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Behind the “Iron Curtain” on North Sri Lanka


“I was in my bed and was thrown off the bed by the explosion. This was followed by further explosions around my residence every two minutes. I could not come out until the explosions ended and till then every explosion was a frightening noise,” These were the words of the Government Agent (GA) of Mullaitivu District, Ms Imelda Sukumar, describing her frightful ordeal on the night of Thursday, 7 August. (The GA is the highest ranking civil servant of a district and virtually represents the government). “… the doctor in the nearby doctor‘s quarters came and took me to the hospital. I had very high blood pressure and I was slightly injured. I saw many injured people coming to the hospital. There was one very badly damaged body of a baby. Five or six of the injured people had to be transferred to other hospitals because their condition was serious … I also saw patients in the hospital attempting to move out of the hospital due to fear of the explosions all around …”
As the Sri Lanka government has imposed strict censorship on news about the northern war zone, and press reporters are barred from visiting the area, the news that seeps through that iron curtain is ominous: Even as the government is intensifying its military offensive, the humanitarian crisis of the civilians, particularly the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), is escalating.
Some months ago, the government swore to capture Kilinochchi and the rest of the Vanni area by August this year. In a bid to fulfil this over-ambitious promise, the government forces have stepped up their attacks on the LTTE-held Vanni territory at several fronts, using multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), cluster bombs, artillery, mortar shells, helicopters and K’fir bomber jets.

The Vanni region (roughly, the area south of the Jaffna peninsula)

In recent months, the relentless attacks by the government forces have driven thousands of civilians out of their homes and kept them on the run. These new IDPs have added to the already existing IDPs in the region, bringing the total to about 180 000.
A tragic feature of the displacement is that when their village is targeted, people run to an area that is not currently under attack. But sooner or later, that spot becomes the target, and they run to another ‘safe’ area. Faced with the gauntlet of multiple displacements, they can’t carry much of their belongings. Often they have to abandon even the little that they have managed to salvage, as bomber jets and artillery shells come roaring towards them.
The picture one gets is that of hoards of wild animals in the African plains as they run helter-skelter, in no particular direction, when helicopters fly low over them. What other options do these helpless people have except to flee from the incessant barrage of the blind, indiscriminate weapons like artillery and mortar shells and MBRL that fire 40 rockets at a time immediately after one another, with scant respect for people and places protected by the Geneva Conventions, like civilian populations and hospitals? No one is safe. No place is safe.
The GA lamented: “I have always considered my residence a safe place. I have confirmed the location of my residence personally to the Sri Lanka security forces. The hospital and the doctors‘ quarters are also here. Many other quarters for civil service employees working under me are also situated here. They have all felt safe working here. It is tragic that this incident has happened making all of them feel insecure when they must be working hard for displaced people...”
Vanni has been already inflicted with all kinds of shortages since the closure of the only supply route A9 on August 11, 2006, is absolutely not equipped to cope with this huge number.
The government claims as usual that the IDPs are being well looked after. As reported by AFP on Tuesday August 19, the Sri Lankan foreign office said in a statement that “there is absolutely no truth in the reports of internally displaced people living under trees.” The pictures below, however, are in stark contradiction to the ministry’s claim.
The statement claims further that urgent measures have been taken to provide adequate food and shelter to the displaced people.” But the NGOs, both international and local, attest otherwise. According to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) report published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA) in its report for the first week of July, restrictions on the kinds and quantities of food items to be taken into the Vanni preclude stocks are being replenished by the World Food Programme (WFP).
The NGOs are at a loss when it comes to rendering their relief services to the IDPs. One of the reasons is that the transportation of a number of items into the Vanni region is banned by the military. These items include large plastic water tanks, aluminium, cooking utensils, metal buckets, plastic buckets, bicycles, spades, batteries, electric wires and - quite incredibly - the bags in which the items for distribution to IDPs are normally packed!
Exposed to the elements of nature in the jungles, the people face all the hazards of health and hygiene and the threat of mosquitoes, wild animals and snakes. (The cases treated for snakebite in the last few weeks number 33). This predicament is further aggravated by the  restrictions on the transportation of medicine as well as food and other items.

Jaffna (the northern peninsula)

Despite the government claims to the contrary, the situation in the peninsula continues to be grim. Restrictions imposed by the military on fishing have again been intensified, affecting 90% of the fisher families along the southern coast of the peninsula. Malnutrition is rampant, children being the worst affected.  Owing to poverty, poor families seeking admission for their children to  institutions meant for orphans are on the increase.
As one recent local NGO reports, “There is not even a semblance of the people being provided with the normal or even the minimal protection given by any democratic State to its citizens. … The people in the Jaffna peninsula are forced to live as if in an open prison. They are not free to travel about as they want … even to fulfil family and social obligations. Even within the peninsula, they are constricted on many fronts obstructing free travel … Checkpoints are numerous and much time is wasted at each of them. Night travel is banned from August 11th, 2006 Some roads are permanently closed and reserved exclusively for the forces. Travelling outside the Jaffna Peninsula is almost beyond the possibility of the average citizen.”

The Future?

The government forces claim to have killed over 5000 LTTE cadre this year and destroyed the capacity of the LTTE for conventional war. They boast that soon they will deal the final blow that will crush the LTTE for good.
It would be too credulous to accept these claims, particularly the figures quoted. Similar claims have been made before, but effectively disproved.  In the late 1990s, having seized vast tracts of land in the Vanni, the forces declared they would “eliminate the LTTE altogether within two more weeks.”
But the Tigers were only allowing the forces to spread themselves far and wide, and then sprang back. And it took them only three days to drive the forces out of lands they had taken three years to capture.
Are the Tigers using a similar strategy now? It appears that so far they haven’t engaged their special commando units or lost their military hardware. Notably the Sea Tigers and Air Division haven’t been active in the recent months. Are the Tigers then crouching now, only to spring at the opportune moment?
If such is the case, the consequences will be catastrophic for the entire country.

The Victor?

The question is not which of the armed parties will win. Rather, it is about who will win peace. The present scenario is too dismal to be optimistic about the immediate future. In the end, however, only the “Statesman” will win – a statesman who is willing to negotiate for just-peace. For, not war – but peace is the trophy to be won.     

Source: the author and Zeit-Fragen

Original article published on Sept. 29, 2008

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TYPHOON ZONE : 29/09/2008