Sri Lanka declared victory in its war against the Tamil Tigers five years ago. But there’s a lot Colombo has to answer for.
It’s been five years since the civil war in Sri Lanka was declared over, but P. J. still can’t escape the images of horror even in his sleep: “I dream of fleeing, of being surrounded by the Army, of dead bodies and people suffering. It all comes back to me. My mind is stuck at the end of the war and I can’t move on.”
He was one of more than a dozen cameramen working for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s television station in northern Sri Lanka. Today, P. J. is a key witness to Colombo’s war crimes. At the brutal climax of the civil war, in 2009, he dodged bombs and shells, videoing civilian casualties and then editing the pictures in a series of underground bunkers while constantly under fire. He sent these images to contacts in France, Switzerland, and Canada hoping that the world would pay attention to the atrocities. But there was little interest. The images were deemed too gruesome for news audiences.
“Everyone said I sent horror videos,” P. J., who now lives abroad because of security concerns, tells Newsweek. “Sometimes they’d say, ‘Friend, this video is very shocking but it is not suitable for broadcast in the Western media because it’s too graphic.’ I felt we needed to show the truth of what was happening to us. We had a satellite connection and the world could watch our war virtually live. Why didn’t they do anything to stop it?”
There was no BBC or CNN inside the war zone, which is perhaps why Sri Lanka is one of the great untold war stories of this century. It is certainly one of the bloodiest.
From 2008 to 2009, there were more battle-related deaths in northern Sri Lanka than in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Rwanda or Somalia. The U.N. now estimates that between 40,000 to 70,000 civilians may have died in just six months in a shrinking “safe zone” of 35 square-kilometers or less. The World Bank’s population data, based on the Sri Lankan government’s statistics, supports an even higher number of people who went missing after the war. (An outspoken Tamil Catholic bishop has asked why families of the 147,000 people who have disappeared from the government’s statistics have received nothing by way of answers except threats.) The death toll from the war between Colombo and the Tamil Tigers still can’t be rounded up with any certainty to the nearest ten thousand—this is extraordinary in today’s age of social media and citizen journalism.
During the war, the Tamil Tigers’ TV station which P. J. worked for moved its editing suite—monitors, digital-tape editing machines—six times in as many months to keep documenting war abuses. “We had to edit the tapes so we could reuse them,” says P. J., “and also because, often, our people would come under fire and forget the camera was still running or the camera would shake because they were frightened.”
Finally, he buried and reinforced with sandbags a boat under the beach rigged with a small generator to keep the operation going. He uploaded his edited images using a huge 2.5-meter-wide satellite dish that also served as a base station to provide Internet for commanders of the Tamil Tigers. The satellite dish was sprayed with green paint and covered with camouflage nets to hide it in the jungle from the drones and surveillance aircraft constantly flying overhead. In the spring of 2009, a shell hit the dish, but, typically, the Tigers had a backup. That, too, was damaged in the final weeks of the war by canon fire from a tank but—according to one of the technicians who survived the war—they successfully patched up the dish. It got destroyed four days before the war’s end.
On the penultimate day of the war, all of P. J.’s TV equipment was in a van that took a direct hit from several shells. Realizing he had no choice but to surrender with his wife and children, he set out to destroy his Sony laptop, soaking the hard disc and batteries in seawater. It was a strangely sad moment to wreck something he had guarded so carefully. As one of the key witnesses to Colombo’s crimes, P. J. has retrieved the images he sent out of the war zone in 2009 and can testify as to where and when they were recorded.
The Sri Lankan government dismisses people like P. J. as terrorist propagandists but it would be impossible to fabricate the stream of images of human suffering that he documented: babies with amputated limbs wrapped in bloody rags lying on mats on the ground in makeshift tent clinics, the elderly wailing and beating their heads in with grief. The Tigers didn’t have supersonic bombers and they couldn’t have shelled their own families because there simply wasn’t space once their territory shrank to a patch of sandy land no bigger than Central Park, crowded with the starving and injured.
The rebels, who were proscribed around the world as terrorists, are also accused by a U.N. Panel of Experts of committing war crimes: forced and underage recruitment, the use of suicide bombers, the use of civilians as a human buffer, preventing civilians from leaving the war zone. At first the Tigers had a rule that each family had to give one child as a fighter to their cause; as casualties intensified, they came back for the second or third. Parents hid their offspring underground in barrels with breathing pipes so the roaming recruitment teams couldn’t find them; they married children off early with none of the normal procedures and if caught begged the Tigers to let them serve in their place. At night in the bunkers, distraught mothers could be heard wailing and cursing the rebels for stealing their sons and daughters.
