Counting the Bones at Mullaitivu

The final battle of the civil war took place on the North Eastern beach of Mullaittivu. The Sri Lankan army and LTTE moved in this direction over the first few months of 2009, following the fall of Killinochi. With them moved several hundred thousand civilians who had been displaced by the fighting and were being told by the government to move into safe no fire zones which, I am told by numerous witnesses were subsequently shelled, predominantly by the SLA. The SLA denies this, blaming LTTE fire.

Over the last few days, as civilians sheltered in bunkers on the beach, and some LTTE combatants began to intersperse with the people, it seems there was what can only be described as a massacre. This has now been well documented by Amnesty, HRW, Channel 4 and other organisations. However the numbers killed are disputed, with the government and military claiming less than 10,000  and many human rights organisations and witnesses suggesting closer to 200,000.

Since this horror, and the subsequent surrender of the LTTE, the government has denied access to the beach and the return of hundreds of inhabitants. The reason given is the clearing of landmines. But those I speak to who have survived the experience say that the land was so densely populated for the final few days that it is impossible that live mines would be remaining. And the battle was now almost four years ago.

I met with a respected community leader who told me over tea of a family he recently met with in Mullaittivu. The parents had 4 children who stayed together in a sand bunker on the beach in the final days. On one morning the brother was shot dead and one of the three sisters was shot in the back as she fed her baby. Unusually, the parents came outside of the bunker, amidst the firing from all directions, and found a spot to bury their son in the sand. And they marked it. On their return to the bunker they found that their daughter had bled to death, so they took her body to the same marked spot.

One year ago, they returned to the area to sneak into the restricted zone to recover the bones of their children for a proper funeral. They were caught by soldiers who told them that it was forbidden, as if they let them do it then all the families would be hunting for the bones of relatives. A civil case was opened and during this time the parents were warned to tell others that it referred to theft of jewels from the beach, as again, the authorities didn’t want people trying to claim bones. Four months later the family won the case and had a big funeral in the village which was attended by hundreds and symbolic for every family who had lost relatives to the conflict.

With access to Mullaittivu’s killing fields denied, and no way of counting the bones or knowing what has now been moved by the military, the Sri Lankan people will struggle to verify the numbers of Tamil speaking people killed in those final days.

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The land between Jaffna and Mannar is beautiful and lush this time of year, after the rains. There is a checkpoint on the road to Vavuniya which requires foreign passport holders to get off of the bus and have their details recorded. I have passed through here several times now and, other than holding up the bus, it has not been a problem. Mines still occupy the surrounding countryside and men and women are seen at the sides of the road in protective clothing clearing the ground.

Not long after arriving in Mannar, I was told by a Priest that a meeting had been arranged to help organise local women with missing relatives. I was asked to arrive at 6pm, once the women had gathered, so that I could hear their stories. I had no idea what to expect but travelled at dusk by tuk tuk through several police checkpoints to the hall.

I walked into a large room in which 48 women, 2 men and a little girl sat on chairs in a big circle. Two community leaders addressed the group with a microphone before inviting me to speak. I was a little taken aback as I had been trying to keep a low profile, but I explained who I was and that I was trying to better understand and to raise awareness of the human right violations taking place in Sri Lanka.

The woman sitting to my right then came into the centre of the circle, took the microphone and told her story. Two of her sons had been killed by shelling in the war and the third had been taken by police in a car on their way to church one morning. She began to weep as she explained that without her sons she had no income and that she just needed to know what had happened. Another woman stood up and as she started to cry that the LTTE had forced one of her three daughters into combat, I realised with some horror that all 53 people were going to tell their incredibly painful story.

Throughout the meeting the women remained calm, poised and stoic. But as each began to speak the emotions were too much, with tears rolling down their faces and many unable to continue, or even begin. An elderly man spoke of his ongoing search for his only son and several described supporting their sons to surrender to the army, only to not hear of them since. Many of the missing relatives must be dead, but it is hard to accept, or to grieve without knowledge and a funeral.

The little girl who had been smiling shyly at me throughout the meeting stood to speak of her missing brother, her only sibling to have survived the war. She sobbed heavily as she spoke but recomposed herself on returning to her chair. She must have been 8 years old. It was an extraordinarily emotional time for everyone in the room. In my absence of any solution to the agony, I ended up drawing and passing the little girl a picture. This nervous act was appreciated by the other women who smiled and nodded at me.

As the meeting drew to a close, one of the women approached me with pictures of her missing relatives. Again, and particularly with the language barrier, I didn’t know how to respond. So I took her hands and smiled, and then photographed the picture. I had no plan for what I would do with this image, but on seeing this, other women started to get up and pull pictures from their bags. Suddenly the women were queuing for me to take their hands and to take photos of their photos.

