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Wanni civilians and the humanitarian catastrophe

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By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

A “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding in what’s remaining of territory controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Also, there is the very real danger of the conflict escalating to a level where massive loss of human life and limb could occur.

At one level this on going tragedy is quite personal as I’ve lost loved ones and friends in the bombing and shelling. Many have been injured.This is the KNOWN

But even worse, is the UNKNOWN.

There are many about whose fate I am in the dark. I don’t know whether they are among the living or dead; whether they are injured or not.

Some of my friends are in the same position too. They dont know whether their loved ones are safe or not.

Quite a lot of my friends have lost their kith and kin and in many instances, relatives have been injured. But the worrying suspense of not knowing what has happened is terrible.

There is also the destruction and displacement. The entire population of the region is displaced and cramped into miniscule living space now.

During my schooldays , one of the poems I read for English Literature was Oliver Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”.

Today almost 99% of the villages in what was tiger-territory are deserted. And the inhabitants are in makeshift camps classified as internally displaced persons.

Nostalgia is in the air. I often think about the happy times I’ve had in the Wanni. The friendliness and hospitality of those simple people. Why has this tragedy befallen them?

The Wanni also teems with wildlife. Some of my best memories are those of wildlife sightings and glimpses. One such memory is that of hundreds of flamingoes in Mannar.

Another vivid experience was seeing a flock of peacocks and peahens near Vavunikulam. It was a “not yet wet, not yet dry” climate. Some peacocks spread their magnificient feathers and piroutted in a seductive dance. Then they all took flight. What a spectacle!

I am reminded of those peacocks as I listen to a poignant song of Kasi Anandan, rendered by T.L. Maharajan. “Wanni manniley Mayil Koothaadumaa ? illai Poraadumaa?” is the refrain. It means “will the peacock dance or fight in the Wanni soil” wonder and wonder as I remember those “ayils”

For me personally, this situation is extremely frustrating because I saw this coming a long time ago.

Nowadays, there are lots of references to the humanitarian catastrophe but some of my readers have recalled (in mails and comments)that I had drawn attention to this possibility many months ago.

I warned then that as war progressed more and more people would be crammed into shrinking living space. As areas got saturated with people their vulnerability would increase.

Civilians did not die or get injured in large numbers during earlier phases of fighting because they had areas to seek refuge. It was also a case of the LTTE retreating and army advancing.

But at some point the LTTE would be forced to stay put and fight fiercely.

I wrote last year about how the LTTE had set up three rings of defence and was conserving its best fighters for the final phase. This endgame would be an area with beachfront, I said then.

It’s happening now.

It is against this backdrop that I view the catastrophic situation now.

[Tamil Thebora, (L) a one year old girl who was injured in the war zone in north-eastern Sri lanka, sits on a bed in the Lady Ridgeway hospital in Colombo, as her mother stands nearby. February 25, 2009-Reuters pic. via Yahoo! News]

In fact, it was I who first used the term “humanitarian catastrophe”in Sri Lankan media discourse with particular reference to the looming crisis in articles I wrote last year August for “The Nation” newspaper.

Some state controlled media and defence-elated websites took potshots at me for using the phrase humanitarian catastrophe.

My inaugural column for “Daily Mirror” on October 4th 2008 was also about these helpless civilians whom I described as “Wretched of the Wanni earth“.

I followed this up with other articles highlighting the tragic civilian plight in the Wanni.

In 2006-2007 I wrote some articles for “The Sunday Leader” and “The Morning Leader” focusing on the Eastern Province civilians particularly those from Moothoor and Sampoor who were systematically driven away through artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.

I also contacted many diplomats at that time requesting some action to end this tragedy. Apart from professed concern nothing tangible was forthcoming.

I realised then that there was an undeclared consensus that the Sri Lankan armed forces be given virtual “carte blanche” to go ahead and destroy, diminish and defeat the dreaded LTTE. The civilian plight was perceived as collateral damage.

So this time I haven’t attempted any extra-journalistic mission to seek help in alleviating the civilian plight and averting this tragedy. I just felt it was useless.