The Tamil Tiger commanders wrongly thought P. J.’s images of civilian suffering would prompt a Kosovo-style humanitarian intervention. For this they needed to keep their people with them. It was a tragic miscalculation; the rebels rejected a surrender offer, hoping instead for a ceasefire. Eventually the international community abandoned the fighters and civilians alike to die hellishly on a beautiful tropical palm-fringed beach.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s legal advisers are, however, clear that “most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling,” which they described as “large scale.” They also accused the Sri Lankan Army of systematically, knowingly, and repeatedly shelling all hospitals in the war zone, depriving civilians of food and life-saving medicine, and attacking all safe zones it had declared for civilians.
Gradually Pakistan became one of Sri Lanka’s biggest arms suppliers.
Both sides may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, but not with any moral equivalence. “If two armies fight each other, that’s fine; you expect casualties,” says P. J., “but civilians were killed, not just one or two or three, but hundreds every day.”
How did the world miss the story?
Geography was on Sri Lanka’s side. Being an island, there was no outpouring of refugees across borders with accounts of suffering. The Sri Lankan Navy prevented anyone from reaching India. It has taken years for the survivors to make their way abroad and finally tell their stories. Also key to Colombo’s winning strategy was removing all independent witnesses from the killing fields. A few foreign journalists were occasionally allowed to travel with the military, but none were based in rebel areas or had access to them. Only a handful of aid workers were based in rebel areas.
In September 2008, just as the endgame was starting, the Sri Lankan government ordered all international humanitarian workers out of the territory in northern Sri Lanka controlled by the Tamil Tigers because it couldn’t ensure their safety. This was alarming because two years earlier Sri Lanka had been the site of the world’s worst killing of aid workers. Seventeen members of Action Contre La Faim were killed and the French charity blames Sri Lankan security forces for the executions. Colombo saying that it could not guarantee the safety of aid workers was an implicit threat. And it worked.
Resident U.N. staff drove out of rebel areas wearing their flak jackets in a convoy of white vehicles, abandoning friends and local Tamil staff. It was a moment of extreme shame for the United Nations, which three years later would admit it had made grave mistakes in Sri Lanka and had failed to learn the lessons from Rwanda, where U.N. peacekeepers had similarly abandoned locals to die.
Many of the junior U.N. staff members who served in Sri Lanka in 2009 have been described as among some of the most deeply traumatized aid workers from any conflict. It’s not just that they witnessed extreme human suffering; they feel they didn’t do more to stop it. Benjamin Dix was one of the aid workers who left the main rebel town. “Driving out of Kilinochchi on that morning was a moment of intense shame and guilt,” he says. “Having worked in rebel areas for nearly four years, we abandoned civilians at their greatest hour of need. The abandonment of civilians in conflict is a sense of absolute failure that I will always carry with me. International mechanisms need to change to ensure that a situation like that never happens again.”
Cameraman P. J. also suffers from guilt, but of a different kind. “Now I think it’s very sad. So many people were injured and killed and I just filmed them,” he says. “I never helped these people. At that time I thought the most important thing was to take pictures and send them immediately all over the world. Now I think I should have done more to comfort the injured and carry the dead.” Sometimes P. J. did put his camera down to pull screaming people out of bunkers and transport the injured to hospital. When he had finished filming in the makeshift hospitals, he would try and give the injured a few words of comfort and courage to keep on going, but like any journalist he believed that sending out the news was the way to effect change. He was, of course, proven wrong.
Another reason that the world failed to take closer notice of the Sri Lankan civil war was Colombo’s successful rebranding of its decades-long ethnic-territorial conflict as part of the global “war on terror.” That meant the world signed off on the destruction of the rebels, wrongly assuming that without the troublesome Tigers there would be an equitable peace in Sri Lanka. The terror label made it easy to discredit all Tamils as Tamil Tigers, blurring the boundary between combatants and civilians. Scottish, Bangladeshi, Italian, and Australian eyewitnesses were denounced as “White Tigers” far too sympathetic to the “terrorists.” U.N. employees were intimidated, threatened, expelled, and spied on, with the result that the organization failed to speak up about war crimes its own staff had witnessed firsthand and failed to publicize the significant casualty numbers they had collected.
