A doctor working with injured and displaced Tamils in northern Sri Lanka
tells Channel 4 News that there may be as many as 20,000 amputees among
those who fled last month's routing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eyewitnesses interviewed during a week-long undercover investigation for
Channel 4 News, told of thousands of civilian deaths as government
forces advanced on the Tigers' final stronghold. The deaths, they said, were the result of government shelling.
The Sri Lankan president and senior government ministers have repeatedly
denied causing a single civilian death in what the government had
desginated a "no-fire zone."
International aid agencies believe as many as 100,000 civilians may have
been trapped inside, under a fierce bombardment.
"I think every day a thousand people were killed," one of the very last
to escape the tiny enclave told us. He was referring to the final two
weeks of the conflict, during which the Sri Lankan government claimed
not to have used heavy artillery.
"There were continuous shelling attacks," said the eyewitness. We have
verified his identity as a man in a position of authority, but we are
unable to reveal it.
Members of Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority also expressed deep
misgivings about the fate of the island's Tamil minority now that the
Tamil Tigers have been so decisively defeated. Despite severe
restrictions on access to camps for displaced civilians, evidence is
emerging of maltreatment, despite a promise made by President Mahinda
Rajapaksa in his "victory speech" to Sri Lanka's parliament.
Speaking in the Tamil language, the president promised equal rights for
Tamils and took "personal responsibility" for protecting them.
"Our heroic forces," he said, "have sacrificed their lives to protect
Tamil civilians." A senior Roman Catholic priest, who has worked with
the displaced in the heavily militarised northern town of Vavuniya, said
the triumphalism of Sinhalese was "very sad" to witness.
"There is no one to represent the aspirations of the Tamil community,"
he said. "They have a very uncertain future. It means they will live as
a subjugated community, like under a foreign ruler."
One of the few senior members of the Tamil Tigers to have survived,
Selvarasa Pathmanathan, its head of international relations, said
yesterday that the rebels' struggle for a separate Tamil homeland would
now continue from exile.
"The legitimate campaign of the Tamils to realise their right to
self-determination has been brutally crushed through military
aggression," said a statement, released from an unspecified location.
Sri Lankans expressing concerns about the welfare and treatment of Tamil
civilians -- or questioning the army's version of its final assault on
the Tamil Tigers -- are branded unpatriotic, even traitorous.
Dr Wickramabahu Karunarathne, a left-wing politician and one of the few
dissident voices in the Sinhalese community said: "The state media,
every day, radio, papers, they classify us as traitors and they are
rousing people against us."
Dr Karunaratne was the only interviewee prepared to talk openly on
camera without having his face obscured and voice changed. One prominent
Sinhalese journalist, Podala Jayantha, who had campaigned for greater
media freedom, was abducted and severely beaten by unknown assailants,
two weeks ago.
Amnesty International says that since 2006, 16 Sri Lankan journalists
have been murdered, 26 assaulted, and many more detained. Foreign
journalists have had their movements severely restricted and last month,
our own accredited Asia Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh was deported.
Journalists and all independent observers were banned from the no-fire
zone, during and after the fighting, so no independent assessments have
been made of government claims not to have killed civilians. It has
blamed any deaths on the rebels.
Journalists have also been unable to enter the hospital in Vavuniya,
where thousands of wounded civilians are being treated. Channel 4 News
successfully smuggled a small camera into Vavuniya and interviewed a
Tamil doctor there.
"It is most sure that the numbers without limbs are over 20,000. Most of
the injuries causing loss of limbs were from shelling," he said. The
doctor alleged that conditions in the camps for displaced people around
Vavuniya, are poor and that malnutrition and disease are rife.
"We were all gathered together recently by the government and we were
told that if we told the figures of the sick and why people are dying to
the foreign NGOs that we will be killed for doing this."