Some Human rights organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, various agencies of the UN and several members of the international community are now expressing concern about the situation.

I am amused to note that the reference is very often to a humanitarian catastrophe. But then it does seem too late.

The time to act would have been when the displacement began in the Mannar and Vavuniya districts in 2007-2008 .If preparatory, proactive efforts were taken then, the current catastrophic situation may have been avoided or at least lessened in impact.

But there was very little concrete action except for pious platitudes being uttered frequently.

Currently there is talk of a humanitarian pause. What is envisaged is a temporary truce to facilitate the evacuation of civilians from the conflict zone.

What the LTTE and pro-tiger elements want is a permanent ceasefire and guarantee that the civilians be allowed to remain where they are. Neither the Government nor the international community are ready to give in.

As I’ve written many times the LTTE wants the civilians to remain for their own protection as some sort of human shields. As Mao Ze Dong said guerillas are the fish who swim in an ocean of people. If the ocean dries up the fish flounder.

Likewise if the conflict zone is drained of civilians the tigers become sitting ducks.

It is not in the interests of the LTTE to give up the civilians and become more vulnerable. One may rant and rail at the LTTE for this inhuman attitude but the tigers faced with extinction are not likely to listen.That’s the reality. Those sections of the international community and human rights fraternity evincing concern about the civilian plight are not bothered at all about the tiger plight, (that’s not their concern anyway).

The stalemate is simply this.

The LTTE wants a ceasefire for the ostensible purpose of ensuring civilian safety and security. It would be easier to do that by evacuating the civilians but the tigers will not agree because if the people go the tigers are vulnerable.

When the LTTE and pro-tiger lobby calls for a ceasefire the international community counters it by saying-let’s have a temporary one to get the people out.

To this the LTTE wont agree. If there’s a permanent ceasefire there is no need to evacuate the civilians is the counter argument.

The Government too is wary about a truce as it sees itself on the verge of winning the conventional war. Colombo does not want the LTTE to wriggle out through a ceasefire permanent or temporary.

If one were to dispense with the “concern” displayed for entrapped civilians and appraise the situation realistically what Colombo and the International community are asking the tigers to do is to commit politico-military “hara-kiri”.

Given the track record of the LTTE it is impossible that the organization would do so. For that matter no entity in the world is likely to let itself be led to the slaughter willingly.

If necessary the LTTE will go down fighting to the very end and also take down a large number of civilians with them. But they wont let the people go.

As for the government, the Rajapakse regime will not be concerned of civilian life and limb if firmly resolved to capture the remaining LTTE territory. Eggs have to be cracked to make an omelette.

The situation has steadily deteriorated. Civilians are dying or getting injured on a daily basis. The worst is yet to come.

If and when Colombo decides to end the current “stand-off” state of affairs and embark on an all out , no-holds barred offensive to capture what remains of tiger territory, the LTTE is also likely to offer determined resistance.

In such an environment there is very likely to be large scale civilian casualties. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe of gigantic proportions. In a worst-case scenario around 15,000 civiians at least could die during the military push.

I fervently hope and pray that such a situation will not come to pass.

Despite all the agony and anxiety, one feels utterly helpless in this climate of impending doom.

I can be reached on
Email: dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

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  1. /*
    no-holds barred offensive to capture what remains of tiger territory, the LTTE is also likely to offer determined resistance.

    precisely why it will not be done this way. instead it will be attrition, chipping away at the edges, cutting off supply routes and then wait for the inevitable implosion. you are thinking how ratwatte would have done it.

  2. The situation is very clear. India will not agree to anything less that the complete eradication of the Tamil rebellion on the grounds that its appeasement will encourage secessionist uprisings amidst the Tamils in Tamilnadu. The international community recognizes that it cannot work with an organization like the LTTE that adopts torture, extortion, assassination and crime as part and parcel of its mode of operation – and refuses to subjugate its own interests to that of the international community. The only complication that has arisen is that of the Rajapaksas who have adopted this very same mode of operation themselves and who also refuse to subjugate their own interests to that of the international community. This may even now be changing as the Rajapaksas come to terms w3ith global realities and when they agree that the price of their greed is the need to subjugate their interests to those of the international community – the crushing of the Tamils will be permitted to proceed.