Politically, too, Colombo deftly secured the support of rivals: India and Pakistan, the U.S. and China, Iran and Israel. It’s been described as “adroit but duplicitous diplomacy” that played on each country’s fear of the other to make them more cooperative. In 2000, Pakistan sold Sri Lanka some of its first multibarreled rocket launchers—the KRL 122mm produced in Kahuta that may well have been used to bombard trapped Tamil civilians five years ago. Witnesses testify to the intense devastation the multibarreled rockets inflicted on civilians concentrated in the “no fire zones,” leaving fragments of human remains strewn around the bunkers which had to be collected with shovels during the brief lulls in fire.
Gradually, Pakistan became one of Sri Lanka’s biggest arms suppliers. Toward the climax of the war, Islamabad agreed to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of aerial bombs, mortar shells, artillery, and hand grenades to the Sri Lankan military, according to a report by the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society. Media reports suggested Colombo kept New Delhi informed about what it was buying from Pakistan, but that India itself wasn’t willing to sell “offensive weapons” because of fears of a backlash in its southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Sri Lanka has denied reports that Pakistani pilots flew air sorties during the war.
The full extent of military assistance to Sri Lanka in 2009 from countries in the region is still opaque. Some surviving rebel fighters even report seeing what they describe as “light skinned” foreign fighters working with the Sri Lankan Army. A recent public-interest litigation case filed in India’s Supreme Court that got thrown out alleged that clandestine Indian forces were involved in directing the fighting on the ground in Sri Lanka. There has been no independent corroboration of this allegation, but the U.N. Panel of Experts’ report did cite Indian naval support in intercepting floating arms-warehouses belonging to the Tigers. Arms-supply ships heading for rebel areas were routinely intercepted with the help of Indian and U.S. intelligence, and rebels do describe running short of ammunition by the end.
Sri Lanka has denied reports that Pakistani pilots flew air sorties during the war or guided their air strikes from Colombo, but the ties between both militaries are strong.
Sri Lanka’s Air Force chief, Kolitha Aravinda Gunatilleka, trained with the Pakistan Air Force and attended the National Defense College in Islamabad. The Sri Lankan defense attaché appointed to Pakistan just after the war was Wing Commander H. S. S. Thuyacontha, commander of a helicopter attack unit known as the No. 9 Squadron and who boasted of causing chaos along the frontline. Chaos on a frontline is to be expected, but in January 2009 hundreds of thousands of civilians were encouraged by the Sri Lankan government to gather in a “no fire zone,” which the government located near the frontline instead of further away by the coast. U.N. officials who witnessed some of the shelling in the first “no fire zone” concluded that the government’s strategy in locating safe areas next to the frontline was deliberate, and intended to kill as many Tamils as possible.
Pakistan’s unquestioning support for Sri Lanka has extended into the postwar period. Now the battlefield is a diplomatic one, located at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Pakistan was instrumental in bolstering support for the first U.N. resolution in 2009 on Sri Lanka which congratulated the island on its victory over terrorism. Human-rights activists consider this an especially shameful moment in the Security Council’s history given that both Colombo and the rebels were facing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This March, Sri Lanka lost a key vote at the Human Rights Council, resulting in an inquiry being set up to investigate the end of the civil war.
Says Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group: “It says a lot about the lack of postwar progress on reconciliation and impunity that the U.S. and other foreign governments that actively supported the military defeat of the Tigers are now demanding an investigation into how that victory violated international humanitarian law. This reflects their worries that the Sri Lankan government won the war but is losing the peace.”
Many factors have contributed to the international community’s impatience—not least the erosion of the rule of law embodied by the impeachment of the country’s chief justice, nepotism on a new scale, militarization of Tamil areas of the northeast, attacks on journalists and religious minorities, continued disappearances as well as recent credible reports of rape and torture by Sri Lankan security forces.
Pakistan has been at the forefront of efforts in Geneva to prevent the Sri Lanka inquiry, even mounting a last minute but abortive attempt to have action at the Human Rights Council deferred. Some Sri Lankans have gone so far as to say Pakistan did a better job of protecting Sri Lanka’s interests than even their own diplomats. “[Pakistani] Ambassador Zamir Akram’s direct involvement in lobbying for Sri Lanka in Geneva went beyond the normal call of diplomacy,” says a retired U.N. diplomat who observed proceedings closely this year.
