Marking 12 years since the Sri Lankan military onslaught that massacred tens of thousands of Tamils, we revisit the final days leading up to the 18th of May 2009 – a date remembered around the world as ‘Tamil Genocide Day’. The total number of Tamil civilians killed during the final months is widely contested.
After providing an initial death toll of 40,000, the UN found evidence suggesting that 70,000 were killed. Local census records indicate that at least 146,679 people are unaccounted for and presumed to have been killed. By examining different sources, including from the United Nations, census figures and World Bank data, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) found that the highest estimate of those killed during that final phase could be as large as 169,796.
See more at www.RememberMay2009.com, a collaborative project launched last year, between the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, Tamil Guardian and 47 Roots.
13th May 2009
The same hospital hit again
More than 100 civilians, including children, medical staff, a voluntary doctor and an Red Cross worker, were killed in Sri Lankan artillery attack that targeted a makeshift hospital for the second time in 24 hours. See more from TamilNet here.
The ICRC confirmed that one its employees, identified as Sivakurunathan Majuran, was killed alongside his mother in the shelling. The organisation confirmed the hospital had been “hit by shell fire for a third time”.
In another incident of shelling, at least 39 female patients were also killed at a counselling aid centre for mentally ill women located in the final conflict zone.
The OISL reports that at the time, UN estimates said there were “more than 100,000 civilians remained trapped within three square kilometres”.
“By 13 May, with shells falling all around, sometimes into the compound, the only treatment that could be given was basic first aid and medication”
“Letters seen by OISL, consistent with witness accounts, including from United Nations and humanitarian workers, indicate that GPS coordinates of most hospital and other humanitarian facilities, including when they were relocated due to fighting, were transmitted to the Government, the SFHQ in Vavuniya and other Sri Lankan security forces, as well as the LTTE, to ensure that these facilities would be protected from attack.”
“During that time, the ICRC ship – which at that stage would have been the only possibility for taking patients for life-saving medical treatment – was not able to approach the shore because the shelling and gunfire was continuing.”
Photographs: The aftermath of a shell attack on May 13th 2009.
Obama calls for an end to the shelling
US President Barack Obama stepped out on to the White House lawn to make a statement on Sri Lanka. He called for “urgent action” and for the Sri Lankan government to “stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives”.
See extracts of his statement below.
“As some of you know, we have a humanitarian crisis that’s taking place in Sri Lanka, and I’ve been increasingly saddened by the desperate news in recent days. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine. This has led to widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives.”
“Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe. Now is the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first.”
“I’m also calling on the Sri Lankan government to take several steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis. First, the government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone.”
“Second, the government should give United Nations humanitarian teams access to the civilians who are trapped between the warring parties so that they can receive the immediate assistance necessary to save lives.”
“I don’t believe that we can delay. Now is the time for all of us to work together to avert further humanitarian suffering.”
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband meanwhile called the conflict zone “as close to hell as you can get”.
A Vice Ministerial Troika from the European Union (EU) visited Sri Lanka and visited the Menik Farm camp where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were being detained.
Though a statement said the EU is “deeply concerned about the high number of civilian casualties and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Northern Sri Lanka and reiterates its primary concern for the civilians in the conflict zone who are surviving under appalling conditions,” it went on to state,
“The EU recognises that the current crisis is approaching a final phase with the defeat of the LTTE militarily. The EU acknowledges the efforts and welcomes the commitments made by the Government in assisting its citizens that have escaped the conflict zone.”
See the full statement here.
The UN Security Council speaks
The UN Security Council released a press statement on Sri Lanka, its first official reaction on the issue.
Extracts reproduced below. See the full statement here.
“The members of the Security Council express grave concern over the worsening humanitarian crisis in north-east Sri Lanka, in particular the reports of hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days, and call for urgent action by all parties to ensure the safety of civilians.”
“The members of the Security Council strongly condemn the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for its acts of terrorism over many years, and for its continued use of civilians as human shields, and acknowledge the legitimate right of the Government of Sri Lanka to combat terrorism.”
“The members of the Security Council express deep concern at the reports of continued use of heavy calibre weapons in areas with high concentrations of civilians, and expect the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment in this regard.”
“The members of the Security Council demand that all parties respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.”
“The members of the Security Council call on the Government of Sri Lanka to take the further necessary steps to facilitate the evacuation of the trapped civilians and the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance to them.”
Leaked US Embassy cables reveal the negotiations that took place behind the statement.
“The UK, France and Austria circulated a draft Security Council press statement on Sri Lanka in the evening of May 12, and formally introduced the text in Council consultations under other matters May 13. They stressed that the Security Council must react in a formal way to the situation in Sri Lanka. Strongly supported by the U.S., Croatia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and for the first time, Uganda and Burkina Faso, the text was negotiated throughout the day and adopted late on May 13.”
“China and Vietnam initially opposed any official statement by the Council, but eventually joined the negotiation. In a change to its previous position, Russia accepted the idea of a press statement, although it unhelpfully mentioned that the Security Council had not addressed “similar” issues such as Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Gaza, and the August 2008 conflict in Georgia.
Russia, China and Vietnam only accepted the press statement after references to reported violations of international humanitarian law and to welcoming the Secretary-General’s intention to visit Sri Lanka were stricken from the draft.”
See the full cable here.
Also on 13 May, the UN Secretary-General made his fourth phone call since early April to Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa to “reiterate concerns over the protection of civilians”.
UK Special Envoy meets India
A leaked US embassy cable from this day reveals that British Special Envoy for Sri Lanka Des Browne told diplomats in New Delhi,
“I don’t think anybody can change events over the next 10 or so days”.
Mr Browne had met with India’s Foreign Secretary Menon and National Security Advisor Narayanan earlier that week. US Charge d’Affaires Peter Burleigh who was briefed by Browne wrote the cable, with extracts reproduced below.
