The Vanni: A People Crushed Between Cycles of Violence
Very little has been written about the Vanni, aside from recent reports
following the battles at Mullaitivu and Killinochchi. It is an area which is
considered militarily important by the security forces and the LTTE, where
both parties have imposed hardships on the population for their own
gains, resulting in unending misery for the civilian population. The groups
concerned include approxiamately 150,000 displaced civilians from Jaffna
and over 250,000 who are native to the Vanni. Freedom of movement is
restricted by both the Army and the LTTE, to the extent that corruption and
human rights violations are rampant.
The movement of those displaced from Jaffna has been closely controlled
by the LTTE in the past. The LTTE originally was the main party to apply
pressure on civilians to use the boat service to cross the Jaffna lagoon to
the Vanni, but there is also a constant fear of the Army. Often, especially
during the Killinochchi offensive, the security forces have not allowed
civilians to leave LTTE-controlled areas. Contrary to military statements,
it is not the LTTE that is restricting access in recent months to the Vanni as
much as the Army. Upon attempts to gain access to Vavuniya town,
civilians have been subjected to various levels of harassment, beatings and
arbitrary refusals by the security forces. Young people especially fall victim
to this treatment. The whole set-up reinforces the feeling to the Tamil
civilians that they are second class citizens in this country, and that their
dignity can be tampered with without any hinderance.
The bombing of areas with a large refugee population and the shelling
Killinochchi where the hospital was not spared, have convinced civilians
that these raids are often meant to terrorize the people rather than destroy
the LTTE. Often bombs have been dropped miles away from stated
targets, such as during Operation 'Sathjaya' when Killinochchi hospital
was extensively damaged. Even this incident occurred after a curfew was
declared and civilians were told to seek refuge in places of worship.
Furthermore, in Vavuniya town Tamil militant groups operating closely
with the Army, such as the PLOTE and the TELO, have been responsible
for harassment of humanitarian workers, and corruption are even and
suspected of murder. Two well-known torture centres in Vavuniya town
continue to be maintained by the PLOTE and the Counter-Subversive Unit
of the Police.
Conditions in refugee camps in Army controlled Vavuniya have been
likened to those of a prison or worse. Basic medicine is not available and
disease, undernutrition and mental depression are widespread in LTTE
controlled areas, where Government food rations are constantly delayed
and never enough, and upon arriving at centres they are placed under the
strict control of the LTTE, which is often concerned about maintaining
levels of stocks, however dire the civilian need. Food rations for the
displaced from Jaffna were stopped by the Government shortly after the
Army took control of the whole of Jaffna in April. A request from
Killinochchi for a desperately needed 40% increase in medical supplies was
flatly refused by the Government. Alarmingly, the Medical Committee of
the Ministry of Defence cut medical supplies to the Vanni by 75%, to which
health officials made no protest. This decision was made just as a large
number of wounded civilians needed immediate treatment after the
fighting in Killinochchi. Included in this cut were necessities such as
treatment for snake bites and chemicals needed for purifying water. As a
result, the rural Vanni is rife with hepatitis, typhoid, malaria, meningitis
and dysentery, and infant mortality is reported to be on the increase.
Clearly, the Government is unable or unwilling to cope with the influx of
those displaced by the fighting.
In attempts to escape the horror of living in the Vanni outback, some
civilians continue attempts to travel to India. Contrary to official military
statements, the LTTE has not needed to pressure civilians very much to
make the trip. Large groups of Tamils have been arrested and detained,
following attempts to travel by boat to India. Usually about a half of the
varying fee charged to go to India is taken by the LTTE, many people
having to sell all their worldly possessions to afford the journey. Similar to
the system of corruption at military check-points in the Vanni, the LTTE
gives travel privileges to those with means, influence and money.
Aside from violations in Jaffna and military control in the Vanni, the
people are trying to escape the LTTE's recruitment of their children. There
are recruitment centres in nearly every village of the Vanni. Methods often
involve psychological coercion and harassment of school children, threats
with abuse, abduction and a regular ominous presence over refugee
camps. Many of the dead cadre from the recent onslaught at Killinochchi
were reported to have been between the ages of 13 and 16. There is at
present no pomp and ceremony by the LTTE for the dead youth; they are
considered by leaders to be mere fodder for the killing machine. The Vanni
is one of the most predominant regions where these young cadre have
come from. It is precisely when this displacement and disruption occurs,
that young children become the most vulnerable to the LTTE's campaigns.
The LTTE must be held accountable for this suicidal path which many
Tamil youths have been driven down, but the political inertia of the
Government and the terror unleashed by the security forces must also be
clearly seen as a major factor in this tragedy. In the Vanni, the LTTE
remains to exercise a large amount of control and influence, despite the
fundamental weakness and unpopularity of its association. Thus, its
strength relies heavily on the violence and misery brought to the Vanni by
the security forces. Sadly, impunity continues to dominate the politics of
this country, with army personnel who are charged with serious violations
being released or even promoted. The only hope for the people of the
Vanni lies in a political solution which respects human rights, guarantees
the physical well-being and dignity of the Vanni people, and works
towards a future where the displacement of communities ends.
Vanni: A People Crushed Between Cycles of Violence
Over the last decade the Vanni has been largely a theatre of war about
which little has been written. It had a brief notice in international
headlines when the Sri Lankan Army massacred more than 100 civilians in
Murungan towards the close of 1984. The Vanni comprises the districts of
Killinochchi (to the north), Mullaitivu (east), Mannar (west) and Vavuniya
(south). In the southeast of the Vanni area is situated the controversial
Weli Oya settlement(UTHR(J)Special Report No.5) from where the army
used inhuman methods to displace Tamil civilians and establish a
settlement of Sinhalese who regard themselves no better off than
prisoners(UTHR(J)Information Bulletin No.4). Although regarded as a
strategic area Weli Oya has been a curse to the Sinhalese and Tamil
civilians involved, and a school of indiscipline for the Sri Lankan Army.
Two other events in the Vanni stand out as giving an indication of the
ongoing political mismanagement of the problem by the State. On 23rd
November 1990, the LTTE attacked the Mankulam army camp which was
defended by 250 men. A large number of women cadre took part in the
attack. One Black Tiger, Borg (31) of Semamadu, drove an explosive-
laden lorry into the camp perimeter. The camp fell. But most of the
soldiers, including the commander, Major Daylagala, escaped to
Vavuniya. On the 18th of July 1996 the Mullaitivu army camp, defended by
some 1250 men, was attacked by the LTTE. About 60 Black Tigers with
explosives strapped to their persons were used to breach the forward
defences. Very few soldiers survived. Similar tactics were used by the
LTTE to break the Army's resumed advance on Kilinochchi in late
September, but these failed despite the loss of nearly 100 soldiers. From
July to September, the estimated LTTE losses were above 1000 dead. Until
July most of the Vanni was under LTTE control with the government
having hardly any hold on the interior territory, which straddles a 50 mile
stretch of the northern trunk road between Thandikulam, just north of
Vavuniya, and Elephant Pass on the southern edge of Jaffna peninsula.
Government forces are now in control of Kilinochchi town and operations
are proceeding amidst many uncertainties for civilians and combatants
Our main interest in the Vanni in this report deals with the suffering
civilians who faced intense hardships commencing from the time of the
Jaffna exodus late last year. A large number of the native population of the
Vanni have themselves become displaced during the course of hostilities.
These populations are now scattered mainly within the area south of
Kilinochchi, west of the Mullaitivu coast and around Mankulam, the
UNHCR-run refugee camp at the pilgrimage site around the shrine of Our
Lady of Madu, and other parts of Mannar district. The numbers involved
are the displaced population from Jaffna and elsewhere of about 150,000
and a native population of over 250,000 [the official figures emanating
from the area are subject to dispute, depending on the vested interests
involved]. The humanitarian crisis immediately following the
displacement of the population from Jaffna in November 1995 received
publicity when the UN Secretary General voiced his concern. It also
spurred the government to take some ameliorative measures and Vanni
was once more forgotten until July this year, when the overrunning of the
Mullaitivu army camp by the LTTE and subsequently the army's
temporarily aborted thrust into Killinochchi brought it back into the news.
