19 July, 2024


Exodus From Jaffna, 31st October 1995


UTHR(J) Special Report No.6


The Exodus: Varying Claims and Perceptions

On the evening of 30th October 1995, LTTE loudspeakers announced in Jaffna town, “No one must take this announcement lightly. We are battling intensely and courageously against a demonic force. It will attack us from multiple directions. We too will respond likewise. Since we are going to resist every inch of the way against a state drunk with racism, you people must evacuate for Thenmaratchi and Vadamarachi this same night.” LTTE men then went from house to house and ordered people to evacuate. They were told, “Jaffna town would soon become a battle zone. We are blowing up Chemmani bridge at 4.00 a.m. If you are not out by then, you will have to remain and face the consequences.” By 6.30 p.m. Kandy Road was blocked by panic stricken people trying to leave on foot. A man who decided not to leave and went 300 yards to discuss plans with another family said that owing to the press of the multitude, the journey took him two hours.
There had evidently been privileged sections of the civilian population who had received prior notice of the exodus and had made an early exit with their moveable property. On the 30th evening people in different places were told different things. Some were told that the Chemmani Bridge (Navatkuli Bridge) would be blown up at twelve mid-night. In Uduvil people were told that the army would soon subject the area to a rain of shells. Four shells were fired into the area, which were later identified by the people as LTTE shells. People in Jaffna town were told that an army attack from Mandathivu is imminent.

Tamil Refugees In TamilnaduChemmani Bridge was never blown up as threatened. On the morning of that same day, the LTTE had made a proclamation of ‘War-time Exigency’ through loudspeakers. It was that night, after the exodus order, that the people found out what it meant.

Those in Jaffna who switched on to the LTTE’s radio bulletin that night were astonished to discover that no reference was made to the exodus that had been ordered. In the days that followed, while doing everything to force civilians to leave Jaffna, the LTTE went on denying that it had ordered people to do so.

There had been a steady exodus of people from Jaffna fleeing the fighting and the bombing and shelling, owing to the fact that the Government had failed in its duty to give confidence to the civilians that tangible measures for their safety had been taken. What is worse, it was denying or greatly underplaying civilian casualties and suffering behind a mask of censorship. By its reprimand (and subsequent suspension) of the Government Agent of Jaffna, the Government was behaving as though it was treachery to talk about such matters – an ironical position for a Government that had staked much on openness, democracy, political accommodation and human rights.

On 3rd November the Spokesman for the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali issued the following statement: “Reports of the massive displacement of the civilian population in northern Sri Lanka are a source of deep concern to the Secretary General. It is evident that humanitarian assistance on a significant scale will be essential to minimise suffering…”

In the days that followed scores of foreign journalists came to this country to follow up the story. The Government too panicked as it came to be revealed that owing to excusable delays as well as some obstruction from the government and military machinery, there had been a significant shortfall in the food rations sent to civilians in Jaffna. It thus continued to prevent foreign journalists from going to the North. In addition to rebuffing the U.N. concern, the government (Ministry of Defence) also blocked relief workers, including doctors, from going into the refugee area. It appeared that the government wanted to hide the developing disaster from the rest of the world. Foreign journalists had therefore to be content talking to civilians coming from the North. Most civilians were afraid to talk. Nevertheless, the international media soon came to blame the LTTE for engineering  a forced exodus, and thus pushing to extremes a humanitarian crisis already resulting from the military advance.

The truth however could not be denied where the people were concerned. The LTTE offered an oblique rationalisation in an appeal for recruitment issued on 8th November and published in the press in Killinochchi (i.e. Eelanadu) the following day. It read:

“In a single night along a narrow road brimming with water on either side, more than 5 lakhs of people made their exodus from Jaffna carrying only a few urgent requirements. This saga is truly one that causes unbelievable amazement. It was undertaken to escape a genocidal military onslaught. The soul of the nation was melted by the flow of these oceanic waves of humanity. There were expectant women, infants, mothers, the elderly, the sick and injured fighters. Despite the crush they came, sitting, standing, falling and crawling.

“However, through this agonising exodus, our people have given our struggle a miraculous political victory. They have revealed to the world the truth that our people cannot live, and do not wish to live, under Sinhalese military rule. Thus have they displayed their immense patriotic opposition to the Government. The Tigers salute the people for their racial pride…”

The only true claim here concerned the description of the suffering the people were subject to. This was made clear at the end of the same statement that was in effect an admission:

“Given this prospect [of bombing, shelling and genocide of those who fall among Sinhalese forces], warring against Sinhalese forces with a large number of people in Valikamam was dangerous. It would then be as though we gave the enemy the excuse for genocide. Therefore considering the safety of the people and not to have any impediment that would deter us from hitting back at the enemy effectively, it became inevitable for us to order the people to move [emphasis ours] to safer areas…We performed this historic duty with a sense of responsibility.”