“Browne said he expected military operations would end soon and that he hoped a humanitarian catastrophe could be avoided.”
“While the Sri Lanka government had openly opposed international interference in the conflict, not least because of the political points it scored, Browne believed it would be willing to accept a role for the international community post-conflict. “At the end of the day they’ll want the money,” he noted, adding that the government had expended vast resources conducting the war.”
“Indian officials told Browne that it was useful to have Sri Lanka on the UNSC’s agenda, and to issue periodic Presidential Statements, but that it would be counterproductive for the UN to “gang up” on Colombo; providing Rajapaksa with a rationale for fighting off international pressure would only serve to bolster his domestic political standing.”
See the full text of the cable here.
Diaspora protests continue
Tamil protests continued in capitals around the world.
In Toronto, thousands of Tamil Canadians took to the grounds of Queen’s Park calling for an immediate end to the Sri Lankan military offensive.
Photographs: Tamils protest in Toronto on May 13th 2009.
12th May 2009
Another hospital shelled
Photographs: The aftermath of an attack on a makeshift hospital on May 12th 2009.
Artillery shells were fired at a makeshift hospital set up at a school in Mullivaikkal, killing dozens.
HRW reported that nearly 1,000 patients were in the hospital at the time of the attack, including many wounded during the May 9-10 attacks.
The OISL reported,
“According to witnesses, at around 8 a.m., on 12 May, shells fired by SLA fell directly in front of the admission ward of the facility, killing at least 20 people, including a district health administrator, medical volunteers, a nurse, and many patients. Many died instantly, others succumbing to injuries, some as a result of lack of medical care and medicine.”
“The shelling occurred at a busy time of the day, with many injured civilians from earlier attacks waiting for their treatment.”
“(A) witness described how there were many injured patients and many dead bodies all together in one place, people crying all around. Medical supplies were almost exhausted.”
One witness said,
“There were so many dead bodies that they could not be separated. There were pieces of bodies everywhere…”
“It was a terrible sight, with people dead and dying everywhere inside the hospital”
The US State Department report said,
“One shell landed in front of the admission ward, killing 26 people instantaneously.”
“Among the casualties was the Administrative Officer of Mullaittivu Regional Director of Health Services (RDHS), who was killed while arranging a patient’s admission to the hospital.”
“A witness at the hospital said that the shelling came from the direction of Iraddayvaikkal, which GSL forces had recently captured. Another source said that in addition to the 49 killed, scores of others were wounded, and he expected the death toll to rise. Shells were still hitting the area hours later, including one that landed about 150 yards from the hospital.”
“the smaller NFZ unilaterally declared by the GSL continued to come under attack.”
Photographs above and right: The aftermath of an attack on a makeshift hospital on May 12th 2009.
Elements of Sri Lanka’s 58 Division have reportedly entered the new civilian safe zone.
The OISL reports that later the same day,
“a shell landed near a tent accommodating hospital staff and volunteers, killing a nursing assistant and causing serious burns to six others”.
“At least two witnesses indicated that at that time, patients were being brought in with unusual burns, one of them describing the different parts of the body of the patients being blackened, with skin like “black charcoal”.”
Several allegations of chemical weapons, including white phosphorus, being deployed by the Sri Lankan military have been made. The OISL continues,
“Likewise, while OISL received allegations of the use of white phosphorous, and witnesses described such incidents, particularly in the last few weeks of the conflict where bombs caused intense burning and blackened skin, it was not able to gather enough information to confirm that white phosphorous was used. OISL therefore believes that these allegations should also be investigated further.”
Dr Navaratnarajah Uyatchi, who was heading the last hospital in Mullivaikkal until the early hours of May 17th, told the British House of Commons in 2016 that he witnessed the Sri Lankan airforce drop chemical weapons within the vicinity of the hospital.
Also see our earlier posts:
Video of Sri Lankan soldier describing use of chemical weapons – India’s News X (15 Mar 2014)
Catholic bishops want international probe into chemical weapon use (09 Jan 2014)
Phosphorus attacks covered up in hospitals (02 November 2013)
UN team confirms cluster bomb use in Sri Lanka (26 April 2012)
More evidence of Sri Lanka’s use of cluster munitions and white phosphorous bombs (27 April 2012)
Colombo uses chemical weapons: LTTE (14 April 2009)
US, UK want UN to facilitate ‘safe evacuation’ of civilians
Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband. A joint statement issued after the meeting said the two, ‘’expressed their profound concern about the humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka caused by the ongoing hostilities’’.
“They expressed alarm at the large number of reported civilian causalities over the past several days in the designated ‘safe’ zone”.
Photograph: Clinton and Miliband meet on May 12th 2009.
See the full text below.
“Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband call on all sides to end hostilities immediately and allow for the safe evacuation of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped within the safe zone. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam must lay down their arms and allow civilians free passage out of the conflict zone. The government of Sri Lanka must abide by its commitment of April 27 to end major combat operations and the use of heavy weapons.”
“Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband express their appreciation for the continued efforts of the United Nations and their staff on the ground in Sri Lanka. They call on the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers to allow a UN humanitarian team to visit the conflict zone to facilitate the safe evacuation of civilians. They urge both sides to allow food and medical assistance to reach those trapped by fighting, cooperate with the ICRC to facilitate the evacuation of urgent medical cases, ensure the safety of aid and medical workers, and permit humanitarian access to all sites where displaced persons are being registered or being provided shelter.”
“Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband call for a political solution that reconciles all Sri Lankans, and establishes a meaningful role for Tamil and other minorities in national political life.”
TNA says 150,000 trapped and warns of more bloodshed
The Tamil National Alliance held a press conference stating more than 3,000 civilians had been killed in the last 3 days alone and warned of further massacre.
All the TNA MPs in the country, with the exemption of one trapped inside the conflict zone, were present.
