“The first casualty when war comes, is truth,” Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty quoted US senator Hiram Johnson as having said in 1917. Hundred years later, it rings ominously true.
On the night of April 19-20 the restive refugees in the ‘no fire zone’ (NFZ) began to break out of the rebels’ boundaries of hate – or love — and move to government-controlled areas. They staggered over the crumbling boundaries of earth and sand, braving exploding suicide bombers.
Since the NFZ was designated in February, the authorities had claimed that not more than 70,000 refugees were inside the safe zone.
How could an area of less than 20 sq km accommodate more? they asked. Aid agencies and Tamil parties were exaggerating the number of refugees (their estimates varied between 2 lakh and 3.5 lakh), they said. Terrorist propaganda to woo the international community, they explained. We listened and thought that maybe the government was right.
Wrong. Within April 23, more than a lakh of refugees had walked across the placid lagoon in front of the NFZ. As of April 28, 1.11 lakh people crossed over. Another 70,000 had crossed over before, trickling out of the NFZ since February. And according to government’s own estimates, 20000 more remain inside (The UN put the figure at more than 50000). It seems that the government had miscalculated – worse, mislead the people – the figure of refugees by more than a lakh.
Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told HT that we shouldn’t argue on numbers. Foreign minister Rohitha Bogoallagama called it a “statistical error’.
There is little doubt that in a zone of conflict statistics ends up as collateral damage. It is especially true in Sri Lanka where independent observers are not allowed to monitor the situation.
The military for example have stopped putting out the numbers of its dead and injured while claiming thousands of LTTE cadres have been killed. The pro-rebel media makes reverse claims. We sit in the safe zone of Colombo and make do with whatever second-hand information that’s thrown our way.