But to audiences abroad, LTTE propaganda continued to maintain that the exodus was an act of volition on the part of the people. An LTTE front organisation, the International Federation of Tamils issued from a London suburb a statement attributed to the University of Jaffna and allegedly signed by two departmental heads of the Medical Faculty, a professor of Tamil and two others. The statement dated 17th November said:

“We from the University left Jaffna on 30th October 1995 with hardly anything in our hands. Such was the shelling and the panic caused by the approaching army. The continuing monsoonal weather is also against us. We [are] without proper food, psychologically traumatised…[Having striven for many years for the educational advancement of our people] today we have left everything to be one with the people. We had walked and cycled many miles in pouring rain on that memorable night of 30th October 1995…”

The story, however, as related by the people is something chilling, as we shall see. It also shows that the ordinary people kept up a sense of justice, decency and good sense despite years of fascist control. To the rulers and their elite partners the people never mattered. Suffering was constantly inflicted on them for military, political or propaganda advantage.

The Closure of Jaffna Hospital

The final act in the closure of Jaffna Hospital is another of those painful episodes in the history of the Tamil people that deserves to be meditated upon with sympathy, trying to imagine oneself in the shoes of a handful of doctors and a few dozen individuals called upon to make agonising personal decisions. Apart from problems of medical ethics in such extreme situations as the country had not faced before, it also raises some questions about the role and obligations of the ICRC as an institution.

In the first few days that followed 30th October, the LTTE, as pointed out, had made its intentions clear. Soon after the announcement some surgical equipment went missing, and the authorities had to place some new locks. The LTTE was brazenly flouting the condition that no arms should be carried within  the zone. From the first day the LTTE started removing stocks of medicine and the hospital generators one by one. Yet it continued to bring its injured cadre in for treatment.

The ICRC”s conduct was also wobbly. It seemed to have accepted that the closure was inevitable and to have swallowed the LTTE’s reading of the situation. This was that the patients, people and even medical staff were moving into Thenmaratchi and that soon there would be no work at the hospital. The senior doctors were however determined to keep the hospital open and to remain in Jaffna. In this they were supported by most of the junior doctors and by medical staff who had not quit. The junior doctors even helped in menial tasks such as cooking, and they all worked as a team. The ICRC’s attitude however indicated that it wanted to move. As the doctors understood it, Thamilchelvan had `really scared the daylights’ out of the ICRC by threatening to cut off access. Worse still, a shell fell near the ICRC office, a shell whose source is disputed. The general opinion among the people was that it was an LTTE shell. Others however maintained that it was an SL Army shell on the grounds that the explosion was louder than that obtaining from LTTE shells. But given that the area was not subject to general shelling by the SL Army, it would appear strange that the army from 3 or 4 miles away should aim a single shell at the location of the ICRC office.

From about 7th November the ICRC started taking down their flags and insignia, heralding the closure and spreading panic among all those who had depended on the ICRC zone for their protection. The doctors at the hospital and the ICRC seemed to be working towards different ends and the communication gap was quite evident. Mr Georg Cunz, the head of the ICRC mission, was guarded and diplomatic in what he said. But remarks attributed to the ICRC team as a whole gave doctors the feeling that they were very much misunderstood and that the ICRC team was more influenced by what the LTTE told them than by the ground situation in the hospital. Of course no one could take the LTTE’s reputation lightly and there was the shell near the ICRC office of unknown provenance.

The ICRC opened a mobile clinic with Jaffna Hospital doctors in Thenmaratchi and the medical doctor of the ICRC team was constantly comparing statistics between Jaffna Hospital and Chavakacheri Hospital. A member of the Jaffna Hospital surgical team took a breather from a grinding routine by standing on the balcony of the house officers’ quarters. The ICRC nurse who passed by below addressed a remark to him, “There are lots of casualties in the ward, why are you idling?” There was a regular insinuation attributed to the ICRC that the hospital doctors were shirkers. By the time the ICRC started pulling down their flags, the doctors came to know of remarks from the ICRC team to the effect, “Why are the doctors drinking tea [here in Jaffna hospital] and wasting their time [when there is so much work elsewhere]?” The ICRC seemed unable to see the value the native folk and the doctors attached to Jaffna Hospital as a key community institution that had to be preserved despite temporary setbacks.