TNA leader R Sampanthan said,
“there is genocide taking place in Vanni; the entire international community is being silent; we don’t want just statements of condemnations and pledges without any action; the killings of civilians must immediately be stopped; this is our urgent request”.
The MPs stated that there remain 120,000 to 150,000 civilians inside the conflict zone.
IDPs dying in Menik Farm
At least 61 elderly Tamil IDPs are reported to have died whilst captive at the Menik Farm IDP camp in Vavuniya, from May 1 to May 11.
The OISL says,
“Humanitarian workers reported sometimes seeing the bodies of elderly persons lying on the ground including two in different camps in June 2009. Many elderly were unaccompanied in the camps, in some cases separated from families who were in other camps and not able to reunite with them. Many witnesses had also described the elderly as being particularly weakened by conditions in the conflict zone.”
“On 27 April, the Vavuniya District Magistrate Court had ordered that all IDPs over the age of 60 who were sick and without relatives in the IDP camps were to be transferred to homes for elderly people. The decision was based on his findings that there were more than five deaths each day of elderly persons in the IDP camps due to starvation and malnutrition, and that the deaths of 14 elderly people had been registered in Manik Farm the previous day.”
11th May 2009
More than 3,200 killed overnight
The carnage continued in the No Fire Zone with more than 3,200 people killed overnight according to Lawrence Christy, the head of Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) Field Office.
He called on the international community “to intervene to stop the genocide and to provide food and medicine to the besieged civilians”.
The SLA offensive formations were firing using cannons, 50 calibre machine guns, artilleries, mortar and Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) guns reported TamilNet.
The then LTTE head of international relations Selvarasa Pathmanathan released a statement saying,
“The recent developments in Vanni are very disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Sri Lanka and its partners in this war to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty.”
“We are convinced that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the making and appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to prevail upon the Sri Lankan Government so as to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy.”
The United Nation’s OISL reports that there was only one health facility for all the civilians in the area”. It adds,
“Between 8 and 12 May the facility was shelled on several occasions as the NFZ3 came under intense daily bombardment by SLA artillery, the air force and the navy.”
The UN spokesman at the time Gordon Weiss said the shelling over the weekend had caused a “bloodbath”, stating,
“The U.N. has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we’ve watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months… The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend, including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath has become a reality.”
Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, said the government took “serious offence” at the remarks by Mr Weiss and had lodged a formal protest. “It is not the role of the UN office to say anything in public to embarrass the host government,” Mr Kohona said.
Security Council continues to take no action
The then British Foreign Minister David Miliband said he was “appalled by the reports that have come out of Sri Lanka over the weekend of mass civilian casualties”, at a press conference at the Untied Nations in New York.
“No-one can be in any doubt that this is an issue that deserves the international community’s attention,” he added, saying that “Our message is a simple one which is that the killing must stop”.
However, Mr Miliband claimed that there were only “up to 50,000” people trapped in the final conflict zone. Later estimates revealed the actual number to be as many as three times that.
He went on to state,
“As you know, the issue [Sri Lanka] has not yet been allowed onto the formal UN Security Council agenda. That’s why we will be having a range of meetings either side of today’s formal meeting on the Middle East.”
“I believe very very strongly that the civilian situation in the North East of Sri Lanka merits the attention of the United Nations at all levels.”
A leaked US embassy cable says that Mr Miliband referred to the government in Sri Lanka as “liars”.
Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch commented,
“If the Security Council stays silent on this issue any longer, it will be a failure of historic proportions… It is already late, but lives can still be saved”.
A leaked US embassy cable highlights notes of the meeting, hosted by the UK and French Foreign Ministers with like-minded Security Council members. The UN Secretary-General and Council members discussed Sri Lanka during their monthly lunch, it adds.
“The Foreign Ministers of the UK, France, Austria and Costa Rica, as well as the U.S. and Mexico all strongly supported SC action, with Russian FM Lavrov on the defensive. Lavrov said the situation in Sri Lanka is a humanitarian disaster, but not a threat to peace and security. He said other fora in the UN were better suited to address this issue. He added that there were plenty of similar instances when the Security Council did not act. China said that the Security Council’s informal meetings on Sri Lanka had made a difference.
Ambassador Rice disagreed, and said the meetings had not yet made a difference; displaced persons were not receiving help, and the shelling continued despite government assurances to the contrary. On the margins of the meeting, the French said they intend to bring Sri Lanka to the Security Council this week, and would push for a product.”
See the full text of the cable here.
Joint Letter to Japanese Prime Minister on Sri Lanka
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect wrote a joint letter to Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso calling on his government “to support efforts for the [United Nations] Security Council to keep the situation in Sri Lanka under close and regular review and to consider the situation in Sri Lanka formally at the Security Council.”
Extracts reproduced below.
“If the world continues to look away from the suffering of civilians in Sri Lanka, as it has largely done until now, it will be a failure of historic proportions. We believe that Japan, a powerful player on the humanitarian stage and the largest international donor to Sri Lanka, has an important role to play in saving countless civilian lives, as well as to implement aid policies that ensure sustainable peace, human rights and development in Sri Lanka. It is time for Japan to show that it is prepared to shoulder its responsibilities.”
“Meetings in recent weeks have been held only informally in basement rooms, deliberately kept out of the Council’s main chamber, because of the reluctance of some member states. We believe this must change and formal meetings of the Security Council must be held urgently so that the Council can take the necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights crisis.”
“The Council should make clear that both the government and LTTE would be held accountable for their actions, and create a UN commission of inquiry to examine violations of international humanitarian law by both sides.”
Tamil diaspora continues protests
Protests continued in capitals across the world, where the Tamil diaspora had taken to the streets to demand a ceasefire.
In Washington DC, more than two hundred American Tamils protested in front of the White House.
Photographs: Tamils protest outside the White House on May 11th 2009.