It has generally been recognised that the Vanni area has played a militarily
fundamental role in the ongoing civil war. The area had been regarded
unhealthy and unsuitable for human habitation for much of the colonial
period. But its agricultural prosperity was revived after the early part of
this century with the restoration of tanks, particularly Giant's Tank in the
Mannar District and the construction of Iranaimadu Tank near
Killinochchi. The population also expanded as the result of a migration of
peasants from the Jaffna peninsula and more recently of Hill Country
Tamils displaced by starvation in the plantations during the food crisis of
the mid 70s. The area has however continued to be educationally deprived.
The region was mobilised into Tamil nationalist politics in the 1950s, not as
a result of the discrimination in education and employment that concerned
mainly the educated urban Tamils, but largely because of fear of the
government's colonisation programmes. With the onset of the militancy
from the mid-70s, many of the early militant leaders recognised the Vanni
as a place where they could readily find shelter and cultivate bases. During
the mid-80s, all the militant groups were represented in the Vanni, with
the PLOTE having a large following around Vavuniya. However, the
nationalism of the native population was not of the ideological sort
articulated by their more educated counterparts. There was in fact hardly
any antipathy towards the Sinhalese at a personal level. Sinhalese Roman
Catholics who were regular visitors to the shrine at Madu found easy
social inter-relations with the Tamil population of the region. Today many
of them still have ties of friendship and also family ties with the Sinhalese-
speaking Roman Catholics between Negombo and Puttalam. Following
the onset of the militancy and atrocities by all sides, the Sinhalese
population in the Mannar District is now totally displaced.
The LTTE's erstwhile Deputy Leader Mahattaya(recently reported to
have been executed by his own group over charges of treachery) who was
in charge of the Vanni during the mid-80s, laid the foundation for the
LTTE's build-up in the region. He clearly recognised that unlike the urban
youth who would be constantly beguiled by alternatives such as
emigration, the population in Vanni, once in a situation with their backs to
the wall, would fight to the bitter end. Provoking the Army into reprisals
against the population became a natural counterpart of such thinking that
also actively prevented the people from taking any political initiative. In
the present situation we actually do find much of the population feeling
cornered with their backs to the wall.
>From the onset of the war in 1990 the only contact civilians had with
Government was through aerial bombing by the Air Force. Even
Killinochchi hospital's maternity ward was bombed in November 1993.
During and before the current military operation 'Sathjaya' (the meaning
of which is a mystery to most Tamils) Killinochchi hospital suffered
extensive damage. These resulted from shells fired in anger taking no
account of the presence of the hospital. Displaced civilians already living
in small temporary cadjan sheds had to flee once more and live in open
spaces around Mankulam and Akkarayan Kulam.
One must also take into account the calculated manipulation of the LTTE.
It has become quite evident that the LTTE wanted a build-up of a civilian
population in the Vanni to serve three main purposes: to preserve political
credibility as the supposed protector of Tamils, to oil the wheels of its war
machine and secure resources from international agencies and the State,
and to maintain a pool of young persons from among whom it can recruit.
This last reason was implied in Thamilchelvan's statement at Jaffna
hospital during November last year, that they (the LTTE) would not relax
their grip on the young generation.
Initial Attitudes Towards the Exodus
Soon after evacuating people from Valikamam in the Jaffna peninsula
beginning on 30th October 1995, the LTTE applied enormous pressure on
them to use its boat service and cross the Jaffna lagoon into the Vanni.
Rash promises were made about providing them with amenities to start a
new life. Many of those who left did so because of the fear of government
forces particularly when the family had some close relative in the LTTE.
But very soon reports started reaching the Jaffna peninsula about the
enormous suffering in the Vanni and the utter inadequacy of amenities.
There were only a few good houses which were mostly taken over and
given to persons with preferential connections. Most of the others had to
make do in temporary shelters. Disease was widespread. As difficult as
things were for the refugees in the Jaffna peninsula, further inducements
to move to the Vanni had little effect.
Around Chavakacheri where the condition of the refugees was among the
worst, the LTTE sent cadre to call meetings and persuade people to go.
During January some cadre addressed one such meeting. Failing in his first
appeal, the speaker singled out a girl and asked her "Why don't you come
to the Vanni?" The girl remained silent. Towards the end the LTTE speaker
was close to breaking down through exasperation. He said finally, "Please,
will not even a few of you agree to go?"
As the rainy season came to an end the crisis in the Vanni became worse.
People who had settled in certain areas found their temporary wells drying
up. For example people who had been settled in a part of Oddisuddan
found that they had to travel one mile to wash and bathe. Around
Killinochchi the displaced had to depend on water released through
irrigation canals from Iranaimadu Tank. As a result, scabies became quite
common among these people. Snake bites and mosquitos were additional
hazards. Basic materials for shelter too were very costly. One hundred
cadjans sold at about Rs.2500, and a bicycle tyre cost about Rs.2500. Basic
medicines when not available at the hospital, were almost unobtainable.
As usual the LTTE took charge of stocks of government rations and relief
sent for the refugees. Whatever the plight of the civilians it was usually
when the new stock arrived that the old stock was released for sale or
distribution to the public.
In addition to this, when the LTTE organised meetings and called for
recruits the displaced were driven beyond the limits of endurance. When
the LTTE came to address meetings people told them angrily, "Back in
Jaffna you used to tell us that you had enough people but you only wanted
money. We gave you at the rate of Rs.25,000 and Rs.50,000. You then
chased us out of Jaffna and have now come to take our children. Get out
and don't come back!" In March the LTTE opened the schools and in the
higher classes such as O/Level, the students were constantly addressed at
meetings. They were told "You must join us now to save Vanni. If not the
army will come and finish you off." The response was often to the effect,
"Let the army come, we will die once and for all".
Some had come from Jaffna transporting their shops wholesale in hired
boats, and spent a good deal of money buying cement at Rs.5000 per bag to
put up new shops in Killinochchi. Following the recent army operation
which at first stopped short of Killinochchi, these persons too lost their
goods and joined the others as vagrants. For much of the time the feeling
remained among the displaced in the Vanni that the LTTE had cheated
them. With July came a fresh bout of bombing and shelling by government
forces and stories of rape and disappearance in army-controlled Jaffna,
leading to a feeling that the government did not mean well by them and
further that little good could possibly come from it. Their attitude towards
the LTTE also tended to become more ambivalent as a result.
Control of the Civilian Population
Given the state of dissatisfaction among the displaced population, the
LTTE also managed applications for permits to leave the area with
incredible shrewdness. Soon after the exodus of November 1995, many of
those better off and influential were allowed to leave for Vavuniya and
Colombo. By about mid-December a clamp-down was imposed and those
going generally had to leave a member of the family behind to guarantee
their return. In April when the army brought the rest of Jaffna peninsula
under its control and reports of hope and relief started coming from
Jaffna, the LTTE once more relaxed the pass system allowing people to
leave. There was a further relaxation when large numbers of civilians
were once again displaced following the army's Killinochchi operation in
July. This time however the main obstruction to the people leaving came
from the government side. The pass system has thus been carefully
managed to permit the exit of those with the means to go to Colombo and
even go abroad -i.e those who would have been vocally dissatisfied if
forced to remain. The remaining population, the bulk of it, are being
carefully cultivated with the LTTE's long term aims in view. Certainly
though, those who leave and go abroad are not without their uses.
Among the group who were displaced from the Jaffna peninsula, almost
all aspects of their life are under the patronage of the LTTE. Their
organisation also reflects the breakdown of trust within the LTTE that
came to light prominently with the arrest of Mahattaya in 1993 followed
by his reported execution and also the investigation of a number of senior
LTTE leaders in 1994 over charges of embezzlement. The administration of
the Vanni is such that there are overlapping responsibilities among the
different arms of the organisation and even a sense of purposeful rivalry.
