1 December, 2020

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Sri Lanka’s Policy Towards Witnesses Is Revenge, Not Reconciliation

By Frances Harrison

Frances Harrison

He looks like any other short dark balding Tamil man, wrapped in a thick fleece against the unfamiliar chill. A political refugee from northern Sri Lanka, now he lives in a tranquil landscape of pine trees and glaciers on the Atlantic Coast. Nobody in his country of refuge knows his past or gives him a second glance but back home patients, who owe him their lives, discretely visit his relatives to offer thanks. For them he’s a hero.

‘Call me Niron: I have to be careful. Any problem caused by me and they will take revenge,’ he says, referring to the Sri Lankan authorities who’ve been questioning his friends to find out where he escaped. ‘They were looking for me…Now they realise our importance as witnesses,’ he explains.

Dr Niron, not his real name, served as a doctor in northern Sri Lanka at the brutal culmination of the civil war in 2009 as the military used scorched earth tactics to crush Tamil insurgents, who in turn used child soldiers and suicide bombers. Though he worked inside rebel-held territory Dr. Niron was employed by the central government whose bureaucracy extended throughout the island.

When the Sri Lankan military drove the Tigers into a tiny pocket of land along the eastern coast, Dr Niron and hundreds of thousands of civilians went with the rebels, unaware that a bloodbath was coming in which the UN would later estimate up to 40,000 people died in just five months. Legal experts for the  UN Secretary General later warned that Sri Lanka’s  conduct “represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law” though there was evidence that both sides committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Though he had many opportunities to flee, Dr Niron decided his duty was to his patients. He stayed in the war zone even though the government ordered him out and stopped paying his salary.

As the frontline advanced and the population was crammed into a tiny sandy coastal spit, Dr Niron set up makeshift operating theatres in public buildings, homes, tents and then finally under a tree. In January 2009 he was the last person to speak to a young nurse minutes before she stepped into the yard of Uddayarkattu Hospital and was blown to pieces by a shell. She is just one of many colleagues Dr Niron mourns. Two thousand shells fell, he says, in those last ten days in January right inside an area the government had just declared safe for civilians.

There were far too many patients to operate on and life-saving drugs were running short. Normally the central government supplied civilian hospitals inside rebel areas but as the fighting intensified officials became less keen on helping people who might sympathise with the enemy. Dr Niron says all the government sent was paracetamol, allergy tablets, vitamins and a local anesthetic used for dental extraction. There was nothing to treat war wounds, despite desperate appeals from the doctors. A March 2009 Wikileaks cable has diplomats warning the Sri Lankan government that denying medical supplies to injured civilians was unconscionable. When the doctors themselves openly complained they were threatened with disciplinary action for embarrassing the government.

Blood for transfusions ran out. By the end Dr Niron was so desperate to save a sixteen-year-old-girl who needed bowel surgery, that he resorted to donating his own blood before operating. One of his worst memories is treating the survivors of an attack in April 2009 on a queue of women queuing for milk for their babies. In the hospital, he struggled to insert needles for the intravenous drips into the tiny veins of injured toddlers. ‘They were so small the veins would collapse. So we made small incisions and took the vein and put the drip in that way,’ he remembers, still haunted by the sound of those children crying.

As the shelling grew more intense, Dr Niron operated inside a bunker inside a building, reinforced with layers of sturdy palm-tree trunks and sandbags. One day a bomblet flew into the room and lodged itself in the roof. He believes it belonged to a cluster bomb – a weapon the Sri Lankan government denies having used. On another occasion the doctor believes he himself was injured by white phosphorous while in a densely populated civilian area. The initial blast was quite different from usual explosions and the resulting wounds were unlike anything he’d seen in his years in casualty wards.

At first Dr Niron assumed the attacks on his makeshift hospitals were a terrible accident. He had red crosses painted on the roofs of his buildings so they’d be clearly visible from the air. He sent the GPS coordinates of each new hospital to the International Red Cross so they could share the information with the Sri Lankan military. Every time he did this the makeshift hospitals were hit within days, if not hours. Eventually he learned his lesson. There were five smaller hospitals, with no red crosses, whose locations he never passed on. Not a single one of those five buildings was ever hit. Dr Niron concluded that the military were deliberately targeting hospitals. ‘They were attacking purposefully; they wanted to kill as many as possible,’ he says.

