Michael Roberts, 10 June 2011
Preamble: The seeds of this essay lodged in my mind in early March 2009 when still in Lanka after an email exchange with CMJ; but I was too busy to develop the idea till May. The first draft was prepared then. That set me on a course that led to an essay I considered vital to be a backdrop, namely, “The Landscape of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 2009,” which can be read at http://thuppahi. wordpress.com/2011/06/07/the-landscape-of-the-ltte%e2%80%99s-last-redoubt-may-2009/. Invariably, there is some overlap in the two articles and both require further context via reference to more images in “Pictorial Images” within the thuppahi site.
All wars involve devastation. The atom bombs onHiroshima and Nagasaki represent the ultimate in scale of destruction. The carpet bombing of Dresden in World War Two provided a lower but nevertheless horrific level of damage to the urban landscape and its people. The critical point is that in visual impact the destruction of packed urban environments invariably generates massive damage and immediately draws exclamation.
When Ian Botham visited the former war zone of the Northern Vanni on 27 March 2011 by helicopter some two years after Eelam War IV had come to an end and spoke of the utter desolation and devastation, I was surprised and thought he went over the top. I was also reminded of the phrase “complete devastation” deployed by Ban Ki-Moon (UN Secretary-General) when he flew over the region by helicopter in late May 2009.[i]
FIGURE 1. Kushil Gunasekera addresses audience at Laureus media event, 3 March 2011. Botham is on the extreme left and Christopher-Martin Jenkins (president of the MCC) on Kushil’s left and extreme right of the podium — Pic provided by FOG (though I have photographs myself)
Botham presented his verdict during a media event sponsored by the Laureus Sports Foundation as a platform for a community aid project being mounted in the small town of Mankulam in the north-east by the Foundation of Goodness headed by Kushil Gunasekera. The audience at the Taj Samudra Hotel was small, but included worldwide media personnel, while the podium of spokesmen was shared by an illustrious cluster involving Botham, Michael Vaughan, Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kushil Gunasekera and Christopher Martin-Jenkins (see Figure 1).
I did not challenge Botham on this issue,[ii] but will do so in the course of this essay. My doubts were based on two sets of experiences.
FIGURE 2. Scene from Italy during WW II circa 1944
As a teenager at St. Aloysius College I had poured over the pictures of World War II in the London Illustrated News. I still retain vivid images of the destruction wrought on the towns and villages of Sicily and mainland Italy, Normandy, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany during the Allied advances against the Axis powers in 1943/44/45 (Figures 2, 3). Having touredTuscany andSicily recently in 2007 and observed the scenes of jam-packed and picturesque little towns that had since been rebuilt on their old sites on the spurs and highlands of rolling valleys, it is not difficult for me to imagine what would happen again if armies rolled over such territory and sought to dominate the high ground.
FIGURE 3. The German town of Wesel in February 1945 after bombardment
The Northern Vanni, however, is a different type of landscape. It is mostly flat scrubland, with clumps of jungle interspersed and trees in varying clumps or in scattered isolation elsewhere (Figures 4, 5, 6). However, there are areas along the north eastern and north western corners where large stretches of jungle and/or lagoons, artificial reservoirs and smaller villoos can be found. While I was not familiar with the latter localities, I have a clear mental map of the type of scenery in the area connecting Vavuniya to the Mänik Farm IDP camps in one direction and, in a different direction, the landscape along the stretch of A9 highway that passes through Mankulam and Kilinochchi on the way to theJaffnaPeninsula. I had travelled both routes in a van with a Tamil driver in early June 2010.
FIGURE 4. Cattle off A9 in June 2010 –Pic by Roberts, June 2010
It is vital for all to note that from early2009 till early 2010, a period of 13-15 months, the regions east and west of the A9 highway from Omanthai toElephantPasshad been mostly devoid of residents other than army personnel. Indeed, one could say there were more stray cattle than people on both sides of the road (Figure 4) till resettlement commenced at a snail’s pace from early 2010 – slow because of the problems posed by land mines and the immense administrative demands of such a project.