The LTTE was at the same time working hard at different levels to close down Jaffna Hospital. There was a great deal of individual canvassing of patients, staff and doctors by others sympathetic to the LTTE. Their fears were constantly played upon. But the senior doctors and a core of junior doctors and medical staff worked as a team and stood firm in their resolve to keep the hospital functioning. The LTTE had always feared any showing of community spirit  and cohesiveness that was outside its direct control.

The LTTE used some of what is known in military parlance as `softening up’, before the final coup de grace in the form of a carrot. There was intimidation in the form of remarks. An LTTE patient who was receiving treatment, for example, addressed a remark to a nurse, “Why are the doctors waiting here without going? We have marked who the traitors are. We know how to deal with them!” A very worried nurse communicated this to the doctors.

On the 10th of November, 11 days after the exodus order, there were 300 patients in the hospital with a little more than 1000 beds, providing more than enough work for the staff who remained. Many of them were elderly patients, seriously ill paediatric patients and women who had undergone caesarean operations. LTTE agents came in vehicles and made a determined bid to get the patients out. Intense pressure was applied on the patients and their relatives and what went on was more or less public. As soon as someone gave in to pressure, someone, in most cases the relative, simply pulled out the naso-gastric tubes or the IV (intravenous) drips. The patient was then loaded onto a stretcher and driven away to Chavakacheri. In the meantime the LTTE had told the ICRC that there were no patients in the hospital.

The battle was simultaneously joined in by some of the doctors. While on one side the LTTE was asking patients to go, the doctors went around reassuring the patients that they would be around and that there was no need to leave. Within a few hours, however, the bulk of the patients had been carried away. Some of the doctors asked the ICRC to station one person permanently in the hospital so that they could see for themselves what was going on. The ICRC representative replied that there were no patients in the hospital. The doctors went in for a quick count and told the ICRC that there were 30 patients! The ICRC representative then promised to send someone around regularly to take a look.

On the following morning or the one after (12th), Thamilchelvan came to deliver the final thrust. He used the well-tried method of a totalitarian force. Having constantly rattled the nerves of the defenders of Jaffna hospital and built up fear, he offered a carrot to a chosen few whom he judged to be vulnerable and were key to the continuance of the hospital. It was a gamble that paid off. Had it failed, it would have increased resistance, creating more problems for the LTTE. Thamilchelvan met a closed group comprising a few hospital consultants and offered their families passes to go to Colombo, including their teen-aged children who are normally not eligible for passes. The consultants accepted. Thamilchelvan left after promising to collect a list of names that evening and issue the passes. A way out of the draconian pass system had become a lure that few could resist.

Immediately afterwards the hospital staff met. One of the consultants who had accepted Tamilchelvan’s offer represented the position slightly differently. He told them that all the hospital staff were offered passes for their families. He said that all who wanted passes could include their names in the list that Thamilchelvan would collect in the evening. But the nurses and other staff had already heard that only the consultants were included in the offer. Some of them asked, crestfallen, “Then how about us?” It was a severe blow to the junior doctors who along with the remaining junior staff, had totally trusted their seniors and had given themselves entirely to working as a team. The hospital superintendent was also offended that those who had agreed to Thamilchelvan had never consulted her in the matter. The consultants were urged to reconsider. At the meeting at 3.00 P.M that day, the majority of the consultants voted to accept Thamilchelvan’s deal. The fate of the hospital was sealed. The ICRC was told of the decision to move the hospital. Mr. Cunz’s face, it is reported, brightened with plain relief. The evacuation of Jaffna hospital was fixed for the 14th.
It was also evident that Thamilchelvan’s attitude to the doctors changed after the consultants fell for his offer. He seemed to have lost respect, particularly towards those advocating his offer. He never came to collect the list of names and avoided the doctors thereafter. For several of those who had agreed, the obtaining of passes became a long drawn out harassing affair. The blow was also keenly felt by those who had remained in Jaffna drawing strength from the hospital. The methods used to expel civilians became decisively harsh following the LTTE’s success in closing the hospital. The doctors themselves had drawn comfort from the decision of the Roman Catholic Bishop in Jaffna to remain. Despite pressure and several visits from the LTTE, he and the bulk of the clergy were firmly resolved to remain. The Bishop made a trip to Colombo in connection with two of his clergy detained for questioning in Colombo. By the time he returned to peninsular Jaffna the situation had changed. Following LTTE harassment and shelling (in which no one was injured) around St. Patrick’s, an area having several key Catholic institutions, the bulk of the orders of clergy and nuns had quit, along with most of the people who took refuge in these institutions. The Bishop too then kept out of Valikamam.