His conclusion is borne out by a United Nations report that found that all civilian hospitals on the frontline were systematically shelled by the Sri Lankan government during those months, some even “hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government”. The authors of the report said that in early February one of the two remaining hospitals in rebel territory was attacked with multi-barreled rocket launchers and artillery for five days in a row while up to 800 patients were inside. Human Rights Watch also documented more than thirty attacks on hospitals in those months. One incoming rocket was even captured on video. International staff from the ICRC were present during an attack on a hospital and called the army six times to warn them their shells were falling dangerously close to the hospital building. They were not given proper access to the war zone again. When the war ended, the ICRC said it had seen a lot of wars, but rarely one where civilians had been so badly affected. It was, they said, an ‘unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe’.

Dr Niron is the only one of his colleagues who managed to evade arrest at the end of the war.  Strangely this brave man feels he failed because he abandoned 150 patients under a tree to die on the last day of the war as he ran for his life. He can’t stand the sight of blood anyone and no longer wants to be a doctor. There have even been times when he’s contemplated suicide.

There are other medics and volunteers from the hospitals still emerging from Sri Lanka with testimony that supports the doctor’s account and the findings of lawyers and human rights researchers. But the Sri Lankan government and many of its supporters in the south of the island simply deny any of this happened and blame everything on the Tamil Tiger rebels. It’s a short sighted policy that will hamper any kind of reconciliation or understanding between the different ethnic groups. The trauma for Tamil survivors like Dr Niron is so deep that it’s simply not possible to forgive and forget and move on. At the very least their suffering – unprecedented even by the bloody standards of Sri Lanka’s civil war – needs acknowledging.

*Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent based in Sri Lanka. Her book of accounts of survivors from Sri Lanka’s civil war “Still Counting the Dead” is published today (Oct 4 2012) in the UK and online in ebook form by Portobello Books. Courtesy opendemocracy

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    Thanks Frances. What is happening in SriLanka is TAMIL Genocide. Detail account of what went on from 1948 to 2009 is available at http://tamilnation.co/indictment/index.htm

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      NOW HOW PATHETIC IS THIS TAMIL GENOCIDE? LETS SEE FOR INSTANCE SINCE THE 80s ABOUT A MILLION AND A HALF MIGRATED LEGALLY AND MOSTLY ILLEGALY TO THE WEST: THEN THERE ARE THE LOT WHO ENCROACHED WELLAWATTE;BAMBALAPITYA;PART OF KOLLUPITIYA;KOTAHENA;AND NOW SLOWLY SPREADING TO DEHIWALA AND MOUNT LAVINIA:HOW COME COLOMBO IS INHABITED BY MORE THAN 40% (ROUGHLY)TAMILS ARE LIVING IN COLOMBO AND SUBURBS WHEN THERE IS TAMIL GENOCIDE:PUT ALL THE FIGURES OF THE MENTIONED AND PRONTO YOU HAVE THE ANSWER TO YOUR TAMIL GENOCIDE: NOW SUGGEST ME FROM WHICH OPENING SHAL I LAUGH AT YOU ? FROM THE TOP OR TH BOTTOM OPENING:A LITTLE BIRD WHISPERS IN TO MY EARS SAY LOUD AND CLEARLY THE BOTTOM OPENING MATE THE BOTTOM OPENING:

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    Frances.. tell me , how many instances do you know of in which the state (sri lanka) has looked after her adversary (from amongst the tamil people) and supplied them with free medicines , food, and public workers salaries all through a civil war ? Bet you, you cant find many.. So please butt off.. we know what you western people have been upto in these so called third worlds for so long..

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      @fayaz
      Would you have been happy if she wrote that all the LTTE were devils and all the SL armed forces were angels and there were ‘zero casualties’ where not a single Tamil man, woman or child was killed!