Reportedly about 14,000 families are from the displaced population of
Jaffna fisherfolk, under the care of the Sea Tigers and have been settled in
coastal areas. For example, Poonampitty on the west coast has a displaced
fisher population mainly from Passaiyur and Madagal. All relief is
channelled though the Sea Workers' Welfare Society where the office
bearers, though formally elected, are virtually LTTE nominees. Welfare
societies for the interior populations are under the Tamil Eelam
Administrative Service (TEAS). There are then organisations like the
North-East Development Organization (NEDO), Mannar District
Rehabilitation Organisation (MDRO), Livestock Producers Association,
Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) and the Rural Development
Societies(RDS) that were once formed by the government but are now
virtually controlled by the LTTE.
The settlement of displaced persons was often haphazard. For example
when the LTTE wanted to reopen schools in March it just shifted the
refugees out, and a community of toddy tappers from Jaffna was suddenly
dumped at Kompansanjan two miles from both Murungan and
Kattayadampan. This was an area with no water from where people have
to go three miles to fetch water. Cadjan huts were built with material
provided by the LTTE. Some of these communities who were already
refugees in Jaffna found themselves suddenly moved out to places where
there were numerous snakes and elephants, with little means of making a
living. Characteristically, the people are almost never consulted. Under
these conditions the international NGOs tended to be very unhappy about
going along with the LTTE.
Many of the natives in Mannar and Mullaitivu districts are today part
the displaced population. Following 1990, nearly all those within about 7
miles of Mullaitivu town had been displaced. The populations closest to
Mullaitivu town were at Iranapalai, Chemmalai and Mullivaikaal. In
Mannar District populations from Arippu and Silavathurai are displaced
as these places are subject to shelling from the sea. Thus even here a
sizable native population has moved to the interior, to Madu and other
areas, some of which like Moonampitty are notably malarial. In the west
there is a military fence to protect Thirukethiswaram army camp. There
are still about 80 families living in the old native village of Mudatti.
The LTTE's organisational efforts had to do with little direct help from
international agencies. It has established an administrative centre at
Periyamadu, a Muslim village whose residents had been expelled, seven
miles from Madu. (A sizable Muslim population in the area was forced
out on orders of the LTTE in October 1990). There it had also established a
central dispensary using doctors in its employ. As for economic viability,
the fishing population has fared much better. Fuel and materials had been
provided to them and the marketing of produce is handled by the LTTE
itself. These coastal people show far fewer symptoms of nutritional
deficiency syndrome and their mental health is much more sound in
comparison with the displaced population in interior areas. In a life that is
in the interior absolutely without an independent means of subsistence,
mental depression and malnutrition are very common. Many of them
suffer from psychosomatic headaches which are not relieved by any
normally available treatment.
Coordination between the LTTE and its various institutions is often
lacking.Places in the Vanni had been regularly bombed or attacked with
rockets by the Sri Lankan Air Force. For example, the Leopards' camp was
bombed and missed. Civilians suffer while living in conditions where
almost every place is an LTTE target. One example is the Air Force attack
on the fishing village of Nachchikuda on the northwest coast last March,
when about 16 civilians were killed. The Government, on the other hand,
claimed that 30 Tigers were killed. During the month of May the
Silavathurai church, which was being decorated for a festival, was
bombed killing two civilians.
The social geography of the Vanni areas would be far from complete
without describing the aspect of recruitment. Koorai, is a village with a
population of Indian origin near which there is also an LTTE unit known
as the Young Leopards. Nearly every village has a recruitment centre.
Several of those manning these centres are tragic victims of the war who
had lost limbs in the course of fighting. There is now no possibility of a life
for them outside the Movement. They make passionate speeches to the
young of the village waving their truncated limbs challenging the others to
sacrifice themselves as they had. They evoke a mixture of pity, horror and
shame in others. "If you do not want to go and fight the Sri Lankan forces,
give me your arm or your leg. I am itching to go back and fight", they
would say. Contrasting with these desperate speeches of 'heroism', there
are mass graves for "Heroes" (Mahaveerar Mayanam) in several places,
including Pandivirichan and Alkaattiveli. According to reports originating
in the latter area, the remains of about 12 very young recruits who had
joined only a month earlier were brought for internment during June.
Both the politics and the military strategy of the LTTE has a tendency
towards recklessness with cadre resulting in a voracious appetite for
recruits. There have been continuing reports of recruitment where a large
degree of coercion is used. The following incident took place at the Madu
refugee camp on 1st July, 17 days before the assault on Mullaitivu camp.
Some LTTE women cadre abducted a young girl who was a refugee from
Point Pedro. The girl had several sisters and the family was very angry
about it. Some time later the sisters spotted one of the abductresses
walking through the camp. They pounced on her removed her weapon and
pinned her to the ground. They scolded her, "You Vanni people should
know how to behave with us folk who are from Vadamaratchi." Then the
LTTE police arrived and negotiated the release of the abductress. This
spontaneous resistance touched a raw nerve in the Movement that was
sensitive to the slightest hint of dissent. Subsequently armed LTTE cadre
surrounded that part of the refugee camp and threatened the refugees
telling them that if there is a repeat of this kind of thing, they would not
hesitate to shoot. The abducted young girl was never restored to the
The rank and file of the LTTE who are mostly young recruits who join
organisation in their teens are trapped inside. Those from the Vanni are
largely in this category. It has been a fairly common complaint among
parents that a particular vested interest that recruiters have in getting
these young boys and girls into the organisation, is to spare themselves the
obligation of having to do the fighting or committing suicide with
explosives strapped around them. Local observers deny any suggestion
that several parents were happy to see their children joining the
organisation because they had difficulty in feeding and maintaining them.
Recruitment had generally been falling, but during times of displacement
and disruption the young are more prone to join through sheer frustration.
Once they had joined, parents hardly get to see them or influence them.
The organisation is putting in measures to discourage people from
leaving. To this end a new regulation was introduced lately. In earlier
times a number of those leaving the fighting units found employment in
administrative positions in organisations controlled by the LTTE. The new
regulation prevents those leaving the fighting units, from being employed
in these administrative positions.
The Mullaitivu Attack and the Advance Towards Killinochchi
The LTTE assault on the army camp at Mullaitivu was launched during
the night of 18th July. The people had no hint that the assault had been
planned. The civilians were led to believe that there was going to be an
assault on the Elephant Pass camp. It is believed that only a few in the
LTTE hierarchy knew the real purpose. According to local sources, the
apparent arrangements were suddenly reversed and those taken towards
the Elephant Pass area were in a matter of hours redeployed by night in
Mullaitivu. It is learnt that the camp defences were breached by sending in
Black Tigers with explosives strapped to their bodies who blew themselves
up upon reaching the defences. The army had little opportunity to use their
cannon. The camp was subdued within two days with heavy loss of life on
both sides. Civilians in this area were affected mainly by shelling from the
army camps in Manal Aru (Weli Oya).
Tens of thousands of people fled from Mullivaikaal, Thanneer Oottu and
Vattapalai because of the shelling. One man, S.Pulendran, was killed in
Thanneer Oottu on 21st July and an injured lady, V.Marinayaki (26) died at
Killinochchi hospital. The Air Force continued with the bombardment of
several parts of Vanni. On 22nd July, bombs were dropped around
Iranaimadu. According to a local report which we have been unable to
verify from other sources, four persons travelling in a bullock cart were
killed at Iranaimadu junction. On 24th July Mallaavi junction was bombed
killing 6 civilians including a two year old child, Sivalingam Sindujah. The
others killed were mainly elderly persons including a father, Kadiravel,
and his son who were refugees from Jaffna. An elderly woman killed,
Sellamah, was from Mallavi itself. These bombing raids continued. As far
as all civilians questioned are aware only one bomb dropped from a Kfir
bomber struck an LTTE target. This was an LTTE garage in Mankulam.
