By Paul Newman –
On the 24th of February, 2013, a panicky letter addressed to the President of the 22nd UN Human Rights Council was sent by Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha urging him to stop the screening the of the Channel 4 documentary ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’, co-sponsored by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Perhaps the Sri Lankan delegation forgot that it is Geneva, where there is ‘Right to Freedom of Press’, not Colombo, where anyone speaking against the ruling class can be bumped easily. The screening of the 3rd part of the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka started as scheduled at 12.00 noon. Paul Hoffman Chair of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International moderated the session.
Producer of the documentary, Callum Macrae made the opening remarks calling his documentary as definitive work and hard evidence very carefully compiled, checked analyzed by forensic pathologists and digital analysts, none of the footage was fake and it was hard evidence countering the Sri Lankan government’s claim that there were no civilian casualties. He said he has no personal agenda and did his duty as a journalist as he had done in the past, it was about human rights.
Then the lights were shut out at hall no. XX111, the opening scene was the event of September 8th 2008, outside the UN office at Kilinochchi where civilians in large numbers urge the UN agencies not to abandon them. Then there are scenes of multibarrel rocket launchers firing and aerial bombings. Then Rohitha Bashana Abeywardane, a Sinhala journalist in exile spoke of the discrimination of the non Buddhists, non Sinhalese hatred in which the Tamils were victims since 1948 and traced how militancy came to the forefront after the failure of all peaceful methods for equal rights were exhausted.
The scene then shifts to London where Vani Kumar a girl born in 1984, migrated to London in 1994, got married, then separated and moves to live with her relatives in the Vanni to take a break. Then Benjamin Dix, the former UN staffer, speaks of the de facto government of the LTTE, and then speaks of Isai Priya, the LTTE Television announcer, news reader, singer, dancer and actor. Her gentle nature, her charm and how she was always respectful.
The scene shifts to the 138 most dreaded days of the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka from January 2nd 2009. There is a day to day horrific account of the civilian killings and the sight of 350,000 people fleeing in rain to save their lives from the army and airforce attacks. Then on Day 20, January 21st 2009, the No Fire Zone (NFZ) or Safe Zone was announced. Peter Mackay, former U.N. staffer, narrates his experience of being trapped in a war zone for two weeks and witnessing first-hand the shelling of the NFZ.
“There’s a crucial point to be made on why the Sri Lankan government declared the no fire zone… There is only one intent and that is because you don’t really care you are going to kill the people that are located in that safer zone or more importantly you are actively targeting them,” Mr. Mckay says in the film. Peter tries to call the Colombo office to request the army to move the shelling though the army was aware of the positioning of his GPS. When he tries to contact them the strewn body of a girl lands on him.
There are scenes of cluster bomb destruction, children crying and withering in pain. On Day 28, the NFZ is overrun. There is continuous targeting of the Puthukudiruppu hostpital, on Day 42, a new NFZ is announced. The attacks on the NFZ continues relentlessly. At the Puthumathalan hospital, there is severe shortage of doctors, medicine and infrastructure, a choice has to be made, whom to save and whom not to. Every life is human, how do you prioritize which one is important? Everyone belongs to one or the other.
On the International arena, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner make a frantic visit to Sri Lanka to save the civilians, the Government of Sri Lanka tries to convince them that the civilians are safe, David Miliband calls the Sri Lankan’s as ‘Liars’ and has to leave the island.
In all there were 65 attacks on the hospitals alone and finally the hospital had to be abandoned and the civilians herded into a narrow strip of just 3 kilometers. Here the armed forces shell relentlessly in the middle of the crowded masses splitting the civilian population into two zones and taking over one.
Then the government declares the war was over. From here the scene shifts to the footage and photos taken by soldiers as war trophies. The cold blooded killing of Col.Ramesh, the white flag bearers Nadesan and Pulithevan and finally Balachandran, the photos examined by Prof. Derrick, Professor of Forensic Medicine, University of Dundee who clearly states that it was murder and then Prof.William Schabas claiming that these acts constitute, war crimes undoubtedly.
