== Jehan Perera ==

The fate of several hundreds of thousands of people trapped in remaining areas of LTTE control in the Mullaitivu district hangs in the balance. There is dispute about the numbers displaced.  Government spokespersons claim that the figure is not much more than 100,000.  The estimates of humanitarian organizations are much higher, going up to 400,000. The people who are trapped include the original population of Mullaitivu together with most of those displaced in the earlier rounds of fighting from other places in the north. This latter group fled from those battle grounds to preserve their lives.

At present this civilian population is confined to a shrinking area to which the LTTE has retreated, estimated by the military to be about 300 square kilometers.  These unfortunate people are described as trapped for two reasons. One is that the heavy fighting between the government forces and LTTE is taking its toll on them.   The Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundaranayagam, has recently made two urgent appeals to the government.
In the first appeal Bishop Savundaranayagam referred to the collateral damage caused to the civilians by aerial and artillery bombardments.  He wrote that “artillery shells fell among the huts of the displaced people and men, women and children have died and many more are mortally injured. Moreover the artillery shells have fallen in the safety zone of Valipunam Temporary Government Hospital.  Last one week alone 88 persons have died and more than 200 persons are injured. The President said that he would protect the civilians.”

In his second appeal the Bishop has asked for an extension of the Safety Zone proposed by the government.  He wrote, “We thank you sincerely for declaring a part of the west of Mulaithivu as Safety Zone. The area indicated is small and uninhabitable considering the large number of people who are congregating in this area. .. Therefore I am pleading with your Excellency to consider declaring the Western portion of Mulaithivu also a Safety Zone for the sake of the innocent civilians.”  He has added that “We are also urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery- shells and rockets at the Army.  This will only increase more and more the death of civilians thus endangering the safety of the people.”


The dilemma for the government is how to safeguard civilians while also minimizing casualties among its own troops who are engaging in intense battle with the LTTE.  As an organization that is essentially guerilla in nature, the LTTE requires the presence of civilians from whom to draw sustenance as well as hide amongst. This is the second reason why the civilians are considered to be trapped.  The LTTE is not permitting the civilians in their areas of control to move out and seek refuge in places under government control which are no longer battle zones.  The LTTE has come in for strong criticism even from the UN for not permitting its local staff to leave those areas with their families in accordance with international law.
In times of war governments are presented with difficult choices to make due to the inhumane and all or nothing nature of war.  For the past several weeks the attention of the international media was on the fighting in the Gaza Strip between the Israeli defence forces and Hamas. Hamas fought the Israeli defence forces from within the civilian population.  This made it extremely costly for Israel to exploit its vastly superior advantage in terms of conventional military hardware and obtain international support.   In the short space of two months, over 1000 civilians, including many women and children, were killed at the hands of the Israeli forces.

When governments take decisions to inflict harm on civilian populations, they may do so for reasons they can justify, especially to hasten the end of war and to save the lives of their own soldiers.  In 1945, the United States used atomic bombs against Japan for these reasons.  But the verdict of history is invariably harsh on those who cause such harm to civilian populations.  Until the end of time, the US will be condemned for utilizing the terrible weapon it had developed that blighted the lives of innocent men, women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Israel was compelled to declare a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza on account of international pressure and the difficulties it faced in eliminating Hamas fighters in the midst of the civilian population.


The Sri Lankan government is entitled to its military campaign aimed at totally defeating the LTTE and ending the separatist war.  But the government needs to be mindful also of the fate of the trapped civilians in Mullaitivu.  Not only is the international reputation of the government at stake, so is reconciliation in a post-war Sri Lanka. Much more than the governments of the United States and Israel, the Sri Lankan government needs to be mindful of the fate of the people in Mullaitivu as they are its own citizens.
So far the government has declared areas in the north to be safety zones and has issued public calls for the people to move into those areas.  But these calls have had only a limited effectiveness due to the LTTE’s refusal to let them leave.  By compelling the civilians to remain, the LTTE is ensuring a human shield for itself and a pool for recruitment.  Relatively few civilians have been able or willing to leave in defiance of the LTTE and in the midst of major military operations.  Therefore the government needs to consider the option of a humanitarian truce for a limited period to permit the evacuation of the trapped civilians.
In the game of chess, there is a possibility of the game ending in a stalemate in which neither side wins.  This situation of stalemate can occur even if one side has the preponderance of pieces remaining on the board.  It appears that in Gaza, the Israeli government was forced into a situation of stalemate despite its vastly superior fighting machine.  On the other hand in World War 2, the US forced Japan into surrendering by resorting to the nuclear option and carnage on the civilian population.  The negotiation of the evacuation of civilians through a humanitarian truce, if possible, would certainly be the better way for Sri Lanka.


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