One LTTE cadre and two civilians were killed. One woman was killed
when a bomb fell near an LTTE farm in Vattakatchi. The policy behind
these bombings as described by a military spokesman and reported in the
Colombo press was of this sort: "---meanwhile air attacks were aimed at
LTTE camps in Mankulam, Killinochchi and the Murugandy jungles"
(Island, 4th August 1996).
A particular scene after the Mullaitivu attack was reported by people
the Mullaitivu and Killinochchi areas. Bodies of a large number of Sri
Lankan soldiers and their weapons were displayed on the ground. The
people were summoned and an LTTE spokesman delivered a fiery
harangue: "No one should underestimate us. If we knock off another two
or three Army camps like the one at Mullaitivu, we would have all the
weapons we need. Then no one can stand in the way of our getting
Eelam". A number of young people picked up some of the weapons. The
speaker then ordered them to put the weapons back. He said, "You first
give your names. We will train you. Then the weapons would be yours".
The high estimation of the LTTE's strength however wore itself down as
the days advanced.
The Army appears to have been unnerved by news of the attack on
Mullaitivu and its effect was to make them forget the image of a caring
and disciplined army that they had been trying to build. The very next day
Killinochchi was shelled from Elephant Pass killing one person in the
hospital premises and four others nearby. Three of those were at a
jewellery shop. One was a father who had that morning brought home his
wife who had delivered a child at the hospital and had then gone to the
shop. On 26th July the Government launched its operation towards
Killinochchi. Although a curfew was declared at 1 pm and civilians,
according to the Government, were asked to assemble in places of
worship, the shelling was far and wide. No effort was even made to spare
Killinochchi hospital from the shelling. The District Medical Officer's
report gives 12 items under damages caused by shelling. These include the
OPD, Wards 1,2 & 3, X-Ray unit, theatre, labour room and the residence of
the MSF staff. Ward 4 is reported to have been damaged by aerial
So intense was the shelling that by the time the government announced
curfew at 1 pm on 26th July, the people were already on their own vacating
the town. The hospital was subsequently shifted with whatever could be
rescued to Mallavi and Akkarayankulam. A witness describing the shelling
said that it was like a giant AK-47 automatic firing the whole day. Shells
fell even at Murugandy, 5 miles south of Killinochchi and in
Akkarayankulam to the west. A few corpses of animals were seen far south
of Killinochchi. To the civilians all these had no purpose except to kill or
terrorise them. The hospital continued to function in the same premises on
the 27th, strongly suggesting that there was no marked LTTE presence in
the area. According to civilian sources, the total civilian death was placed
at around 20 to 25.
Lack of Medicine and Relief
With the civilian population displaced and the Killinochchi hospital
it was clear that the civilians were in a very bad way. The food distribution
system had broken down. About 40% of the medicines were lost and
facilities like an operating theatre had to be improvised at Mallaavi in
very inadequate premises. Even before the military events of July, the
health situation in the Vanni was very bad. Following the exodus of
civilians from Valikamam, which almost doubled the population around
killinochchi, the medical authorities at Killinochchi had requested the
government for a 40% increase in the supplies. This was not granted.
Patients continue to die from illnesses like brain fever because the testing
facilities were inadequate or the drugs had become ineffective. LTTE
injured were treated at Killinochchi hospital and they were certainly
privileged patients. But there have been no verifiable complaints that the
LTTE was taking over medicines meant for civilians.
In the case of food, as we have mentioned earlier, all stocks are controlled
by the LTTE. Even as the LTTE was launching an international campaign
accusing the Government of deliberately starving the civilian population,
the stores remained substantially full. It was only around the 26th of
August, nearly a week after government relief had started coming into the
Vanni from the South, that the LTTE released the existing stocks that were
made available to civilians. It might also be mentioned that the
Government had unilaterally stopped free food rations for the displaced
from Jaffna into the Vanni just after it brought the entire Jaffna peninsula
under its control in April.
The normal procedure for supplying medicine is for the Deputy Provincial
Director for Health Services in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu, to send his
requirements to the Ministry of Health which releases supplies every
quarter. Once the Ministry of Health's approval is obtained, it needs to be
authorised by the Ministry of Defence before the goods are released. The
requirements for the first and second quarter of the year had come through
without much difficulty.
The Medical Committee of the Ministry of Defence took its decision on
3rd quarter's requirements on 3rd September. It approved the requirement
subject to a cut of 3/4 of the normal requirement. Among the items totally
rejected were Tropical Chloride of Lime (TCL) and Anti-Snake Bite Serum
and injections of Pethidine, a tranquiliser. TCL is a necessity in the Vanni to
purify water in temporary wells. Snake bites are more common because
the people have been displaced. It should also be mentioned that the entire
list of requirements submitted by the medical authorities in Killinochchi to
facilitate the work of the Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), was turned
down by the Ministry of Defence. The MSF performs some very urgent
medical functions including surgery and there were scores of persons with
shell injuries from army shelling. The move is again seen by the people as
something vindictively aimed at them. The LTTE has little difficulty in
getting its medical requirements by other means. This seems to be a game
where the Ministry of Health looks good by approving what is asked for
but makes hardly any effort to protest, or even critically examine, the
actions of the Ministry of Defence.
A report from S. Thillainadarajah, government agent in Killinochchi,
dated 25th September, stated the following:
"No improvement in the control
of contagious/infectious diseases
spreading widely due to absence of pure drinking water. Typhoid,
Diarrhoea, Dysentery, Virus fever, infective hepatitis, urinary
infection, malaria both positive and cerebral, malnutrition, anaemia
are marauding the already vulnerable population. Infant mortality
"It is feared that the oncoming
monsoonal rains will make things
worse and mass epidemics would be realistic."
The Sunday Island of 6th October 1996 quoted Guillermo Bertoletti,
Country Director for MSF, on the situation in the Vanni. Referring to the
Ministry of Defence decision taken more than a month earlier (3rd
September), he said that basic medical supplies for routine surgery, snake
bites, and anti-rabies vaccine, were available only for between 7 and 14
days. He said that at the peripheral unit in Mallavi, "There are no strong
analgesics, no oxygen and no blood grouping". Madhu, which he said had
not received medical supplies since August, had "no quinine, no saline or
Dextrel, very few anti-biotics and low supplies of snake-bite anti-venom".
He added, "Even basic items such as folic acid and vitamins for pregnant
mothers have not been allowed through by the defence authorities".
Stating that there are ongoing talks with authorities and that "appeals
have been made to all necessary sectors", Bertoletti said,"There is
hepatitis, typhoid, meningitis, malaria and dysentery, but there are still no
epidemics...There is also no malnutrition by international standards but
this is being monitored carefully...Our teams are frustrated up there. They
are present in the area to heal, but are not able to do it without supplies".
In a later Reuters report, (Sunday Island 13th October), Western aid
workers were quoted as saying there was undernutrition but not
starvation among refugees.
The Deputy Defence Minister said in a Sunday Times interview (6th
October): "We made arrangements to receive 125,000 [refugees in
Vavuniya]. We took over schools and provided all facilities. We were
surprised that people did not turn up. We heard that some of the people
coming were stuck at Omanthai without any facilities. We waited for
awhile and sent medical supplies".
>From this it would appear that the Government's defence of its decision
the 3rd September was to the efect that the people ought to come to army
controlled Vavuniya as refugees to receive medical treatment. This process
of decision-making is muddled, impractical and indefensible, since, for a
start, the maximum number expected in Vavuniya as refugees was less
than half the minimum estimated population in the Vanni.
Through the Eyes of the People
Combatants expressed little concern for civilians, and their statements
were intended either to cover up or to score some points at their expense.
Once the Mullaitivu operation got under way the passage to the South
through Thandikulam remained effectively closed. Where the LTTE is
concerned they seem to have been issuing passes quite freely to those who
wanted to go South. The decision not to allow people to come into
Vavuniya seems to have been taken by the security forces. Patients injured
by army shelling whom the Red Cross attempted to take to Vavuniya, were
stopped by the army. Several such patients were later taken to Vavuniya
by the ICRC and the MSF through the Madu road. Military spokesmen,
however, claimed that they "believed that the LTTE had closed the border
crossing", adding that 120 trucks loaded with food were waiting to move
to the North. This response was after the LTTE had claimed from London
that the Thandikulam barrier had been closed by the army and all
shipments of food had been stopped for two weeks.
