April 08, 2021
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'These Photographs Are Genuine'

The British filmmaker whose latest documentary has unearthed pictures of slain LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran, suggesting he was killed in cold blood and not in an exchange of fire

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'These Photographs Are Genuine'
'These Photographs Are Genuine'

Not a stranger to controversy, British filmmaker Callum Macrae’s latest documentary No Fire Zone Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields has unearthed pictures of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran. In this latest set of pictures, we see him eating hours before he was shot and again photographed, suggesting he was killed in cold blood and not in an exchange of fire. These pictures were presumably taken by someone from the Sri Lankan army on 19 May 2009, when he was apparently being held by them. Prabhakaran, it may be added, had been killed the day before and the Sri Lankas government had declared itself victor in the battle.

The film will premiere next month in Geneva, to coincide with a UN Human Rights Council meeting that shall scrutinise the Sri Lankan government’s attempts at providing justice and accountability. In an interview with Outlook, Macrae argues Sri Lanka must get to the bottom of this and other war crimes mentioned in the film instead of denying them to avoid getting entangled in a renewed cycle of violence with the Tamils. He also takes questions on whether his films, including his earlier one just called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, have helped the peace process at all and what India ought to be doing as Sri Lanka’s influential neighbour.

How did you find these pictures of Prabhakaran's son? 

The pictures appear to have been taken by Sri Lankan armed forces—and they were supplied to us by a brave organization of mostly exiled Sri Lankan Journalists—both Sinhala and Tamil—called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

Can the Sri Lankan government claim that its forces did not kill Balachandran Prabhakaran?

I’m afraid that as usual they are claiming a number of things simultaneously. Their main line seems to be that this child was shot in crossfire. That simply doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination.  These photographs—which we have had extensively analysed and authenticatedshow that this child was held prisoner in a calm situation, fed a snack and given a drink—and then taken less than two hours later and shot in cold blood—when he was filmed and videoed again.  In that footage you can see soldiers standing around calmly.  This was a deliberate and premeditated execution—not a battle.  Indeed the battle was over at that point on the 19th of May. The next, contradictory claim is that the pictures are faked.  Our analysis has demonstrated they are not.  However it is also worth making the point that no-one who was going to fake a photograph would fake several taken within a short period showing the same scene—that would make detection of discrepancies etc inevitable.  I am afraid these photographs are genuine—what happened, happened. The Sri Lankan government needs to address these issues rather than deny them.

Other than the visuals of Prabhakaran's son, what fresh evidence there is to indicate gross human rights violations by the Sri Lankan army?

The new evidence includes some very important—and very compelling—eyewitness testimony and photographs taken by a UN worker who was on the last overland UN food convoy into the region and who became trapped in the No Fire Zone. He has spoken out for the first time in our film. (In it, UN field officer Peter Mackay provides testimony and photos of, what he says is, government shelling of a UN aid camp that killed many civilians—a serious war crime.)

Can you give us an idea of the logistics involved in shooting No Fire Zone? Are the visuals shot by people trapped in the war zone? Or did you travel there and shoot the film?

Although I did visit Sri Lanka undercover, most of the footage is shot by people on the ground during the war. Some of these people were civilians, some were Tiger camera-operators and of course some were Sri Lankan armed forces personnel who were filming war trophy videos on their mobile phones.

You have often been accused of holding a brief for the LTTE. Is there anything the film that deals with the abuses perpetrated by the Tamil forces? 

Probably the most absurd accusation against us is that we are soft on the LTTE.  In our film we are absolutely clear about the war crimes committed by the LTTE.  We show footage of suicide bomb attacks on civilians, we talk about the child soldiers. However there is a very important point to be made about this. The crimes of one side do not justify the crimes of another. The Sri Lankan government holds itself up as a democratically elected government that upholds international humanitarian law. It must accept that it will be judged to those standards.  It cannot keep hiding behind the crimes of the LTTE. 

Not just the Sri Lankan government or those sympathetic to them, even others would want to know what motivated this film and where the finances for the project came from.

Journalism motivated this film.  I have made a number of films investigating war crimes.  I have made three films examining serious allegations of war crimes and other crimes committed by UK forces and US forces in Iraq.  I will investigate war crimes by anyone—the Western coalition in Iraq, the LTTE or the Sri Lankan government.  The money to make this film was raised from charitable foundations and UK institutions like BRITDOC and Channel 4. It is not a commercial exercise, nor a political; exercise.  It is about justice and human rights.

The Sri Lankan army/government has already dismissed the film as "lies, half truths, rumours and numerous forms of speculation". Do you expect this revelation in your film to push the two parties any closer to lasting peace? Doesn't this threaten to upset/vitiate any backdoor peace negotiations that may or may not be happening?

It has often been said—but it is true and worth repeating.  Without justice there can be no peace and reconciliation—and without truth there can be no justice.  These issues need to be confronted.  Justice needs to be done.  If not then in the short term all we will see is increased repression of Tamils—particularly in the north of Sri Lanka—and the silencing of all critics whether Tamil or Sinhala.  There will be continuing attacks on the media and the independence of the judiciary. 

In the long term the prospect are even worse.  There is a generation of young Tamils who feel bitterly betrayed by the international community that has failed to prevent the bloodshed.  If the international community now fails to ensure that at least justice is done - then the fear is they will take justice into their own hands—and that is a terrible prospect, meaning more bloodshed, more tragedy and renewed regional instability.

Has Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, your earlier film, achieved some of the goals you set yourself before undertaking the project?

I think our previous films did play and important role in putting this on the international agenda.  But we still do not have justice—the men responsible remain in charge and have never been called to account. The world needs to do more—and I hope our next film will help with that process.

Other than backing a "robustly worded" resolution at UNHCR's meeting in Geneva, what steps do you expect India to do take to nurture peace in the island?

India is the most important country in this debate—it has to take the lead in ensuring that justice is done.  This is not an exercise in historical accountability—it is a vital matter which needs to be addressed urgently—the alternatives are a further slide into autocratic rule in Sri Lanka, the denial of human rights, the undermining of international humanitarian law and the terrible prospect of further bloodshed.  I’m afraid India has no choice but to show leadership on this.

You have seen a lot of gruesome stuff from your work in Iraq and volatile regions elsewhere. Is there something from Sri Lanka that shocked you most?

It is simply the sheer scale of the horror.  In a sense it is the executions at the end that are attracting the headlines—and so they should.  But the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians who had been encouraged to enter what the government themselves called a no fire zone, only to be mercilessly shelled by that same government’s forces, remains one of the most awful, tragic and inexplicable crimes I have ever come across.

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