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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