There was also another side to this. In a security measure adopted by
government to prevent smuggling by the LTTE, lorries bringing food from
Colombo had to enter a security zone in Vavuniya from where the supplies
had to be taken out and reloaded into lorries coming from the North. The
LTTE had used or requisitioned a large number of lorries used to transport
food in connection with their activities following the Mullaitivu operation.
This was a matter in which lorry operators had no choice. When concern
came to be voiced about food supplies to the civilans, the Government
itself (as suggested in press reports-e.g. Week End Express 3rd August)
asked for lorries to be sent from the North to collect food supplies. 40
lorries duly arrived in Vavuniya on 4th August. Then the unprecedented
happeded. The drivers and cleaners were badly assaulted even bitten by
drunken soldiers and about 14 of them were hospitalised in Vavuniya.
Even worse, no disciplinary action was taken against the assailants. It was
suggested by local sources that some of the lorries retained smells from
having transported dead and injured combatants and the innocent drivers
became the victims. As an outcome food supplies to the civilians in the
combat zone were stalled for a further nine days.
It had been agreed between the Government and local officials that it
would take about 50 lorries per day to cater to the needs of the civilian
population. Some civilian sources considered this inadequate since the
number referred only to lorries supplying cooperative establishments and
excluded private supplies which were previously conveyed. The army
permitted civilians to move into Vavuniya only from 13th August. That
was also the time that food shipments started in an irregular fashion. The
number of lorries permitted varied from only 12 per day to a maximum of
50 per day.
As we shall explain below civilians, particularly the young, faced
enormous difficulties in clearing the army check point and coming into
Vavuniya. Then even in Vavuniya they had the prospect of spending a
number of days in what witnesses have described as sub-prison conditions.
Under these conditions a number of civilians decided to cross over to South
India. By about the middle of August 118 persons had reached India, rising
to 2,000 by mid-September. These persons needed no prompting from the
LTTE. The Government, however, was quick to accuse the LTTE of forcing
civilians to go to India, thus involving the Indian government as a
concerned party (The Island, 16th August). This claim was reiterated by
the Deputy Defence Minister.
Soon after refugee arrivals in India received press publicity,
Mr.Karunanithy, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, called upon the Indian
Central Government to condemn military operations in Sri Lanka.
Although the Army was stalled short of reaching Killinochchi, heavy
shelling continued that was duly publicised by the LTTE. A Government
statement was revealing: "On 14th August one soldier was killed by a
sniper in the outskirts of Killinochchi. Troops engaged enemy targets with
heavy artillery and mortar fire killing a number of terrorists" (Island, 16th
The LTTE statements, although containing falsehood, exaggerations and
distortions, at least had the merit of giving meticulously accurate details
abut the effects of bombing and shelling on civilians. The Government, on
the other hand, did not appear to care about what was happening to
civilians. Whether in military matters or matters pertaining to the
civilians, its statements carried very little credibility. Rather, it seemed
the Government was merely reacting to LTTE propaganda and concerns
voiced by humanitarian organisations.
In these circumstances, civilians saw no hope from either side. Despite
LTTE propaganda, civilians knew that there was food at least for
immediate use in stores under the LTTE's supervision. Yet they received
their food relief only a month after their displacement when Government
supplies had started coming in. LTTE propaganda aside, civilians in the
area remarked, "Even if the people are starving or dying the LTTE will
make sure that the stores are kept full". At the same time, civilians felt
angry at the manner in which the LTTE had recruited their children. The
speeches they regularly heard being made by the LTTE or read in the
papers left them with no illusions. They had been told again and again,
"More civilians must die. Not enough of you have died. In other countries
people gain liberation only after a massive death of civilians".
Vavuniya: Categories of Citizenship and Unnecessary Excesses of Security
We have remarked earlier that following the Mullaitivu operation, the
LTTE had been rather free with passes for the displaced. Their system of
checks had also been disrupted. Very often people were able to get passes
merely by surrendering their precious family card and making a signed
statement giving details of their property - it being understood that if they
did not return within their given time the LTTE would assume control of
the property. Having obtained their pass they proceed to Omanthai where
a lodge built with relief funds is run by the LTTE and each person pays
Rs.30 per night. From there they proceed in the early morning towards
Thandikulam, paying Rs.20 for a bus ride. The LTTE checks their passes at
three points. From the last point they have two options- either to walk for
4 miles or pay Rs.50 for a 3-mile lorry ride bringing them to
Panichchaneeraavi Kulam. A further mile's walk and a descent into an
open field leaves them facing an army sentry point one hundred yards
At the sentry point, they must get into three lines. One line is for
going to Vavuniya in connection with their day to day business - mainly
small traders. The second line is for passengers going through to Colombo
or elsewhere in the South. The third queue is for persons coming in as
refugees. These persons are only allowed to go into supervised refugee
camps in and around Vavuniya. Particularly the young, wanting to go
South, have to first get a parent or a guardian to get into Vavuniya and
make an application on their behalf. They are then summoned to the check
point on the basis of a list. At the time of writing, only about 20 to 30 such
young persons or fewer were allowed in daily. We will not dwell
extensively on this particular aspect as there have been a number of
complaints, press publicity and the matter is being taken up with the
Government by Tamil representatives. A large number of people had
opted for the refugee line even when their intention was to go to Colombo,
so as to gain easy entry into Vavuniya. These persons were taken to the
camp situated at Nelum Kulam Kalaimagal Vidyalayam.
Those coming as refugees faced no restrictions over entry. But many
them were later picked up from the refugee camps and taken for screening.
At one time 1,500 persons were staying in this camp which was a school,
having two halls each with an area of 2500 square feet. Each hall became
the temporary residence of 300 persons. Many others were accommodated
in tents. Initially there were only four toilets (ten more were later being
built). People were not allowed to go out initially, but later a three hour
pass was issued. Owing to the high concentration of flies one person had
to eat while someone else fanned. The fear of an insect called
Chakkarapandy getting into the ear holes and burrowing its way inside
the head kept people awake during the night. Subsequent to
representations being made, the number in the camp was brought down to
800 by clearing government servants, persons with jobs in the Middle East
urgently wanting to get to Colombo, and others with influence.
There was then only a marginal improvement in the conditions at the
camp. It had one tube well which was used exclusively for drinking water.
For other uses, a water bowser brought two loads a day. Out of all those
who entered Vavuniya as refugees only nine families wished to proceed to
the permanent refugee camp at Asikkulam, that had 4000 inmates. The rest
wanted to be allowed to find their own way. Both the conditions and the
restrictions offered so little hope that 25 families opted to go back to the
LTTE controlled North and did so.
About 3000 persons who wanted to come into Vavuniya continued to
languish at Omanthai, coming daily to Thandikulam and going back if they
were not allowed inside. The cost of travel, food and accommodation
came to about Rs.200 daily. For the young it was a matter of coming to
Thandikulam daily to check if their name was on the list of persons being
allowed in. Even for those who were successful in getting into the check-
point it was often the beginning of more headaches, trauma and often
humiliation. The intelligence officers at the check-point possessed power
with no appeal against its use.
For young people, things are even more uncertain. They are questioned
the point of entry by officers of Military Intelligence, and the Counter
Subversive Unit and National Investigation Bureau of the Police. All of
them maintain separate files. Quite often those being questioned are
beaten and young girls are spoken to in abusive language. About 200 or
more youth are kept overnight at the entry point screening centre. This
process could take up to three days. Those cleared at the interrogation
centre to proceed to Colombo are then sent to the camp at Veppankulam
meant for south bound travellers. Once they contact friends or relatives in
the South by telephone or by fax and get confirmation that someone will
take responsibility for them they are transferred to the Railway Station
camp from where they board the train after getting clearance.