A comic event took place on the 13th when the LTTE sent vehicles to evacuate the remaining civilians, which also showed how some of the young cadre innocently carried out their order to clean up the city. A cadre stopped his bus outside the hospital, sounded his horn, and shouted out to the lady superintendent standing in front, “Get in madam, this is the last bus out of Jaffna. If you miss this one, you will never get another one!”

The exodus of the hospital to Pt. Pedro was arranged by the ICRC with meticulous care. But once there, the ICRC appeared to wash its hands off the Jaffna hospital. The hospital staff had looked upon the ICRC in some sense as a guarantor of their security and this had influenced their decision to stay on till the last. Since security reasons were among those compelling the movement of the hospital, the staff felt that they should be moved to a place that was at least safe. This was not the case with Pt. Pedro which was subject to shelling by the SL Army and there was no officially accepted security zone around the hospital there.  Doctors applied to the ICRC for transport on their ship that sailed regularly between Pt. Pedro  and Trincomalee. This was at first refused. Mr. Cunz later suggested that if those wanting transport write jointly to the Ministry of Defence in Colombo and obtain their sanction, the ICRC would transport them. Such a letter was given to the ICRC for forwarding. It was later reliably learnt that the letter stopped with the ICRC office in Colombo, and was not forwarded. The ICRC in Pt. Pedro, however, told them that the defence ministry had refused permission. On the other hand it seemed to them that the Government which wanted to reopen Jaffna Hospital would like to get them down to Colombo, since from Colombo, the Government would have better control over the doctors than when they remained in Tiger territory. Further, whereas the LTTE would want to keep doctors under their control, the ICRC too, it appeared, was playing a game of delicate balancing between the two armed forces it had to work with. In actual fact, the major actors were acting in such a manner where the people were being hemmed into smaller and smaller areas and were being used as pawns in a game. The ICRC also contributed to this by refusing to open a safe passage to the people out of this contracting circle. Its ships regularly returned to Trincomalee almost empty.

The ICRC had rendered invaluable service to the community by ensuring the continued security and functioning of Jaffna Hospital for more than 5 years. It has acted as a commonly trusted intermediary in peace moves and arranged exchanges of prisoners and visits to them. It has also served as a foreign presence witnessing the plight of ordinary people. However, the ICRC has the practice of changing delegates every 6 months. Staff whose experience had just enabled them to understand the intricacies of the situation are changed. Several of the delegates had proven their worth, standing firm for the hospital. But during the recent crisis, the individual delegates proved to be only too human, like the Jaffna doctors.

Killinochchi and Vanni

Amidst the trauma and disorder of being thrown out of Jaffna, there were just three matters in which normality quickly returned. First, in the matter of recruitment. Displaced people entering Navatkuli were greeted with messages on banners with a yellow background at regular intervals. Young men and women were urged to join the LTTE to liberate Jaffna and were told that there was a recruitment office nearby at their service. A meeting of the Jaffna University Students Union was called at Chavakacheri. This was not to discuss education or the future of the University. The matter was simply this. After perhaps 6 or 7 years of trying to get a degree there was virtually no university. The South was essentially hostile and was not going to accommodate them. They were on the roads with nowhere to go. Likewise with high school students who were geared to advancement through education. The LTTE had precipitated a situation where there was to be no school in the foreseeable future. Thousands of 16 or 17 year olds who had worked very hard in difficult conditions for their G.C.E. O. Level examinations in December felt hopeless and desperate when the examinations had to be cancelled. The message now was: Join us, the LTTE, and with greater numbers we would get the separate state of Eelam quickly. Then you could go back to whatever you want to do. Otherwise you will rot on the roads for years.” If the number of university students joining the LTTE was negligible in the past, it was now significantly higher. For some months now it has been fairly common for LTTE cadre to tell young boys that if they did not join the LTTE now, they would be conscripted later. This message was often heard by the young fleeing through Thenmaratchi and the Vanni.

The second aspect of normality is in the collection of taxes. In the areas where the refugees have been dispersed, the tax collectors have returned to work very efficiently. Goods sold are taxed and collections to the National Defence Fund are going on. At the beginning payment to this fund was a requirement to cross the lagoon of those wanting to go to Colombo (This appears to have been relaxed when the LTTE decided to move as many as were willing across the lagoon into Killinochchi). The Tiger greed for gold also quickly surfaced. It has been decreed that only the LTTE could purchase gold. The price initially offered at Rs.3000 per sovereign was about 50% to 60% of the market rate. There are also restrictions on the carrying of jewellery by those leaving the North. By comparison, the Muslims the LTTE chased out of Jaffna in 1990 had to surrender all their valuables. Women then were subject to humiliating body searches with sometimes ear-rings being plucked off bleeding ears – all by women cadre. The recent extortion exercise was observed with suppressed anger by people who had parted with their cash-in-hand to meet their payment to the LTTE and were the next day thrown out of Jaffna with nothing in hand. Owing to the monopoly the LTTE had enforced, later reports said that gold had been sold for much less than 3,000 rupees a sovereign by people desperate for cash.