  3. A Sinhalese who says “Regret the civilians, we have to fight to conclusion until Tigers surrender – no ceasefire” is a cruel hearted man(woman). A Tamil who says ” Regret the civilians, Tigers should fight to the last man until govt agrees to a ceasefire-no surrender” is a cruel hearted man(woman). I leave it to the readers to decide who is more cruel hearted. What if your own children are trapped in Vanni?

  4. The critical point here, which is fuelling the war, is the “carte blanche” and all forms of support given to the govt by the major players, disregarding civilian casualties. I fully agree with this assessment. The only negative aspect to this is the erosion of the moral standing of these masquerades. So the question is at which point will be the price too high for them? 5,000 dead already and the UN hasn’t counted; if 15,000 wouldn’t make a flutter, I too wouldn’t think it is worth living on this cruel unjust planet of the evil.

  5. Dear DBS Jeyaraj,
    Somehow I feel this article did not cover all our fears and worries over Wanni humanitarian situation. I would appreciate if you could shed some attention on Tamil civilians who have already moved into government controlled areas including those evacuated by ICRC.
    News reports say that they are being detained in the detention camps in Vavunia and Jaffna.
    Are they treated humanly?
    Can they meet their relatives, friends or any other independent bodies?
    News reports also say that they are being separated into different age and gender groups before taken into camps and what happened to those isolated are unknown. Recently, a Tamil MP said most of them are being tortured, raped and dumped in the name of interrogation. Some complained about forcible abortions and unnecessary birth control operations for Tamil mothers.
    Can any news reporters have access to these detention camps or hospitals to tell the world what is really happening? If not, why?
    Why people in the South of Sri Lanka are kept in dark about Wanni situation?
    Was Mr Viththiyatharan, editor kidnapped in white van, because of his news reporting about Wanni?
    Is Sri Lankan government trying to hide the truth? If yes, how long SLG will be able to hide?
    I hope you will be able to find some answers to our concern.

  6. Jeyraj, what you failed to mention was that this curse is because of one meglomanic called V.Prabakaran, the curse of the nation, the cuese of the Tamil people, the day this “sun goat” dies, there will be peace in Sri Lanka, this evil man is the curse! END OF STORY.

  7. I really feel for my follow country men. I used to be soldier and beleived what I done. After I left my forces I learnt so many crooks in our political system, using tamil issue and misinforming sinhala people for their own benefits. So many of them benefitted from this unwanted and brutal war. Now I live in foreign country, I really sorry for poor people of My country people.
    Atleast I can apologise to tamil people what sinhala govt doing. Hope who ever responsible for this Genocidal war will be punished in international court.

  8. Civilins in the LTTE areas must have heard about the military detention camps in which those who go into the government controlled zone are incarcerated.This may be the reason for their reluctance to move out of their homes in which they have lived for years.

  9. Heyyyy DBS!
    What hapen to you ?? I allways read your articles with real info. After lasantha I thought you allso gone underground.
    Any way I belive war has to be over by hook or krook. Allready more than 100000 ded and what elss. Whay no one force LTTE to free civil people?? Why this Idiot Prba cant face to reality. They will never gain anything by fighting

  10. “So this time I haven’t attempted any extra-journalistic mission to seek help in alleviating the civilian plight and averting this tragedy. I just felt it was useless”
    DBSJ I am sorry but i disagree.You have to do whatever possible whether you suceed or not otherwise your own conscience will blame you.