Residence in Vavuniya itself is now a tricky affair involving complicated
procedures and permits. Those who are on the 1993 voters list are the only
ones entitled to permanent stay. Others who have cause to reside in
Vavuniya are issued three-month permits. These two categories of persons
can travel freely to Colombo and back. During the second week of
September a new system was introduced where those coming into
Vavuniya on business were given only one-day permits which were
renewable daily at the Brown Company Camp for up to three days.
Following the army's thrust into Killinochchi in late July, Major General
Saliya Kulatunge and Mr.Somapala Gunadeera, the Rehabilitation
Coordinator for the North, decided that anyone coming into Vavuniya
town will be allowed to stay for a maximum of one week. This was said to
be a move aimed at preventing further encroachment on crown lands
within the town limits.
As for permission for the young to enter Vavuniya from the North, lists
prepared jointly by Kachcheri administrative officials and security
officials, but the ultimate authority is the brigadier in charge of Vavuniya.
Following complaints, there were moves to involve the Red Cross. This
too ran into some controversy as the LTTE also wanted a say in the
preparation of lists. In the matter of permission to proceed to Colombo at
the three camps at Veppankulam, Nelum Kulam and the railway station,
both security and Kachcheri officials are involved. But again the brigadier
is the final authority. The civil authority, the Government Agent (GA), has
no power in the matter. It is said that the GA has visited the Nelum Kulam
camp only twice, facing a barrage of sarcastic questions such as "If we give
you Rs.50,000 would you let us go?". Such questions stem from a deep-
seated anger among civilians. They have seen people going after invisible
arrangements are made. Talk of corruption is widespread.
Each time permit requirements have been tightened, corruption has
increased steeply. Soon after the one-day pass system was introduced, a
vendor was caught with 600 passes. He was evidently acting as a sub-
agent for persons in the security forces. A number of sources have claimed
that backdoor systems enable a young person to come into Vavuniya from
the North and proceed to Colombo following a smooth pre-arrangement.
Sums ranging from Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 have been quoted. Agents are
known to operate both from Colombo as well as Vavuniya. There are
young persons without influence or money in Omanthai, who have been
travelling daily to Thandikulam and getting back for a month, while there
are also those who reach Colombo the same day. While screening is
necessary for maintaining security, the arrangements in Vavuniya raise
some pertinent questions.
Earlier, we quoted the Deputy Defence Minister as having said that the
Government had made preparations to receive into Vavuniya, 125,000
refugees from the North (Sunday Times, 6th October). The same paper in
an earlier report (18th August) quoted S. Ganesh, GA Vavuniya, to the
effect that 35 schools and other buildings had been done up to accomodate
a huge flow of refugees. The same report quoted refugees arriving in
Vavuniya, after walking 40 to 50 miles, as saying that they expected
thousands of others to follow them and that the LTTE was placing "no
restrictions on civilians leaving the area".
Eventually, though, a total number of nearly 3,700 displaced persons
Vavuniya's figures) arrived in Vavuniya from August 13th (when the army
first allowed civilians) to early October, of whom 1,200 remained in
'Welfare Centres'. Contrary to available testimony, the Deputy Defence
Minister claimed that the LTTE had stopped the refugees proceeding to
Vavuniya from Omanthai.
Describing what was in store for the refugees, the second report (18th
August) had quoted GA Vavuniya: "These people will not be allowed to
step out of the schools allocated to them and police will restrict their
movements from outside the camps making sure that nobody escapes".
Coming from a closely watched, experienced administrator in a sensitive
position, this remark has a strong hint of tongue-in-the cheek.
The Defence Ministry, apparently the chief architect of the plan, appears
to have failed to ask the brigadier in Vavuniya how long it would take his
outfit to screen the 125,000 people expected. At best, about 120 persons of
all ages were screened daily to leave Vavuniya for other areas.
Specifically among the youth, the number was at best 25 a day. At this rate,
it would have taken about 1,000 days to screen such a refugee influx. [The
last time a large number (about 1,000) were screened and allowed to pass
through Vavuniya was on 31st January, the day of the Central Bank bomb
blast. From that time the numbers had been dwindling]. Such lengthy
confinement under the conditions prevailing at the 'welfare centres',
would have been so appalling that the Government would have become
vulnerable to some very extreme allegations of repression. It was not a
prospect the civilians would readily exchange, even for conditions and
uncertainties in the Vanni outback.
In early October, the Nelunkulam refugee camp was closed to reopen the
school. The inmates, then numbering about 400, were shifted to the more
commodious College of Education premises. Only 45 families had opted
for refugee status. The one-day pass system was relaxed by issuing one-
week passes, extendable on a weekly basis. The number of persons in
Omanthai waiting to enter Vavuniya had also dropped to about 1,800,
many having given up trying.
There is an important lesson to be drawn from this episode. While security
concerns cannot be glossed over, the plan such as the one mentioned here
was wholly unrealistic. Local observers noted that the administrative
machinery finds it impossible to cope with even the present influx - so
much so that the routine administrative work at the Vavuniya Kacheri is
almost at a standstill. Other facilities were grossly inadequate - e.g. apart
from the question of shelter, only two water bowsers were available, with
one used for the security forces. They conclude that accomodating the
125,000 refugees talked about was pure fantasy. Was it purely a
propaganda gesture? If so, it makes the decision to slash medical supplies
even more inexcusable. The next time such a scheme is talked about, it
ought to be dismissed outright.
As to conditions in Vavunia, a number of good articles have appeared in
the press and the Tamil political parties have repeatedly made
representation. Yet even in relatively easy matters, just to make the
civilians feel that they are treated as human, the Government has been
unable to make any notable impact. It seems too much to expect such a
state machinery to re-evaluate its stubbornly unchanging practices in the
use of bombing and shelling that have helped to render peace a receding
For Whose Benefit?
Importantly, one needs to ask whether the purposes of security
realised by these arrangements in Vavuniya. Certainly Vavuniya appears
normal. But behind it there is an eerie atmosphere where several
disconnected security establishments operate with impunity. Two well
known landmarks in Vavuniya are the torture centres, one at Malar
Maligai under the PLOTE, and the other is Ramya House inside the Air
Force camp, under the Counter Subversive Unit(CSU). There have been
about 20 murders in Vavuniya town since the August 1994 elections that
were unconnected with normal crime. Several of the bodies that were
found in public places were unclaimed. A notable murder was that of
Sritharan, a highly respected young social worker in early January this
year. Although a government employee, he gave his spare time
unstintingly to the relief of refugees at Asikkulam camp. The finding of his
body with about 100 stab wounds remains an "unsolved" murder although
the PLOTE is widely suspected. It is suggested that his voluntary labours
posed a challenge to the PLOTE that had its own agenda for the refugees.
Individuals who try to do some public service such as volunteering for
social or medical work, have complained of being accosted threateningly
by the PLOTE. There is also the case of a Co-operative Society convoy
officer who used to accompany relief convoys to the North. Upon
returning one day with the money accrued from sales, he went missing in
Vavuniya town. At that time he had Rs.23 lakhs in his possession.
The PLOTE, a Tamil militant group, has worked closely with the Sri
Lankan Armed Forces since 1990. Many of its cadre in Vavuniya were
imprisoned by the Indian authorities after the Maldivian fiasco of 1988,
where they had acted as mercenaries in an attempted coup. Among the
notorious figures are Manikkathasan and Alavanguthasan, who are held
responsible for a number of murders. According to knowledegable sources
Manikkadasan and Alavangudasan are held by the authorities to be prime
suspects in the murder early last year in Colombo of Karavai Kandasamy,
an elderly PLOTE spokesman, who was earlier in the Left movement.
More recent killings, as documented below, point to Vavuniya having
become the home turf for the activities of PLOTE and TELO, who in
official jargon are now part of the `democratic process'. The PLOTE, of
course, has three MPs in the Vavuniya district who have vested interests in
trying to win the support of the people. It has been suggested that even
these MPs are afraid of the two aforesaid gentlemen.