10th May 2009
Photograph: A Tamil woman mourns, after her relative was killed in a Sri Lankan military attack on May 10th 2009.
Thousands killed in one day
As many as 2,000 civilians were reportedly killed in a barrage of artillery fire by the Sri Lankan military throughout the day, reports TamilNet.
“Dead bodies are found in bunkers and inside the tarpaulin tents,” TamilNet added.
Rescue workers had counted at least 1,200 bodies with fears that many more had been undiscovered.
See more here. (Graphic images)
Photographs: The aftermath of intense shelling by the Sri Lankan military on May 10th 2009.
The US State Department quoted a local source in the NFZ as reporting that “a congested civilian area was under heavy shell attack with many houses and vehicles burning”.
“Many civilians’ temporary tarpaulin houses were struck by shells, and many hundreds of civilians were killed.”
“A local source for an organization also reported heavy shelling with an estimated 1,000 killed and another estimated 1,000 injured. Embassy Colombo also reported that heavy shelling occurred in the NFZ, killing at least 300 civilians.”
“More bodies were on the beaches and along road sides. The source said that heavy arms appeared to have been fired from government-controlled territory into a mainly civilian area under LTTE… The death toll is thought to be closer to 1,000; many of those killed would have been buried in the bunkers where they were slain, and many of the gravely wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment.”
A leaked US embassy cable notes,
The Embassy has credible information that the Sri Lankan Air Force conducted an air strike south of the civilian safe zone yesterday afternoon, May 10.
Read the full cable here.
Satellite imagery analysed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International showed evidence of bomb shell craters, destroyed permanent structures, mortar positions, and 1,346 individual graves, from May 6th to May 10th 2009.
IDP tents inside the No Fire Zone on May 6th (left) and May 10th (right). There is almost complete removal of all structures that were present.
Red arrows indicate craters from possible artillery or air fire from May 6th (left) and May 10th (right).
Further analysis of crater morphology shows evidence of fire in a similar tactic to that described in a US Army field manual.
Possible mortar craters landing in a ‘Lazy W’ formation (left) as detailed in a US military manual (right).
Possible mortar craters landing in a ‘Six Star’ formation (left) as detailed in a US military manual (right).
‘The Tamil people are dismayed’
The LTTE released a statement stating,
“At this very moment (Sunday, May 10 2009), the Sri Lankan Government has unleashed its ferocious military aggression against the hapless Tamil civilians living in the so-called “Safe Zone” in Vanni, Sri Lanka. More than 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the last 24 hours. The wholesale bombardment by Sri Lankan planes and shelling on a densely populated, non combatant civilian safe zone is state terrorism and a war crime.”
“The international community and UN have an obligation to protect the Tamil people facing genocidal aggression directed in a manner against all international humanitarian laws. It is clear that the Sri Lankan Government has prevented all aid agencies and humanitarian organisations from visiting the conflict zone. The Tamil people are dismayed that the United Nations and the International Community have failed in their obligations to protect the endangered civilians.”
“Every passing day is resulting in the loss of countless number of civilian lives and alienation of the entire Tamil community.”
‘It is a genocidal war’
Catholic Priest Father Francis Joseph writes to the Pope from inside the No Fire Zone, calling on the Church to break its silence on the massacre of Tamils. The father, who was later detained by Sri Lankan security forces after passing through a military checkpoint in May 2009, has not been seen since.
Extracts of his letter are below.
Last night’s toll of the dead is 3318 and of the injured more than 4000. It was a barrage of artillery, mortar, multi-barrel shelling and cluster bombs…
The cries and woes of agony of babies and children, the women and the elderly fill the air that was polluted by poisonous and unhealthy gases…
I deem it my duty to point my finger at the Church for its silence while some of the countries like USA, UK, France and some of the European Union countries and others, even the UN have voiced their dismay at the way the Sri Lankan Government is conducting a war to annihilate the Tamils…
Let it be known that under the guise of eradicating terrorism, the Sri Lankan Government is waging the war to annihilate the Tamil nation. It is a genocidal war.
See the full text of the letter here.
Tamil diaspora continues protests
Protests continued in capitals across the world, where the Tamil diaspora had taken to the streets to demand a ceasefire.
Photograph: Tamil Canadians protest on the Gardiner Expressway on May 10th 2009.
Tamils in Canada including women and children, held a peaceful protest, blocking the main Gardiner Expressway that runs through the city.
Sri Lanka deports 3 British journalists
“It’s not often that the most powerful man in the country rings you,” Channel 4’s Nick Paton Walsh said.
“I’d spoken amicably to defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa 45 minutes earlier about getting some better access to Sri Lanka’s 25 year war. But this time he was calling me, and seemed to have remembered something.”
“Who is this? You rang me earlier? Is this Channel 4? You have been accusing my soldiers of raping civilians? Your visa is cancelled, you will be deported. You can report what you like about this country, but from your own country, not from here,” Gotabaya told Walsh.
India Congress President Sonia says now ‘people moved to safer places’
India’s Congress President Sonia Gandhi, is in Tamil Nadu, where she says, “our government had done everything possible to bring an end to the hostilities and it was due to our resolute efforts that Sri Lanka announced conclusion of combat operations and people moved to safer places.”
“Our ultimate goal, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said and as has been the stand of the Congress in the last 30 years, is to secure for the Tamils equals rights and status within the framework of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord.”
9th May 2009
‘Artillery from all directions’
The US State Department quoted a local as stating that the No Fire zone “received artillery fire from all four directions for over 12 hours”.
“He estimated that over 1,000 were killed and another 1,000 injured.”
Human Rights Watch reported two witness testimonies from the day.