I have never felt so inadequate, as these women looked at me with hope and I really had little idea of what I could do. As I spend more time here I come to understand that listening to and recording people’s stories and acknowledging their missing relatives is not close to being enough, but it is something that does help a little.

There are thousands of cases of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. I was overwhelmed at the number of people in the room telling such similar stories. But they are just a fraction of the families facing this nightmare.

Here are some of their photos.

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The Rape of Tamil Detainees

Today Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a powerful report titled ‘We Will Teach You A Lesson: Sexual Violence Against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces‘.

The report finds that while widespread rape in custody occurred during the armed conflict that ended in May 2009,  politically motivated sexual violence by the military and police continues to the present.

HRW’s focus in this report is on violence committed in official and unofficial detention centres. Consequently this is a threat to all Tamils who risk being picked up for interrogation at any moment and without charge.

Two separate community leaders who I have spent several days working with and who I trust, have also told me that many Tamil women, who have lost their husbands to the conflict and live alone with their children, are today visited in their homes by the Sri Lankan security forces and sexually assaulted.

Soldiers and police are able to get away with the visits in the militarized north and east of the country as there is essentially no civil authority to protect the Tamil people. Furthermore, there is great social stigma attached to rape here, so the women are unable to seek support from their own community.

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With just a small, bustling centre, the historic city of Jaffna feels hot, hazy and holy with stunning Hindu temples and calm waterways. Men, women and children are on bicycles due to wide, flat roads and as a legacy from wildly inflated oil prices when the city was cut off from the island during the war. The LTTE controlled Jaffna for almost 10 years during the 20 year armed struggle during which time they established a civil authority with various functioning departments. The LTTE was also responsible at this time for the grave mistake of driving the Muslim population from the Northern Province.

Today Jaffna is heavily militarised with armed soldiers stationed on many corners and vehicles on constant patrol. There are clear signs of a recent war with burnt out, blasted buildings and IDP camps in surrounding areas. There is an absence of young adults following a mass exodus over the last decade. The older people I spoke to had sold everything during the war to get their children out of the country. Every family has lost loved ones – to fighting, to prison, to bomb attacks or to ‘enforced disappearances’. The crushing of the LTTE was so brutal, the military’s presence now so intimidating and the threat of undercover CID so great that there is a real culture of fear; resulting in Tamils here not knowing if they can trust even each other.

I found some great photos of the city at this photo-journalism site.

I arranged to meet in secret with five women who were married to senior commanders of the LTTE and who witnessed their husbands surrender to government forces in 2009. However they have not seen the men since and the army now deny ever having them. Given the lack of freedom of speech and the on-going harassment and occasional disappearances of Tamil speaking people and others who speak out about human rights, these women took great risk in meeting with me. A risk which highlights their desperation in not knowing what happened to their husbands.

The women separately told very similar stories. Some of their husbands were senior combatants who had been in the LTTE for over 20 years, others were senior political figures; leaders of civil departments. In May 2009 the women and their families were forced to leave the Vanni (where some had already been displaced from their homes) as government shelling increased and they were directed to ‘no fire zones’. They moved across country in large numbers, often taking shelter in ‘safe’ schools and hospitals which were subsequently targeted by government forces. Hundreds died in these buildings. As it became increasingly clear that the LTTE was losing the battle, the husbands joined their wives as they unknowingly headed to Mullaittivu, the now famous final battle ground. 300,000 were essentially herded toward a no fire zone at what became a 2 squared kilometer patch of beach with LTTE fighters stationed on one side (accused in some cases of using human shields), and government forces the other.

The horrors of the subsequent few days are described in this excellent Channel 4 documentary. The families lived in sand bunkers for over a week among dead bodies with one cup of porridge per day. No NGOs were allowed access and there is significant evidence suggesting the government blocked food and medicines from the area.

The 5 women described how once the government forces had gained control of the area by heavy fire, the people, who were now intermingled with the LTTE combatants, were led to caged areas, searched and IDd (I was told in subsequent interviews that everybody was made to strip, a fact that is too shameful for most women here to admit). The following day the army announced that anybody who was linked to the LTTE was to surrender now and that they would be recorded and released shortly. Anybody who didn’t surrender and was found out later would be sentenced to 20 years in prison. They then identified some LTTE members and beat them so badly that the majority of combatants felt it would be better to surrender. These 5 senior commanders, at slightly different times and in different ways, surrendered with, or in front of, their wives. Two of the women had to persuade the men not to take their cyanide capsules instead. These women, and others, witnessed the majority of LTTE members being led to a different camp, but their husbands along with other senior commanders (I was told 65 in total plus a Catholic Priest) being taken onto a bus. None of these men have been seen since.

The women have spent the last 4 years quietly searching for their husbands. They have written letters to The International Red Cross, the military, the government and others. One woman brought copies of the responses which I photographed. Nobody has any records of their whereabouts, or even their surrender.