This inadequate sketch must be supplemented by attention to the patchy and scattered character of cultivation in this region in the decades prior to 2008. Way back in 1981 this had been a sparsely peopled area, with the Districts of Mannar and Mullaitivu (as constituted then) holding only 183,424 people as opposed to 830,552 in the District of Jaffna. Significant population shifts occurred in the Northern Vanni subsequently, with out-migration because of the war on the one hand and the in-migration of some 80-100,000 Tamil people from the Jaffna Peninsula in late 1995 and early 1996, mostly those who preferred to be with the LTTE rather than under government control. Though few can provide precise figures, it would seem that the number of people in the three Districts of Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu (as administratively re-constituted in 1983) held somewhere between 320,000 and 400,000 people in the last year of the war in 2008-09. Note that these three districts together cover 5892 square kilometres.[iii]
FIGURE 5. Vanni landscape beside Chettikulam & Mānik Farm in June 2010 — Pic by Roberts, June 2010
FIGURE 6. Ban Ki-Moon visits Manik Farm, 23 May 2009 – from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/
In summary, then, from April 2008 when the Tigers were forced to retreat eastwards and imposed multiple displacements on those people under their sway,[iv] the critical features of the areas subject to LTTE authority were: (1) a sparse population; (2) scattered plots of husbandry; and (3) mostly flat scrubland interspersed with trees and jungle. Even such towns as Kilinochchi were linear in their building-pattern with space between some buildings; while the side roads running at right-angles from the A9 had buildings in even broader disconnection with each other.[v]
My attempt to do the impossible, namely, to paint a landscape verbally, provides the preamble for me to place Botham in the company of Ban Ki-Moon and thence to provide a expose with the aid of Christopher Martin-Jenkins. His reading from a helicopter seat enroute to Mankulam alongside Botham provides us, as we shall see, with a better empirically-grounded picture, one that is of ramifying significance.
Ian Botham: Botham’s interpretation of the “devastation” of the war zone was, of course, the stuff for headlines. Simon Haydon of the Associated Press was among those who highlighted this motif. He provides us with some of Botham’s text: “I was completely shocked. The scenery was unbelievable. Flattened lands for miles, houses shelled, treetops burnt,” [Botham] told reporters after visiting the project site at Mankulam …. “I was surprised how wide spaced the place [northern war zone area] was, everything was so flat. It was like a wilderness.”[vi] Botham did not know it, but he was echoing an equally famous individual named Ban Ki-Moon.
Ban Ki-Moon: Immediately after the Tiger stronghold at the eastern fringes of Nandikadal Lagoon had been seized and the Tiger leadership killed on 18-19 May 2009, Ban Ki-Moon made a brief visit to Sri Lanka. His goal was directed by “three key priorities” spelt out thus: “ensuring adequate assistance to the nearly 300,000 persons who were displaced by the conflict; (b) the early resettlement of the IDPs in their homes and reconstruction of northern Sri Lanka; and (c) the need for political dialogue and reconciliation between the government and minority groups, particularly Tamils.”[vii]
The Daily Telegraph described his journey thus: “After arriving in Colombo, he flew by helicopter over the war zone. Below him lay the tiny strip of land including the so-called “no-fire zone” where the Tigers held their last stand in the bloody conclusion to the war. Now heavily cratered, it was also dotted with burnt-out vehicles and charred buildings, as well as an abandoned tent city. Mr Ban then toured Manik Farm, the main refugee camp where more than 200,000 refugees are sheltering in corrugated iron shacks and tents.”[viii] (See Figure 6).
Elsewhere, it was reported that when Ban Ki-Moon was asked about his impressions after flying over the war zone he described “seeing ‘complete devastation’ and no movement of human beings (emphasis added).[ix] He commented that in the absence of adequate shelter and even trees for shade, the civilians “must have suffered terribly.”[x]
Relativities in Reading Landscape: Empirical Reality: By pure chance email exchanges with Christopher Martin-Jenkins led me to seek a clarification of one of his passing remarks relating to the Laureus speech by Botham. Pressed thus by me, Martin-Jenkins was forthright: “We saw no ‘bullet-scarred trees’, no evidence of ‘mortar shells’, and the area that we were taken to was the site of the new buildings, which has been checked for mines (and I dare say de-mined) and flattened by the four JCBs on view in order to prepare it for a cricket ground and school. There are lots of trees around the site, so the ‘flattening’ had nothing to do with any battles, although the General told me that this had indeed been an area of jungle in which battles had been fought. There were some dead trees as well as lots of green ones but I am not sure if this [the dead trees] was because of fire…. from our limited view of one area on Sunday the only sign that I saw of the conflict, other than the heavy military presence, was a boy with one leg.” (Note Figures 7, 8).