“K. Kanaga,” a 35-year-old woman whose name is withheld for security reasons, said that around 7 p.m. on May 9, she and 15 others were hiding in a bunker that they had built under a tractor when a shell struck the tractor. “If it hadn’t been for the tractor, we would have all been dead,” she said. About eight to 10 shells struck the immediate area, which was populated with tents and improvised bunkers. Kanaga’s 45-year-old cousin was staying in a tent nearby; she never reached the bunker and was killed in the attack. “Many other people were injured as well, but I don’t know how many,” Kanaga said. “I could hear their screams.”
“R. Raman,” 29, said that he and his family had been hiding in their bunker in Mullaivaikal – a dug-out trench without any cover – for several days. “We were being attacked from all sides,” he said. “My wife and I only left the bunker to get food and water for our three children.”
Early in the morning on May 9, a shell struck one of the tents closeby, killing Raman’s 15-year-old nephew and wounding his nephew’s older brother and sister. Raman believes that the shell came from Sri Lankan army positions and may have been targeting LTTE forces that were deployed in the jungle about 100 meters away. Several shells struck the tented area inhabited by displaced civilians.
Photographs above: A makeshift hospital pictured on May 9th 2009.
Barrage hits NFZ as last ICRC ship leaves
The Sri Lankan military launched a barrage of heavy weapon fire in to the No Fire Zone as the last ICRC-chartered ferry that visits the conflict area leaves.
“Fighting also made it impossible for the ferry to approach the shore on the previous day, 8 May,” said an ICRC press release.
“The plight of the people remaining in the combat area is desperate, ” said ICRC’s head of delegation in Sri Lanka, Paul Castella.
“We need unimpeded access to them in order to save lives. ”
Head of Sri Lankan army visits Vanni
Then Commander of the Army Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka flew to Vavuniya to meet with senior military commanders and “review the latest developments of the security situation in Vanni areas,” reports the military.
Photograph: Sarath Fonseka visits the Vanni, with other senior military officials on May 9th 2009.
“Army Commander, after being received by Commander Security Forces Headquarters Wanni (SFHQ-W) Major General Jagath Jayasuriya, was conducted to the SFHQ auditorium where he met senior ground commanders and discussed the present security situation in Wanni. He also issued further instructions to his ground commanders,” said an official military website.
British Channel 4 journalists arrested
Sri Lanka arrests three British journalists from Channel 4 News, after they compiled a report on the conditions of war refugees and alleged sexual abuse in camps for those who fled the northern war zone.
8th May 2009
Photograph above: Shells land inside the No Fire Zone on May 8th 2009.
With GPS co-ordinates, Sri Lanka attacks hospitals
The Sri Lankan military stepped up its barrage of the No Fire Zone with heavy shelling reported, including with cluster munitions.
The US State Department quotes a HRW source in the NFZ who “witnessed an SLA drone conduct reconnaissance above the Valayanmadam hospital”.
“Shortly thereafter the hospital was attacked, killing four or five people including a doctor and wounding more than 30. Several sources informed HRW that each time a hospital was established in a new location, GPS coordinates of the facility were transmitted to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the facility would be protected from military attack. Witnesses said that on several occasions, attacks occurred on the day after the coordinates had been transmitted.”
Final ‘No Fire Zone’ declared
The Sri Lankan government declared the third and final No Fire Zone.
The OISL reports “tens of thousands of civilians were squeezed into this tiny area”.
“The SLA force now confronting the LTTE was probably in excess of 50,000 soldiers, with significant heavy weapons capability and air supremacy… The SLA was on one side of a large lagoon, the LTTE on the other, the civilians being at some distance behind the LTTE.
However, witnesses, described to the OISL “continuous shelling and devastation as the shells hit the ground”. One source told the OISL,
“Firing from the SLA would pass over the LTTE front line “and impact on the civilians behind it”.”
“He said that everyone was squeezed into a small piece of land and practically each time a shell fell, people would be injured and killed. Another witness said he saw nine people being killed when a shell hit a mango tree by a well where they had gathered. One saw a woman killed when a shell hit her bunker… she had a sewing machine and used to make cloth bags to fill with sand for the bunker. “
Often, people fled when family members were killed – they had no time to mourn or bury the dead…” Another witness described seeing more than a 100 dead bodies, including children, near his bunker.”
Meanwhile General Shavendra Silva, then Commander of the 58th Division and current head of the Sri Lankan army, stated,
“At the last stages of the operation we just did not go blind, everything was planned through UAV pictures and where we exactly knew where the civilians and the LTTE were and where we found that at least a little bit of confusion whether the civilians are too close to the LTTE cadres we had to resort to other means and buy time to separate the two parties.”
No food, no medicine
The US State Department reported said that “local sources in the NFZ reported that a supply ship had arrived but was forced by the GSL to return to Trincomalee with its cargo of food and medicine still on board. The sources reported that the SLN had refused to allow them to offload the cargo, and then began firing on the beach.”
“An organization reported that shipments of food and medicine to the NFZ were grossly insufficient over the prior month and that the GSL reportedly delayed or denied timely shipment of life-saving medicines as well as chlorine tablets. A source in the NFZ reported that patients were brought to the hospital for fainting attacks attributed to their lack of food.”
“Mothers were crying at the hospital and asking for milk powder. They had not eaten and were unable to feed their children, but the hospital did not have milk powder in stock.”
Photographs: The aftermath of attacks inside the No Fire Zone on May 8th 2009.
Heavy rains at internment camps
Rains in Vavuniya, where hundreds of thousands of Tamils were being interned, cause mass flooding.
7th May 2009
Photograph from US State Department report of “characteristic cluster bomb smoke cloud from a shelling on May 7 in Mullivaikkal”.
More cluster bombs hit No Fire Zone
The Sri Lankan army launches cluster bombs inside the No Fire Zone, one of several such attacks in the last few months.
In the UN’s OISL report, witnesses “described the objects exploding in mid-air and releasing many smaller objects in the air before impacting the ground”.
