Stewart Bell, National Post
Published: Monday, September 22, 2008
Hundreds of thousands have fled Sri Lanka’s civil war, many of them to Canada. While the war zone has been off limits to journalists, the National Post’s Stewart Bell recently toured the front lines just as the conflict appears headed for a decisive showdown. This is the second of a six-part series.
The streets around Jaffna City’s downtown bazaar are filled with bicycles, trishaws and sari-clad women carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the harsh tropical sun.
There are also a lot of soldiers. They patrol the streets with automatic rifles and stop buses to check the identity cards of passengers.
In this northern city, the population is almost entirely Tamil — which to the soldiers means that any of the people on these streets might be Tamil Tigers guerrillas.
Jaffna City was once the second-largest centre in Sri Lanka, after the capital, Colombo, but the rows of empty, bullet-pocked houses on the outskirts of town are a reminder that the civil war has hit hard here.
The Tamil Tigers controlled Jaffna until the Sri Lankan forces retook it in 1995, but more than a dozen years later, daily life could hardly be described as normal.
Troops are everywhere; a curfew remains in effect; nobody dares step outdoors without their National Identity Card; and residents cannot leave without the army’s permission.
Locals say the military routinely cordons off neighbourhoods, takes everyone to a school or a playground and holds them overnight for questioning.
Getting out of Jaffna means a two-week wait for military permission and a 24-hour boat trip.
That’s because the region is cut off from the rest of the country by the war zone.
“It’s like an open prison,” says Gajen Ponnambalam, the Member of Parliament for Jaffna and a member of the country’s main Tamil opposition party, the Tamil National Alliance.
Even though he is an elected representative for the region, Mr. Ponnambalam lives 400 kilometres away in Colombo. Jaffna is too dangerous. Two TNA MPs were assassinated in 2005 and 2006.
“There is absolutely no security. All the TNA members of parliament from Jaffna have been threatened the government uses paramilitary groups to carry out these threats.”
He says his phone calls to Jaffna are monitored, and when the discussions turn to topics considered sensitive by the government, the line gets cut. “It’s a police state, so everything is being monitored.”
Journalists considered sympathetic to the Tamil cause live in constant fear. Bullet holes mark the walls inside the Jaffna office of the Uthayan newspaper. A stack of computers sits idle, their screens blasted by gunshots.
Editor M. V. Kaanamylnathan thumbs through a book filled with photos of his reporters and staff, all killed in recent attacks. The newspaper continues to publish regardless.
“We have decided that despite what happens, we have a duty to our readers,” he says. “We are just speaking for the rights of the people. This is a newspaper’s function.”
The civil war that has torn apart Sri Lanka and driven tens of thousands of refugees to Canada has been notable for its horrors. Both sides have been accused of abuses.
The list is long: Suicide bombings, abductions, recruitment of children, torture, ethnic cleansing, political assassinations, unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests and detentions.
Ethnic Tamils can be arrested for “suspicion,” which requires no more than a belief they are linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrillas waging a separatist war against the government. Some are released. Some are never seen again.
“Outside of the war zones, Tamils are very vulnerable to human rights violations, which come in the form of their houses being raided in the night or being searched in the night,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “They have to prove their innocence, that they are not LTTE.”
Disappearances and killings have occurred in Colombo, but they are said to be worst in Jaffna, he says, although he adds that there are no reliable statistics. Adding to the concerns is the sense that nobody is ever brought to account for the abuses, he says.
“There is a problem of terrorism, people need to be arrested, but this can’t be done arbitrarily,” he says. “It is happening enough that all Tamils are frightened.”
Since the collapse of Sri Lanka’s ceasefire in January, international human rights groups have become increasingly alarmed as government forces drive north in an attempt to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and the guerrillas resume their random terrorist attacks.
Deaths of civilians have reached “appalling levels,” according to a February report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which says almost 200 civilians died in the first six weeks of 2008.
