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INDICTMENT AGAINST SRI LANKA
The Charge is Ethnic Cleansing
Sri Lanka's Undeclared War on Eelam Tamils
...in the Shadow of the Ceasefire: 2002 - 2007
President Mahendra Percy Rajapakse received thunderous applause from party delegates on September 4th during the 55th session of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in Colombo when he announced that the security forces had re - taken the Tamil majority town of Sampoor in the Muthur East division of Trincomalee district.Rajapakse said: “Our Armed Forces have captured Sampur for the welfare and benefit of the people living there”.
While most sections of the media projected the Sampoor victory as a militaristic success over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) some analysts complimented Rajapakse on the manner in which he announced it. “The President struck the proper note in combining the aim of the welfare and benefit of the people of Sampur together with the military success” observed veteran journalist Lucian Rajakarunanayake in his “Daily News” column.
Whatever the real or imaginary concern displayed by Rajapakse for the people living in Sampoor the ground realities before and after the LTTE vacated Sampoor are harshly different to those benign comments expressed by “Magnanimous” Mahinda.
It is highly debatable whether the armed forces “captured” Sampoor with the welfare of its inhabitants or for what seems an undisguised politico - military objective. What is more important however is to note that the actual situation was totally contrary to Rajapakse’s claim that the armed forces took Sampoor ” for the welfare and benefit of the people living there”.
There were no civilians living in Sampoor or surrounding areas when the armed forces walked in. The tigers had vacated the region with most military assets including heavy artillery intact. The people had vacated the place even earlier due to intense aerial bombardment and artillery shelling.
When some media personnel were taken on an arranged tour to report on the Sampoor trophy they did not see any Tamil civilians in the area.It was a land without people that they saw. At least one journalist in his despatch wrote that the absence of people was “intriguing”.
Where had all the Sampoor people gone? No big mystery this. They had all gone to comparatively safer places in the South of Trincomalee district and North of Batticaloa district. It is not Sampoor town alone that reminds one of Goldsmith’s “deserted village” now. All 12 villages in the greater Sampoor region are bereft of people too.
Sampoor is part of the Muthur East division. A vast number of people from the Muthur East region and adjacent Eechilampattru division have been displaced. Many families from 24 villages in Muthur East and 19 villages in Eechilampatru have left their homes and sought temporary refuge elsewhere.
There are however some people remaining in their former homes or elsewhere in the areas of Muthur East or Eechilampatru where the security forces are not present. Some remain due to a stubborn resolve not to desert their ancestral homes. Others remain to protect property and tend to livestock. Some are old and sick. They cannot make the ardous trek to relative safety. A few have been intimately involved with the LTTE and are reluctant to flee due to fear of repercussions or the courage of their convictions.
With all governmental structures having broken down in these areas no one knows the exact number of those remaining. The military administrator masquerading as civilian authority in Trincomalee does not allow any NGO or relief organization to go to these parts on grounds of security. Government officials do not go there too. No dry rations, emergency provisions or medical supplies are allowed in. With infra-structure being destroyed and qualified medical personnel being absent the afflicted people are suffering greatly.
While those who remain behind in Muthur East and Eechilampatru are fast becoming the wretched of the Eastern Earth the fate of those who made it to relative safety is no better.The bulk of those displaced are in the Verugal - Vaharai region of Trincomalee South and Batticaloa north.48, 600 people from 8, 543 families are officially accredited Trincomalee displaced in Koralaipattru North division. The number in Verugal area is not known.
Thousands of displaced persons from Trincomalee district have made it to other Govt controlled areas of Batticaloa district. The number exceeds 10,000 now.More displaced people living currently in tiger controlled areas would have made it to the comparative safety and comfort of Govt controlled areas in Batticaloa if the LTTE had not restricted them. Some of these displaced people have relocated temporarily not only to Batticaloa town but to other parts of the Island too in a few instances.
I have heard harrowing accounts of the experiences undergone by these pathetic people. One resident from Sampoor had walked nearly a hundred KM with his family to Batticaloa. This was not one long journey but in stages. The Sampoor displaced had gone from place to place in search of safety. The staggered journey began in April and ended in August. With the security forces taking their homeland these children of Sampoor soil seem destined for permanent displacement.
As stated in these columns the problem for Sampoor did not commence after the Maavilaaru crisis or due to the factor that the LTTE fired shells at Trincomalee harbour or China Bay from Sampoor. Sampoor was hit first on April 25th within hours of the alleged suicide bomber attack in the Colombo military headquarters. THe LTTE headquarters in the Wanni was not attacked but strategic Sampoor in Trincomalee was attacked.
