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War and the Humanitarian Crisis in Vanni

By Col. R Hariharan

(January 27, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The security forces have captured Mullaitivu, the last bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This is comes as the icing on the cake of their achievements in the war against one of the toughest insurgent forces in the world, which has no hesitation in using terror tactics. However, the security forces have to address an issue that is disturbing not only to NGOs and UN humanitarian agencies but to many others who are no sympathisers of the LTTE.

In the last few days almost all international news agencies have reported the death of a number of civilians in Sri Lankan air strikes and artillery shelling carried out repeatedly to soften up the LTTE defences in support of the advancing security forces. A report of the Associated Press quoted Sri Lankan health officials saying that at lest 30 civilians were killed in a single day on January 20 due to shelling on a school and a hospital in the newly declared safety zone. The fact that the TamilNet, the pro LTTE website, had been reporting such deaths of civilians almost every day does not minimise the gravity of these incidents. Hundreds of civilians have died in such firing; even Indian newsmen who had been to Mullaittivu have confirmed it. One Indian reporter has spoken of heaps of dead bodies lying outside the makeshift hospital in Mullaittivu.

The death and injury among civilian population used as the human shield of the LTTE is caused when the security forces use artillery fire and air strikes to neutralise the LTTE pockets embedded in the midst of civilians. So it cannot be condoned as inevitable "collateral damage" of war. Such reports are even more serious if death and destruction of civilians come from an area that is supposed to be "safety zone". So it is not surprising that the issue has drawn strong criticism worldwide.

Deaths of civilians and displacement of population from their habitations are perhaps the two most certain events in any war. When a society unleashes war as a solution, such happenings are to be expected. And war is also the biggest violation of citizens' basic right to life and property. The expectation of privation is no consolation to the hapless population struggling just to survive between the foes. So what both the government and the LTTE do to mitigate their suffering is as important as winning or losing in battlefields.

It is in the nature of air strikes and artillery bombardment to cause death and destruction in areas around the target. Even with all the technology for precision strikes, both air and artillery fire has inherent probability error in hitting the target area. In fact even the most accurate artillery gun has to correct its fire for every target with a couple of salvos before it opens its barrage on the target. This is done to minimise error of shells not hitting the target. Such an area would extend to a radius of at least 100 yards around the target. That is how the damages from 'collateral' causes occur. As it is inherent in the use of artillery fire to call it collateral is absurd. The use of artillery fire and air strikes in civilian areas regardless of compulsions is to be condemned strongly because it is so inhuman.

Unfortunately bombs and bullets do not discriminate between soldiers and "human shields" or hapless civilians trying flee the battlefield. In times of war, displaced population have neither the resources nor energy to take protective measures taken by the troops. Women and children form bulk of such civilian casualties because they cannot run as fast as men to safety.

The security forces are repeatedly told to exercise caution while using their fire power. War is not a cricket match; it is each man fighting not only to save himself, but to kill the enemy to fulfil his commander's mission. That is why soldiers are trained to become part of a gigantic killing machine that armies are. Their principles of war tell them to use superior force with preponderance of fire power while maintaining their objective. Under such compulsions of war, expecting the security forces to enforce a zero civilian casualty policy is extremely difficult if not impossible. So it is for other government agencies to take measures to ameliorate the fall out of battles on civil population well in advance and train them on how to save themselves.

In this regard the hands of both the government and the LTTE are tainted. The security forces have stepped up the use of artillery including multi barrel rocket fire and air power even as the LTTE areas are shrinking every day increasing the density of civilians per square kilometre. And the role of the LTTE is despicable and heartless. Even the UN has critically commented on the LTTE's cynical strategy of not allowing civilian population to get out of the battle zone, even though it knows that it is not going to defend the area unto death of the last of its cadres.
The government run by an elected body of people's representatives cannot absolve its responsibility in this respect by blaming the LTTE. As an organised government its norms are clearly defined and public accountability is an essential part of it. It is expected to perform better than the LTTE which has no pretension of such niceties and has only its leader Prabhakaran's edicts as norms of functioning.

Media is the conscience keeper of society. When the government fails to operate according to the norms of governance, it is the duty of media to report it. This is more so in times of war, when people accept the curbing some of their fundamental freedoms in the national interest. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan media feels increasingly insecure when they face violence and intimidation directly or indirectly from elements of government or suspected to have close connections with it.

President Rajapaksa had been enjoying better press than his predecessors and most of the other politicians. In spite of this, his repeated reassurances on media freedom have not made much headway because other limbs of the government continue add a new episode to media confrontation almost daily. What is surprising is the government attitude to the media trying to report on the war, when only government is the "authorised source" of information. The latest in the government's firing line was the BBC Sandeshaya for quoting the civilian casualty figures given by a representative of Mullaittivu hospital in its report. Media men dig for news from any available source when they are denied independent access to the happenings. This is what is happening .

Victory in war is a heady thing. It can cloud government's perspectives on fundamental issues of governance. Victories in battlefields would not mean much in the long run if people do not feel secure and trust the government. The opposition Janatha Vimuthi Peramuna leader put it aptly: "These war victories can be meaningful to the people only when democracy is restored." Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is giving the impression that this is not happening.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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