  11. If as Jayaraj says that there are their friends and relatives conered in the vanni, then Jayaraj and the rest of the tamil diaspora must isolate the LTTE if the LTTE is refusing to release their friends and relations from the no fire zone. Now the LTTE fellows eat all the food and use the medicene that the Government is sending to the Vanni and starve the innocent civilians to death. How do the LTTE fighters have the strength to fight if there is no food in the Vanni. We do not hear that LTTE fighters are dying of starvatioin in the Vanni. It is high time the foolish tamil diaspora stop listening to the cock and bull stories that are being concocted by the LTTE and the Tamil Net. LTTEi ers are heartless people killing their own people. They were harassing the innocent tamil civilians by taxing them and grabbing money from them and now shooting even toddlers when they try to escape for safety. There are only a few left in the Vanni when compared to the millions living in the rest of the country now. The Government must not and cannot let the LTTE citizens living in the rest of the country to suffer allowing the LTTE hold a few as ramsome. The Government does not have the heart to kill as the LTTE otherwise a few bombs would settle the whole question now. Lets hope our forces will rescue the balance civilians and wipe out the LTTE worms soon and bring peace to this country .

  12. It is this very ” worst case scenario ” numbers that former Presidents didn’t want to push for a total military victory over the LTTE.

    With Percy the LTTE has met their match. For the average Srilankan enough was enough.

    And now to the post conflict period. It will be interesting to see how the GOSL and the Southern polity will respond to the IC as they pile on the pressure for a meaningful political solution to our long standing, meaningless Home and Home affair.

    To the LTTE supporters, if only the LTTE listened to DBS and patched up their differences with Karuna the situation would have been different.

  13. Why can’t the democratic elected government (?) give a public forgiveness to the LTTE with the help of other countries? If govt thinks all people are citizen of this country, why do they think military suppression is the only solution? Can’t they end this annoying situtation with peaceful one? We even forgave the JVP terrorists in the past since they were the sons\daughters of this country.

  14. Why is Pirapakaran turning against his own people? Perhaps, Mr Jeyaraj, you could expose the LTTE atrocitys?

  15. Dear Mr Jeyaraj
    It is very good article. You have written about the plight of civilian trapped by LTTE. But you you haven’t written about any option or solutions to this problem. You very well know that the elimination of LTTE will solve the entire problem. But you are reluctant to write as you may be portrait as Tamil traitor. Don’t worry Jeyaraj, you are respected by descent Tamils and Sinhalese.

  16. Mr Jeyaraj we know there is a humanitarian catastrophe but who is responsible, you never say in your article that LTTE should release these innocent people. They keep them as a human shield and even shoot them then they try to escape from LTTE. Tamil Diaspora organised mass protests all over the world to press Sri Lanka government to stop the war and imposed a ceasefire but no country listen to them because all counters in the world know that is for protect LTTE not protect innocent tamil people,

  17. Dear DBS,

    What else you expect to happen.
    1. Tamils were shot by the Tamils by the bullets bought with Tamil money.
    2. Tamil legs were cut into pieces which were trying to run away from the Tamil freedom fighters.
    3. Food and medicine which were to be delivered by the Tamils to the Tamils were robbed and denied by the Tamils.
    4. Injured Tamils were thrown out of UNWFP trucks by the Tamils to protect the Tamil fighters.
    Do we need more?
    We have seen enough and waiting to see one more funeral. With that, we all shall say a final respect ‘Heil Praba’ and start a new era.

  18. I refer the comments of The Lion. Who said you that the Tamil people were lived peacefully politically with Sinhala people in Sri Lanka before Prabaharan.

  19. DBS,
    It is not that difficult to figure out.

    Your folks are now a human shield between the SL army and the tigers. I am sorry for them, because neither of those two parties will care about their plight. In fact their deaths will be more advantageuos to the LTTE, while disadvantageous to the army.

  20. Dear DBS,

    I agree with what you may be saying here – there is “hypocrisy” and on the part of LTTE sympathisers now coming out only after not seeing LTTE standing firm in the battlefield, and saying much about civilian plight. Yet for me the, not being in the LTTE following, is that only journalists like you could tell the lines where other democratic and humanitarian institutions have failed ordinary people.