A Human Rights Watch report released in March blamed pro-government forces for abductions and disappearances of suspected rebels as well as clergy, aid workers and journalists.
In April, Amnesty International accused both the government and the guerrillas of intentionally targeting civilians and conducting indiscriminate attacks. “Since 2006, the conflict in Sri Lanka between government forces, the LTTE and other armed groups has escalated and has continued to be marked by widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law,” Amnesty wrote.
A young Tamil man, too afraid to allow his name to be published, spoke nervously about the August night his life was turned upside down.
It was after dark and he was with a friend. They went to meet another friend. All were Tamils. Someone saw them together and told the police.
“I didn’t expect they were going to put me in jail,” he says, but the next thing he knew, he was taken to a cell. “They took us to a bad ward. There were 250 people staying in a single hole.”
The cell was full of hard-looking men, some of whom were smoking ganja. Until that night, he had never even seen the inside of a police station. He was held for a week before being released without any charges.
Now he is uneasy. He believes the police will be watching him. He says if police pick him up again, he will never get out. He says he will no longer venture outside after 8 p. m. “Earlier, I never thought about these things. But now I am afraid.”
The Sri Lankan government does not deny that abuses occur, but says they are not state policy and that those found responsible are held accountable.
Attorney-General C. R. De Silva told the United Nations that a Presidential Commission of Inquiry was looking into disappearances, and that police had formed a Disappearances Investigation Unit.
In the past year, 61 police officers have been charged with torture, he says, while in the past decade, 599 members of the security forces and police have been charged in connection with abductions and extra-judicial killings.
Mr. Ponnambalam, the Tamil MP, says that in the past, international pressure could be wielded to curb government excesses. But unlike past Sri Lankan governments, the current administration lacks strong links to Western countries that have typically pushed for negotiations to end the conflict. “President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa is someone of a totally different mindset. He has no such hang-ups basically.”
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary and the President’s brother, says some people reported as disappeared have actually joined the guerrillas. He cites the case of a man reported missing by his mother. It turned out the man had died while committing a suicide attack near the Colombo Hilton Hotel.
Searches, arrests and detentions are all necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, he says.
“Now we know that each and every Tamil person is not a terrorist, but unfortunately 98% of the terrorists are Tamil because this started as a freedom movement, it started from the Tamils,” he says.
“So when you adopt certain control measures, of course the Tamil population will be targeted. You go and search where there are more Tamil people, then you question with a doubt when you see people coming from the north and east. So for these things we get a lot of criticism, but at the end, you save a lot of lives.”
The National Post hitched a ride to Jaffna on an Air Force transport and travelled through the high-security zone to the city in a Unicorn armoured vehicle before leaving the company of the military to explore.
Jaffna’s roughly 600,000 residents had a brief respite from the war during the ceasefire that began in 2002. The A-9 highway that links the region to the south was reopened for the first time in decades, but the ceasefire soon collapsed and the road was closed once again.
The guerrillas and the army face each other on the eastern edge of Jaffna, where 100 metres of no-man’s land separates the forward line of the Sri Lankan Army from the Tamil Tigers. Both lob mortars at each other on a daily basis.
“A lot of skirmishes are going on — last night there were 12 attacks,” says Major General Gammampila Chandrasiri, Area Commander for Jaffna. But he insists life in Jaffna is “coming back to normal.”
One prominent Tamil man scoffs at the positive image painted by the General. He says the Tamils of Jaffna are treated like second-class citizens and live in constant fear of the security forces.
“It has gone to the depths, there is no freedom,” he says. “Whether you are three or 65 years, they will stop and check your ID card. Now they are suspecting every citizen.
“How can you say that we are living peacefully, how can you say that there is no problem?” he says, afraid to have his name published.
“It is 100% occupation.”
Stewart Bell visits the eastern city of Trincomalee, where he meets a former child guerrilla who left the Tamil Tigers and now serves in the government