For two days the area was attacked by air, land and sea. Israeli K-firs and Ukraine built Mig 27 planes bombed the area. Naval gunboats shelled the coastal regions. Multi barrel rocket fire and artiilery attacks were launched from Trincomalee harbour and Monkey bridge camps across the Kottiar bay. 17 people were killed and 40 injured in both days. Many buildings and dwellings were destroyed. Some days later Sampoor was attacked again when the LTTE engaged in a sea skirmish with the navy off Point Pedro in the North.
It seemed clear that the Rajapakse regime had resolved to re - take strategic Sampoor. The tripartite attacks were to drive the people away first. Every attack by the LTTE was used as a pretext to target Sampoor.The people of Sampoor had to go.The warning was not lost on the people of Sampoor. Thus began the long trek.
The artillery and aerial attacks that began in April continued even after Sampoor was retaken in September. According to the LTTE political commissar for Trincomalee S. Elilan 97 Tamil civilians were killed and 215 injured during this period. Artillery and aerial attacks are directed towards the Verugal - Vaaharai region even now. Several IDP’s have been killed and injured in these places.
According to a first hand account related to this column by an education official from Sampoor he and his family had first left Sampoor and reached Paattaalipuram about six km away for safety. They had used a circuitous jungle route. They had stayed here for some weeks. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and the NGO Save the Chikdren had provided relief and food.Officially there was no Governmental assistance to these hapless people who were displaced due to no fault of thir own.
Retired Major - General Ranjith Silva the Trincomalee Government Agent appointed by the militaristic Rajapakse regime had debarred any such assistance to these people.Nominally the people of Sampoor were Sri Lankan citizens entitled to all rights as any other citizen. Practically they were regarded as children of a lesser God. They were cruelly deprived of their basic rights.Their fundamental right to life - from which all other rights are derived - was gravely threatened.
Their troubles continued. The Pattalipuram area was shelled intensively from the Kattaiparichaan camp. So the family moved another 4 km to a place called Nalllur in Muthur East. But very soon MBRL fire from Trincomalee was directed at this place and surrounding villages. Artillery shelling from Thoppoor and Selva Nagar camps also took place. Aerial bombardment of the area also commenced.
Realising that an offensive to take Muthur East was on the cards the family along with others moved to Ilankaithurai Muhathuvaaram. The causeway there links Eechilampatru division with Muthur East. Artillery Shelling and sporadic aerial attacks continued. The family moved around the area moving from places like Uppooral to places like Seenanveli.
With artillery and aerial attacks continuing the family then moved further South and took refuge at different times in places like Punnaiyadi and Kallady. The Maavilaaru crisis saw these areas being bombed and shelled by the security forces though these places had no relevance to the so called “water war”.
The family along with others then shifted further South to places like Paalathottam, Maavadichenai and Muttithottam. Even these areas were not immune from aerial bombardment and artillery attacks. Finally the family reached Verugal. After a few days they crossed the river barely escaping an aerial attack which targeted the ferry.
They were now in the Batticaloa district. The Koralaipattru North division was teeming with displaced Tamils. There was inadequate infra - structure to accommodate the Internal Displaced Persons inflow. After moving to and from places like Pammivettuvaan, Paalsenai and Vaaharai the family managed after great difficulty to get “permission” from the LTTE to leave. When they crossed into Govt controled areas the army did not stop them though there were instances of such prevention earlier. Finally the family reached the safety of a relative’s home in Batticaloa.
It was very painful to listen to this family’s tale on the telephone. There was infinite sadness. They related how their house in Sampoor had been damaged twice earlier during the conflict. After basic repairs they had continued to live there. When the 2002 Feb 23td ceasefire came into force with Norwegian facilitation they like many others thought permanent peace had returned.
Borrowing money they renovated their damaged house. It was even re- structured and had a fresh look. But that house was now wrecked due to artillery and air attacks as it was hit twice. It was now beyond repair. This was the main reason which impelled the family to move away.
Their tale was representative of what befell most residents of that region. It was an emotional strain to listen to their travails of travel. Going from one place to another for safety. Facing aerial and artillery attacks after enjoying some safety for a few days. With each movement the number of displaced persons increased. It was a case of people from village A taking refuge in vilage B. Then people from both villages A and B move to village C. After some days people from villages A, B and C move to village D. The story goes on and on. The IDP number aggregates each time.
