THERE are signs that the international community is gearing up for action to hold Sri Lanka accountable for alleged war crimes committed by its forces at the end of the brutal civil war against the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.
A resolution is being prepared for next month’s session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and Pakistan, where the Sri Lankan president begins a three-day visit today, should not stand in the way of justice for tens of thousands of minority Tamils who perished.
A preliminary investigation by the United Nations said Sri Lanka’s “conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law” concluding that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in just five months. There are indications that the death toll could be even higher.
Colombo has promoted its victory over the Tigers as a new way to defeat terrorism, dubbed “the Sri Lankan option”.
This is in fact a terrible euphemism for a scorched-earth policy, failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians and removing independent witnesses.
Between the months of January and May 2009, the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled and bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in a small rebel enclave in the north of the island, ordering all journalists and international aid workers out first so there would be no one to say what really happened.
The traumatised survivors describe a living hell. Starving women and children cowered in earthen trenches as the army pummelled them with volleys of shells fired from multi-barrelled rocket launchers and dropped bombs from supersonic jets.
In a lull in the fighting, people would emerge to find human body parts strewn around, a leg or baby’s head lodged in a nearby tree. They quickly buried their neighbours’ remains with shovels to prevent the dogs eating them.
Everyone has a tale of a near escape, chatting with someone one minute, the next watching the life literally go out of them. Families survived on watered-down rice soup they cooked over tiny outdoor fires. A nine-year-old lost half her body weight in months. A mother who’d just given birth in a bunker sold her last gold bangle for a tenth of its value — 16g of gold bought just two kilos of rice.
Farmers and shopkeepers, teachers and civil servants were displaced up to 40 times, finally camping on a tiny stretch of white-sand, palm-fringed beach. Unable to dig bunkers because the dry sand just collapsed, women chopped up their best silk wedding saris to stitch sandbags.
Desperate parents contemplated running into the sea with their children to commit suicide because they couldn’t bear the idea of dying one by one. They hugged their hungry children and covered their eyes with their hands to shield them from the horror of seeing their friends blown to pieces.
Makeshift hospitals staffed by a handful of brave doctors were systemically attacked as life-saving drugs for surgery and bandages ran out. A baby was delivered with a bullet lodged in his leg, having been shot while still in the womb. Surgeons resorted to using butcher’s knives and donating their own blood to keep patients alive. A priest had his leg amputated without anaesthesia after being shelled in his church compound.
To escape tens of thousands of terrified civilians dodged bullets, waded through water full of corpses, and ran barefoot through puddles of human blood, some forced to make agonising choices about abandoning injured relatives in order to live themselves.
It’s not surprising many survivors are now suicidal. A doctor who served there can no longer stand the sight of blood, a photographer can’t look through a camera lens without seeing dead children and a Catholic nun had to struggle to keep her faith in a loving God after what she witnessed.
The war crimes and crimes against humanity were not perpetrated by only one side. The Tamil Tiger rebels compounded the catastrophe by refusing to allow civilians out of the war zone, using them as human shields, callously exposing their own people to the fury of the advancing Sri Lankan military.
The Tigers forcibly recruited more and more teenagers to die a pointless death in a jungle trench even in the last months when defeat was certain.
It was a terrible abuse of their own people many of whom hated them for it. The Tigers even sent suicide bombers to blow up refugees trying to flee the war zone, determined that everyone must stay together, in the mistaken hope the international community would intervene.
All along both sides claimed to be saving Tamil civilians, while showing little mercy.
When the Tigers were finally obliterated on May 18, 2009, the killing didn’t stop. In the final hours eyewitness saw the mopping-up operation as soldiers threw grenades in bunkers where injured rebels lay, unable to flee.
Some of the last civilians who walked out say thousands of dead bodies lay sprawled on the ground, rotting in the tropical heat.
All 280,000 exhausted crushed survivors were then detained against their will in a giant refugee camp, guarded by armed soldiers and surrounded by barbed wire.
Thousands escaped, bribing their way out. Eleven thousand suspected rebels were locked up in the world’s largest mass detention without trial. Tamils describe summary executions, gang rape and torture even a year after the end of the war.
The Sri Lankans recently completed their own flawed inquiry into the war but Alice in Wonderland-like they seemed to blame everything on the Tigers and completely exonerate their own security forces.
Human rights groups now want an independent investigation, arguing that accountability is a requirement under international law, not an optional extra.
Tamil survivors also want the truth acknowledged before they can move on with their shattered lives. Without the truth, reconciliation and forgiveness are simply not possible and the grievances that led to conflict in the first place remain dangerously unresolved.
The writer is a former BBC foreign correspondent based in Sri Lanka and Iran. Her book of accounts of survivors from Sri Lanka’s civil war Still Counting the Dead will be published by Portobello Books in London this summer.