SPECIAL REPORT : Part 15
March 18, 2014, 8:43 pm
Indian medical personnel at Pulmoddai, where India set up a makeshift facility in early March 2009 to treat those who had been transferred from Puthumathalan in ships under the auspices of the ICRC at the height of the fighting.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) had the wherewithal to provide accurate real time intelligence required by ground forces pushing into rapidly shrinking LTTE-held territory on the Vanni east front. In fact, the SLAF had the capacity to conduct such operations during the night thanks to Israeli manufactured Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), including the EMIT Blue Horizon II acquired in 2007. In fact, Sri Lanka had acquired Israeli UAVs in 1996 during the tenure of the then President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who authorized the acquisition of a range of expensive weapons to boost the SLAF’s firepower as well as surveillance capacity. By 2008, the SLAF had the means to deploy UAVs to designate LTTE targets with laser beams, thereby paving the way for Israeli built Kfirs to deliver laser-guided ammunition. As the army executed a well coordinated rescue mission to save those held hostage by the LTTE, the government invited the Colombo-based diplomatic community to observe UAV footage.
The SLAF carried out its last UAV mission over the Vanni east front on May 17, 2009 to facilitate ground operations spearheaded by the celebrated 58 Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva. The US-UK coalition now pushing for a war crimes investigation as well as India are fully aware of the SLAF’s capacity. Therefore, it would be a travesty of justice if they accepted ridiculous allegation that the Sri Lankan military used information received from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to target makeshift medical facilities during the last phase of fighting.
But Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields portrayed a different picture. The documentary produced by British media outfit, Channel 4 News and shown on Channel 4 alleged that the military brazenly exploited information provided by the ICRC to direct attacks on makeshift medical facilities. The then UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss declared that Tamil doctors serving on the war front had no option but to request the ICRC not to inform the Sri Lankan military of where makeshift medical facilities were. Weiss said that the ICRC had briefed warring parties regarding medical facilities situated on the opposing parties’ territory to prevent accidental attacks. But the Sri Lankan military used information received from the ICRC to mount operations.
Gnanakumar survives artillery fire
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields presenter, Jon Snow said that a representative of the ICRC visited a makeshift hospital located at Mulliyaikkal secondary school in April 2009. (Snow unintentionally contradicted the much touted lie that foreigners hadn’t been allowed in to the war zone since September, 2008. Having accused Sri Lanka of waging a war without witnesses, Snow admitted the presence of foreign ICRC personnel in the Vanni as late as April 2009). Snow produced a British citizen of Sri Lankan origin, Damil Vany Gnanakumar as his star witness. She had arrived in Sri Lanka on February 28, 2008 from London and served in the frontline LTTE fighting formation, Sothiya Regiment. Gnanakumar said that about 30 minutes perhaps one hour after the foreigner working for the ICRC had left, the military directed a shell attack at the makeshift hospital. She depicted a picture of sheer terror. Gnanakumar said: "I saw bodies struck into walls. It was completely destroyed." According to her, there had been only a few survivors. Responding to a query by Snow, Gnanakumar insisted that the medical facility was deliberately targeted. Weiss asserted that the deliberate targeting of medical facilities was nothing but a war crime. His assertion was based on the allegation that by May 2009, there had been altogether 65 attacks on makeshift medical facilities (Gnanakumar failed to explain how she managed to survive direct artillery hit on a single building after being inside the targeted building even without receiving scratch. Had she been really in the targeted building it would have been nothing but a miracle if she survived. Unfortunately, due to a lapse on the part of the government the issue wasn’t taken up nearly four years after the first airing of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields).
Snow alleged that the government attacked another makeshift medical facility located at a primary school on May 12, four days after announcing a new no fire zone. According to Snow, Channel 4 News hadn’t come across any video footage taken after May 12, 2009.
Issue of LTTE deaths
On the basis of findings made by UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) which investigated accountability issues, Snow alleged as many as 40,000 civilians died on the Vanni east front. Snow claimed that the number of dead could be far more according to Channel 4 News sources. (Surprisingly, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields conveniently avoided the contentious issue of LTTE deaths. Those Tamils trapped on the battlefield couldn’t have been unaware of members of their families who fought for the LTTE. Now that almost 12,000 ex-combatants had been released after rehabilitation, it wouldn’t be too difficult to identify those missing. But it wouldn’t be a reality unless Western powers and India reveal true identities of those living there. Sri Lanka has irrefutable evidence that some Sri Lankans received new identities courtesy some foreign governments. Australia issuing a new passport to Frontline Socialist Alliance leader Kumar Gunaratnam bearing the name of Noel Mudalige is a case in point).
Snow accused Sri Lanka of executing captured LTTE prisoners on the basis of video footage. Snow also blamed the military for systematic rape and abuse of Tamil speaking women. The execution of three prisoners on May 15, 2009 as well the killings of a person identified as an LTTE commander too, were shown.
Snow alleged that women who escaped fighting to reach government-held areas two months before the conclusion of fighting were raped by troops. Snow interviewed a woman who had been among the group of escapee. Her daughter too, had been with her. The unidentified woman told Snow: "They told us to take all our clothes off. Then they hugged us. Young people were told to hug each other and then they were shot. Young people were taken away and never came back. I heard screaming and shots."
