Gordon Weiss

Following what Weiss describes as the ‘recriminations’ that affected UN international staff, most decided to head back to Vavuniya, and only Harun and ‘a UN engineer’ remained behind to try to get the Tigers to agree to releasing the local staff and their families. He was to stay on for over a week more, getting back only on January 29th. Needless to say, the local staff was not allowed to leave, though as it happened, in a clear indication that allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians did not happen, all of them survived the conflict.  Weiss refers to 132 of them, though interestingly, more recently, I have seen a lower figure canvassed, as though to belittle my point about all of them surviving.

There is also some doubt about the UN engineer Weiss describes, since the information given to the military was that Harun’s associate was a Sri Lankan Security Officer with UN Security called Mr Suganthan. It is not at all surprising that he is reported to have been able to migrate to Canada within a month of getting out of the Wanni. This again is an example of where our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have found out more about the circumstances, but there is little coordination between the different government agencies responsible for working with the UN, and I fear even less understanding of the way in which different individuals in the UN system operate.

Harun and Suganthan were involved in several adventures during their stay in the Wanni, adventures which are now presented by Weiss as life threatening, though none of this came out at the time, either in terms of information conveyed to us, nor in written documentation. Weiss’s complete lack of reliability is apparent in the claims he makes with regard to firing that, in his latest effusion, an interview to the ‘Scotsman’ since he is now performing at the Edinburgh Festival, he claims occurred on January 22nd – ‘On the night of 22 January a UN convoy, led by a retirmed Bangladeshi brigadier called Harun Khan, came under sustained bombardment in the middle of a government-designated no-fire zone, packed with Tamil refugees. All night, Khan transmitted his coordinates to SLA commanders via UN officials in Colombo, along with descriptions of the carnage being inflicted, but there was no let-up in the shelling’.

In his book Weiss does describe such events, though he does not give a date for them. The Darusman Report, albeit less melodramatically (but melodramatically enough) , describes such bombardment on the evening of the 23rd and adds 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’. Despite all this, Chris du Toit wrote to government on January 24th to say that ‘I would like to thank you and your staff for excellent support in all the UN movements to date’.

On January 25th Harun and the sea of stories relocated to near Puthukkuiyirippyu Hospital. Why they had left there in the first place should be investigated. Though it could be claimed that they had gone to the No Fire Zone, the area near PTK hospital was also protected, and had suffered no attacks at all except for one incident reported on January 12th. Du Toit’s letter informing the army of the movement away from there simply says that ‘As discussed with you earlier…’ the remaining UN staff had relocated to the declared No Fire Zone, to what seem to have been four different locations. Remembering the earlier effort of the UN to move west, which the Tigers in fact stopped, one wonders what they were aiming at, but I suspect no one will bother to check – and so the falsehoods, or inaccuracies to put the best possible interpretation on them, of Gordon Weiss and his ilk go unchecked.

During the days which Harun spent at PTK, ‘in a house located at the second gate opposite at’ the hospital, no incidents were reported. On the contrary du Toit wrote on January 30th, ‘Many thanks for the close cooperation that my team experience with your staff’, and again on February 1st, ‘I can report that we are most pleased with the professional response and cooperation with SF HQ’. He specifies that the place the UN was at was ‘probably 50 m from hospital building’ and the only incident he reported was of ‘artillery fire as close as 100 metres from the hospital’.

Given that the LTTE was using weapons from near the hospital, as du Toit had categorically reported earlier, it is a matter of worry that he keeps requesting that no firing at all be conducted ‘into the area where staff are located’. Meanwhile Darusman claims that ‘in the week between 29 January and 4 February, PTK hospital was hit every day by MBRLs and other artillery, taking at least nine direct hits’, which is completely at odds with what Du Toit says for the first three days, and at odds too with ICRC reports, which only reports one shell hitting ‘the southern end of the hospital’ on February 1st, though they do mention previous oral interventions on that same day regarding the ‘proximity’ of shells at the compound.

Why Darusman did not check UN records remains a mystery, if one assumes that the Darusman panelists were concerned with truth. The footnote they annex to their claim about the PTK hospital does not provide evidence, but simply records that the PTK hospital had been ‘shelled’ on January 12th – implying intended targeting whereas only one shell had fallen in the premises, a very different story indeed. They also declare that ‘During the night of 25 January, the first NFZ and area around the United Nations hub continued to be pounded with shells’, whereas Harun and his associates had left the NFZ for PTK on that day.

One cannot escape the feeling that the UN is trotted out to suggest that these claims are reliable, whereas a simple process of checking reveals that vast claims are being trotted out that are at odds with what is on record from the UN. However we also should look more closely at the possibility that all these strange UN movements were not altruistic, but were designed to inhibit the actions of the army. After all, during the few days that Harun was at PTK, there were daily negotiations with the army to say that he – and the UN staff – were about to leave, so the army suspended operations. I was with Neil Buhne on one such occasion and he, idealist as he was, kept saying he thought that this time the LTTE would let the people go, whereas once again he was disappointed. This was when I told him that he was far too indulgent to the LTTE, whereas we would have been taken to task for anything approaching such behavior, whereupon he replied, ‘But you guys would not…’

Neil Buhne - Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka

He did not complete the sentence, but when I did so for him, to suggest the LTTE would kill those who criticized them, he did not demur. The bottom line is that the UN knew its staff were in danger, and had to be extremely careful. What they refused to consider was whether a bit of firmness would have been more effective, given the wholesale reliance of the LTTE on international opinion. Whereas now Weiss is trying to crucify Neil and his senior associates with the claim that they did not do enough to influence the Sri Lankan government, I believe it is the opposite that should be investigated, the manner in which UN circumspection with the LTTE allowed so many civilians to suffer for so long, their children to be forcibly recruited, the food sent to them to be sold at exorbitant prices so the LTTE could profit.

Daily News 06 September 2011