Arjuna was the political and military leader of the PLOTE in Trincomalee.
At the central committee level, he opposed Manikkadasan's control over
his area on the grounds that the group was being thrown into disrepute by
its association with abduction and murder. During last July (1996),
Manikkadasan requested Arjuna to come to Vavuniya to settle the matter.
When he did so he was abducted and killed. According to low ranking
PLOTE cadre, their own group was responsible for the murder of Arjuna.
Jainudeen was a well known van driver in Trincomalee who was
associated with the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Around 1992, he
had a quarrel with the TELO when a member of the group was detained
on charges of abduction. During last September, Jainudeen came to
Vavuniya by van with two others. All three were found murdered.
During the first week of October journalists from the 'Yukthiya' went
Vavuniya to do an investigative report. Asked about the killings and
shooting incidents in town, Gamini Silva, Senior Superintendent of Police,
Vavuniya, was non-committal. He said that there were many lapses in
discipline both among policemen and soldiers, a number of whom he
himself had to punish.
He cannot therefore, he said, expect more discipline from the Tamil
militant groups. Concerning the murders, the SSP admitted that a number
of them had taken place in town which the police duly recorded. But
beyond this they had drawn a blank. He did not give the impression of
being unduly perturbed. He did however add significantly, that nearly all
the victims were non-residents from outside Vavuniya town - a strong hint
that the LTTE was not generally involved.
The `Yukthiya' team also interviewed Siyambalagaswewa Wimalasara,
chief incumbant of the Vavuniya town Buddhist temple, among the senior
most Buddhist monks in the country, and also a much respected peace
activist having regular dialogue with all communities. He was much more
forthright. He said: "We all know that the LTTE is not responsible for these
incidents. You know that the LTTE carries munitions and devices through
the security system in Vavuniya all the way down to Colombo, to carry out
devastating attacks. If the LTTE so wishes it has the capacity to do
something really big in Vavuniya - not just shooting a few policemen and
A murder that received publicity recently was that of Subramaniam, a
Colombo based textile merchant. He was detained in Colombo by the CSU
and brought to Vavuniya on suspicion of having links with the LTTE. He
was released from Anuradhapura prison on a fundamental rights
application after nearly 4 months in custody. He was last seen a few days
after his release on 13th July, going to the CSU office in Vavuniya to collect
his personal effects. What was believed to be the burnt remains of his body
together with another body were found in Nikeravettiya. It was reported
in the press that the CID who were asked to investigate the murder,
arrested the coordinating officer in charge of the CSU at Vavuniya along
with four other personnel (The Island, 16th August). The brazenness with
which the crime was committed is a measure of the extent to which such
practices had been ingrained in the system. Whether the vested interests
which underly such violations will allow justice to take its course is a
question to which an answer is anxiously awaited.
What exists in Vavuniya can be described as a 'mafia set-up'. It is
almost every racket related to such an outfit goes on there except for
drugs. The basis of this is the high level of cash flow in Vavuniya that feeds
a variety of interests. It is a central town servicing the traffic of goods and
people from the North to the South and vice versa. Cash flows vary in
form from private funds from relatives in Western capitals, to NGO and
rehabilitation funds. Because of this the town is able to put up with a level
of extortion much higher than what provincial towns like Batticaloa and
Trincomalee would have been able to bear. It is said that even when the
Rehabilitation Ministry allocates transportation charges for North-bound
lorries, taxes by the PLOTE and even the LTTE are included. According to
a social worker, the PLOTE recently ran up a repair bill of Rs.4.5 lakhs for
their vehicles at a garage. This visible racketeering by Tamil groups in
league with the armed forces may just be the tip of the iceberg. Elements of
the security forces are creditied with being into it in a big way.
There were attacks in Vavuniya town on 27th August and 20th September.
In the first incident a CSU vehicle was fired at inside the town killing two
police personnel, 2 soldiers, 12 civilians and injuring 10 policemen. The
second attack took place at the Vavuniya railway station in the night,
shortly after the departure of the Colombo train, injuring 5 off duty
policemen, including two women. No one is sure who was responsible.
Many suspected the PLOTE in the first attack, suggesting that the PLOTE
was unhappy after its cadre were withdrawn from the Thandikkulam
check point over complaints that they were demanding money from
travellers. These sources are clear that the LTTE maintains a significant
presence in Vavuniya town, mainly for intelligence purposes, but that the
LTTE would not like to create too much disruption in Vavuniya since they
need supplies from the South to continue flowing to the North.
Passage to India
Life in the Vanni is definitely becoming intolerable. Among the pressures
facing parents are the aggressive tactics used by LTTE recruiters on their
children. To take a young person to Colombo could however involve bribes
of well over Rs.5,000. On top of humiliation and harassment, upon
reaching Colombo the young Tamil is again faced with the impunity and
arbitrariness with which the security forces act. Irritations in Colombo
may range from off-duty policemen calling over for petty favours to being
picked up by the police and released after a bribe is arranged, or having an
indefinite detention order slapped on and sent to prison to live alongside
criminal elements. Life in the Eastern province or in the Jaffna peninsula
held no greater promise. Staying in a refugee camp in Vavuniya under sub-
prison conditions can be a dehumanising experience lasting several weeks
Apart from such considerations, given the choices facing these people
enumerated above, paying Rs.6,000 to a boatman for a passage to India
would have seemed a bargain. Once accepted as refugees in India,
restrictions placed on them are minimal. Most would have been free to
travel from Mandapam to Madras and back without any hindrance, in
sharp contrast to what it would take to travel from Vavuniya to Colombo.
Moreover, for those depending on money from family members abroad,
life in India would be far cheaper, considering especially that they have
little to go back to after having lost their property in Jaffna last October.
Thus, quite apart from whatever interest the LTTE may have in the
matter, the Government first needs to look closely at the plight of Tamil
civilians resulting from its own misplaced actions.
On Sunday 6th October the Sri Lankan Navy detained 107 Tamil refugees
bound for India from the mainland coast. It was claimed in Colombo that
the boat was overloaded and about to sink when the Navy 'rescued' the
passengers. The passengers, comprising 33 males, 33 females and 40
children, are now held at Al Hazar Vidyalayam (School), Mannar and look
frightened, according to local reports. They had reportedly paid Rs.8,000
per head for their passage. The Navy had earlier (17th September)
detained 21 refugees and eight Indian fishermen from two Indian trawlers
off the Mannar coast. On 11th October, another boat was detained with 28
refugees (8 men, 9 women and 11 children). A graphic illustration of the
desperation confronting those fleeing to India is the capsizing of a boat off
Mannar in bad weather on 14th October in which 14 civilians, including 7
children, were drowned.
In a report filed by S. Annamalai in the Madras Hindu (6th October),
Indian authorities were quoted as saying that there had been a "controlled
influx" since February this year. "The arrivals picked up momentum on
31st July, and from this date till October 1st, 2,933 Sri Lankan Tamils
reached the Rameswaran coast". According to this report, the fare paid by
a passenger ranged from Rs.300 to as high as Rs.15,000 for an adult. A boat
owner originally from Valvettithurai is said to have charged Rs.5,000 for a
This is in fair agreement with the information gathered from local sources.
According to these sources, the going rate at Nachchikudah is about
Rs.10,000 per passenger, of which Rs.5,000 goes to the LTTE. Passengers
are taken to an island and transferred to Indian fishing vessels. The
refugees are finding the money for the journey by often selling their
remaining possessions. For example, two men rode into Nachchikudah on
a Honda 90cc motorcycle. Immediately local residents started bidding for
this coveted possession. The men then rode the further 3 miles to the sea-
coast, negotiated a price with the boatman and proceeded to India.
The pattern has now emerged. After the attack on Mullaitivu army camp,
the LTTE was, according to reports, canvassing civilians in the area to go
to India. On the other hand, with mounting reports of violations by the
Army in Jaffna and the impending control of much of the Vanni by the Sri
Lankan forces, India came readily as a safe destination for many families
with LTTE links. According to persons coming from this area the fare being
charged to these segments of society was a modest Rs.1,000, with the LTTE
taking Rs.500. When others too in desperation wanted to leave, higher
prices owing to various circumstances, including actions taken by the
Indian cost guard, became an effective barrier.
