by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Nowadays there is a lot of media focus on the terms “Safe-Zone,” “fire-Free Zone,” and “No-Fire Zone” in the Northern mainland known as the Wanni.
All terms refer to a designated tract of territory where the warring parties namely the armed forces of the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are not supposed to fire from or fire at each other.
[Safety measure during gun fire]
The underlying reason being to afford the helpless civilians a safe haven away from the fighting where they could literally and metaphorically experience “breathing space”.
Thus the terms “no-fire” and “fire-free” zones. At present both refer to a single zone. It is also called a safe zone at times.
In practice, these terms have become virtual misnomers because there has been constant firing both from and at the zone.
The people within the zone have often been killed and injured. The zone is more unsafe than safe.
The Government charges the LTTE of entering the safe zone and mingling with the civilians. The tigers are accused of taking cover behind the civilians in a cowardly manner and firing upon the armed forces outside the zone.
The LTTE on the other hand says the security forces are bombing, shelling and firing at the people inside the safe zone. The pro-tiger media is replete with disturbing pictures and vivid details of the civilian victims.
In what would have been comical , but for the fact that people are getting victimised the Government denies responsibility for civilians getting killed or injured.
Official spokespersons say that if any one is getting killed or injured it must be terrorists because the security forces do not target civilians.
The defence spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara often maintains that he has no knowledge of the army engaging in any military operation in the area.
Yet the same government facilitates through the good offices of the ICRC an evacuation mission where injured civilians from the zone are taken to hospitals by ship.
If the Government consistently denies that civilians are getting killed or injured the LTTE enacts another drama claiming that the helpless civilians are staying in the zone willingly.
[People waiting to get sugar]
The tigers deny that they are keeping the bulk of the population against its will within the zone.
The LTTE also blacks out the fact that the main if not the sole reason for the people getting affected is due to attacks launched from within the zone thus inevitably drawing retaliatory fire.
Judging by all the attention focused on this zone one would think that the fire-free or no-fire or safe zone is a concept with a sound legal basis.
Truth is stranger than fiction!Actually, the so called safe zone has no legal basis. It is a piece of legal fiction.
The Armed forces have certainly announced “safe” zones. But they were all unilateral pronouncements.
If a “safe” zone was to be adhered to then both parties to the conflict must concur. In this case the LTTE was not even consulted. At no stage were agencies like the ICRC officially requested to engage the LTTE and bring about a joint decision.Instead it was a unilateral imposition without any legal framework.
Let’s look at recent history.
Even as the war escalated and civilians became displaced the clamour for a safe haven where they could be away from the fighting was mooted on a humanitarian basis.
The demand increased after fighting shifted to areas east of the A-9 highway. As territory controlled by the LTTE began shrinking , civilian vulnerability increased.
It was at this point that the army announced the first “safe” zone. This was supposedly the areas between Viswamadhu and Oddusuddan inclusive of both places.
Viswamadhu is on the Paranthan-Mullaitheevu road while Oddusuddan is on the Mankulam- Mullaitheevu road.
Despite the declaration , nothing tangible evolved and within a short period the army seized Oddusuddan. Thereafter it marched towards Viswamadhu and took that place also
The second act of the farce was when the army declared another safe zone along the Paranthan-Mullaitheevu road between Udayarkattu junction and the “Manjalpaalam” (Yellow bridge) and towards Iruttumadhu in the east.
This “zone” too was doomed from the start.
The reason was starkly simple.
[Puthumathalan hospital Female ward 16 April]
If a “safe” zone was to be an effective,practical reality the designated area should either be away from the theatre of conflict or one where both parties agree to demarcate as a “no-conflict” zone .
This did not happen.
Also the areas declared as “safe” were all in the line of advance by the army. Effectively, the LTTE was being asked to give up the right to defend some areas they were holding and make it “safe” for civilians.
Naturally, this did not happen. The fighting continued and within hours civilians who moved into the “safe” zone were caught in the crossfire.
Initially many believed that the Safe zone proposal was a sincere one. The Catholic Bishop of Jaffna , Thomas Soundaranayagam, welcomed the proposal and requested that the zone be extended to the coastal strip of Mullaitheevu district also.
As events unfolded it became clear that this safe zone would not work.
It was clear that a “safe” zone could work only if both parties concurred on a designated area away from the fighting and if a reputed third party like the ICRC was also involved to some degree.
Unilateral declarations by the security forces designating areas in the line of army advance could not succeed.
The safe zone assumed a bizarre twist when some areas in the Mullaitheevu littoral were declared as a “fire-free” or “no-fire” zone by the army.
Again these areas were within LTTE controlled territory. Basically it was a coastal strip extending between Ambalavanpokkanai in the north to Vattavaakallu in the South. The areas came under the Karaithuraipatru AGA division.
The curious thing about this was that the people had moved or been moved en masse into this area by the LTTE before it was declared as “safe” by the security forces.
This was due to clashing military logic.
The Army had planned out a move to take the coast and thereby “box” in the LTTE without access to the sea. For this the 55 division was to move south along the coast from Challai. The 59 division was to move north from Karaichikkudiyiruppu. Both were to link up half-way.
The LTTE resorted to a cruel and inhuman stratagem by moving the civilians into this coastal strip in large numbers. If the army tried to move along the coast , large numbers of civilians would be killed or injured. It was an inhumane “human deterrent” placed by the LTTE.
The security forces were compelled to abandon the original manoeuvre. Thereafter they concentrated on the A-35 and adjacent areas in the hinterland rather than the Karaithuraipatru littoral.
In a remarkable twist the Army declared the areas between Ambalavanpokkanai and Vattavaakallu as a fire free zone. This resulted in people moving towards the coast. Originally the LTTE had “moved” about 25,000 – 30,000 people. Now the numbers began swelling.
With the fall of Puthukkudiyiruppu and other areas in the Puthukkudiyiruppu AGA division the so-called” safe” zone began overflowing with civilians.
The Army made a virtue out of necessity by declaring the coastal strip a safe zone. Since the LTTE had blocked the plan to take the coast by moving civilians in large numbers the armed forces had to declare so.
By this the army deflected criticism on account of civilian casualties. Declaring a safe zone silenced the international community. At the same time the people in the hinterland had a safe place to move into. They were temporarily not in the line of advance by the army.
[Twin babies delivered on 16 April 2009 by dedicated Health team; delivered by cesarean section successfully with very minimum facilities-pic: RDHS/Kilinochchi at Puthumathalan]
Things have changed after the fall of Puthukkudiyiruppu.Only the coastal strip remains in LTTE hands now. The Army has to capture it if it wants to deny all territorial control to the LTTE.
The tables have been turned on the tigers. The LTTE thought itself smart when it moved the people into the littoral to block the army moving along the coast.
What has happened now is that the army has taken all other areas and the people are crammed into this coastal strip that has been unilaterally declared as a safe zone.
The tigers are making their last stand here. But they are being widely condemned for misusing and abusing the safe zone by mingling with civilians and fighting from there.
If the LTTE were to move away from the safe zone it will have no place to go. If it allows the civilians to leave in large numbers it would have no cover.
In a way the LTTE is entrapped with the civilians. To use an archaic expression the tigers are hoist with their own petard.
The last stand of the LTTE is within this densely populated littoral. The zone is transformed into the arena of conflict.
Thus the so called safe zone has changed into an unsafe zone.The fraudulent fire-free zone is becoming a free-fire zone. The non-existent no-fire zone is no more.
But then there never ever was a legally defined safe, fire-free, no-fire zone in the first place.
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