Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War

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9781846274695: Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka's Hidden War

The tropical island of Sri Lanka is a paradise for tourists, but in 2009 it became a hell for its Tamil minority, as decades of civil war between the Tamil Tiger guerrillas and the government reached its bloody climax. Caught in the crossfire were hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, doctors, farmers, fishermen, nuns and other civilians. And the government ensured through a strict media blackout that the world was unaware of their suffering. Now, a UN enquiry has called for war-crimes investigations. Those crimes are recounted here to the wider world for the first time in sobering, shattering detail.

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About the Author:

Frances Harrison was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and at SOAS and Imperial College in London. For many years she worked as a foreign correspondent for the BBC posted in South Asia, South East Asia and Iran. From 2000-4 she was the resident BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka. She has worked at Amnesty International as Head of News and while writing this book was a visiting research fellow at Oxford University. She lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

That afternoon was pregnant with malice, the weather oppressive and

sultry. A tropical storm hung in the air, waiting to explode above the

tiny strip of golden beach at the north-eastern corner of the island of

Sri Lanka. It was 18 May 2009. Four Catholic priests in grubby white

robes with black sashes had just come out of bunkers. They carried a

white flag and held their hands in the air. Terrified, they knelt on the

hot sand. They were surrounded by dozens of emaciated children in

ragged T-shirts: orphans in their care, some of them in blood-soaked

bandages. All were pleading for their lives with the Sri Lankan soldiers

who had their guns trained on them from across the beach.

In the background, a plume of grey smoke billowed from vehicles

set ablaze by the shells that had rained down. Even the palm trees

on the beach that had so recently been a tropical paradise had been

decapitated by the ferocious battles of the previous weeks. Now blackened

stumps replaced foliage. Strewn on the ground were people’s

last belongings – a shoe, a water bottle, a piece of clothing; dotted

around the bloated corpses that lay sprawled out in the open. The

stench of decomposing flesh and burning tyres hung in the air, mixed

with cordite, sweat and the tang of human fear.

The gunfire had been relentless. For days the Tamil priests and the

children – some as young as six – had been waiting for a lull in the

fighting so that they could surrender. The landscape was dotted with

trenches reinforced with sandbags. Injured fighters and civilians were

all trapped together in this, the final killing field, just a few hundred

square metres in size. One of the priests had a radio telephone and used

it to call a brigadier-general in the Sri Lankan Army, who advised them

to raise a white flag when the soldiers approached. Twice the priests

had tried to come out, but each time they’d been shot at and forced to

crawl back into the bunker on their hands and knees. The day before,

one man had been killed while trying to defecate.

The priests knew that the war was over, and that if they didn’t surrender

soon they’d be taken for rebels. All night they had heard the cries

for help as the soldiers threw grenades into bunkers. The mopping-up

operation was under way at the end of five months of unprecedented

carnage. Miraculously, the priests and the children had survived.

More than a dozen Sri Lankan soldiers stood in full combat gear,

rifles and heavy machine guns pointed at the group, ammunition belts

strung across their shoulders. They’d masked their faces with black

cloths to hide their identities, making them look even more like executioners.

Young recruits from the south of the island, they were frenzied

with fear after seeing so many of their comrades killed. For the last

three days they’d faced waves of rebel suicide fighters making a futile

last stand. Now they wouldn’t think twice about shooting at anything

that moved.

‘The soldiers were like animals, they were not normal. They wanted

to kill everything. They looked as if they hadn’t eaten or slept for days.

They were crazed with blood lust,’ said one of the priests later.

‘We are going to kill you,’ the soldiers shouted in their language,

Sinhala. ‘We have orders to shoot everyone.’ The tense stand-off lasted

about an hour, with the kneeling priests begging to be spared in broken

Sinhala. They told the soldiers that they’d already been in touch with

the brigadier-general at army headquarters, who’d promised to send

help. They implored them to use the telephone to check their story.

The soldiers were so frightened they made a priest dial the number

and then put the handset on the ground in the space between them,

fearing it might be booby-trapped.