Thirdly, new pass offices were quickly established after the computers originally from the University were relocated. A new centre was established in Kodikamam. The elderly wanting to go to Colombo had little difficulty. Children were almost always refused. For a short time the minimum age for refusal was raised from 10 to 14 and has since dropped to 12. The maximum age is 30. Moreover, the LTTE was not too keen on restraining middle class persons who feel they have alternatives, such as going abroad, and hence would be a nuisance to the LTTE in the Vanni. On the other hand such persons had in general proved very useful abroad. But this leniency ended after a short time, when the issuing of passes was stopped.

The Government in Peace and War

The relative care shown in not shelling or bombing Jaffna town suggests that the operation had been discussed with the more influential sections of the diplomatic community in Colombo and that some agreement was reached (One shell had fallen within the ICRC zone, in front of the surgeon’s house. The bombing in Ariyalai East has been referred to already. Several shells fired from Mandaitivu fell about the Gurunagar coast). The Government itself fails to have appreciated its strong position in this respect. Having scored a success in influencing the UN Secretary General to make a statement, the LTTE propaganda failed thereafter. There were two main reasons for this.

Foreign journalists covering the war were told by foreign diplomats and some of the international NGOs that the government forces had been careful to avoid civilian casualties, with the exception of about two lapses. The latter seemed to refer to the bombing of Ariyalai East on the 26th October and the two shells in Gurunagar on the 29th, suggesting again that they were looking almost exclusively at the town area. The bombing and shelling elsewhere does not seem to have featured significantly in their thinking. To this extent the army and air force had been careful. On the other hand they seem to have had the license to vent their anger anywhere, but sparing Jaffna town where the refugees were once supposed to gather. This may satisfy foreigners, but it is far from being a satisfactory approach towards the Tamil people who are citizens of this country.

The second reason for the failure of the LTTE’s propaganda blitz was that its claims were found wanting in two respects. Although the LTTE under-estimated its own power to force an exodus from Jaffna, the resistance of those who remained had to be overcome by force and terror. (An LTTE functionary later confided privately that they had under-estimated the panic that would result from the announcement of the exodus order.) Despite the use of terror it took the LTTE 16 days to throw out those who remained and the truth came out very soon. The figure of 500,000 refugees claimed for the exodus too raised scepticism. It turned out that the Government Agent was quoting NGOs and the NGOs were quoting the government administration that was under the GA. A figure of 300,000 may have been more realistic since a steady exodus had been taking place for 5 years. Moreover, the LTTE’s conduct over the years had made the foreign media far less sympathetic. Its spokesmen, too, cut little ice with the foreign media.

Very damaging to the LTTE and the Tamil people had been the massacre of a hundred Sinhalese civilians in the East. Had the LTTE not done this, the 100 or so Tamil civilians killed during October would have aroused greater concern. As it was, it appeared as collateral damage that was light by the standards of other wars. A veteran correspondent experienced in Vietnam and Cambodia remarked, “I hate to be the father of one of those killed. But look, what is a hundred civilians dead given the heavy fighting involved?” The indications are that the death among combatants was about 1500 over the same period.

Our questions are however not based on numerical considerations, but rather on the politics behind the civilian deaths. The death of even this relatively small number of civilians cannot be attributed to collateral damage. It was mainly callousness. Whether the number killed by the random shelling in Vadamaratchi and Thenmaratchi is 2, 20 or 200 is not the question. The question is about whether the Government should bomb or shell civilians at all in the manner it had done? What is the politics behind such actions? Can it bring peace? Can it reconcile the Tamils to accept living in a united Sri Lanka? These are long term questions that go beyond numbers.

It is in the same vein that we have questioned the LTTE’s politics. What it represents is not determined so much by the number of Tamil dissidents tortured and killed, or the numbers of Muslim and Sinhalese civilians massacred, but rather that these killings and massacres are integral to its workings as an institution and have frightening implications. We need to use a different yardstick from foreign observers because these are all our own problems and an indication of the callous attitude towards people in general that is part of the Tamil nationalist legacy. 