We mentioned earlier that the Defence Ministry expected 125,000 refugees
to come into Vavuniya and then blamed the LTTE for placing restrictions.
In fact, the LTTE did not need to place restrictions because the Army and
the government machinery were effectively restricting people from
leaving the LTTE-controlled area. The LTTE was freely issuing passes
charging a mere Rs. 200/= for an application form and a further Rs 500 for
young persons. Having gone to a lot of trouble gathering people into the
Vanni, it is doubtful if the LTTE would have watched indifferently if
125,000 actually marched into Vavuniya. The question did not however
Thanks to the ineptness of government policy, the LTTE has been given
wide range to respond to constraints through a policy of controlled
outflow in some respects advantageous to itself, while turning the ire of
the people against the Government.
Children in Violence: Questions arising from conditions in the Vanni
In the present report we have also alluded to a unit named the Young
Leopards who are in a camp at Koorai in the Mannar District. According
to local sources the training given to these young recruits is not so much to
do with shooting as with the use of swords and knives. Many of them are
said to be very young children recruited recently in the Eastern Province
and brought to the North. Along with the methods of recruitment we have
mentioned in the past, the use of psychological pressure on children in the
Vanni schools is increasingly aggressive.
There have been reports to the effect that many of the LTTE casualties
during the army's late July thrust into Killinochchi, were very young
persons. Moreover, in press notifications of LTTE casualties unlike in the
late 80s and early 90s, one today notices markedly fewer officers of ranks
such as captain, major and lieutenant colonel. Indirect corrobration of this
comes from the wider use of suicide operatives in the battlefield. A group
of persons who had seen several years of active service in the LTTE were
asked how many Black Tigers (suicide squad) there were today. They
replied that the number was so high that they had stopped manintaining a
ceremonial record. It was the ethos of an organisation where the young
were constrained not to see beyond the prospect of a life that was short
These qualitative observations concerning this phenomenon of child
soldiers, is part of the reality where the LTTE has silenced a whole
community and made it powerless. The LTTE's deployment of child
soldiers has also been used as part of a major propaganda campaign
against the LTTE by the Government. It is, we think, important that
anyone who cares for the Tamil community must hold the LTTE
accountable for the creeping destruction of the community that the
phenomenon of child soldiers entails. It is something that needs to be done
with moral responsibility. But have those who have talked about this
phenomenon in the South and in the Foreign Ministry shown a sense of
International agencies that have shown a concern about this problem
world-wide phenomenon, such as the UNICEF, are quite right to highlight
this tragedy. But at the same time, as even this report would suggest, we
have a state structure here that is almost entirely unsympathetic to the
Tamil problem. It is manned largely by persons to whom the Tamils come
alive, not as people, but only as dreaded suicide bombers. A large part of
the responsibility in dealing with this problem falls ultimately on the good
sense of the people in this country. The fact that the crisis has come to its
present state is a harsh judgement on this country's intellectual culture.
Our academic traditions leave much to be desired and our culture is very
deficient in self-examination.
Look for example at the other aspect of this phenomenon of child soldiers.
Take the case of mothers who have faced years of living in continual
hysteria owing to the effects of bombing and shelling, and death or
disappearance of loved ones. Very often parents have had to relinquish
control over their children owing to conditions resulting from the
callousness of the State. What we have is a community where a substantial
section of it needs to keep swallowing psychiatric pills to prevent their
brains from popping out.
A Defeatist Approach?
The plight of the Tamils and the intricacies of the current crisis,
the politics of the South, cannot be isolated from the methods used by the
LTTE. It must be mentioned that even humanitarian openings in the South
are relentlessly used by this organisation to service its programmes of
terror. Far from liberating the people it seeks to trap them and bind them
in a dance of death. There are now strong indications that the leading
operative in the Dehiwela train bomb blast on July 24th, which claimed
about 65 lives, was sent to Colombo under the care of an unsuspecting
couple after the Jaffna exodus late last year. A large number of civilians
have been constantly wanting to flee the deteriorating conditions in the
North. Between December last year and April this year the pass system
was operated stringently. A large number of civilians who came to the
South have admitted privately that pressure had been applied on them to
indirectly help LTTE operations in the South. The request, accompanied by
the dangling of a pass, was usually to take a young person along with
them on a vague pretext or to provide accommodation to someone
connected with the organisation. All of them kept on giving personal
reasons to wriggle out until the pressure was withdrawn. There are also
persons who became so frightened that they withdrew their application
for a pass.
Looking back at the 13 years of civil war, the ups and downs of military
fortunes have been largely irrelevant. What is of significance is that little
has been done politically to dent the legitimacy of a cause even so weak as
that which the LTTE represents, and one that has been so devastating to
Tamil society. While hopes were raised last year of a successful political bid
by the Government to bring peace, it now seems that the Government has
lost the political initiative and has allowed practices among the security
forces which brought the country into disrepute to gain the upper hand.
Not surprisingly, this loss of initiative was reflected in a petulant
to the Amnesty International report of mid-August by the Government as
well as in editorial commentaries, particularly in the government-
controlled Daily News. The following paragraph from the report is very
relevant to the present state of affairs in Sri Lanka:
"Human rights are at a crucial juncture in Sri Lanka. The Government
given repeated indications of its commitment to the protection of human
rights. How it will put this commitment into practice in the next year or so
will determine whether respect for human rights is restored in the country.
How the Government takes forward the process of public
acknowledgment of past human rights violations and the bringing to
justice of those responsible will be a further key test of its stated
A series of events this year boded negatively for human rights in the
foreseeable future. This is sad considering that the Government had
initially meant otherwise. The first in the series was the suspension of
action on the President's order to the Army Commander to send on
compulsory leave about 200 security personnel, including officers at
brigadier level, who had been implicated in serious human rights
violations before ongoing commissions of inquiry. Then came in February
and June respectively the release on bail of security personnel detained in
respect to the `Corpses in the Lakes Affair' during August last year, and the
Killiveddi massacre of February this year. From April this year three
brigadiers who faced charges for serious violations had been promoted to
major general. Though this may be pragmatically justified as unavoidable
in fighting an adversary such as the LTTE is, it has on the other hand
helped the old discredited order in the armed forces to regain their
The reverses of July provided the setting for the latent institutions
to reassert themselves again. We see a disturbing rise in routine violations.
After the Army made a good start in Jaffna we are now faced with a rising
incidence of disappearances, murder and rape in Jaffna. Some serious
violations following the Mullaitivu reverse are only now coming to light.
The brazenness of the murder in Vavuniya with which the CSU has been
associated, and the subsequent murders in Vavuniya, could hardly have
taken place without an unfavourable change in the atmosphere concerning
the respect for human rights. It is not merely the security forces on the
ground but also the government institutions at higher levels have been
conniving in a vindictive approach to the people of the Vanni.
The fight against the LTTE is thus being pursued in a defeatist frame
mind that is instead more productive in violations and corruption.
Moreover the censorship which prevailed until early October 1996,
appears to have entailed the Government believing its own propaganda
which bears little in relation to reality, and then getting angry when it is
contradicted. The current mood of defeatism comes from the political
leadership losing a sense of direction.
The Government cannot go on trying to deal with this problem under the
constraints of covering up for the security forces on the one hand, and on
the other, trying not to offend dominant ruling class interests in the South
in its search for a political solution. The original aim of the Government,
to bring justice to the much abused masses of the people and to give this
country a proud place as a nation where human rights prevail, are
laudable ones which are now under a cloud. The Government is also
handicapped by a machinery whose acquired inertia over the years would
hardly allow it to respond creatively to the dangers confronting this
country. The only hope lies in a drastic political initiative, having at its
core an uncompromising respect for human rights, that would restore a sense
of purpose and direction.