    I believe the UN should have asked or still firmly ask as to what the plans are for those who will not want to leave these areas for being a hardcore LTTE follower, and go into GoSL hands. It is a difficult situation., After all , UNICEF said they were fighting for the “child soldiers”, now all of a sudden they are ready to let many be slaughtered due to this “stalemate”. This is where the IC is failing.

    If there are no other mechanism to take the people out without this sort of civilian massacre, there is no point in keep blaming LTTE. They have been branded as “terrorist”. Responsibility is ICs to safeguard civilian lives…even the LTTE fighters..too what extent the world wants thi slaughter to go on…truly baffling situation hope you will write on these matters soon and more frequently,


  21. I think those countries and organization who provide any form of aids to Sri Lanka are also knowingly or unknowingly assisting Sri Lankan government to commit these crimes aginst tamils. International communities talk about temperary truce to evacuate tamil people by ships from the conflict area and putting them in the barb wired camps in Vavuniya guarded by Sri Lankan government armed forces. They somewhat think this will solve the ethnic problem of this island. I think in 1977 and 1983 tamils, who were living in the south, were evacuated by ships to North and East of Sri Lanka. Evacuation did not solve the ethnic problem then. I do not think evacuation will do anything good to Tamils now. This evacuation will force these people to live in a open prison (like in Jaffna now) or in these camps forever.

  22. Mr Jayaraj!
    I could have written this article and I have no knowledge. There is no content. Sorry to say this.

  23. Good article written with a lot of passion and substance. As a Sri Lankan, I Feel Sad and Ashamed of what is happening to my country. The Civilians trapped in the war-zone should be released by a UN peace keeping force or US marines. The Sri Lankan Soldiers need to screen all civilians moving into the govt controlled areas to make sure no LTTE mingles with civilians. Living in Colombo, I do not want LTTE to be in my backyard. The GOSL should carpet bomb the rest of the LTTE once the civilians have safely moved out. Once the “Sun God” is captured alive or Dead the sun will set on the LTTE for good and peace will prevail. Sri Lanka needs to move forward and catch up with 30-years of development and prosperity.

  24. Hi DBS

    Thank you for the article.

    The International people must ask Sri Lanka to allow aid workers, independent journalists, observers to have full access to these areas. I lost my close friend’s relatives in the fighting. This is so sad. Why this war on civilians is not halted? If nothing to hide why GoSL not allow them? after all they want financial assistance from them.

  25. DBS,
    one thing every neutral writers forget to mention is ,tamil people can not be neutral.One cant be an outsider of his mothers funeral.
    Tigers are not outsiders.They are from our community.Every family gave one to this struggle.most members have their own family parents and children.There are lot of wounded,disabled youths under care in vanni.Parents and sisters and children of them.
    This is a community in crisis.Most of the people are afraid to come because of the government terror policy towards tigers.It is like “saddiyil irundhu aduppil viluvathu pola”.From my personnel experience,once , despite of heavy shelling and movement of army, my father refused to move out of our house.As a tamil i can feel the pulse of people.
    What i feel is tigers is not band of armed group.They are like a government all these days.they have different level of supporters and people against them of course
    They naturally defend or save the people who are with them.these amount is not a few
    People may come out of shelling and air attacks because of fear.But they don’t do it happily. AS I had before every one have a guilt feeling that they leave their son or daughter or relative in danger. they will not have feeling of peace in mind for their life.This government is very very barbaric. we cant believe them.

    What the world expect?All the people,who are behind tigers have to be killed?.the number of people behind them equal to the people in vanni now.
    Dont take Mao as example here.This government killed tiger members brothers and harassed their families several times.If you are a tiger member what will you do?. do you send your sister to army control area?they suspect everyone.arrest during investigation they rape.

    most of the elders dont want to leave. women are afraid of sexual harrassments.So children stay with them.Fear of seperation is the big crisis at this point.
    I have heard many times this sentence in my life during this type of situations.My parents and relatives talked like this.
    “we wiil stay together,we die together”(varuvathu varaddum ellarum onray saavom”)
    That is happening there..I feel most of our people accepted the death already in their minds.Nothing going to save them except a ceasefire.
    World may not know our way of thinking and reacting( prof Michael put some ideas).So they can talk about ” releasing” people.
    But I know how i reacted similar situations,I see the people from inside.
    So we , Tamils cant talk like that.We need a ceasefire

    DBS..Plz Don’t be as an out sider as usual to show your self neutral.