      I propose that you read “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss. I read the book recently and it only confirmed what I had already heard from people involved in the war, and what I had seen in the Channel 4 videos. Gordon Weiss witnessed the conflict first hand as a UN spokesman. His account unravels the compelling history that led up to the final horrific episode where tens of thousands of civilians perished along with the LTTE. The Government of Rajapaksa was successful in hiding what happened for a short while…but nothing can be hidden for long.

      Fayaz, read the book. There are eyewitness reports by the UN’s veteran security chief retired colonel Chris Du Toit of the South African defence forces and by retired colonel Harun Khan from Bangladesh(a Muslim like you)who led “Convoy 11″ which was to supply food and medecine to the Tamil civilians trapped in the no fire zone. Even if you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least take time to read the chapter called “Convoy 11.” In the book you will find out how food and medecine was withheld by the Government of Rajapaksa. In the SL newspapers and tv channels what we were shown was the side the government wanted us to see…but there is not just black and white like many people in SL want us to believe…there are many shades of grey too.

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      You ofcourse mean the “looking after” of Karuna/Pilliyan/Moorthy Master/KP etc etc…Oh what a great Statesman we have in Percy
      Mahndra Rajapakse!!!

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    Here we goes again… Colonials are bankrupt and now trying to get resources from Asia creating lies and Frances is nothing but a stooge and also a disgrace to the profession that she support to follow ( well she is not a reporter and we know what’s her real profession is..)
    This is the same BS that ch4 propagate and now she is using fake name to propagate more lies.. BTW we have full list of doctors that was in northern war theatre at that time and all of being accounted for…
    So Francis why are you peddling lies and filth again?

    Who is your pay master… Let me guess ? Of course the foreign office and its filthy colonials that are scavenging easy wealth from Asia… Get a life women.

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    If Niron is truly a wanted man, there may be enough information here to identify him. Not sure changing his name would do much to protect him or his family back home.

    I have no doubt that much of what he says is true. However, I do not understand how bombings can be put down to the military alone. It is a known fact that the LTTE itself attacked Tamil citizens for propaganda purposes. We also know that they had no problem using Tamil citizens as human shields. For that reason alone, the attacking of hospitals etc must be considered a possible tactic of both sides.

    I agree that the Government is not helping its case by not conducting fair investigations, or by not allowing anyone else to investigate. But that does not prove all these bombings were in fact the work of the military alone.

    This is not me trying to defend one side over the other, or even water down the evils of one. I am simply identifying the fact that both sides had little or any regard for innocent lives. This is a key known, and is important that both sides identify and accept that, if reconciliation is to truly be effected. What we have at the moment is one side pointing the finger at the other and vice-versa. I would rather we just accept that neither side represented us, and we as a nation find a voice and movement to truly represent us.

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    The Sri Lankan government was the material executioner of the massacres.But the rest of the world, the international community and in particular the West share a huge responsibility. In the first place they allow that brutality to happen, though they knew perfectely well. India in particular, but followed by UK, US and the rest were in control of information in real time. They didn’t do a thing. Second, after what happened, nobody has taken a serious stance to condemn and to ask for accountability. This is not about the Tamil, it’s about human decency and dignity.

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    History shows that there is always a price to be paid by those who put their trust in fanatical death-loving movements such as the Tamil Tigers who believe that their cause is of greater value than human life itself.

    In this article Ms Harrison writes that “Dr Niron and hundreds of thousands of civilians went with the rebels, unaware that a blood-bath was coming…” So Dr Niron “went with the rebels”, just like going to work, as though after nearly thirty years of Tamil Tiger terrorism and the slaughter of thousands of Tamil moderates and other rival Tamil groups he did not know the nature of the Tigers and what they were planning to do with the civilians. Is this a plausible description of what Dr Niron and the others consciously decided to do at that time?

