As Sri Lanka goes to polls, calls grow for war crimes trial over Tamil Tigers assault
In the peaceful confines of a church compound in the northern tip of Sri Lanka, its thick walls offering a cool respite from the cloying tropical humidity outside, the diminutive middle-aged woman quietly related the horrors that tore apart her family.
Jeyakumary Balendran was among the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in the merciless final weeks of Asia’s longest-running conflict in 2009.
By the end of the Sri Lankan army offensive, the Tamil Tigers – fanatical rebels who pioneered the use of suicide bombers and child soldiers in their violent insurgency – were wiped out.
Thousands of civilians were also dead, mostly killed by relentless government shelling as the Tigers made their last stand in a sliver of marshland, penned in on by the Indian Ocean and the jungle.
The brutality of Sri Lanka’s killing fields will be put back under the international spotlight next month when UN human rights investigators releases an eagerly-anticipated report into the atrocities carried out by both the Tigers and the Sinhalese-dominated military.
The government of then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa had designated the area a “no fire zone” for civilians. But it was transformed into a free-fire zone as the army oversaw an alleged indiscriminate slaughter in its mission to end the 26-year insurgency.
“The shelling never stopped,” said Mrs Balendran, 54. “It came from artillery, from the air, from the sea. We were on the move constantly and all around us people were being blown to pieces. There were bodies everywhere, people with no heads, no limbs.”
A previous 2012 United Nations investigation estimated that 40,000 civilians were killed in the war’s horrific last few weeks. Among the dead was Mrs Balendran’s 19-year-old son Kajeevan, ripped apart by a shell a few feet from his mother.
Another teenage son was shot dead three years earlier by a suspected pro-government paramilitary group. And her third and youngest son, a 15-year-old conscripted by the Tigers, disappeared from a government rehabilitation centre after the war, never to be seen again.
The new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was championed by America and Britain, with David Cameron throwing his weight behind the investigation after he came under heavy criticism for attending a Commonwealth summit in Colombo hosted by Mr Rajapaksa in 2013.
The report is expected to name army commanders and politicians responsible for ordering the indiscriminate offensive, and will unleash calls for war crimes trials in Sri Lanka.
The report’s impending release is the backdrop to fiercely-contested parliamentary elections in the former British colony on Monday.
Mr Rajapaksa was surprisingly defeated by his party rival Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential ballot in January, as voters turned against him amid widespread allegations of corruption, nepotism and abuse.
But the self-styled political “warrior king”, who remains extremely popular with many Sinhalese nationalists, is on Monday attempting a comeback. He seems certain to win a seat as an MP and is hoping to stage a long-odds return to power as prime minister, although Mr Sirisena has vowed to block that manoeuvre.
Hugo Swire, the Foreign Office minister for Asia, told The Telegraph that Britain would urge the Sri Lankan government to ensure “accountability”.
“Whatever mechanism is employed should be independent, credible and in accordance with international standards,” he told The Telegraph.
“There needs to be accountability in order for Sri Lanka to move on from this extraordinarily dark period. Sri Lankans need to know the truth about what happened.”
Ruki Fernando, an adviser with Inform, a human rights centre in Colombo, urged the US and Britain to take “strong action” in response to the UN report as champions of the investigation.
Mr Fenando called for international support to set up special courts, impose travel bans and asset freezes on those named in the report, provide information to families of the disappeared and repeal terrorism legislation – under which he and Mrs Balendran were both detained last year.
“A key will be to focus on those most responsible for most serious crimes,” he told The Telegraph. “Dropping the ball now, would be a great insult to survivors and victims families and human rights defenders, who have been abandoned and let down by the international community in the past, and who had yet taken great risks to share stories of suffering with the UN investigation team.
“Their right to truth, justice, reparations, guarantees of non occurrence and to be consulted must be ensured.”
It is cases such as that of Mrs Balendran that would be at the centre of any future war crimes trials in Sri Lanka.
The widow, her 19-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter were among the Tamil civilians in rebel-held territory who fled in front of a relentless army offensive as the Tigers were driven into an ever-shrinking enclave in 2009.