  26. The tamils of the north and east (and the diaspora) backed the wrong man and method to get to eealam! They thought this is the best way to hurt the sinhala (and the non-LTTE Tamils, e.g. kadirgamar) people and get eelam.
    Now, it is back-firing as the man they backed is using the methods he knows for his own survival. The diaspora tamils have to realise this and pressure the LTTE to release the civilians. The rest of Sri Lanka is tired of the LTTE and are willing (through sacrificing lives, limbs and money) to finish them off.
    May those civilians be released soon! Then ask the tigers to fight like cornered tigers not hide behind the sarees and and under the sarongs of the civilians

  27. Vanni people support the tigers wholeheartedly and DO NOT WANT to go & live under the govt camps despite losing family & lot more….why do you think they were kept moving with the tigers when army was advancing…they could have one to Vavuniya or other govt controlled areas if they wanted to then.

  28. Bala

    Firstly Vanni people has no right to support a terrorist organisation. So they have to come out if they want to live a life.

    Secondly, most of the families I know did not realize the consequences when they went behind the LTTE. Many more families were not allowed to leave to go to Vavuniya or even to Jaffna . There is a small population which cannot go anywhere other than behind the LTTE because they are hard core LTTE members who have earned the enemity of the Tamils all these days. So they have to hide behind the LTTE guns.

  29. Unlike previous wars (anti-tamil riots), this war is happenning in internet era. The whole world knows how Sinhalese Buddhists are behaving.
    I see many srilankans in the west saying they are ‘indians’.

  30. Roshann wicremesinge
    in comment 7.

    You must have been a soldier in the LTTE force.

    You can fool someone sometimes, but you can not fool everyone everytime.

    By the way below is how you write this sinhala name correctly,
    Roshan wickremasinghe

    he, he

  31. Well done DBS, there is so much we laymen do not know. It is important for all sri lankans to see all perspectives of the problem. It is only then that we will awake from this prolonged apathy

  32. Sri-lankan Government had every right to ask the Civlians to Move to the Safety Zone. But Let me explain about the Safety Zone, it is about 8 mile long and 2miles wide it is so close to the Ocean so there is not many Wells, U can not Dig for Septic and has very few Vegetation And There is not many Buildings.

    Asking 150,000 People to live there for more than a few days itself is Cruel Punishment. Ltte And Gosl Must do some thing Very Quickly. Every tamil and Singalese must Make sure that people don’t live on tents for long time.

    This Tme I would Like to Recall a Wedding I attened in a village called Amabalavan Pokanai back in the Early eighties, after the wedding my first question for my parents was when we will be leaving. The Place is Now Located in the Safety Zone.


  34. Sun Goat started killing the Tamils first, tying them to lamp posts in Jaffna. He is killing the Tamils again. He will continue to offer every single Tamil on the alter of his ruthless wish to enjoy power. That is all he wants. He was sick for a long time. He is now beyond cure. All that can help Tamils who have lost so much during the last several years is for the Sun Goat to swallow the cynide, if he actually has one. He is the biggest curst which has been brought on the Tamils, everywhere. The Tamil Diaspora does not exist. Those who agitate have been coerced to walk the streets and hand over money. And there are clever members of this so calle diaspora who have amassed fotunures, with houses in London, Paris, New York and Malaysia.

  35. The US, European countries and Australia must immediately begin an investigation into the fortunures amassed by some of the tamil diaspora members.Some have assets over $10 to 20 million, while not having had a job, or a profession. Some of their family members are living in luxury, jet set on holidays, have opulent weddings and given their daughers millions of dollars worth of assets as dowries. They must thank Prapakaran for life!

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