Karu was a grocery shopkeeper in Puthukkudiyiruppu when Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war was nearing its end. Like tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the island nation’s north and northeast, Karu and his pregnant wife, Gowri, were caught up in the war in 2009. He was attacked and dumped in a hospital, where he was brutally tortured; his wife gave birth to a baby girl in a bunker in the heyday of the war. They finally managed to leave Sri Lanka for Tamil Nadu and then set out on a deadly 27-day-long boat journey to Australia.
When Frances Harrison met them in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Australia, their daughter Puni was two years old. “Puni has known more suffering in two years than most people experience in a lifetime. She’s been bombed, starved, imprisoned and threatened with death… She smelled death and heard explosions before she even had the words to describe them,” writes Ms Harrison in Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.
Karu represents thousands of Tamils who lived through the conflict’s final bloody months. Ms Harrison, who was in Sri Lanka between 2000 and 2004 as a BBC correspondent, recounts in her book the suffering of Tamils during the last days of the war through stories of individuals such as Karu. It is a tale that is both gripping and deeply disturbing.
The government of Mahinda Rajapaksa launched a deadly offensive campaign against the Tamil rebels in 2008, determined to end the long-drawn civil war. When the army advanced into the Tamil territories and tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the battlefield in northeastern Lanka, the world’s leaders looked the other way. “By 2009, much of the international community had made a conscious decision to side with the Sri Lankan government and ignore the cries for intervention,” the author writes. Since foreign media were totally banned from the conflict zone, details about the army’s war tactics and civilian casualties were not immediately available.
However, Sri Lanka’s claims about the war began facing serious questions by 2010 after independent reports accused the Rajapaksa government of war crimes. Veteran journalist Jon Lee Anderson’s New Yorker report, “Death of the Tiger”, in early January 2011 and the two-part documentary of British television network Channel 4, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, demolished the government’s claims about the war. Ms Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead adds a new layer of detail to the conflict.
The army, she writes, employed “scorched-earth tactics, blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants, and enforcing a media blackout”. During the conflict the government declared official “no-fire zones”, where it brought thousands of Tamil civilians, who were later bombed by the military. The third and last of the official no-fire zones in the northeast turned out to be “a tropical beach transformed into a place of random slaughter,” Ms Harrison says. Not even hospitals were spared. One doctor she spoke to admitted: “They wanted to kill as many as possible”. The photographs of the assassination of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son published in Tuesday’s edition of The Hindu attest to this extreme brutality.
Ms Harrison doesn’t have any sympathy for the Tigers. She believes both the government and the rebels were responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka. When the army attacked the Tamil civilians indiscriminately, the rebels used them as human shields. “Obviously it’s not only one side — the Tamil Tigers also have a responsibility for what happened. And that needs to be recognised so that those people can move forward.” She describes the story of a Tamil couple who hid their 17-year-old girl in an oil drum buried in their garden to stop her being taken as a child soldier by the Tigers. But the rebels finally found the girl and took her. “Three months later, the girl was returned home, her dead body wrapped in a red Tiger flag.”
According to the United Nations (UN), as many as 40,000 people were killed in the first five months of 2009. Ms Harrison says the number will be higher since the UN estimates were “conservative”. But the international community largely remained passive to the suffering of the Tamils. In June 2010, under pressure from human rights groups, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set up a panel to look into the allegations of war crimes. The panel concluded in 2011 that “war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed” in Sri Lanka. But the UN chief did nothing about the report. When the UN Human Rights Council finally passed a resolution in 2012 on Sri Lanka, it had no reference to war crimes. This happens if the crimes are committed in the name of fighting terrorism, says Ms Harrison.
The Sri Lankan government doesn’t want to dig up the past. It says everyone should now concentrate on the future. But in Sri Lanka, the past is still alive. As an aid worker is quoted in the book as saying: “The war is not over in Sri Lanka; you don’t solve these kinds of problems on the battlefield.”
COUNTING THE DEAD: SURVIVORS OF SRI LANKA’S HIDDEN WAR
272 pages; Rs 399