In Colombo, there are celebrations, where as in the Vanni there are massive clearance operations going on. There are scenes of women cadre of the LTTE taken in the army trucks, seen for the last time, nobody heard of them ever after. Those Tamils who survived had to starve for 3 days without food and water before being shunted into the Menik farm camps. At these camps, many women were raped and went missing, none of these were reported as the army controlled the camps.
Dixie then speaks of the post war militarization, Sinhalisation and the incentive given to the soldiers posted in the north when they have a third child. Bashana speaks of increased injustice and colonization. Vani has resettled in life after marrying again, yet she is unable to forget the haunting past.
The explanation of Vani on how blood was collected from the wounded civilians filtered with a piece of cloth and reinduced into the victim’s body makes one hate war. For the first time she sees blood flowing on the ground along with rain water. One wonders how can a war be described as a humanitarian operation?
After there the screening, there was a thunderous applause for the movie maker and the floor was given to the Sri Lankan ambassador. He protested the use of UN premises for a vicious campaign against Sri Lanka. He described the documentary as “distorted, dubious, cynical, concerted and orchestrated campaign that is strategically driven, and clearly motivated by collateral political considerations”.
He asked whether these human rights groups could take ownership of the documentary. He described the Journalists for Democracy as a shadowy group, which was behind the campaign. He called both Vani Kumar and Isai Priya as members of the LTTE and left the hall immediately. It is true in the case of Isai Priya, that she was a member of the LTTE, does it give the Sri Lankan soldiers the right to rape and desecrate her body? Mr.Ravinatha should answer this as a true Buddhist.
He calls all the footage as stage managed by the LTTE and sang the same old song of the army rescuing 300,000 civilians, providing food, rehabilitation etc and said that LTTE sympathizers were vote banks in the west and the Channel 4 was undermining the efforts of reconciliation.
Then it was Yasmin Sooka’s turn to speak, she spoke of denial and refusal as the strong arsenal of the Sri Lankan government. Her assessment of the key aspect of the Sri Lankan government as part of the three member UN Panel of Expert’s was the keeping out of media, NGOs, UN since September 2009.
Nowhere had she come across thousands of civilians killed in such a short period. As part of the Panel of Expert’s she had estimated about 40,000 civilian deaths, it increased to 70,000 in the Charles Petrie report submitted to the UN in November 2012, but the Bishop of Mannar is consistent about more than 100,000 civilans deaths, this is where an International Inquiry is necessary to get an independent estimate.
She spoke of the starvation of the people, bombing of the hospitals, firing at the NFZSs, violation of the International Humanitarian Law. Tamils even now lived under military control. The LLRC report was not implemented, ‘can the government be trusted to investigate themselves, the military court exonerated itself’, she said.
People were increasing targeted for speaking the truth, civilians need justice, the onus is on the International Community to get justice for the victims, the media and clergy were under threat, the triumphalism was translated into chauvinism, now the national anthem was only in Sinhalese, the Tamils were the only people who were denied even the right to mourn their dead.
She reiterated that since 2009 nothing has happened, people of Sri Lanka needs justice. This was not a Tamil issue, it is a human issue.
Gordon Weiss, the former UN Spokesperson in Colombo, spoke of Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka, who defended Sri Lanka at the UN in 2009, now speaking of quasi military occupation of the Tamil areas in the north and posed the question of Who is pulling the wool over who’s eyes?
Sumanthiran, the TNA Member of Parliament, thanked McRae on behalf of the Tamil people and demanded an Independent International Investigations, he noted that the SL government branded the Channel 4 videos as not authentic, but the LLRC wanted the videos to be investigated. He assured that TNA would cooperate with any independent investigations.
The vote of thanks was proposed by Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch who wanted the UN to respond to the rights of the victims and urged the diplomats present there to respond as human beings. At the end there was silence and grief.
The one sentence that echoed in everyone’s mind and heart was the question posed by Yasmin Sooka, ‘WHO MAKES WAR AGAINST CHILDREN?’, of course Sri Lanka does and continues to do as the world pretends to be blind to the plight of the Tamils.
*Dr.Paul Newman from UNHRC 22,Geneva 1st March, 2013