If there were a chessboard to demonstrate the war between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE, the pawns would be wearing sarongs and saris. These individuals — civilians, not soldiers — are the war’s ‘collateral damage’. Human rights groups are despised by both for they don’t understand this mathematics and mourn over the increasing number of corpses.
The LTTE is responsible for human rights abuses — forcibly recruiting people, turning schoolchildren into combatants, indiscriminate killings, using landmines and human bombs. Successive Sri Lankan governments, in order to appease the Sinhalese population, have failed to address the grievances of the Tamils, thus, building support for the Tigers.
To ensure its success, the government has chosen to silence the dissidents. Those who criticise its actions or policies are accused of being closet LTTE supporters; they are either shot down by unknown gunmen or men in vans prowling the streets of Colombo makes them ‘disappear’. Journalists and human rights defenders live in constant fear.
The military has made gains in reclaiming virtually all of northern Sri Lanka previously under the LTTE. The withdrawing Tigers have taken with them civilians to be used as combatants, provide labour to build trenches or serve as human shields. These are the people that the LTTE claims to represent and protect, and yet, it is deliberately putting them in danger.
For over two years, the Sri Lankan government knew that civilians were being forced to accompany the retreating Tigers, yet it did nothing about their safety. Instead, the detention camps house around 60,000 of those who managed to escape the
LTTE’s writ. They now feel that they will be persecuted when the war is over.
Even with reports of civilian casualties pouring in, the government has denied that it is targeting civilians. Credible reports, however, prove it’s a lie. The military says that those killed are not necessarily civilians. A senior Sri Lankan diplomat has reportedly said, “A fighter doesn’t become a civilian when he dons a sarong.” Health Secretary Athula Kahandaliyanage had stated, “It’s been found that terrorists fight in civil clothes and when they get wounded they can be mistakenly considered as civilians”. He added that there could be accidental injuries to non-combatants if they were in the line of fire.
While some information is available, it’s still impossible to know what’s going on in the combat zones. The government has booted out almost all humanitarian agencies and has kept independent journalists away from the war zone. With both parties engrossed in their mathematics of disaster, it is up to India, with its historical engagement in the conflict, to take decisive steps to ensure the safety of war victims. It should work with other governments that oppose the LTTE. It should also encourage those members of the Tamil diaspora who have backed the Tigers to speak up for the safety of Tamil civilians.
The LTTE must end its policy of risking civilians’ lives and should allow them to flee the combat zone. The Sri Lankan government should make efforts to rescue and protect civilians. Both sides should work towards an emergency evacuation plan for civilians before more die or are maimed. For each passing day is a stain on the consciences of those who could have saved new victims.
(Meenakshi Ganguly works with Human Rights Watch, South Asia)