UN: ‘The Scene at First Light Was Devastating’

terrorist 2   New photographs have emerged five years after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka.The photographs depict the aftermath of attacks on the UN position in the early morning of 24th January 2009. The UN team was allowed into the war zone in January 2009 only to deliver food to displaced people

At that point they had no idea this would turn out to be the last delivery of food by road to hundreds of thousands of hungry destitute people trapped in the war zone for the next four months.

It was also the last chance to evacuate the Tamils who worked for the UN with their family members. The LTTE wouldn’t let them leave the war zone but the UN staff hoped to drive out with their colleagues. There were however bitter arguments among the expatriate staff about whether their mission included anything beyond food delivery. Some of the international staff were becoming hysterical, desperate to get out alive. Others felt they had a responsibility to stand by their local colleagues.

After unloading food, the UN convoy negotiated its departure route with both warring parties and started off with over a hundred Tamil staff and dependents packed into lorries. Before long the convoy was stopped at the Puthukkudiyiruppu junction by the Tamil Tiger police who tried to make the UN local staff and their families disembark.

A very tense stand off ensued, with eyewitnesses describing the Tiger police hitting the side of the lorries with their canes and hostile local people calling the Tamils in the lorries traitors for trying to escape. The LTTE had blocked the exits with pick up trucks with guns mounted on them and heavily armed cadres. Behind the convoy, the UN office was being overrun and ransacked by a large hungry crowd. UN staff made frantic satellite calls to headquarters.

The international staff working for the World Food Programme and UNICEF feared they’d never get out alive if they waited to negotiate the evacuation of the Tamil staff. In a panic they drove off leaving just four lorries and one light vehicle behind for more than a hundred local staff and dependents. The departing aid workers also took a key vehicle with extra communications equipment with them.

Only two of the UN international staff  decided to stay; it was an agonising moment but they felt it was their duty to help their local colleagues. Within minutes of the convoy driving off there was intense artillery fire – incoming and outgoing – all around them.

Directed by the Sri Lankan government, the remains of the UN convoy moved northwards to Uddayarkattu where the government had just declared a “no fire zone”. The road was so jammed with people fleeing that it took an hour to drive the four kilometres. Dead animals and wrecked vehicles lay strewn around in a scene straight out of something from the second world war.

The UN staff caught up in the attack later wrote a report documenting the carnage they witnessed for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, John Holmes. A UN Internal Inquiry in 2012 did later conclude that the organisation had gravely failed in Sri Lanka, sadly not learning the lessons from Rwanda. As a result of that admission a new UN initiative has been set up called Rights Up Front to make sure the protection of civilians is always paramount.

EXCERPTS FROM UN REPORT

24/01/09

0300 – 0400 hrs
5 mortar shells fired from the SE landed in our immediate vicinity killing at least 2 families 8m from our bunker
7 dead 15 injured
The decapitated body of the 18yr old daughter we had spoken with earlier in the evening landed at the entrance to our bunker
One WFP Driver was hit in the back of the head with shrapnel and was taken by motorcycle to the hospital

0400 – 0800 hrs
The incoming mortar fire continued to land inside the No Fire Zone some as close as 100m from our location until morning
The scene at first light was devastating; within 20m of our location lay 7 dead & 15 seriously injured
1 dead infant was in a tree under which the family had sheltered and the 2nd decapitated infant was hanging from the wire perimeter fence along the Udaiyaarkaddu Suthanthirapuram Junction
The UNDSS vehicle parked 15m away was covered with body parts from the two families
Reports began to emerge of deaths & injuries from other areas of the GA Food Distribution Center and surrounding areas
The staff continued work on finishing the remaining bunkers however progress was slow several laborers from the day before had been killed in the previous nights shelling
Many other laborers had left the area due to the ongoing artillery attacks

1000 – 1700 hrs
Continuous incoming artillery & mortar fire from the South & SE some landing within the field designated for the GA Food Distribution Center
Artillery & mortar fire from the South & SE pass over us landing north up to 2 – 3 km inside the No Fire Zone
Smoke could be seen rising from the trees directly north of our position immediately after the attacks
Sporadic outgoing artillery & mortar fire from within 2000m of our location
UNDSS Colombo & Vavuniya were continually updated with information regarding the attacks throughout the day however the artillery barrage continued unabated
Work on the bunkers progresses slowly due to continued interruption by incoming heavy weapons fire.

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