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Horror for civilians trapped in Sri Lanka’s ‘no-fire zone’

[Times Online UK, Monday, 25 May 2009 21:37 No Comment]

capt.f773f34e3b74476185dd6f86957777b2.sri_lanka_civil_war_lkw142 From the air, the battle zone reveals itself one clue at a time — the scorched patches of earth, the blasted palm trees, the burnt-out skeletal houses.

Then the helicopter banks sharp right over the green lagoon and a blaze of white sand appears — to the gasps of the first outsiders to glimpse the beach where the Tamil Tigers made their last stand.

Sri Lanka’s no-fire zone is a scene of such utter devastation it mocks its very name. It is a glimpse of hell unleashed in paradise. A glistening white beach packed with home-made bunkers where civilians huddled to protect themselves from the shells that the government denies launching in the final weeks of the offensive. The craters in the white sand; the charcoal coloured scorch marks and bombed-out dwellings; the abandoned bus, its forlorn white flag still flying, and the human detritus tell a very different story.

Peering down from above, one struggles to imagine the terror of being here in those last days of battle when 100,000 civilians were trapped in this tiny spit of sand between the guns of the Tamil Tigers and the cannons of the Sri Lankan army. No journalists, aid workers or independent observers have had access to the zone until this weekend when a small group of journalists accompanied the United Nations Secretary General on aa flight over the zone.

Father Amalraj does not have to imagine; he was here in the bunkers, among his flock, until the day before the Tigers announced their surrender. He described the terror of living under the constant shelling as the last battle approached.

"The people were targets for both side," the Roman Catholic priest told The Times inside the barbed wire fences of Manik Farm, one of the camps to which Tamil civilians were sent after they escaped from the no-fire zone.

"There was heavy shelling from the army side. The LTTE shot people. The army were trying to capture us. The people were caught in between in the last moment for the LTTE and the crucial point in the battle for the army. I cannot say which side was crueller."

He and his parishioners fled their village, Poonakary, just below the Jaffna peninsula when government forces overran it last November. They were on the move for months, fleeing ahead of the fighting over and over again until they reached the narrow strip of land on the eastern side of the Nanthikadal Lagoon, north of Mullativu in February, soon after it was designated a no-fire zone" by the Government.

It was anything but. Father Amalraj described how the people in the zone had cowered in improvised bunkers built on the beach for weeks on end to escape the shelling. "The shelling was just like raining," he said. "Within this two square kilometres, there were more than 100,000 people, packed in and shells raining down."

Many were killed. The UN believes that between 8,000 and 10,000 civilians have died in the conflict since the beginning of this year.

Father Amalraj, albeit anecdotally, believes the final tally is far higher. "We cannot say exactly how many died, but it was many, I think about 20,000."

The Sri Lankan government denies inflicting a single civilian death, blaming the shelling on the Tamil Tigers, despite the accounts of witnesses like Father Amalraj who testify that the shells came from the direction of the government front line.

As April turned to May, and the artillery exacted a heavier toll, bodies went unburied.

"We didn’t have the chance to bury our kith and kin," Father Amalraj said. "We left them on the road. The whole crowd is a witness to that," he said, gesturing around to the parishioners gathered in his tent in Manik Farm. "All around, the dead and injured."

Some people were buried. From the air neat rows of freshly dug graves revealed themselves but it was unclear if they contained the bodies of fighters or civilians. Others have been dug but not filled. A crater next to them appears stained red. Elsewhere, on the beach near to civilian shelters, similarly shaped mounds appear in the sand. The Times has passed the photographs to independent experts for analysis.

Some of those who emerged to try and escape were felled by the Tigers’ gunfire. "The LTTE shot people trying to escape," Father Amalraj said. "It was not at random. They shot in the air and then they shot at the people and killed them."

He named a Tiger commander who gave the orders to shoot at fleeing civilians as Tiramulai. The last person he saw shot before he fled was one of his parishioners, killed while trying to flee the zone on the afternoon of May 16, two days before the Tigers’ leader Vellupilai Prabhakaran was killed.

But by then, the shelling was so intense that the remaining civilians decided that they had no option but to try to escape, even at the risk of being shot themselves.

"I said I am going with my people because we are going to die tonight here," he recalled. Most of the remaining civilians believed the same thing. Fifty thousand of them began to make their way towards the causeway out of the zone, rebuilt by government troops on the other side.

"We started coming out and they [the Tigers] fired at us. But they didn’t shoot me, they couldn’t stop me. We knew it was useless to stay. We put our fate with God."

What happened inside the so-called no fire zone will not be the subject of any investigation in Sri Lanka, although the Prime Minister has called for a commission to probe the arming and activities of the Tigers.

At a joint press conference with Mr Ban, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama brushed away questions about the chances of an investigation into war crimes by both sides. Was he entirely confident then that no Sri Lankan forces had committed such crimes? "Absolutely," he replied.

On Tuesday the UN Human Rights Council will meet to decide whether it believes there is cause for an international probe. Britain and the US are among the countries calling for one.

Father Amalraj, meanwhile, searches the tents of Zone Four in the Tamil "welfare camp" at Manik Farm, looking for his lost sheep. Of 4,000 original parishioners, he has no idea how many survived. Which side, in the end, does he blame for the terror and loss of those last few months in the no-fire zone? "As A Tamil, I can’t blame the LTTE for fighting for the Tamil people," he says. "Look at this camp and you can see. They are planning to oppress the Tamil community under the pretext of terrorism.

[Full Coverage]

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