FIGURE 7. FOG site being cleared for community project near Mankulam
FIGURE 8– Ms Kim Wright (a British citizen who is FOG’s Mankulam Project Architect) explains the project on site to Manuja (cricketer) and Lakruwan (swimmer who were beneficiaries of the Laureus sponsored trip to Jo’burg in South Africa in April’ 2010)
Martin-Jenkins is an experienced observer and cricket commentator.[xi] His precise description simply destroys the picture depicted by Botham and provides one with a startling instance of monumental difference in interpretation.
But it was Botham’s grandstanding that hit the headlines. His gross exaggeration rode the airwaves as empirical fact, retailed by reporters who chose to hide the fact that they too were witnesses to Botham’s exaggeration.
A Review: Since Botham is not a trained analyst and wished to make a dramatic case for supporting the Mankulam project of FOG, one need not be surprised by his error of judgement. But most of us would expect Ban-Ki-Moon, as a professional in a major international agency, to have some measure of evaluative competence. Reliable assessment in this instance called for an awareness of the demography as well as character of the landscape, vegetation, husbandry and built-environment in the war zone prior to the battles. Without such a baseline, one that requires a historical inquiry, all evaluations risk distortion.
Likewise, since I am guided by the sensitizing comparisons of World War Two ‘scenery,’ I wonder whether Ban-Ki-Moon, who was born in 1944, looked back on his visual memories of the ravages wrought on his locality during the Korean War of 1952-53; and used these images to condition his reading of Sri Lanka’s war.
FIGURE 9. Times aerial photo of section of the last LTTE stronghold [See “Pictorial Images” in this thuppahi site for the rest]
In any event the world has access to video clips of the coastal stretch beside Nandikadal Lagoon which Ban-Ki-Moon surveyed because a Times cameraman on his helicopter recorded the scenes. In readings these scenes I emphasise that critical contextual factors have to be taken into account,
- 1. This was a narrow area of some 13 by 4 kilometres.
- 2. It had been flattened and devastated by the tsunami of 26 December 2004.
- 3. The vegetation was relatively sparse and the area was dotted by coconut trees and sparse bush, with swamps on the lagoon side; so that the images I have selected from the Times cameraman’s selections must be essential familiarization for any investigator (Figure 9 with another five available on http://thuppahi.wordpress.com).
- 4. Houses and buildings seem to have been relatively few and many of these were characterised by red-tiled roofs.
- This was a stretch which had housed the Sea Tiger headquarters for some time.
- At some point in February or March the GOSL decreed this area to be a “No Fire Zone.”
- From mid-April this area also became the LTTE’s last redoubt.
- During March-April-May 2009 a tent city interspersed with bunkers and shelters developed overnight as some 200,000 Tamil people — give or take 20,000 each way — were assembled there under LTTE tutelage (Figures 10, 11).
- Between 19-23 April, in what must have been a remarkable and intricate operation that befits a striking spot in world military history, the Sri Lankan army penetrated this area, split the LTTE defences and secured control of the northern segment,[xii] perhaps constituting as much as 2/3rds of the original territory. Many Tigers simply ditched their weapons, joined those genuinely “civilian” and became individuals in the steam of some 123,000 Tamils who walked and waded across the former frontlines.[xiii]
- This critical operation meant that the Tamil population remaining in the southern one/thirds of the original redoubt dwindled radically to maybe about 70,000-80,000 persons at most – a crude estimate made possible by the number that survived the last battles and emerged as IDPs or became Tiger POWs.[xiv]
FIGURE 10. Satellite images revealing the expansion of the “tent city” in the No Fire Zone on the coast beside Nandikadal Lagoon between February and April — Pic from news item, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2009/04/ 20094221184335402.html
FIGURE 10. UAV images of the Last redoubt , probably a late March or early April –Pic provided by Victor Ivan of Ravaya
Fortunately the cyber-world gives us access to two satellite images which reveal the rapid growth of this tent city and population in the course of the months February to April (Figure 10). However, such evidence must be studied in conjunction with video clips or still images of the area from both government and LTTE sources. The GOSL images are probably from UAVs and provide graphic details at a moment when bombs and guns had not impacted upon the area (Figure 11, with other in the thuppahi site). The LTTE clips in such sites as TamilNet are intended to depict the horror of GOSL bombardments. We can be certain that there were deaths and horrors emanating from shellfire, but for my purposes here what matters is the picture we gain of the increasingly dense settlement pattern on the one hand and, on the other, the character of the dwellings, for the greater part tents. The devastation that Ban-Ki-Moon saw from the air and found so awesome was partly – let me stress “partly” — that of tents blown over and the debris of vehicles augmented by what one can call flotsam and jetsam (Figures 12, 13 and some of the Times photographs).