Many of the civilians were effectively human shields for the Tigers, forced to abandon their homes by the rebel leaders who calculated that deploying fighters among the ranks of women and children might provide a defence against government attacks, according to an earlier UN report and human rights groups.
By April, some 300,000 civilians were corralled in a small sliver of land with the remaining Tamil Tigers, including their notorious leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The Rajapaksa government insisted to the world that it would respect the rights of civilians. But with no outside groups allowed access to the region, the reality was very different as the army launched an all-out bombardment under orders of the presidential strongman and his brother Gotabhaya, the defence minister.
“The shelling was never-ending and the air was so thick with smoke that we couldn’t breathe,” said Mrs Balendran. “There was no chance to bury the bodies. We had no food, no water, we were out in the open with nowhere to sleep. It is impossible to describe the horror of what we experienced. We were certain we would die.”
Her composure finally slipped as she described the events of May 5, 2009. “There was yet more shelling. I was with my daughter and my son was a few feet away with the same group when more shells landed right by us.
“We were all thrown to the ground, but Kajeevan didn’t get up. He was killed instantaneously. Shrapnel from a shell split his head apart.
“I was howling and screaming, but there was no chance to say prayers or conduct any rites. I had to save my daughter. I tried to spread some dirt across his body, but we had to flee. I had to abandon my son like that, with the other dead.”
Eventually, Mrs Balendran was able to wade through the lagoon to safety with her daughter. Many others died in the water. Some were killed by the army onslaught, others by Tamil Tigers firing at those trying to escape their grip.
The area is a now placid stretch of marshlands and islets, although yellow landmine warning signs give some clue that it was not always so tranquil. Most notably, a sign erected by Mr Rajapaksa at the end of the causeway across the lagoon boasts that this was the site of a “heroic victory” over “ruthless terrorists” by the Sri Lankan army, which rescued 100,000 civilians” in a “humanitarian operation”.
Human rights groups, the UN and survivors – even some even former high-ranking officials – say that the “heroic victory” also involved indiscriminate carnage. An earlier UN panel of experts estimated that 40,000 people were killed her, most buried in unmarked mass graves.
For Mrs Balendran, the loss did not end there. At that time, her third son Mahinthan was missing after disappearing a few months earlier, reportedly abducted by the Tamil Tigers as the rebels press-ganged children into their ranks.
After the war ended in May 2009, she searched frantically for the 15-year-old boy among the displaced and refugees, showing his photograph to anyone she met in the hope of a sighting. But there was no clue to his whereabouts until a Western journalist was allowed to visit a rehabilitation centre being operated by the army for former child soldiers later that year.
A photograph showed Mahinthan doing exercises, but that was the last trace of him. Mrs Balendran became a tireless and vocal advocate for the disappeared and was regularly threatened by state security forces under the old government, before she was detained last year under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for alleged harbouring a Tamil Tiger revivalist.
Mrs Balendran insisted that she had no connection with the named individual – but was only released after 362 days in detention, earlier this year following the election of Mr Sirisena as president.
The Tamil nationalist movement was driven by growing resentment against institutionalised discrimination under successive Sinhalese-led governments. In 1983, an all-out civil war erupted as the Tigers fought to establish a homeland for the predominantly Tamil minority independent of the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
The rebels quickly established a reputation for fanaticism, with fighters issued with cyanide capsules on strings around their neck to take to avoid capture. They conducted a series of high-profile assassinations, including the murder of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and several Sri Lankan leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil.
But that goal of independence is now dead. In the battle-scarred streets of Jaffna, life has slowly returned to some form of normalcy. The renowned neo-Moghul library has been rebuilt after it was burned down by pro-government mobs with the loss of its treasured book collection.
And at the offices of Uthayan, the main Tamil newspaper, where a “war room” contains the evidence of the attacks over the years – photographs of murdered staff, two shelves of vandalised computer screens and bullet-holes in the wall – journalists say they hope that the days when their lives were at risk have passed.
But six years after the end of the conflict, the scars are still deep and visceral for those such as Jeyakumary Balendran who lost so much.
How Sri Lanka votes on Monday and how the country reacts to next month’s UN human rights report will do much to determine whether those scars begin to heal.(The Telegraph)