Wanni civilians and the humanitarian catastrophe

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

A “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding in what’s remaining of territory controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Also, there is the very real danger of the conflict escalating to a level where massive loss of human life and limb could occur.

At one level this on going tragedy is quite personal as I’ve lost loved ones and friends in the bombing and shelling. Many have been injured.This is the KNOWN

But even worse, is the UNKNOWN.

There are many about whose fate I am in the dark. I don’t know whether they are among the living or dead; whether they are injured or not.

Some of my friends are in the same position too. They dont know whether their loved ones are safe or not.

Quite a lot of my friends have lost their kith and kin and in many instances, relatives have been injured. But the worrying suspense of not knowing what has happened is terrible.

There is also the destruction and displacement. The entire population of the region is displaced and cramped into miniscule living space now.

During my schooldays , one of the poems I read for English Literature was Oliver Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”.

Today almost 99% of the villages in what was tiger-territory are deserted. And the inhabitants are in makeshift camps classified as internally displaced persons.

Nostalgia is in the air. I often think about the happy times I’ve had in the Wanni. The friendliness and hospitality of those simple people. Why has this tragedy befallen them?

The Wanni also teems with wildlife. Some of my best memories are those of wildlife sightings and glimpses. One such memory is that of hundreds of flamingoes in Mannar.

Another vivid experience was seeing a flock of peacocks and peahens near Vavunikulam. It was a “not yet wet, not yet dry” climate. Some peacocks spread their magnificient feathers and piroutted in a seductive dance. Then they all took flight. What a spectacle!

I am reminded of those peacocks as I listen to a poignant song rendered by Varnarameswaran. “Wanni manniley Mayil Koothaadumaa ? illai Poraadumaa?” is the refrain. It means “will the peacock dance or fight in the Wanni soil” wonder and wonder as I remember those “ayils”

For me personally, this situation is extremely frustrating because I saw this coming a long time ago.

Nowadays, there are lots of references to the humanitarian catastrophe but some of my readers have recalled (in mails and comments)that I had drawn attention to this possibility many months ago.

I warned then that as war progressed more and more people would be crammed into shrinking living space. As areas got saturated with people their vulnerability would increase.

Civilians did not die or get injured in large numbers during earlier phases of fighting because they had areas to seek refuge. It was also a case of the LTTE retreating and army advancing.

But at some point the LTTE would be forced to stay put and fight fiercely.

I wrote last year about how the LTTE had set up three rings of defence and was conserving its best fighters for the final phase. This endgame would be an area with beachfront, I said then.

It’s happening now.

It is against this backdrop that I view the catastrophic situation now.

[Tamil Thebora, (L) a one year old girl who was injured in the war zone in north-eastern Sri lanka, sits on a bed in the Lady Ridgeway hospital in Colombo, as her mother stands nearby. February 25, 2009-Reuters pic. via Yahoo! News]

In fact, it was I who first used the term “umanitarian catastrophe”in Sri Lankan media discourse with particular reference to the looming crisis in articles I wrote last year August for “The Nation” ewspaper.

Some state controlled media and defence-elated websites took potshots at me for using the phrase humanitarian catastrophe.

My inaugural column for “Daily Mirror” on October 4th 2008 was also about these helpless civilians whom I described as “Wretched of the Wanni earth“.

I followed this up with other articles highlighting the tragic civilian plight in the Wanni.

In 2006-2007 I wrote some articles for “The Sunday Leader” and “The Morning Leader” focusing on the Eastern Province civilians particularly those from Moothoor and Sampoor who were systematically driven away through artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.

I also contacted many diplomats at that time requesting some action to end this tragedy. Apart from professed concern nothing tangible was forthcoming.

I realised then that there was an undeclared consensus that the Sri Lankan armed forces be given virtual “carte blanche” to go ahead and destroy, diminish and defeat the dreaded LTTE. The civilian plight was perceived as collateral damage.

So this time I haven’t attempted any extra-journalistic mission to seek help in alleviating the civilian plight and averting this tragedy. I just felt it was useless.

Some Human rights organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, various agencies of the UN and several members of the international community are now expressing concern about the situation.

I am amused to note that the reference is very often to a humanitarian catastrophe. But then it does seem too late.

The time to act would have been when the displacement began in the Mannar and Vavuniya districts in 2007-2008 .If preparatory, proactive efforts were taken then, the current catastrophic situation may have been avoided or at least lessened in impact.

But there was very little concrete action except for pious platitudes being uttered frequently.

Currently there is talk of a humanitarian pause. What is envisaged is a temporary truce to facilitate the evacuation of civilians from the conflict zone.

What the LTTE and pro-tiger elements want is a permanent ceasefire and guarantee that the civilians be allowed to remain where they are. Neither the Government nor the international community are ready to give in.

As I’ve written many times the LTTE wants the civilians to remain for their own protection as some sort of human shields. As Mao Ze Dong said guerillas are the fish who swim in an ocean of people. If the ocean dries up the fish flounder.

Likewise if the conflict zone is drained of civilians the tigers become sitting ducks.

It is not in the interests of the LTTE to give up the civilians and become more vulnerable. One may rant and rail at the LTTE for this inhuman attitude but the tigers faced with extinction are not likely to listen.That’s the reality. Those sections of the international community and human rights fraternity evincing concern about the civilian plight are not bothered at all about the tiger plight, (that’s not their concern anyway).

The stalemate is simply this.

The LTTE wants a ceasefire for the ostensible purpose of ensuring civilian safety and security. It would be easier to do that by evacuating the civilians but the tigers will not agree because if the people go the tigers are vulnerable.

When the LTTE and pro-tiger lobby calls for a ceasefire the international community counters it by saying-let’s have a temporary one to get the people out.

To this the LTTE wont agree. If there’s a permanent ceasefire there is no need to evacuate the civilians is the counter argument.

The Government too is wary about a truce as it sees itself on the verge of winning the conventional war. Colombo does not want the LTTE to wriggle out through a ceasefire permanent or temporary.

If one were to dispense with the “concern” displayed for entrapped civilians and appraise the situation realistically what Colombo and the International community are asking the tigers to do is to commit politico-military “hara-kiri”.

Given the track record of the LTTE it is impossible that the organization would do so. For that matter no entity in the world is likely to let itself be led to the slaughter willingly.

If necessary the LTTE will go down fighting to the very end and also take down a large number of civilians with them. But they wont let the people go.

As for the government, the Rajapakse regime will not be concerned of civilian life and limb if firmly resolved to capture the remaining LTTE territory. Eggs have to be cracked to make an omelette.

The situation has steadily deteriorated. Civilians are dying or getting injured on a daily basis. The worst is yet to come.

If and when Colombo decides to end the current “stand-off” state of affairs and embark on an all out , no-holds barred offensive to capture what remains of tiger territory, the LTTE is also likely to offer determined resistance.

In such an environment there is very likely to be large scale civilian casualties. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe of gigantic proportions. In a worst-case scenario around 15,000 civiians at least could die during the military push.

I fervently hope and pray that such a situation will not come to pass.

Despite all the agony and anxiety, one feels utterly helpless in this climate of impending doom.


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