June 24, 2021
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Colombo Capers

'Reminiscent of hell' was how the UN panel on Sri Lanka’s accountability issues described a day in May 2009, the last leg of the civil war.

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Colombo Capers

Shell storm

'Reminiscent of hell' was how the UN panel on Sri Lanka’s accountability issues described a day in May 2009, the last leg of the civil war. In its report made public by the UN on April 25, the panel said that due to the lack of space in one of the Sri Lankan government designated no-fire zones in north-east, civilians had nowhere to hide from the shelling, which came from all sides. This part of the report focussed on the period between May 13 and 18, 2009 and included shelling of hospitals. The panel accused the Sri Lankan government of killing civilians through indiscriminate shelling.

“Shells rained down everywhere and bullets whizzed through the air. Many died and were buried under their bunkers and shelters, without their deaths being recorded. Black smoke and the stench of dead bodies filled the air. Some people begged for food for their starving children or for help for the wounded or dying. The scene was described as reminiscent of hell.”

According to the panel, despite desperate phone calls to the Sri Lankan Army by doctors and the additional government agent, the shelling continued. In the report, the panel attached few photographs of the no-fire zones to indicate the destruction. One such image from April 2009 showed bodies of children inside a temporary shelter, destroyed by shelling. The UN panel attributed the picture to an unidentified photographer. The panel claimed that over 2,300 individuals/organisations made 4,000 oral and written submissions. Under the confidentiality clause, identities of those who deposed before the panel would be protected, in some cases even for next 20 years. The panel chaired by Marzuki Darusman, Indonesian expert on international humanitarian laws, was commissioned last June by UN secretary-general Ban ki-Moon to study Sri Lanka’s civil war between September 2008 and May 19, 2009 – the most intense, most violent phase. While an actual figure of civilian casualties could not be reached by the panel, it said, it could not rule out 40,000 civilian deaths then.

LTTE culpability

The north’s Tamil population that lived in LTTE-controlled areas and faced repeated displacements in recent years due to the erstwhile rebel leadership’s movements as the Sri Lankan armed forces seized area after area, were caught in a deathly trap in the final days of the war. As the situation in the no-fire zones worsened, large number of civilians tried to escape from the rebel-controlled areas, but, according to the UN panel, the LTTE prevented this with “increasing brutality.” “Some LTTE cadres would let fleeing civilians through, but others opened fire on them with AK47s, killing men, women and children alike.” With the LTTE losing its cadres in the war, it became desperate for new fighters and forcibly took away young even under-aged Tamils to be “used in the first lines of defence.” The panel also alleged that the Sri Lankan government “downplayed” the number of civilians present in the LTTE-controlled areas, between January and May 2009, so as to “restrict the amount of humanitarian assistance” in the form of food and medicines to those areas. At the end of war, there were around 300,000 internally displaced persons in government camps.

Government response

The UN panel said it also found credible, allegations against the Sri Lankan government forces with regard to executions of LTTE cadres, enforced disappearances of those with suspected links to the LTTE, sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of war, arbitrary detentions of IDPs. Calling it the “Darusman report,” the Sri Lankan government reiterated its earlier position, that the report was “fundamentally flawed in many respects” and that it was based on “biased material and presented without any verification.” “The public release of the report at this stage is divisive, and disrupts our efforts to reinforce peace, security and stability in Sri Lanka. It feeds into the political agendas of interested parties,” a statement from Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry released on April 27, said. With the panel recommending an independent international mechanism to probe accountability in the last stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Colombo has stepped up diplomatic efforts, looking towards Russia and China for support against any such future move. “The issues raised in the report need to be studied carefully,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs in a brief statement on April 26. New Delhi said, it would as a first step, “intent to engage with the Government of Sri Lanka on the issues contained in the report.” At the moment, Colombo appeared anxious to hear from New Delhi.

Mona Lisa was here

Paintings, pencil sketches and handicraft – works of former LTTE members – were displayed at Colombo’s National Art Gallery earlier this week by the Sri Lankan government’s Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. Unimaginably titled “reflections of transformation through art”, the exhibition, managed however to sell a few pieces from upwards of Lankan rupees 1,000. Ex-combatants, aged between 18 and 35, from three government rehabilitation centres in north Sri Lanka, had been guided by professional artists on “technique” alone, a Sri Lankan Army officer of the organising committee said. “The participants themselves selected themes,” he insisted. A former rebel made a clay ship called "Titanis" onboard which were dark-haired Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Presenting the other Leo was V Vishvalingam from Vavuniya’s rehabilitation centre. His Mona Lisa appeared to betray more emotions than da Vinci’s did; in a mildly comical way. With the exception of a few, a sense of uniformity prevailed. Most paintings were post-war fantasies – family life, regular income. M Sanjeeva from Vavuniya found a privileged place on the gallery wall. His was a portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Women in mine action

Indian NGOs – Horizon and Sarvatra – manned by retired Indian Army officers have cleared around 70,000 anti-tank, anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance from the island’s north, west and the east. The two firms, working here since 2003, have employed Tamil women in their respective teams since the end of war in May 2009. A salary of Lankan rupees 20,000 per month is paid to each worker. Each team comprises of 50 workers, half of which is locally drawn. Women are close to 20 per cent in each team.

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