It is likely Pakistan will be deeply involved in continuing attempts to scupper the inquiry in the run-up to the next Council session in September, arguing that the probe exceeds the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ mandate and budget. As coordinator of the human rights and humanitarian issues group for the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Geneva, Pakistan is also uniquely positioned to influence other Muslim states. “What’s so puzzling is that the OIC has taken a strong stand on the Rohingya issue [in Myanmar] but they don’t seem to understand that the intellectual heart of extremist, anti-Muslim Buddhism is in Sri Lanka,” says the former diplomat.
Pakistan did a better job protecting Colombo’s interests than even Sri Lankan diplomats.
Sri Lanka’s 9 percent Muslim community—many the Tamil-speaking descendants of traders on the shipping routes that crossed Ceylon—has been at the receiving end of vicious attacks, largely from the extremist Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, which is endorsed by the country’s defense minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the president. The second largest minority after Tamils, Sri Lankan Muslims overwhelmingly supported the government through decades of civil war and in some ways prospered as a result. “In the postwar era, the Rajapaksa family appears to believe it needs a new enemy to maintain Sinhala Buddhist nationalist sentiment now that they’ve crushed the Tamils,” says the International Crisis Group’s Keenan. “Objects of longstanding suspicion by many Sinhalese, Muslims are particularly easy to brand as terrorists and fundamentalists.”
A damning report by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the largest Muslim party which is headed by the country’s justice minister, detailed 241 attacks on Muslims during 2013. These attacks included mosques being stoned, Muslim-owned shops being struck by Buddhist monks, calls for the hijab to be outlawed, and a successful campaign against halal meat. Four-letter obscenities against Allah have been scrawled on mosque walls and pig’s heads drawn on their exteriors or even tossed inside. Minority Rights Group, a London-based watchdog, in its report said there has been an unprecedented uptick in the level of Islamophobia in Sri Lanka which left Muslims feeling afraid and vulnerable.
If Muslims are rapidly becoming the new enemy for Sri Lanka, what about the old enemy, the Tamil Tigers? When the war ended, at least 12,000 suspected rebel combatants were sent for “rehabilitation.” The government said it planned to replace the mindset of these “terrorists” by inculcating “inner peace and harmony.” The program was not transparent about the screening process or the numbers detained and there was no unfettered international access and no right of appeal or consent. The International Commission of Jurists believes it may have been “the largest mass administrative detention anywhere in the world.” Some rebels forcibly recruited in the final months of the conflict spent up to four years in rehabilitation. It is only now that some survivors have escaped the country that evidence is emerging of the torture and rape of rebels at these military-run rehabilitation camps.
Others who escaped the rehabilitation process are still being rounded up five years later—and are being tortured and raped by Sri Lankan security forces. Yasmin Sooka, South African transitional-justice expert, and the Bar Human Rights Committee England and Wales documented 40 such cases among Sri Lankan asylum seekers and refugees who recently arrived in the U.K. Most of the cases were of Tamils abducted in Sri Lanka’s notorious “white vans” and taken to secret detention centers. Standard torture methods included being whipped with electric cables and wire, branded with hot metal rods, hung upside down and submerged in barrels of water, and suffocated by having plastic bags soaked in petrol put over their heads. In all 40 cases, rape or sexual violence occurred and the detainee only escaped after his or her family paid a bribe to the security forces. The assaults were accompanied by graphic racist abuse: “Tamil mouths are only good for oral sex”; “You Tamils need a separate state; if you want a separate state you will have to take a bath in our urine.” Lawyers who took statements from the survivors concluded that crimes against humanity are still being committed today in Sri Lanka and that the war is by no means over.
P. J.’s personal struggle to overcome the war isn’t over. Like most survivors, he still scans the Internet for news of colleagues who might have survived. Two of his TV station’s cameramen and one camerawoman were killed during the war but today he has no idea what’s happened to the rest who surrendered to Sri Lankan forces.
“I have had no contact with them after the war,” he says. “Five years later, I still don’t know whether they are alive or dead.” He is too frightened to search because the Tamil diaspora is riddled with government informers. “I am alone here while my children are growing up in Sri Lanka without me. But I am lucky because in Sri Lanka every Tamil is afraid, very afraid, and still running.”
Harrison, a former BBC Correspondent, is the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War about the last phase of the conflict.