Most people had walked or used cycles. Some had used bullock carts. A fortunate few with fuel used tractors. The main roads were not safe. The bombers attacked any sign of human movement on the roads. Bridges, causeways, culverts and even fery ways were deliberately attacked without any concern for the fleeing people. Many of these victims recognized a new cruelty in the air attacks. The feeling was that some foreigners and not Sri Lankans were flying the planes. Even Mi 24 Helicopter gunships had attacked then on a few occasions.
The education official that this column spoke to lamented about the students. “There were 18, 000 students in the region” he said. ” Now they are all scattered and displaced. They live in makeshift refugee camps. Their schooling is disrupted. A recent BBC “Thamilosai” broadcast relayed the voices of several children and parents lamenting about the loss of education.Organizations concerned about children in armed conflict focus attention on child soldiers. But a humanitarian tragedy like this mass displacement and deprivation of schooling is virtually ignored. How many of these affected students will be recruited by the LTTE?
What is clear about the fate of Sampoor is that the people had been deliberately and systematically uprooted and pressurised through force to move away. The tragic tale of the displaced people demonstrated clearly that a terrible design had been effected. After depriving the displaced of rations and relief the pattern of attacks had been well - designed to drive the people further Southwards and out of Trincomalee district. The attacks had no viable connection to the war against the LTTE. It was more a part of the deep - seaed conspiracy to “De - Tamilise” Trincomalee.
Despite the calculated machinations to force the people into Batticaloa district these pitiable children of a lesser God were suffering there too. Orders from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse saw NGO organizations being prevented from visiting these people and catering to their needs. Only Governmental assistance is allowed. This is not enough. The UNHCR and ICRC are allowed to go in. Occasionally local NGO’s and religious organizations are allowed in along with Government officials.
One such visit was made by Rev. Dr. Jeyanesan a senior minister of the Church Of South India (CSI) Jaffna Diocese. In a recent interview to the BBC the clergyman said that the CSI delegation was prevented from taking foodstuff for the children at the Maankerni camp. The priest had inspected personally the IDP situation from Vaaharai to Verugal. He had seen many refugee situations in Sri Lanka and abroad. But never in his life had he seen appalling conditions such as this.
The facilities were simply scarce. With the Govt banning construction of permanent shelters most people were roughing it out in the open. Not all had tents. Some of the tents were sub - standard. There were no health or sanitary facilities. The food and provisions were inadequate. The people were immensely suffering.
The priest observed that there were about 25 - 30 NGO’s doing refugee relief work in other parts of Batticaloa district. If permitted these organizations would help ease the burden and suffering. But the Govt was not allowing them to do so. Rev. Jeyanesan said that he had visited the Muthur refugees in Kanthalai earlier. Nearly fity NGO’s were on the scene attending to refugees. In Vaahara- Verugal the IDP count was more than in Kanthalai but only UN and ICRC organizations were allowed to do some work. This was totally inadequate.
Describing the situation as a humanitarian tragedy Rev Jeyanesan appealed to the Govt to treat the problem of displaced people as a national and not ethnic issue. He implored the state not to discriminate between citizens and urged it to ensure that IDP’s were being looked after to the best extent possible.
When officials and NGO’s request permission to offer better services to these displaced persons the Govt cites security as an excuse. It also says that permanent abodes need not be constructed as the people will be re- settled in their former homes soon. There are also erroneous media reports that the people of Sampoor and Muthur are returning home. This is incorrect. Only Muslim refugees from Muthur are returning. Many of them were compelled through various means to return. Displaced Tamils from Muthur or Sampoor have not returned.
Furthermore there seems very little chance of the rightful residents of Sampoor returning home. As predicted in these columns earlier the security forces are going ahead with plans of declaring the Sampoor coastal region a high security zone sans people. Most remaining houses in the area have been looted. A Buddha statue has been ercected at the Naavaladdy junction in Sampoor. There is much talk of renaming Sampoor as Somapura in typical “conquest” style.
Complicating the situation further is the hasty decision to shift the venue from China Bay to Sampoor of the proposed Coal power plant. The project is of two phases and will generate 1000 MW at completion in 2012. The Indian Government is expected to provide Rs 50 Billion for the project and a MOU is to be signed shortly. To ensure perhaps that the tigers do not retake Sampoor in the future the coal plant is now to be moved to Sampoor. A 300 acre site has been earmarked. How New Delhi would respond to this change remains to be seen.
Past events have demonstrated clearly that the people of Sampoor have been cruelly targeted and driven away for politico - military objectives. They have been persecuted deliberately and continue to be persecuted. Against this backdrop Mahinda Rajapakse reaches the pinnacle of sanctimonious hypocisy when he says “Our Armed Forces have captured Sampur for the welfare and benefit of the people living there”.