Looking at events over the weeks, it was remarkable how much the government and the LTTE were playing identical games with the people and actually reinforcing each other’s actions. Both parties seemed most at ease in extreme polarised positions, found in a state of confrontation and war. The government through restrictions starved the people of cash. The LTTE did the same by withdrawing its cash deposits from the banks and collecting for the National Defence Fund. It then reaped thumping profits by exchanging cash for gold with desperate civilians on highly advantageous terms. When the LTTE wanted to expel the civilians from Jaffna, it looked to the government for some help in the form of shelling civilians. But early November witnessed a lull in SL army shelling. The LTTE had to go through the embarrassment of firing its own shells and getting caught.

Now in Vadamaratchi and Thenmaratchi, the game is more complex. The LTTE wants the people to move to the Vanni, but appears to be hampered both by international opinion and the tougher nature of the people in Vadamaratchi in engineering a second exodus without help from the SL Army. The government appears to have no clear policy. The army, it seemed, had acquired a taste for taking over an area without the inconvenience of having civilians around. It would be more convenient for the government if the LTTE could be blamed for chasing the civilians out. Following its capture of Jaffna, the army continued to shell Vadamaratchi and Thenmaratchi, but not heavily. In mid-December, however, the army announced a heavy artillery barrage against LTTE targets in Vadamaratchi, claiming that it was to prevent LTTE infiltration into Valikamam. Based on past experience, one could have no illusions on what this means to the civilians. This made the censorship then prevailing even more inexcusable.

How does the ordinary Tamil civilian see the government through all this? He experienced bombing and shelling around Jaffna. But once the LTTE drove him out, and made him a vagrant, his anger turned against the LTTE. In Vadamaratchi or Thenmaratchi, he again experienced shelling. He under-went privations because the government was made to appear responsible for starving him of cash and other necessities. He came to Vavuniya to proceed to Colombo. He had to undergo the humiliation of being herded and confined to a camp for three days by the government. He came to Colombo to experience police harassment and fear. All around him people were saying that it felt rather like July 1983. By this time, many in his position would have concluded that the LTTE is something in the nature of a necessary evil, that is the only check on the communalism of successive governments.

The celebration of the state for the fall of Jaffna and the general treatment of Tamil civilians in the South which followed the exodus  again raised the important question of what the Tamils can expect from the government in the face of rising buoyancy among extreme Sinhalese. If there is no change of heart but a mere continuation of the same state machinery and polarised attitudes, the Tamils will only be pushed further into the arms of the Tigers leaving only the prospect of continuing divisive conflict, destruction and war in the coming years.

The government needs to be far less cynical and do much better if it wants to involve the Tamils in a political process of reconciliation that in the long term will help the whole country to get out of this vicious cycle of destruction.

It must be borne in mind that even this government has been guilty of war crimes. We quote from a recent publication titled “Post-Traumatic Responses to Aerial Bombing” by a medical don to appear in “Social Science and Medicine”(UK): “In addition to detention, torture and displacement, bombing [and shelling] is one of major stressors of the war. It would appear that in many instances, bombings are used primarily as psychological weapons against civilians, for their ability to accurately hit military targets within densely populated areas is exceptional, as seen in the war in Sri Lanka where the sophistication of instruments is low. At the same time, the guerrillas have consistently sought civilian cover, thereby drawing fire on to the general public. The usually sudden, unexpected and unpredictable nature, the blast and noise of the explosion giving rise to what was called ‘shell-shock’ in World War I; and the massive destruction, injuries and death that follow are dimensions of stress …Thus the variety of symptoms and even the cluster of more severe symptoms amounting to a psychiatric disorder in some individuals had been accepted as an inevitable part of the war situation. It could also be true that many of the responses to a traumatic experience are manifestations of an organism’s attempt to cope or adapt in an abnormal situation. Obviously what is abnormal is the bombing itself and not the reactions to it. Lifton had stressed that it is important not to delegitimise the suffering of the victims by assigning a psychiatric label. Bombing of civilians should be considered a grave offence – a war crime.”

The Cost of the Exodus

The one defence of the enforced exodus that is also advocated by the LTTE statement quoted earlier is that it saved human lives, in view of the looming military confrontation. However, temporary displacement from directly endangered areas could have been best left to the judgement of the people who are themselves well experienced in such matters. Even if the claim to saving lives is valid, it is so only in the context of the perverse nature of the LTTE’s insistence of turning Jaffna into a battle zone and the paralysis it has brought on the civil society. Having decided on reverting to guerilla warfare, if it had concern for the people, it had no reason to bring death and destruction on the people and their institutions by confronting an army in the city for the second time in eight years. (Many national armies avoid confronting an invading army in cities for the sake of the people and to protect their cultural treasures and institutions.) If there was moreover a functioning civil society with teachers, professionals and religious leaders who could voice the concerns of the people independently, their demands would have had a global audience. Then pressure would have been brought to bear and their security far better ensured with the ICRC playing a more active and positive role. The Government would not have got away with the kind of bombing and shelling it has indulged in. Instead of credible voices on behalf of the people, we have statements from bishops, vicars-general and academics that are so one-sided that no one takes them seriously except expatriate Tamil nationalists.

