The reasons for UN Convoy 11 staying on in the Wanni

Gordon Weiss

If  Gordon Weiss’s book is anything to go by, the main purveyor of evidence for the prosecution he plans against the Sri Lankan government is the retired Bangladeshi army colonel Harun Khan, who led a food convoy into the LTTE controlled territory on January 16th 2009. He is quoted throughout the chapter entitled ‘Convoy 11’ in a manner that suggests that he attributes most of the destruction he saw to government forces.

This seemed odd, because my recollection was that government thought Harun was quite sympathetic to their difficulties, and had described to them in graphic terms what he had suffered while forcibly held back by the LTTE. Certainly what I gathered from Neil Buhne, during those tense days when two UN staff stayed behind after the rest of the convoy came back to government controlled areas, was that Harun and his companion were most anxious to get away, but the LTTE continued to tease them about a possible release for the Sri Lankan workers they had hoped to rescue. And when I did finally meet Harun myself, I felt he was very different in his approach to his boss, Chris du Toit.

And even du Toit, who had seemed hostile when we first spoke to him about reports of casualties which he it seemed he had been responsible for, climbed down as Nishan Muthukrishna and I cross questioned him, and said finally that the only shell of which the provenance could be definitely identified had

The Darusman Panel

come from the LTTE. Though Weiss confirms that it was indeed du Toit who set up a ‘monitoring cell’, presumably that which is called a UN ‘network of observers’ as first openly revealed by the Darusman Panel, Weiss indicates that that cell was set up only on February 4th, so it would seem that for the earlier period his information was derived largely from the convoy which Harun had headed. Du Toit had indeed been so thorough in his explanation of what the convoy had experienced that I thought he had been with it, and I still suspect that he was the principal purveyor of information to the panel. But, for reasons which I think are understandable, whereas the panel conceals the name of the ‘The United Nations security officer, a highly experienced military officer’, Weiss freely uses Harun’s name and quotes him direct as though he alone were responsible for what is cited.

Given the anomalies I perceived in the descriptions of Harun I had received, I thought it best to check exactly what Weiss had claimed, after I had discussed the story of Convoy 11 with army personnel who had been directly involved in the operation. It struck me then that there was much misinformation, and much manipulation too.  I have accordingly suggested to the Ministry of External Affairs that they should, together with senior personnel in Colombo, go through the records to clarify matters.

I hope this is done, comprehensively, with full accountability as to Mr Weiss’ position and his use of documents that do not seem to have been shared even with government.  But meanwhile I believe it will be useful to draw attention to the contradictions in the various accounts we have.

Sri Lankan govt food convoy to Mullaittivu 2008

Weiss claims that Convoy 11 stayed on after it had unloaded supplies because ‘the government had cancelled their permission to return’. Government says there was no such cancellation, and in any case a window for UN travel requires agreement by both parties. More importantly, it had also been decided, without government being consulted, to use this opportunity ‘to negotiate the release of United Nations national staff and dependents by the LTTE’. Weiss significantly puts the decision in the passive voice simply in terms of ‘It was hoped…the Tiger high command would relent and allow the 132 staff members and their families to leave with the empty convoy’, whereas the Panel more precisely states simply that ‘some on the convoy hoped’, suggesting that there was no formal decision about this at all, and government permission was not sought at all for such negotiations.

The LTTE refusal to release UN staff, and questions about who remained behind

Neil Buhne

Certainly over the next week the UN Resident Coordinator, Neil Buhne, was in a state of high tension, for often the Convoy, or what remained of it, said they had got LTTE permission to get back so the forces stopped their operations, only to be told after a couple of hours that the LTTE had changed its mind. This tactic was used continuously for several days, and finally Colonel Harun got back to safety only by charging through with another convoy, even though the LTTE had refused him permission to leave. He was advised by the government, which had spent days holding back its advance because of him, to tell the LTTE that they were welcome to shoot if they wished, but he was leaving. As anticipated, the LTTE let him go, and I was given a graphic description of how he arrived at the army camp in Vavuniya on January 29th, in a state of nervous excitement, delighted to have got away after his ordeal.

Nothing of that appears in either the Panel report or in Gordon Weisss narrative. Instead we are given the impression of a brave set of officials, bombarded relentlessly by the government. But in actual fact, the Convoy had the opportunity to get back on January 21st (Weiss dates this to the 20th) but ‘the LTTE refused the convoy permission to proceed to Vavuniya due to the presence of national staff. Most of the international staff then returned to Vavuniya, leaving behind two international United Nations staff who chose to remain with the national staff.’

