Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s hidden war
By Frances Harrison
Published by Portobello Books, 2012, £14.99
Reviewed by Manny Thain
This book recounts the horrific experiences of Tamils in the last few months of the conflict between Sri Lankan armed forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory on 18 May 2009. Frances Harrison, a BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka for a number of years, describes her book as follows: “It is not a history of the whole war… It is an account of the victory from the perspective of the defeated.”
Each chapter tells the story of a particular individual and his or her closest family. As their stories run concurrently, and follow people forced down a narrow corridor of northeast Sri Lanka, the narrative can be repetitive. It is harrowing and hard to stomach, but it does drive home the hellish conditions as the Tamils struggled desperately to flee the carnage. It emphasises the relentless, murderous offensive by the Sri Lankan armed forces – and the subsequent merciless, systematic repression of the Tamil population. It also points to the failed strategy of the Tamil Tigers who, for a number of years, controlled the north-eastern quarter of the island.
Despite their grim, heart-rending stories, the book is at its best when quoting directly from the Tamils. There is little analysis, although there are a couple of pages of useful facts at the end of each chapter.
Harrison begins with the United Nations withdrawing its aid workers from the war zone, under orders from the Sri Lankan regime, in September 2008. For many Tamils, this was seen as the turning point. It meant there were no international agencies or journalists in the area to report on the massacres or intervene.
The UN consistently danced to the Sri Lankan regime’s tune. In mid-April 2009, the UN secretary-general praised Rajapaksa’s regime for observing a temporary truce – when Tamils were cowering from incoming shells. The UN Security Council allowed a £1.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Sri Lanka to go ahead at the end of April, as the war entered its most brutal stage.
At the start of the offensive, people fled their homes with whatever they could carry, loading up tractors, rickshaws or motorbikes with food, spare clothes, tools, blankets, photo albums, radios, laptops. Under the relentless bombardment, they were forced into and through a succession of small villages, and into designated, so-called ‘no-fire zones’. Their possessions got fewer and fewer. Monsoon rains lashed down. Crops could not be harvested. The regime controlled the food supplies, sending in a fraction of what was needed. By February 2009 there were no vegetables on sale, by March no fish. A bag of rice could cost a car. Saris were turned into sandbags.
Even here there were great acts of solidarity. ‘Korben’ (not his real name), a wheelchair bound charity worker, recounts how fishermen, who spent hours trying to land a catch amid the bombardments and navy patrols, would give away half the fish to the injured.
Food was hard to get even for those with a bit of money, like Korben. He had savings in the LTTE’s Bank of Tamil Eelam. In a surreal episode, Korben explains how the bank continued to function out of a hut, made of sandbags and coconut-tree trunks, on the narrow spit of sand onto which they had all been corralled. The bank staff had print-outs of the customer accounts and, according to Korben, they disbursed money very quickly to those in credit.
As the Sri Lankan armed forces advanced, the Tamils were herded into the ‘no-fire zones’, where they were shelled and bombed, trapped between the army and the LTTE. The numbers of injured soared. The bloated corpses of human beings lay side-by-side with dead cattle. Doctors in makeshift field hospitals were reduced to using butchers’ knives to amputate children’s limbs, without anaesthetic.
A doctor, ‘Niron’, estimates that 2,000 shells landed on or around Uddayarkattu hospital as fighting intensified at the end of January 2009. Whenever they relocated the field hospital, they painted a red cross on the roof, and GPS coordinates were forwarded to the Red Cross to pass on to the Sri Lankan army. Every time, they were bombed – deliberately targeted. Others describe ‘heaps’ of wounded women and children when a queue for milk powder was shelled. Most estimates for the total of Tamils killed range from 40,000 to 100,000.
After the final battles (16/17 May), tens of thousands of people were desperately trying to surrender. Families became separated in the panic. They had to cross a lagoon, up to their chins in water, wading past dead bodies. Once across, they were forced into queues, to be checked by armed forces personnel and masked Tamil rebels who had switched sides. Their job was to identify LTTE fighters but others, such as doctors, were seen as important witnesses who also had to be silenced. It was a completely arbitrary procedure.
A massive camp, Manik Farm, had been set up and it quickly swelled to become the largest refugee camp in the world, holding 282,000 Tamils. It was run with UN aid and international money. Huge posters of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers were displayed all over the site, grinning down at the defeated.
Conditions in the camp were unimaginably bad, with negligible healthcare, and starvation rations of rotten vegetables, the soya meal crawling with weevils. There was no sanitation to speak of. Gang-rape by Sri Lankan troops was commonplace. People were in a state of absolute terror, struggling to stay alive, too afraid to speak out.
International aid agencies and a small number of local charities were permitted only the most restricted access. Journalists were only allowed in for occasional, carefully choreographed guided tours. Some people were able to bribe their way out with the help of friends or relatives from outside but that, too, was fraught with danger, often involving travel to the capital, Colombo, then arranging flights out. All the while, there was the risk of being picked up by the Criminal Investigation Department or paramilitary forces which acted with impunity.
In Harrison’s concluding chapter, she points out that the Sri Lankan military has grown by 100,000 troops since the end of the war. It has taken over land and businesses in the north and east, which is now a militarised zone with one Sri Lankan soldier for every eleven citizens. People from the Sinhalese majority are being brought in to settle traditionally Tamil areas.
The US Agency for International Development reported that 89% of Tamil families did not have a single member with a job or income in the northeast. In Kilinochchi, a former LTTE stronghold, a quarter of families live on less than half the official poverty line. Secret detention sites operate in the region. Torture and rape have persisted. Sri Lanka comes second in the world in the number of disappearances – after Iraq.
A UN panel of experts recommended a review of the UN’s actions during the war, and that it should hold its own investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. It has done neither. Major-general Shavendra Silva, a brigade commander in the final offensive, has been made deputy ambassador to the UN. This gives him immunity from prosecution. The UN deploys Sri Lankan troops around the world as peacekeepers. In other words, the UN has effectively endorsed Rajapaksa’s genocidal policies, and backs his corrupt, nepotistic regime. Is an utter betrayal of Tamil-speaking people the world over.
Meanwhile, the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka has worsened. In fact, the conditions which have fuelled their despair, bitterness and anger – and which led to the failed strategy of guerrilla warfare in the past – remain.