The roots of the exodus must be sought in the character of the LTTE’s politics, its unchanging agenda of totalitarian power, its absence of concern for the people, and its duplicity resulting from a historical inability to negotiate as part of a political process.

It must also be pointed out that the physical death toll from the exodus is high, beginning with a dozen or two who died in the same night as the direct result of conditions in the march. We do not exactly know how many patients shifted from the hospital died as a result, or how many sickly persons succumbed (some conservative estimates have been given at the beginning of this report, based on available information). Moreover, tens of thousands of animals succumbed to an agonising death through starvation.

Death froom disease arising  as a direct consequence of the exodus is certainly high. Approximately ten persons from Thenmaratchi and 5 persons from Vadamaratchi were dying daily as the result of malnutrition, debility, weakness and diarrhoea that were endemic among the displaced children. This alone would make the LTTE claim of life-saving very dubious. There was also the accidental explosion of an ammunition truck in Chavakacheri during November which was then crowded with refugees. According to medical authorities, thirty six, including 14 civilians, were killed and many others injured. Such hazards were greatly increased by the exodus.

What is perhaps the key point here is that physical death that is readily recognisable is just one way of ceasing to be. Other forms of death that are at least as serious are far less easily recognised. In this second manner, the community has suffered grievously and, perhaps, permanently. Each man or woman is organically linked by deeply felt bonds to his or her home, the soil, the environment, the domestic animals, educational institutions, and to institutions of culture and religion. It is for this reason that the Muslims forced out of Jaffna five years ago have resisted resettlement elsewhere and still want to come back; it is not merely for a small plot of dry land and the walls of a looted home. These institutions are the lifeblood of the community, built through generations of labour, and represent an extension of the life of those long gone.

This second form of death is evident in various degrees among those forced out of Jaffna. The conditions and rigours of the march made people feel humiliated and robbed them of their self-esteem. They also lost their sense of identity as their homes, schools and the university ceased to be and they became vagrants and beggars on the streets.

Many who were part of the exodus described in dramatic detail the stages by which they were destroyed as persons and members of a community. In the milling crowd each person high or low was a nobody. No one cared about women, children or the sick. It was a struggle to take just one step in several minutes. Each move hurt or toppled someone else.  Everyone was a curse to his or her neighbour. Everyone was scarred by the terrible experience. Life in the conditions of Thenmaratchi only reinforced it. At the end of it many felt empty as though they had lost an important part of their self.

It is a cruel irony for LTTE sympathisers abroad to put out statements about the wonderful life in the brave new world of the Vanni, where people are supposed to be rediscovering their authentic Tamil heritage by tilling the soil and living as equals. In the face of such claims, even aid agencies are becoming anxious about finding funds to deal with the impending disaster.

To begin with, the Tamil middle class and most of those who went abroad aspire to give their children the best education and see their entering prestigious professions. Almost all writings on the Tamil militant struggle start with standardization and discrimination in educational opportunities. The struggle was significantly about equal access to educational opportunities. It was never a struggle to dismantle our educational infrastructure and go into the jungles. Even LTTE supporters had talked enthusiastically about the Singapore model. This propaganda about the Vanni is just a shoddy attempt to sell and cover up the destruction resulting from the LTTE’s precipitate decision and its politics.

Most Tamils continue to condemn the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by the Government in 1981 as cultural genocide. Has not this exodus resulted in unquantified, but large losses of our public and private cultural and educational treasures, including most libraries? Many leading Tamils were aghast at UNP minister Ranjan Wijeratne’s proposal in early 1991, which they described as crazy and inhuman, to shift the Tamil population into Vavuniya and then conduct an operation to take over the peninsula. But now this very same ‘crazy and inhuman’ idea has been accomplished by the so-called protectors of the rights of the people. Has not our case been gravely weakened by recent events?

Full Report http://www.uthr.org/SpecialReports/spreport6.htm

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Latest comments

  • 1

    What is there to comment?! Man’s inhumanity to man may apply here.

    • 1

      Man’s inhumanity to man is not of recent origin. If one were minded to believe the Biblical narrative, Cain killed his own brother Able, when there were but a handful of humans in existence. Most of todays ‘humanity’ appear to be Cain’s descendents with the same undiminished inclinations.