Weiss has a complicated story about the whole convoy attempting to travel westward rather than return on the route they had travelled on earlier, but it seems the Tigers turned them back. This is not surprising since the UN had written to the army on January 20th to say that ‘the LTTE had given the green light that the company can move south’. Why the company thought of going elsewhere should perhaps be investigated. In addition, Army records indicate that most of the Convoy got back only on January 22nd, and it would be interesting to check on the reasons for the discrepancies in dates, but I suspect that will never be done.

What should be checked is the assertion in the Panel report that there were ‘two international United Nations staff who chose to remain with the national staff’. Weiss fleshes this out to say that ‘a UN engineer’ volunteered to remain behind, but according to army records Harun’s companion was a security officer called Mr Suganthan. Not entirely surprisingly, he migrated to Canada about a month after he escaped from the LTTE. Intriguingly, I thought one UN official let slip to me later that there had been an international UN official in the No Fire Zone till the end of the conflict, but I may have got that wrong.

Uncertainty about where Harun Khan and Mr Suganthan stayed in the No Fire Zone

Harun and his companion then had an extraordinary week before they got away, the government being informed that they had been ‘under LTTE custody’. On January 23rd they left PTK and moved to the No Fire Zone where, according to the Panel report, they ‘set up a hub near Suthanthirapuram Junction along the A35’. Weiss however claims that they ‘stopped at the village of Suthanthirapuram on the A35’. This seems inaccurate since on the map I have Suthanthipuram is a few kilometers north of the A35.

At this point the story gets extremely bizarre.  Chris du Toit wrote to the army on January 24th to say that ‘the remaining United Nations staff and dependents’ had relocated to Uddayarkadu, the coordinates given being very close to the A35. He closes his letter with the words, ‘I would like to thank you and your staff for excellent support in all the UN movements to date’.  This sits extremely oddly with the claim of the Darusman panel that, on the 23rd, ‘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.’ and that ‘In the early morning hours of 24 January, hundreds of shells rained down in the NFZ.  Those with access to the United Nations bunker dove into it for protection, but most IDPs did  not have bunkers and had nowhere to seek cover. People were screaming and crying out for help. The United Nations security officer, a highly experienced military officer, and others present discerned that the shelling was coming from the south, from SLA positions. He made frantic calls to the head of United Nations Security in Colombo and the Vanni Force Commander at his headquarters in Vavuniya as well as the Joint Operations Headquarters in Colombo’.

Weiss makes similar allegations about the 23rd and the period before dawn on the 24th, though he sets the scene in Suthanthirapuram. Meanwhile TamilNet alleged on the 25th, with no mention of Suthanthirapuram previously (though there were allegations on the 23rd and 24th of attacks on the safe zone resulting in 20 deaths altogether), that there was ‘continued artillery shelling’ in three areas, ‘at least twice attacking the vicinity of the supply centre, located at Chuthanthirapuram playground, the only centre in Vanni where humanitarian supplies brought in by the UN World Food Programme are distributed’. The claim is of 22 killed altogether.

None of this makes sense, unless we assume that between them Weiss and the Panel decided that consistency did not matter, that precision about dates was unnecessary, and the written testimony of UN staff could be ignored on the grounds that the Sri Lankan government would not be able to find it. As it happened, they were almost correct, because I found, when the Army Commander finally gave me access to records, that these had not been looked at before. Given the rapidity with which transfers take place in the army, and the absence of collective memory, I suspect that, had a couple of months more passed, these records would have been lost forever.

There is more to say on the adventures of Colonel Harun, but I should note here, before concluding this assessment, how Weiss suppresses what would go against his preconceptions. He first cites a New York times report of a memo ‘sent to UN headquarters from Colombo’ which claimed that ‘Our team on the ground was certain the shelling came from the Sri Lankan military but apparently in response to a Tiger shell’. Then he quotes Harun to the effect that ‘the fire “came overwhelmingly from government forces”.’ Harun is then cited as believing that ‘the night’s bombardment was nothing short of “the intentional massacre of civilians”.’

Weiss omits what the US State Department report mentions, that another witness noted with regard to this incident that ‘The team on the ground had suspected that the rebels were firing at government forces from close to where civilians were taking shelter’. Interestingly, though that report mentions that it got its information from the New York Times article, it does not mention that the witnesses the article quoted were part of the UN – which also raises questions about whether Weiss is in further breach of his UN obligations. But whether we will check this with the UN officially, as we should have done with Bernard Dix, remains to be seen. I fear however that, as usual, we will do nothing to indicate that we expect institutions to stand by their obligations.

Daily News 4 August 2011

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