One woman was instructed to attend a military camp last year where she was told ‘stop fretting about your husband, he is dead’. She asked, ‘but how can you say he is dead when I handed him over to you and he was well?’ Later, at the same camp it was declared that ‘no senior commanders surrendered’.

Two of the other women continue today to be aggressively questioned about the actions of their husbands. One of these women asked, ‘why, if they know nothing about their whereabouts, are they asking these questions?’

The final two women have both recently been asked to sign blank sheets of paper. They asked what they were and they were told they were death certificates. They refused but were then presented papers written in Sinhalese, a language they don’t understand. This time they were threatened, and therefore they signed.

Naturally all of these women, nervous when they first started speaking to me, started to break down as we continued. Their children are constantly asking for their fathers, they struggle with loss of earnings, are still hassled by CID and feel intimidated and vulnerable without their husbands around. One woman’s little girl, not yet old enough to understand, believes that her father has divorced her mother. She keeps asking for his phone number, sure that if she speaks to him she can fix it.

I asked the women what they thought had happened to their husbands. They all said that they believe strongly that they are alive.

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The face of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is ever present in Colombo, as in the rest of Sri Lanka – staring down from posters on what feels like every dusty street corner; a reminder that his government and military are in control of the entire country.

The army presence is not as visible in the capital as it once was and amidst the shady boulevards housing old colonial buildings, there are clear signs of reconstruction and commercial development. I travelled in tuk-tuks around town, sampling the short eats and kotthu rotti of local cafes and enjoying the flying kites and the family buzz of Galle Face Green. Several times the drivers asked me, ‘do you see how our country is developing, since the war?’ They are referring to new roads and shiny buildings, to the rise in tourism and to the government’s message that the economy can now thrive for the benefit of the people.

The reality, however, is that the defence budget has increased in the last few years; surely supporting the expansion of soldiers and their families stationed in the growing military camps and seemingly permanent checkpoints around the north and east of the island. The majority of large regeneration or resource management projects appear to be funded by external multinationals. Within parliament there are now a pricey 66 cabinet ministers. This allows the state, and the military, significant involvement in all aspects of public life.

It seems to be control that is developing.

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Words, ideas & images 29 September – 2 October

This weekend Tottenham is hosting a Palestine Literature festival featuring writers, film makers, rappers, photographers and story tellers. Participants include Brian Keenan, Peter Kosminsky (Director of The Promise), Tim Llewellyn and Anna Perera. It looks excellent and it is free. You can view a timetable of events here. I’ll be joining one of the sessions to speak about this blog and my experiences on the ground.

I lived in Tottenham once. I lived in Gaza once. It’s great to see when Palestinians are in need that people in Tottenham are reaching out and showing solidarity with them.” Benjamin Zephaniah

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“Together we shall succeed”

I spent six weeks in Jerusalem this spring volunteering with The Israeli Committee against House Demolitions. Here is interesting analysis from Jeff Halper, Director of ICAHD, regarding what  Mahmoud Abbas may, or may not achieve in Palestine this September.

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Ma’asalama Falesteen

As the service meandered toward the Bethlehem hills, I melted into my favourite music, desperately absorbing the streets through the window. Madrid and Barcelona flags flying from the same coffee shops; crinkly, enticing faces selling shai from huge pots; bakeries piled high with pitta, school kids embraced and waving from playgrounds; purple blossom on the trees; fluffy, red hearts hanging in cars, in shop windows, in houses – why it’s Valentine’s day every day in Palestine! Cats rummage in rubbish bins; old men smoke pipes on benches; baklava tempts from hot plates. I love it I love it.

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Victims in Hebron

Hebron is a sad place to be. Our focus at ISM is to prevent and witness the daily abuses suffered by the occupied Palestinians. But the Palestinians are not the only ones to suffer here.

Whilst I do not condone the presence of the illegal and often violent settlers in this city, I do not envy their isolated existence either. Their children are taught to hate and fear their Arab neighbours. Not a happy way to be.

The young Israeli soldiers loathe our presence. Mostly all we are doing is sitting and watching them. It is not pleasant having orders to humiliate and terrify the Palestinians, who are clearly not the terrorists they learnt of in military training. It must be unbearable to have these actions witnessed and filmed by internationals.

In Israeli military controlled H2 there is no Palestinian police presence which means the area also attracts Palestine’s criminals. It is the only place where I have been hassled by the shabab.

The last couple of years have been a little calmer in H2, but before this period it was not uncommon for international peace workers to be violently attacked by Israeli settlers as soldiers watched on.

Many like to dismiss the settlers in Hebron as fanatics. However, as all Israeli settlement activity, the presence and behaviour of these ‘fanatics’ is government planned and supported. The Alternative Information Centre describes Israel’s policy on Hebron here.

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A voice from the sea in Gaza

A short report from an international in Gaza this week.

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