“Cluster munitions release bomblets over a wide area above a target that explode on impact. However, indirect fire munitions may also be configured to explode into fragments overhead. OISL believes that given the persistent nature of the allegations of cluster munitions, further investigation needs to be carried out to determine whether or not they were used.”
Photographs leaked in 2016 appear to confirm the use of cluster bombs by the Sri Lankan government. The photographs showed demining teams excavating cluster munitions from Kilinochchi and Chalai in Mullaitivu, sites of heavy bombardment by Sri Lankan forces.
Deminers unearth an RBK-500 AO-2.5RT cluster bomb near Chalai. Photograph: The Guardian/Together Against Genocide
A former Mines Advisory Group (MAG) employee told the Guardian that cluster bombs had been found in a “densely civilian-populated area” in one of the ‘No Fire Zones’ near Puthukudiyiruppu.
Previously the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice released a series of witness stories from the final war zone, which included testimony of a cluster bomb attack.
“The main bomb explodes in the air and splits into many pieces,” the witness said. “One kind of cluster bomb, used in Iranaipalai, produced colorful ribbons. Children were attracted and picked pieces up; as they handled the pieces they exploded.”
In a statement released weeks earlier, the Tamil National Alliance said,
“The use by the Sri Lankan State of internationally banned weapons, such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons, has been a characteristic feature of the current phase of the war being waged against the Tamil people.”
“The Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka are clearly being subjected to Genocide.”
Also, see more in our feature: Leaked photos confirm cluster bomb use in Sri Lanka (19 Jun 2016)
LTTE commits to full support of ICRC
The LTTE released a letter from its Political Head Quarters, stating that it “reiterates its full commitment and support to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)”.
“We also wish to reiterate our organisation’s total commitment to the safety and security of the members of the ICRC in carrying out its humanitarian work and its other mandated activities,” it added. “Please take this letter as the necessary security guarantees from the LTTE for performing the work of the ICRC.”
“We are aware of the GOSL and its armed forces’ attempts at deliberately launching military manoeuvres in LTTE controlled areas to thwart the activities of the ICRC. We take this opportunity to express our deep appreciation of all the invaluable work done by the ICRC with regards to the immensely suffering Tamil civilian population due to the genocidal war waged against the Tamil people by the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).”
Photographs: A crater from a shell attack on May 8th 2009.
Small scale ICRC evacuations continue
Meanwhile, the ICRC said that “heavy fighting is taking place near the medical assembly point at Mullavaikkal, which puts the lives of patients, medical workers and ICRC staff at great risk.”
495 Tamils were evacuated from the final conflict zone by boat to Trincomalee and Pulmoddai.
An ICRC evacuation taking place in April 2009.
Jacques de Maio, the ICRC head of operations for South Asia, in Geneva said, “not all the wounded could be evacuated today, and it is of the utmost importance that more evacuations take place over the coming days”.
“The food and medical supplies that have been delivered remain insufficient to cover the basic needs of the people there.”
Tamil human rights activist abducted in Colombo
Stephen Sunthararaj was abducted by five men whilst travelling in his lawyer’s car in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Stephen, an activist with the Centre for Human Rights and Development, is a father of three children who were all under ten years of age when he was abducted.
Diaspora protests continue
British Tamil students protest in London in 2009.
Meanwhile, protests in capitals across the world by the Tamil diaspora continue. In London, a student protester Siva told TamilNet.
“The whole world is now well aware of the plight of the Tamils under the chauvinistic Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state. Hundreds of Tamils being massacred or starving to death each week, Sri Lanka’s slow genocide has is accelerating. Yet the continued inaction by some powerful states, while other states support Sri Lanka, is allowing this to continue.”
British Tamil students added,
“what is needed right now is action by the international community, not merely words of sympathy.”
6th May 2009
Photograph taken on May 6th 2009 inside the No Fire Zone.
Hospitals hit by Sri Lankan army
A US State Department report says that on the 6th of May,
A local source reported that the remaining hospital facilities were continually hit by SLA shelling, even though their locations had been carefully reported to the government.
Mano Ganesan, the leader of the Democratic People’s Front (DPF), also responded to a statement from the UNP’s Palitharanga Bandara who called for the continued use of heavy weapons, including inside the No Fire Zone, where tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were sheltering.
“News from Vanni show that heavy weapons are being used in the war on the ‘safe zone’ in Vanni,” he said.
“Why should Palitharanga Bandara urge the government to use heavy weapons on the ‘safe zone’? Is UNP unaware of the presence of innocent Tamils there? Why this racism against the Tamils? This is something utterly shameful. The UNP will lose its Tamil votes in the future polls.”
Photograph: A woman who was evacuated from the conflict zone, receives medical attention on May 6th 2009.
More deaths from starvation
Dozens of people are reported to have died from starvation in the preceding weeks, particularly the elderly.
The US State Department says that,
“An organization’s sources expressed their belief that the GSL was deliberately preventing delivery of medicine to the NFZ and reported that ―over the last week, at least 20 people have died due to starvation and lack of medication”
Deaths are occurring not just inside the No Fire Zone, but also at detention centres in Vavuniya, where on May 4th, ten elderly persons reportedly died.
5th May 2009
Deaths from starvation add to crisis
Photograph: Inside the final conflict zone, pictured on May 5th 2009.
As the Sri Lankan military continued its shelling of the No Fire Zone, the LTTE called on the international community to facilitate the delivery of urgent humanitarian aid.
Extracts from their press release follow:
Faced with imminent deaths by starvation directly attributable to the Sri Lankan regime’s deliberate denial of food and humanitarian assistance to the Tamil people, the Tamil Diaspora has initiated measures to deliver humanitarian aid direct to the Tamil people in the Vanni/Mullaitivu region. The LTTE calls on the international community to support these actions to deliver humanitarian aid.