      The above is a balanced description, quite different from the fake casuistry of EmmanuEl elsewhere.

  • 6

    Thank you very much for presenting a vivid recall of what transpired in Jaffna and the associated human tragedy. I hop this will strike a chord in all Sri Lankans and particularly, those involved in politics.

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

  • 4

    I wish we had the ability to publish all this information during that time – make the populace aware of the massacres and attempts at ethnic cleansing by all parties, as it was happening.

    Then perhaps the right-minded and right-hearted of all communities could have united and put a stop to the murderous amongst us. Too much bloodletting was the result of the lack of access to current information.

    I hope with the RTI Bill we will NEVER ever have to be blinded and hoodwinked by our government or those fighting to liberate us from the atrocities they themselves commit.

    Hope the current regime has enough foresight to release land to rightful owners, create employment opportunities for people in the North, and help rehabilitate and decommission excess military personnel. These actions will go a long way in creating space for trust amongst us Sri Lankans, so we can leave the past behind and seek a prosperous and peaceful future as one country.

  • 4

    Very informative article. Thanks. Yet I am afraid that that day’s deal can never be comprehended or even imagined by those in the south or abroad even if written in lyrical Sinhala, Tamil, Arabic or any other with a thousand idioms. A young mother’s hand was so frozen by the rain and crush brought on by the slowest movement ever of a fleeing mass of people, that she had not realized that her baby had fallen off her arms quite a while ago and been trampled upon by the crowd.

    The tsunami debacle was so mishandled amidst so much trouble on “pomp” and wave upon wave of a tsunami of dollars, that such a thing as “relief for the truly deserving” is even impossible to hope for this time. All the grand and rolling rehabilitation and reintegration or peace and sacred compassion rigamaroles put together by people who have not muddied their hands or gowns or cassocks ever, always sounded a callous and arrogant mockery to those whom they purported to represent, that one shudders at the very thought of another “relief and rehabilitation” round. Such “interest groups” as they are called more often than not have not even seen the gnarled trees in the scary jungles or the roadsides where these poor people slept blanketed only by mosquitoes in the nights the sound of raining bombs and whizzing shells lived through again in their dreams or made conjee or tea in the blazing sun and dust, for their children in tin kiri cans with water from the ditches or lavatories by day. In a land of “free education” many children and even poor schools were displaced that thousands missed even a basic primary education despite the glowing and glossy survey reports to the contrary.

    Will President Sirisena give his heart to the the task of gathering and rehabilitating the “lost” who are often the poorest of the poor or made to be so often overnight? We have grown up with so much division and a wrong brand of education that the more brilliant the brain the more calloused seems the heart. Will an honest person who has demonstrated true and sincere feelings towards his poor neighbor, whether Tamil, Muslim, Sinhalese, and whatever the religion or ideology be appointed to write up the protocol for rehabilitation? A person who can share his/her uplifting values with an upcoming generation of refugees whose voice has been “silenced” to this day, one that knows but a “displaced” life and may not understand the norms of a normal and settled and a pleasant life one that has perceived/experienced hatred and mass callousness and published lies all its life? A heavy cross indeed for any child and the weak. Can he/they also reason with all especially the misinformed and those sitting assuming perpetual hopelessness?

    A person or group mindful of and self-controlled in their own prejudices, intelligent, knowledgeable in the rights of refugees and quick and extremely efficient and willing to walk poor with the poor alone can hope to alleviate the suffering of all groups of war victims impartially. Through their efforts alone could come an idea, advocacy, a national will and a better structure and real hope for a future compassionate coexistence that most will be willing to participate in allow for.

    Please President Sirisena, Give much thought to the displaced and hopeless who need our highest compassion.

    (for), how many ears must one man have
    Before he can hear the people cry?
    Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows
    That too many people have died?
    The answer, (Sir), is blowing in the wind
    The answer is blowing in the wind

  • 3

    These are the types of terrible fellows that ppl like usha sriskandarajah heor worships from cozy Canada

  • 2

    A very well written piece. I was there in a village in Jaffna. We already had moved from our house at KKS road to a relative place near a big temple. We had just 30 minutes to decide ‘to leave or not to leave. A brief case of certificates and a bag for me and my wife, a small bag for my 2 year old. All were confused. On the way to Nallur, I lost all my relatives and my father. We left together but no one was sighted. It took 3 days – many hours to find them in a place in Navatkuli. It shouldn’t happen to anybody. My father’s elder brother and his cousin passed away while in Chavakachcheri. After a month I was able to get a pass and left to Colombo. It took yen years to return to my place. By that time, many elderly relatives had passed away. What a misery? I know who to blame, but will it help?

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