The camera pans across a host of hands thrust through a gate and focuses on a young girl. The deep sadness etched in her face shows the despair felt by thousands of Tamil civilians caught up in the tail end of the 30-year war fought between the government of Sri Lanka armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Filmed by United Nations staffer, Benjamin Dix, it showcases the anguish of civilians who congregated outside the UN compound in Northern Sri Lanka as UN officers left the area following a communiqué stating the Sri Lankan government could not guarantee their safety as its forces advanced into LTTE-held land.
The image is part of a documentary entitled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields (which can be seen here), aired by the British Channel 4 station. The 40-plus-minute documentary includes images of previously shown photos of captured LTTE cadres being put to death by government soldiers in the final days of the battle fought at the end of 2008 and the first five months of 2009.
The pull out is described in the documentary by former spokesman for the UN in Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss as a move to "remove independent witnesses to what was to come." The unfolding scenes are horrific; displaying man's inhumanity to man where both GoSL forces and the LTTE used unarmed civilians as pawns.
The Sri Lankan government and its apologists reject the documentary as a fabrication, and continue to claim that the final foray was carried out as a humanitarian operation with "zero civilian casualties." However, images and messages that came out of the war zone even as the last battles were fought tell a different story. The inaction of the UN, world powers and main stream media at the time baffled those who followed the events closely. Those images and reports lend credibility to this documentary and supports the findings of the Darusman Report, a UN expert panel appointed by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon last year. While the report holds both sides accountable, and calls for a war crimes investigation, Ban Ki Moon now claims he has no authority to follow up on the report without the consent of the Sri Lankan government.
The documentary showcases images filmed by Tamils, government footage and those captured by soldiers on mobile phones. Eye witness accounts include that of Vany Kumar a Tamil woman domiciled in England who was visiting relatives in Sri Lanka and was caught up in the war, and a Tamil doctor who until the end attempted to alleviate the suffering of the people. A man who lost his son during the shelling, a woman raped after surrendering to the government and a Sinhala critic are also interviewed.
As desperate civilians fled to no fire zones designated by the government, footage shows the LTTE firing into the ground in attempts to stop their flight. Yet those who reached the no-fire zones were not spared either, with government shells falling into these zones and described by eyewitness as a pattern -- one shell would fall to be followed 10 minutes later by another, making it impossible to rescue the injured. Instances of LTTE grenades blowing up a government run camp where both civilians and soldiers died are also mentioned. The shelling of hospitals clearly marked with a red cross indicates the clear disregard of the GoSL for international laws. It resulted in the doctor in charge requesting the International Committee of the Red Cross to stop providing coordinates of the hospitals to the government. Finally, with no recourse to food, water and medicine, patients were abandoned as medical professionals and helpers joined the fleeing civilians. Government shells fell on food queues killing several children. While the Darusman report states that at least 40, 000 civilians were killed at the time, the documentary's narrator Jon Snow states the numbers could be higher.
The comments of soldiers as they piled bodies of naked LTTE cadres onto trucks is yet another indication of disregard for the laws of war which clearly stipulates the treatment of both civilians and combatants. Speaking in Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese, soldiers make lurid comments about the shape of the female bodies and one even states he would like to cut the breasts of a woman cadre if no one was around. The voices are easily distinguishable as those of Sinhalese, as Tamils and Muslims speak Sinhala with pronounced accents.
Despite the GoSL's rejection of the documentary, a report in The Nation newspaper in Sri Lanka states that both the government and the military would commence investigations. Whether this would be to bring culprits to book or embark on a witch hunt on those who released the photos is left to be seen. The government and its supporters including state media are known to brand dissenters as traitors and allow extra judicial atrocities to be committed. Interestingly the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee appointed last year by President Mahinda Rajapakse, has also indicated it would study the footage as according to its media coordinator Lakshman Wickremasinghe "The commission had gone through similar photographs taken by the Air Force Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other sources during the past six months. Therefore, the commission on principle decided to examine the Channel 4 video footage to ensure that our study is comprehensive." This comment, then, belies the government's stand that the documentary is a fabrication.
The documentary clearly indicates that war crimes were committed by government forces and the LTTE. While some argue that the LTTE cannot be prosecuted as its leadership has been destroyed, several of its hierarchy, Karuna Amman, Pillaiyan and KP, who planned and executed mass murder of Sinhala villagers, monks and police officers and procured arms for the LTTE, now enjoy the protection of the Sri Lankan government.
And what of the United Nations and the international community? Should the world community remain blameless? Their silence in 2009 was deafening. Except for puerile statements asking for caution and protection of civilians there were no real interventions to prevent the inhuman treatment of the people. Canada, which is home to the largest number of Tamils outside Sri Lanka, chose to ignore their desperate protests in 2009. Despite the subject being spoken of in Canada's parliament last week and a resolution being passed at the NDP convention held in Vancouver, Canada's mainstream press has not reported the issue.
Would Canada extend the same treatment to Sri Lanka government officials, defense personnel and apologists who seek to even visit this country, in the same manner that refugees of MV Sun Sea and others have been subject to?
More importantly, will the United Nations initiate action against these obvious war crimes and ensure that justice is served for the thousands of civilians who lost their lives, limbs and loved ones?
Kshama Ranawana is a freelance writer and human rights activist.
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