    It is significant that Tamil doctors and civilians in the east of Sri Lanka faced with a similar situation 2 years earlier, did not follow the path chosen by many of their brethren in the north who decided to go along with the Tamil Tigers strategy that Tamil civilians should be used as human shields. Ms Harrison noticeably does not note whether she asked Dr Niron why he chose to “go with the rebels” rather than surrender to the government forces. She also doesn’t note whether she asked the doctor what he expected to happen as they retreated and what was the purpose of the retreat and whether he prevailed upon the Tamil Tigers to separate themselves from the civilians. One would expect that a journalist trained to investigate the full facts and employed by the BBC would ask these and similar very relevant questions.

    It should also be noted that the scorched earth policy was carried out by the Tamil Tigers as they retreated, not by the Sri Lankan army. Every report, even from western media, confirmed that as the Sri Lankan army moved forward in the final few months of the war in the north they found villages and towns deserted and stripped of all food, water containers, vehicles and metal items such as roofing sheets and similar.

    Ms Harrison mentions the alleged restrictions on medical supplies to the Tamil civilians accompanying the retreating Tigers, but does not at all question why the Tamil Tigers themselves, supposedly “protecting” the Tamil civilians, had not bothered to ensure that these supplies were available to the civilians they claimed to be defending. Instead they only had vast supplies of weapons and ammunition with which to treat the wounded civilians. Some “rebels” these were, Ms Harrison!

    So if this article is anything to go by, Francis Harrison’s book would appear to be a very superficial and biased one that uses emotion and one-sided reporting to try to turn the English speaking public against the legitimate elected government of Sri Lanka and to sanitise the Tamil Tigers and their civilian supporters as poor oppressed “rebels” who had no responsibility to ensure the safety of the people they claimed to be protecting.

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    When the MR govt. wants to ride on the masses, they hype the defeat of the LTTE and project MR as the one who won the War. Then when they want to justify over forty percent of the revenue being spent on Defense, they are either harping the LTTE is raising it’s head and regrouping pointing to these Tamils when they expose the MR govt. forces of the attrocities committed by them. MR will soon realise that he can not have the cake and eat it as well.

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    The British and American militaries systematically murdered at least two million innocent Iraqis from 2003 and used all the weapons and many more claimed by the author to have been used in Sri Lanka. Independent sources will bear evidence of the genocide conducted in cities like Falluja, Najaf,Basra and more.

    About a quarter of the whole Iraqi population were driven away and still live in deplorable conditions. The writer should look inwards at her own country’s despicable record over the years and compare the immense difference in magnitude regarding criminality before she ventures into a small foreign country’s war which she seems to hardly understand.

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    Cool story, 9/10, would read again!
    But you could have come up with something new instead of just recycling the same old tripe, I mean it is kind of a big deal with your book launch and all.

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    Odd that this ex-BBC journalist and ex-Amnesty Int’l professional whiner forgot to mention that the LTTE used hospitals as cover for their own artillery, thus inviting the inevitable Army counter-artillery fire.

    Even more odd, her book launch is being promoted by another bunch of pro-LTTE whiners called the “Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice”.

    The book should be re-titled, “Making Money from Sri Lanka’s Dead”.

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    Anything can happen in a war situation.LTTE was a non-state partner like anyother terrorist organisation bound by no law or International jurisdiction.But the Sri lankan State is bond by many International laws and most of all a Religion which gives us compassion and human values.States in the West or East cannot behave like terrorists what ever the situation is. In 2009 the Government was in a mighty hurry to kill Prabhakaran what ever the human cost would be.We saw on the State Television the daily bombardments using multi barrel guns and artillery and aerial bombing.Due to the atrocities perpetrated by the LTTE on the Sinhalese they condoned what the Govt was doing.The forces could have taken the time to save as many civilians as possible had they not been in such a hurry.This hurry would have been due to the fear that interested parties were trying to save Prabhakaran.However, now the guns are directed against the very Sinhalese who supported the Regime to kill civilians. This Regime is headed by a group who feels insecure in their own territory and suffer from an acute sense of inferiority a combinatio which make dictatorial Regimes.

