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The University Teachers for Human Rights, whose reports are a mine of information about what happened in the North during the conflict, have sections called ‘Bearing Witness’. These give personal accounts of people caught up in the conflict.

These are particularly useful, because one feels that UTHR has no particular axe to grind in quoting from such sources. They present a range of viewpoints, and while obviously one cannot be sure that all accounts are accurate, it is clear that UTHR does not doctor what they hear, or seek to present a particular perspective. This seems to me unlike many other reports, usually by journalists, which produce evidence to emphasize their own predilections.

Mullaitivu GA’s office

During my recent visit to the North, having looked carefully at various sites that figure prominently in recent critiques of government action, I thought it might be useful to talk to people who had lived through the last few months of conflict in the No Fire Zones. I spoke to three people at the Mullaitivu GA’s office, to two families at Suthanthirapuram and at the Udaiyaarkadu hospital, and to two people at the Vallipuram school that had been used as a hospital. On the next day, I spoke to 18 people at the last two sections in Manik Farm which still house the displaced.

Many had only come out at the very end, though a few had got away in April in the first great exodus. One enterprising old man had walked out on March 16th, while two had escaped by sea. One had got away reasonably early together with her husband and a couple of children, paying Rs 200,000 for passage for the whole family. A few weeks later the price had been Rs 200,000 for one person. The school teacher who had got away thus, along with his brother, told me however that the Sri Lankan forces had fired on their boat, killing several, before registering that they were not Tigers. They had then apologized, and treated the survivors well.

Udaiyaarkadu hospital

This was the only story I was told of casualties during escape from the Zone. In fact, apart from stories of individual deaths in a few other cases, this was the only account of people having lost their lives. None of the people I spoke to gave a single instance of women or children being killed. Seven men I spoke to in Ananda Coomaraswamy village in Manik Farm had all got away during the last few weeks with their entire families, one of them with seven children – and a few grandchildren – all now living. Of the seven women I spoke to, four were widows, but two of the husbands had died earlier, of fever and a fall from a tree respectively. All their children had survived, five in one case.

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The comparatively positive nature of the 2009 US State Department Report

Late in 2009 the US Department of State produced a ‘Report to Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflicts in Sri Lanka’. The Report was shared in a very positive manner with the Sri Lankan government, and I regret very much that we did not immediately look into the matters it mentioned and produce a response to the US.

This was planned, and a Committee for the purpose was in fact appointed. I have no idea whether the general lack of urgency delayed things, but soon enough there were good reasons to feel suspicions about at least some Americans. The shenanigans with regard to General Fonseka were worrying, though I suspect we should realize that individual Americans may have exceeded their briefs in this regard. As with Sri Lankans, we cannot assume concerted policy in all cases where individuals go out on a limb, though again, as with Sri Lankans, the tendency to stand together leads to misunderstanding.

Still, we should understand that, at least in the American Defence establishment, there is a positive attitude to what we achieved. Indeed there is also awareness that excessive hypocrisy can be self-defeating, if ever international instruments subject America to the same relentless criticism some individuals apply to us, whether through self-righteousness or other more sinister motives.

Joanna van Gerpen meeting with S. P. Tamilselvan, the political leader of the LTTE, in Kilinochchi.

Joanna van Gerpen meeting with S. P. Tamilselvan, the political leader of the LTTE, in Kilinochchi.

What was interesting about the State Department Report was that it was balanced and indeed made clear the contribution of the LTTE to any abuses that might have occurred. Whereas some of those working for the UN took pains to suggest that government also bore some culpability with regard to child soldiers, the Report records 18 allegations about this appalling practice of the LTTE. Indeed if any blame should attach to the UN for its activities in Sri Lanka, it is with regard to the condoning of this practice by the UN in the years after the Ceasefire Agreement. The conduct of Joanna van Gerpen, who connived at the continuing recruitment of children over 17, with her failure to ensure proper use of the 1 million dollars that were given to the LTTE for rehabilitation, seems to me deplorable, and she should be deemed guilty by association at least of War Crimes, with appropriate recompense paid to those who suffered.

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Female LTTE cadre training civilians

In the almost two years that have passed since the LTTE was defeated, there have been numerous allegations about possible War Crimes, but in fact there have been only two major instances adduced. One was the Channel 4 video which was shown on August 25th 2009, the second was the White Flag allegation.

Before that Human Rights Watch had produced a Report which dealt with a few areas it considered the basis for War Crimes charges. One of these related to the episode in which foreign UN officials stayed behind in Kilinochchi, ostensibly to bring out the UN local employees and their families whom the LTTE was keeping behind forcibly. The Darusman Panel also mentions this episode, using it as the basis for allegations about the numbers killed and attributing responsibility for these deaths to government. I have dealt with this episode and those allegations, pointing out first the manner in which the advance of our forces was stopped during that time as we waited anxiously for these guys to be allowed to come out, second the insidious behavior of the leader of this little adventure, Chris du Toit, and third the admission of the UN that much of the firing was established as having come from the LTTE side, although they had first accused us of being responsible.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2019
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