We draw attention to the nine deaths by starvation in the last few days and the real fear that the death toll could rise exponentially in the coming days.
The situation of the Tamil people who are being subject to shelling and bombings has been made much worse by the deliberate withholding of food and medicine. The UN and the rest of the International Community has a moral obligation to support this initiative by the Tamil Diaspora.
Photograph: People queue for food inside the final conflict zone, pictured May 5th 2009.
The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation reported that of the estimated 2500MT of food that was needed per month, only 60MT was allowed through by the government for the whole of April.
It went on to add,
“Dead bodies are being taken by TRO volunteers for burial or cremation. Dead bodies have to be collected from shelters and bunkers. When dead bodies are brought to the hospitals or when the wounded people died in the hospital as the treatment failed they also have to be picked up.
A State Department report quoted sources as stating “various sections of Mullivaikkal were subject to air attack, artillery fire and cluster bombs”.
It added, “a source in the NFZ reported that there were no antibiotics available to treat illnesses”.
Prof Francis Boyle writes that “since the outset of this latest crisis in January, the GOSL has exterminated about 7000 Tamils in Vanni, certainly a “substantial part” of the Tamil population in Vanni and Sri Lanka.”
“If not stopped now, the GOSL’s toll of genocide against the Tamils could far exceed the recent horrors of Srebrenica.”
“A generation ago the world turned away from the Nazi genocide against the Jews–and lived to regret it. Humanity is at a similar crossroads today.”
British MPs conclude trip to Sri Lanka
A delegation of British MPs conclude their visit to Sri Lanka, with a press conference that slams the LTTE and calls on Sri Lanka to “use maximum restraint in their ongoing operations”.
“The LTTE has ignored repeated calls for the release of these civilians,” said Des Browne. “We welcome the Government’s agreement to allow the UN to visit the conflict zone to assess the humanitarian needs of the people there and to plan the evacuation of the remaining civilians… We spoke to a number of people in the camps who expressed their genuine relief at having escaped the LTTE and reached a place of safety. It is clear that IDPs in camps are much better off than their friends and relatives who remain in the conflict zone.”
“The lack of independent reporting from the conflict zone is oxygen to LTTE propaganda and generates unhelpful speculation,” said John Bercow.
Army advances into No Fire Zone
Wikileaks cables reveal “elements of the 53 Division” have entered the No Fire Zone. It adds “53 Division is advancing south on an axis west of the A35 road and east of the Nanthi Kadal Lagoon, while 58 Division is moving south on an axis east of the A35 and west of the coast.”
4th May 2009
The bombing continues
A US State Department report noted a source inside the No Fire Zone as stating the Sri Lankan military was “engaged in daily shelling and bombing of the NFZ, killing an estimated minimum of 100 people per day”.
Several attacks on Mullivaikkal Hospital led to patients not being able to receive surgery or any other forms of treatment, the State Department report added.
Photographs: Above, civilians shelter from Sri Lankan military attacks pictured on May 4th 2009.
Hundreds of Tamils arrested
Meanwhile the Sri Lankan military continued its roundup of Tamils across the island. In Amparai 160 Tamils were arrested by Special Task Force (STF) commandos and taken into police custody. In Colombo the military arrested 6 further Tamils, whilst 76 Tamils held in detention centres in the Jaffna peninsula were taken by the military to the Thellippazhai ‘rehabilitation centre’.
TAG calls for ICC investigation
Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) wrote to then Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) Luis Moreno-Ocampo, urging him to investigate senior Sri Lankan military and political officials for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Bruce Fein, counsel for TAG, wrote
I am writing to urge you to open investigations under the Rome Statute of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan presidential adviser and Member of Parliament, Basil Rajapaksa, and Sri Lankan Army Commander Sarath Fonseka.
The quartet should be investigated for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide of Sri Lankan civilian Tamils unconnected with the conflict between the government and the LTTE.
The Government of Sri Lanka is unwilling to investigate itself.
Photograph supplied on 4th May 2009 inside Menik Farm, where hundreds of thousands of Tamils were to be detained by the Sri Lankan military.
3rd May 2009
‘Horrendous act of genocide’
Photographs: Above and below – Tamil children with signs of acute malnourishment, pictured inside the final conflict zone.
The LTTE’s Political Head B Nadesan accused the Sri Lankan government of deliberately carrying out a “horrendous act of genocide”, with their restriction on food, medicines and humanitarian access to Tamil civilians in the final conflict zone.
See more from TamilNet here.
The OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) found that,
“Witness testimonies and other documentation refer to many dying of starvation, exhaustion or lack of medical care in addition to those killed by shelling and shooting”.
“It remains to be investigated how many people – particularly the most vulnerable such as the elderly and children – died as a result of lack of access to food and medical care.”
A medical professional was quoted by the OISL as describing the situation in the final conflict zone.
“One of the children who was 18 months old was suffering severe lethargy, she could not stand up or walk and had to be carried all the time. Even though we favoured the children with food, they showed signs of muscle wastage in their legs, they had distended stomachs and their ribs where showing through their skin where the normal layer of fat in a child of this age had disappeared.”
Another witness said,
“Everyone was starving. I could see the children were malnourished and the elderly were very weak.”
The OISL went on to state,
“A senior United Nations official said they were amongst the worst cases of malnutrition he had ever seen”.
The attacks continue
A US State Department report quotes a local source as reporting the Sri Lankan military, as part of a multi-barrel shell attack, launched over 40 shells in the vicinity of civilians living in an area between the Mullivaikkal Pillayar temple and the sea.
Photographs taken on May 3rd 2009, in the aftermath of a Sri Lankan MBRL attack.
2nd May 2009
Hospital bombed twice
The aftermath of a Sri Lankan military attack on a hospital, which was hit twice on the morning of 2nd May 2009.