Ordered by their superior officers to accept the surrender, the

soldiers instructed the group to cross over one by one; they began to

strip-search them, including the clerics, even removing bandages to

check underneath. One young boy had a dressing on his lower back

and the soldiers pulled it off and stuck their fingers in the wound. They

punched a priest in the chest for no apparent reason.

Then it was time to leave. After so many weeks of starvation, nobody

had the energy to carry the injured. One badly wounded female rebel

in a nearby bunker was too weak to be picked up. She told the priests

to leave her and help the others who could walk. As they left, a Tamil

in the group glanced back and saw a soldier pointing a rifle at the

girl’s forehead. Terrified, he turned around before he heard the shot

ring out. They made a long march up the coastal road to an army camp,

traversing a living hell, their bare feet stained with human blood.

Around them fires were still burning, and limbless, decomposing

corpses lay under vehicles or alongside bunkers. A priest said he personally

saw thousands of dead on that journey, most of them civilians, not

fighters.

‘We have killed all your leaders and you are our slaves,’ jeered one of

the soldiers guarding the group, using broken Tamil so they’d all understand.

As they trudged on, some fainted with exhaustion, including the

priest who’d been punched. The people with him insisted he be given

medical treatment. ‘Many people have died. Why are you crying for

one father? Let him die,’ the soldiers said.

At one point a senior army officer came and the people got down

on their knees to plead for the priest’s life. By the time a medic attached

a saline drip, the priest had already died. He was not alone. As the

survivors were driven out of the war zone later that night they saw

hundreds of naked male and female bodies lined up on the ground,

illuminated by lights powered by generators. The victorious soldiers

were using their mobile phones to take trophy photos of the dead

rebels – some of the disturbing images that soon appeared all over the

Internet. It was the digital era’s equivalent of a triumphant swordsman

putting his foot on the chest of a vanquished enemy.

Three hundred kilometres to the south, on the winning side, people

had been dancing in the streets of the capital, Colombo. There was an

eruption of joy, with car horns honking, firecrackers exploding and

bystanders waving yellow Sri Lankan flags depicting a lion carrying

a sword. After decades, the civil war was over. It was a victory few

military analysts had thought possible.

State television had interrupted programming that day to announce

that the rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had been killed. They

broadcast pictures of his bloated corpse lying on the ground in the

jungle, the dead eyes staring and a handkerchief covering a bloody gash

in his head. Nothing more clearly marked the end of the war than the

corpse of the Tamil Tiger leader who had once been worshipped like

a god by his diehard supporters.

At his peak he’d controlled a quarter of the island, commanding

an army of thousands of devoted Tamil men and women who wore

cyanide capsules around their necks to avoid being captured alive. They

took up arms to fight for a Tamil homeland because they no longer

felt safe living with the majority Sinhalese community on the crowded

island; Tamils had been burned alive in the streets of the capital. They

faced discrimination in employment and education and had become

convinced that they would never be given a fair deal in Sri Lankan

society.

From a band of a few angry young men, the Tamil Tigers developed

into one of the world’s most brutal insurgent groups, and one of its

best-equipped, with tanks, artillery, naval and air wings, and spies and

sleeper suicide bombers planted all over the island. They purchased

arms in the black markets of Asia and Africa, operating legitimate shipping

businesses to move weapons and raising at least £126 million a year in contributions from the Tamil diaspora.

 When I first visited the Tigers in 2002 as the BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, they ran a de facto

state for Tamils in the north-east, with their own courts, police, banks and border controls.

Predominately Hindu and Christian, Tamils were the majority in

the north, but the Sinhalese, who are Buddhist and Christian, formed

a majority in the rest of the tiny island of twenty million people. Sri

Lankan Tamil links to the sixty million fellow-Tamils who live just

across the water in the southern tip of the Indian mainland made

the Sinhalese insecure. ‘A majority with a minority complex’ is how

many have described them. Initially it was India, then the diaspora

populations in Canada, Europe and Australia, that funded and equipped

the separatist cause.

The rebels succeeded because they were ruthless – willing to

obliterate any challengers, even from their own side, and kill innocent

Sinhalese civilians. Tigers drove suicide trucks packed with

explosives into the heart of the capital, murdering presidents, prime ministers,

ministers, MPs, office workers, and anyone who got in the

way, with chilling efficiency. ...

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