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      It seems you want to eat and keep the cake. (ENTWEDER ODER)

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    taking to account of the “SO CALLED DISTINGUISHED PROMININENT PEOPLE” who were in attendance of your book launching(or should I call it MUD SLINGING PLATFORM) there is no wonder that you are nothing but a Sri Lanka HATER AND A PERSON WHO WANTS TO KEEP THE ETHNIC FIRE ALIVE SO THAT YOU CAN SURVIVE:WE HAD ONE OF YOUR TYPES HERE IN SRI LANKA ALSO NOT SO LONG AGO UNTIL SHE WAS SHOWN THE DOOR VERY POLITELY AND WHO IS NOW DOOMED AND NOT KNOWING WHAT DO HAS APPLIED ASSYLUM IN AUSTRALIA:REMEMBER THE HIGHER YOU GO DEEPER YOU FALL.So take care at least until you fall,because there will be no one for you when you are sitting on your bum (or is it your mouth.So write more crap and get ltte money as long the ltte bank is open because they are going to jack up the interest rate very soon.

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    Dear Frances, What about the many massacred during 30 years? This jerk Niron too is mum about it. Them tigers and their sympathasers needed Gander Sauce and anybody sticking with them were collateral damage indeed my dear. Find out about Wellassa, where your illegitimate ancestors were worse! For you honey Niron’s words may be the gospel, but tigers cadres were meditating there I suppose! Why don’t Niron and M.I.A. do an album named Frances. Nothing about the other side though you say both sides committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. To be frank sweatheart, nobody is neither worried nor threatened by his 1001 tales and none certainly wants him eliminated because his versions are becoming increasingly lighter in vein. Anyway, let him realise his asylum dream in a tranquil landscape of pine trees and glaciers anywhere with a handsome dole too at the expense of our wonderful freedom today. Please publish the versions of other medics and volunteers from the hospitals who emerged from Sri Lanka with testimony that supports the doctor’s account along with the findings of lawyers and human rights researchers for us to enjoy more. See you around slick!

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    Frances another westerner feeding off the Sri Lankan dead.

    [Edited out]

    OPresidunceBean… Not inly Fayas but I too will be happy if she wrote about how ” all devil ltte’ers sacrificed the dreams, aspiration of the Northern children & youth” for them to survive and for the DIASPORA ride for their well being.
    There were ZERO casualties when one take the meaning in wider sense of the word & litterally.
    Those 300,000 saved have not got their mouths full of pittu.
    Ungrateful Tamils who are never satisfied.

    Retributio0n to the diaspora emerging ever so slowly..

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    A better title indeed would be “Making the dead Count”.

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    I read the book. Horrible.

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    Sumanabadra, ideally yes. I wish if the dead had power over the living, then the living would have feared killing anyone and the societies would be guided better and more peaceful, than the influence dissipated by Religion.

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    Systematically targeting hospitals is descending to the lowest levels possible in war.I have not come across such a situation in history.This will create the biggest problem for the Rajapakshes in the future when the pressure keeps mounting for justice.The lack of foresight in the way they conducted the final stages of the war is mind boggling and they will have to pay a heavy penalty for that one day,especially when their
    ‘human shield” the congress party gets kicked out at the 2014 elections.

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    Dear Sir / Madam,
    I believe that till the majority Sinhalese people understand that ethnic riots and colonization took place in Sri Lanka in the traditional Tamil speaking areas in the North and East of Sri Lanka, with ethnic riots in 1958, 1977 and the government sponsored ethnic riot in July 1983, including Sri Lankan Tamils who did support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), which is a terror organization, which did grave disservice to the Sri Lankan Tamil cause and caused upheaval for all Sri Lankans nothing will move forward, as respective governments in Sri Lanka, including this current will play on majority prejudices, but only take care of their own welfare, especially revenue wise. This is why the former LTTE leadership, especially in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka have joined hands with the current government. Therefore ideology, philosophy, principle, justness and a sense of fair play never exists in politics, and more so in Sri Lanka. This is something, which the majority Sinhalese people more than anyone should realize; otherwise respective governments in Sri Lanka will play on majority prejudices and take care of their own welfare, and looses from this will be the younger generation from all ethic backgrounds and religious affiliations in Sri Lanka. This is my candid view, and foreign powers, especially a country such as India, based on their actions to date.

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