The only remaining hospital in Mullivaikkal was attacked twice by the Sri Lankan military on the morning of the 2nd of May 2009, with at least 64 people killed and a further 87 injured.
A US State Department report quoted a local source as stating the hospital was shelled twice, once at 9 a.m. and again at 10.30 a.m. The main outpatient department was hit as well as a bunker in the immediate vicinity to the hospital. Human Rights Watch later reported these attacks, noting that the second attack also resulted in dozens of casualties.
The OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka quoted a witness describing the scene:
“There were many bodies everywhere and I could still smell the smoke from the shells hanging in the air. The smell of blood and the screaming from the injured was overwhelming. There were many women and children dead.”
Human Rights Watch would go on to state that there were “at least 30 attacks on permanent and makeshift hospitals in the combat area since December 2008”.
Photographs: Above – The aftermath of a Sri Lankan military attack on a hospital, which was hit twice on the morning of 2nd May 2009.
LTTE calls once more for a ceasefire
The LTTE released a statement calling once more for a ceasefire to end the humanitarian crisis. Extracts of their statement below.
“May, I take this opportunity to draw attention to our unilateral announcement of a cease fire on 26th April and our position that only such a ceasefire can end the humanitarian crisis. We are ready to engage in the process to bring about a ceasefire and enter into negotiations for an enduring resolution to the conflict.”
We call for an international monitoring mechanism that can ascertain for itself the plight of civilians who have sought sanctuary in the areas under our control.”
“Given the political ideology that drives the Sri Lankan state, there is little reason to hope that it would, on its own accord, consider any accommodation with Tamil aspirations. Indeed this is the bitter lesson learnt by the Tamil people during the last 60 years following the departure of the British in 1948. We are convinced that this particular phase of the conflict is an attempt to eradicate a distinct Tamil identity. It is in the face of this situation that we seek the recognition and the support of the international community for our struggle. It is a struggle for democracy and an enduring peace based on our aspirations as a people. Should the Sri Lankan regime be permitted to continue with its ultimate objective of imposing a ‘final solution’ through military means, we have no doubt that it will destabilize the region.
See more from TamilNet here.
Protests in Tamil Nadu, Indian military vehicles attacked
Indians in Tamil Nadu protested against the Sri Lankan military’s offensive and attacked a convoy of military trucks they accused of transporting weapons to the Sri Lankan government.
Paramilitary operatives kill 8 year old girl in Batticaloa
Meanwhile paramilitary cadres attached to the Pillaiyan and Karuna groups are accused of killing 8-year-old Thinusika Satheeskumar in Batticaloa, who was abducted whilst on her way home from school earlier in the week. Her body was found dumped in a well.
Tamil paramilitary groups aligned to the government continue to operate with impunity in the region, with the Sri Lankan military providing them continued protection.
1st May 2009
A night of heavy shelling
The No Fire Zone, photographed on 01 May 2009.
Approximately 200 civilians sheltering at Mullivaikkal were rushed to the hospital as the Sri Lankan military bombarded the area on the night of the 30th of April. Dozens were killed.
Earlier that week the LTTE said the Sri Lankan military had fired at least 5,600 shells in the space of 24 hours, killing hundreds.
See more from TamilNet here.
The aftermath of a shell attack took place on the night of 30th April 2009. 10 civilians were killed on the spot in this shelling.
A young boy stands by a makeshift bunker that was hit by artillery fire on the night of April 30th.
Makeshift bunkers made out of old sheets and saris.
‘Victory without humanity can be no triumph’
Then British and French foreign ministers David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner wrote in The Times on the 30th of April 2009, after a visit to the island where they met with Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“The Government of Sri Lanka’s announcement of a cessation of heavy military combat is a welcome step towards the protection of civilians. Similar announcements have been made in the past. This one must be implemented and kept to. The UN had an agreement with the Government to send a mission into the conflict zone to help to assess and address civilian needs. That agreement has not been implemented. It must be.”
“Here the refusal to allow the UN, the aid agencies, and the media full and proper access is quite wrong.”
“The gravity of the situation means that the international community has a duty to respond and to do all that we can to halt the suffering.
As members of the UN Security Council we do not shy away from the responsibility of sovereign governments and the international community to protect civilians. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has joined us in describing the failure to protect civilians in Sri Lanka as truly shocking. Yesterday we took our plea direct to the Sri Lankan Government. In its moment of triumph it must show the humanity and self-interest to find a way to win the peace.”
See the full piece at The Times here.
Current Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan met with the visiting delegation and informed them that at least 7,000 Tamils in Vanni have been killed and 14,000 injured in the last three months alone.
Meanwhile Sinhala Buddhist monks in the south protested against the visiting minsters.
Government admits it bombed ‘No Fire Zone’
The Sri Lankan government meanwhile finally admitted that it had bombed the ‘No Fire Zone’ where it had instructed Tamil civilians to seek shelter.
Confronted with leaked satellite footage of the region, which showed extensive crater marks from Sri Lankan military shelling, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona made the admission in an interview with Al Jazeera despite earlier government denials.
However, Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa contradicted his foreign secretary by continuing to categorically deny that the military had attacked civilian areas with heavy weapons.
“If you are not willing to accept the fact that we are not using heavy weapons, I really can’t help it,” he said. “We are not using heavy weapons. When we say no, it means no. If we say we are doing something, we do it. We do exactly what we say, without confusion.”
See more from Al Jazeera at the time here.
IMF loan opposition
The International Monetary Fund is considering granting a $1.9 billion loan to Sri Lanka, despite massive opposition.
Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) had filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of Treasury and United States Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seeking a declaratory judgment that United States law prohibited voting in favour of the loan.
Diaspora protests continue
Tens of thousands of Tamil protesters from around the world continued their protests, calling on international governments to pressure Sri Lanka into an immediate ceasefire and for urgent international humanitarian assistance.
Tamil protesters in Norway, photographed April 2009