Dark & disturbing
A Channel 4's new documentary on Sri Lanka's war on the LTTE reveals new details of a military bloodbath. Its makers are pushing Delhi to support a war-crimes probe. Zia Haq writes. Catastrophic conflictworld Updated: Mar 03, 2013 01:52 IST
Looking away from the camera, 12-year-old Balachandran appears grim and confused, munching a snack and staring out at what must have been a terrible scene. In another picture, he's dead, with five shots to his chest.
Balachandran was the Liberation of Tamil Tigers' Ealam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran's youngest son. The photographs are from a hair-raising documentary from Britain's Channel 4: 'No Fire Zone'. It marks a trilogy, along with two previous award-winning documentaries - Sri Lanka's Killing Fields (2011) and Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished (2012).
According to allegations, government troops randomly shelled three safe zones, turning them into a junkyard of human debris during the final stages of Sri Lanka's chaotic 2009 crush of the LTTE.
Balachandran's images have stunned the world, as they suggest the child was executed, not killed in crossfire, and since being captured, he was photographed as a "war trophy". 'No Fire Zone' has left Sri Lanka to answer more charges of brazen war crimes.
"The photographs are enormously important evidentially," says director Callum Macrae. Sri Lanka has responded by saying it would probe the veracity of the pictures.
Quite aggressively, it has however denied any deliberate targeting of civilians, blaming "rump LTTE elements" in the west of trumping up charges. It has accused LTTE fighters of refusing to let civilians leave, using them as shields. Either way, scores of unarmed women and children were slaughtered, while the war brought to an end LTTE's violent 26-year-old campaign for a separate Tamil homeland.
A UN panel now believes up to 40,000 civilians may have perished, as government troops were asked to "finish the job". As soldiers closed in with heavy artillery, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were caught in a narrow slice of land on the island's northeastern flank, alongside besieged rebels.
A screening, held by Channel 4 and the London-based Amnesty International in Delhi last week brought out the "in-your-face" brutality of a hidden war.
In shattering detail, it reveals heavy gun-and-mortar fire: skulls ripped open by shots; nude women, raped, murdered and piled atop one another, and young girls loaded on to trucks to be taken away under the watch of smiling soldiers. Among the piles of nude women, Shobha, a popular Tamil newsreader.
In the film, UN staffer Peter Mckay, evacuating the safe zone, gives a damning testimony, suggesting the 'safe zone' wasn't treated as such.
Ahead of a UN rights meet in Geneva, the film's director and producer have made a last-ditch effort to get India, a regional leader, to support a war-crimes case against Sri Lanka.
The film-makers have denied being swayed by Tamils activists abroad. "We are just doing our job," said producer Zoe Sale. She is part of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated effort to document the Lankan war.
Last year, India voted in favour of a US-backed resolution for a probe, but it doesn't want to be dragged directly into the mess. Tamil political parties, including those supporting the UPA government, are piling pressure. Tamils in Sri Lanka number 3 million, but they have strong community links to the Indian Tamil population, just a few nautical miles away.
G Ananthapadmanabhan of Amnesty International says India is in a "unique position" to press Sri Lanka to protect Tamil rights. India, however, faces a diplomatic catch, it can't afford to upset Lanka, a close ally, and see it move closer to China. "We must push for an international probe," insists D. Raja, a Tamilian from the Communist Party of India.
Diplomatic quibbles apart, there's no escaping the human cost. "When I first went (there) for the first time…it was a beautiful land," says Vani Viji, a British woman who escaped the war. "And now…it just looked dead and dark, everywhere."