another source for the claim that ‘each time a hospital was established in a new location, GPS coordinates of the facility were transmitted to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the facility would be protected from military attack. Witnesses said that on several occasions, attacks occurred on the day after the coordinates had been transmitted’.

The army has no record of such transmissions, and the ICRC does not seem to have participated in this exercise as it had done before with regard to the hospitals in or near the first No Fire Zone.

The famous photograph of what are claimed to be two dead bodies on the ground, while the shelves above them are full of undisturbed bottles.

With regard to the hospital at Mullivaikkal, the first allegation we have of civilian deaths was on May 2nd. Tamilnet claimed then that ‘The attack has taken place, after the Sri Lankan military was provided with the exact coordinates of the hospital premises three days back through the ICRC’. The article was accompanied by the famous photograph of what are claimed to be two dead bodies on the ground, while the shelves above them are full of undisturbed bottles.

Tamilnet claimed then that ‘A medical staff who coordinates with the ICRC confirmed providing the coordinates of the hospital to the Sri Lankan defence ministry three days ago when the hospital was attacked last time’. The forces have no record of any information about this from the ICRC. An earlier article, on May 1st, claimed that the hospital ‘came under attack on previous two days’ though there were no allegations of deaths then, nor in the May 2nd allegation of the previous attack on the hospital three days earlier. This is hardly evidence of systematic shelling of hospitals, though Darusman does helpfully provide a certificate to the LTTE to forestall argument that the place was being used for military purposes – ‘There were no LTTE cadre in uniform in the hospital, nor did anyone bring weapons inside.’

The second hospital at Mullaivaikkal

Finally, there was the second hospital at Mullivaikkal, which Tamilnet claimed was functioning by May 9th. An allegation that this was attacked came up first on May 12th. The claim is that one shell fell in the hospital, killing ‘at least 47 patients’ while other shells only hit the area, ‘including one that landed 150 yards from the hospital’. Bearing in mind the recent claim by NATO, about civilian killings, that technology is not perfect, and in any case Libyan government forces had placed weapons near civilians, one realizes how cautious the Sri Lankan forces were, if there was only one shell in the hospital.

 

The US State Department report conveys this allegation, though not two more about the hospital that TamilNet made over the next two days. However the report does cite that on May 12 ‘An eyewitness reported shelling on the Mattalan Hospital’, which suggests some sort of a time warp. All this – the stress on hospitals that were no longer functioning, the pictures that seem faked, the paucity of allegations at the time, the confusion between what the ICRC did and what others claim, relying on silence from the ICRC about the facts, suggest a plot carefully laid and developed from early on. Damilvany, with her emotional dedication to the cause, her claim on the strength of a biomedical degree to being ‘one of a small group of medics treating the wounded and providing a running commentary to the outside world from behind the lines’, made her an ideal instrument for the purpose.

 

Given what is now being made increasingly clear about the way the media operates, one can only hope that there will be thorough investigation of the way the Channel 4 film was made, and of the narrators presented as independent witnesses. But I doubt it. Efforts to destroy reconciliation in Sri Lanka are not worth investigating, since neither the public nor politicians care, even if this will mean the resuscitation of terror and extortion.

Daily News 26 July 2011

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