Snow: You were saying all the women were raped and then they were taken away and you heard shots. And you never heard of them again."
Snow: "Both you and your daughter were raped"
The documentary showed naked corpses of women. The army was accused of killing of some them after being raped and sexually assaulted. Among the dead were television presenter, Isipriya and those who fought the final battle. Soldiers were shown loading naked bodies of women to a tractor trailer.
C 4 News clears SF
Snow emphasized that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his younger brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had to take the responsibility for battlefield excesses.
Weiss alleged that the UN didn’t do enough to stop the carnage. UNSG Ban Ki-moon too, was accused of doing nothing, though he visited Northern Sri Lanka five days after the end of the conflict.
Interestingly, Snow didn’t categorize war winning army commander General Sarath Fonseka as a war criminal. Although war time US ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis in a confidential diplomatic cable to Washington named the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Gotabhaya and Basil as war criminals along with Fonseka, the latter was cleared by the British media outfit. Perhaps, those working overtime for a regime change in Sri Lanka felt that Fonseka should be cleared of war crime charges as he was to be used in a political project against the government. Possibly Channel 4 News couldn’t have dragged the former Chief of Defence Staff’s name after the LTTE’s political wing, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) backed him at the January 26, 2010 presidential election. The LTTE rump funding the Channel 4 News project wouldn’t have liked to portray General Fonseka as a war criminal in the wake of the TNA’s alliance with him. The grouping included the UNP, the JVP, the SLMC as well as the CWC and was widely believed to have the broadest political alliance ever set up for a single project. The project was meant to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first attempt at the presidency.
Snow never asked Gnanakumar whether she was raped or sexually abused when she surrendered to the army on the Vanni east front. If not why a marauding army allowed the pretty girl to leave the war zone? If LTTE women cadres and ordinary women had been victims of a systematic project to rape, what prompted the military to save the wives of Sea Tiger leader, Soosai and Tamilchelvam. Both lead normal lives today.
India given access to war wounded
In fact, Sri Lanka quickly accepted an Indian offer to deploy a medical team close to the operational area in early March 2009. India obviously wanted to keep an eye on what was going on in the northern region as the Sri Lankan army fought its way into the last LTTE bastion. As Sri Lanka too,was aware of New Delhi’s intention, would it engage in so called policy of systematic targeting of civilians and then permitting the wounded to be treated by the Indians at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee. The writer had an opportunity to visit the Indian facility located at a dilapidated building belonging to the Mineral Sands Corporation. The Indian team operated on its own, though the Sri Lankan Navy maintained a robust presence there. The Indian team had access to all those wounded men, women and children moved from Puthumathalan to Pulmoddai under the supervision of the ICRC, including foreign representatives. Therefore, it would be the responsibility of the government to effectively counter continuing attempts to portray the conflict as war without witnesses. In fact, Gnanakumar could help Sri Lanka establish what was really happening on the ground, since her entering the LTTE held-area in early 2008. A thorough investigation would expose her and help the world to establish the circumstances under which the LTTE forced the entire population of the Vanni west, the area east of Kandy-Jaffna road to cross the road and move towards the eastern coast. Perhaps, the government would be able to find some girls who had undergone weapons training with Gnanakumar in early 2008.
For some strange reason, Sri Lanka never highlighted the presence of the Indian medical delegation, though it could have helped to counter allegations.
The Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on March 9, 2009. During deployment at Pulmoddai, the Indians treated nearly 7,000 Tamils. Subsequently, they treated over 40,000 men, women and children at the Menik farm till August 31, 2009. The Indians set up base at Menik farm in May. The bottom line is that India could provide a clear picture as regards the nature of wounds as well as injuries suffered by those treated by its medical team. The data available with India could prove that Sri Lanka, in spite of its limitations, did its best to look after the war wounded as well as those held at Menik farm.
It would be important to recollect what the then Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad said in Colombo at a meeting at the Taj Samudra to felicitate the medical team. Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad said that any government would have found it a difficult situation to take care of over 250,000 people moving into a particular area. Prasad said that India had shifted its medical mission to Menik farm from Pulmoddai in support of Sri Lanka’s efforts. He emphasised that India had offered medical assistance not due to any shortcoming on Sri Lanka’s part, but as a true friend.
Health Minister NImal Siripala de Silva told the gathering that the deployment of the Indian medical team had been done without any formal agreement. When India offered medical assistance, Sri Lanka had accepted it promptly and there had not been any delay in deploying the Indians in the East, the minister said (India: Any country would have found IDP influx difficult to handle, The Island September 9, 2009).
India handed over 25 million Sri Lankan rupees worth of medicine and medical supplies to Sri Lanka, as it terminated the medical mission. This was in addition to SLR 100 million worth medicine and medical supplies used by the Indians during their deployment here.
The US-UK coalition pushing for an external inquiry into war crime allegations could get in touch with the Indian medical team. In fact, India, also a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) too, should interview those who had served in Sri Lanka to ascertain what was going on. If mass scale rape of Tamil speaking women took place during the final phase of the conflict and in Menik farm as alleged by various interested parties, the Indian team could provide information, as at least some of the victims would have received medical treatment.
Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government hadn’t really studied the Channel 4 News agenda, therefore its response failed to counter the main accusations thrown at the armed forces, as well as the political leadership.