FIGURE 12. Testimony from the two Indian reporters at the rear of the battle front indicates that during the last few day on 15-18th May the remaining Tiger soldiers systematically blew up their stocks of vehicles and ammunition. This is one picture that depicts the result – Pic from section on “Final Assault” in http://www.defence.lk /picturegallery/.
In surveying the scenes at the Nandikadal stronghold, moreover, we must not forget the “grand finale” in the southern section during the last days of their resistance when the remnant LTTE systematically exploded their vehicles, weaponry, ammunition and explosives. This has been vividly described by army and media eye-witnesses who heard the explosions from the 14th May onwards[xv] and saw the dark clouds of smoke emitted in such explosions. One of the propaganda images utilised by the Ministry of Defence which depicts a soldier bearing a child to safety shows the billowing clouds of smoke (Figure 14).
FIGURE 13. Showdown on the last days, 17-19 May 2009, a picture circulated by the Ministry of Defence in order to illustrate army compassion. However, this image lends itself to misinterpretation: it may be read as evidence of massive army bombardment. So see Figure 12 above and its source.
Nor was the damage a “complete devastation” wrought upon the 13 x 4 kilometre Nandikadal stronghold taken as a whole. Several of the pictures in the Times collection reveal a significant number of buildings — many with red roofs — that remain intact. Likewise, the still photographs taken circa 14 May by the Indian journalist, Kanchan Prasad,[xvi] when she entered the final war zone with Muraliyar Reddy courtesy of the 58th Division,[xvii] are significant in showing buildings that had survived the assault [see Pictorial Images in this site]. Reddy and Prasad also honed in on the building identified by the ICRC as a makeshift hospital via coordinates sent to the army: it has only minor damage contrary to previous propaganda statements by LTTE sources (Figures15-18).
FIGURE 14. Buildings near makeshift hospital (Fig. 23) at former last stronghold on coast — Pic by Kanchana Prasad, 14-18 May 2009.
FIGURE 15. LTTE makeshift hospital, wich was allegedly bombed on the 10th May in pro-LTTE propaganda claims — Pic by Kanchana Prasad.
The aerial evidence provided by the Times cameraman is also in accord with a mental image that became etched in my mind in mid-May 2009 as I watched Sri Lankan TV reportage. As a pro-government cameraman travelled from south to north along the waterfront of Nandikadal, his camera captured a number of small cottages with red roofs in a south-north line as it panned the scene to the west. I was surprised. I had expected much greater damage to the buildings.
This particular TV coverage, of course, would have been selective and avoided unpleasant scenes. But taken in conjunction with the Times photographs, they indicate that the LTTE’s last redoubt was not subject to carpet bombing. This does not mean that there were no deaths and injuries amongst those truly civilian; or that there was no shelling or aerial bombardment of the stronghold in April-May.[xviii] While Ban Ki-Moon’s presentation is not quite as gross as that of Botham, talk of “complete devastation” seems extreme. Thus, one has reason to question Ban-Ki-Moon’s capacities of evaluation. One wonders if, as a public figure with an agenda, sound bites were more important to him on this occasion than careful assessment built on historical context and rounded detail.
[ii] For tactical reasons in support of Muralitharan and Kushil I chose to ask Botham if he would organise a charity walk from Point Pedro to Dondra (see Rex Clementine in http:// cricketique.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/botham-considers-a-north-south-walk-across-lanka-for-charity-and-reconciliation/).
[iii] From data on the web site maintained by the Dept of Census and Statistics inSri Lanka.
[iv] B. Muralidhar Reddy, “Multiple displacements; total loss of identity,” http://www.hindu.com /2009/05/27/stories/2009052755811500.htm[v] This description derives from my three day stay in Kilinochchi in late November 2004.
[viii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/5374451/UN-chief-Ban-Ki-moon- visits-Tamil-refugees.html. From Ban Ki-moon’s report to co-chair ambassadors at KatunayakeAirport, 23 May 2009.
[ix] Any sensible person who had followed the last 18 months of Eelam War IV could have presented this conclusion as a fact based on educated surmise because the LTTE had corralled all the people and induced them to retreat with their army. Those who broke free could not return to their villages because the Sri Lankan government placed most of them in detention centres as a security precaution.
[xi] He was present at the Laureus function in his capacity as President of the MCC.
[xii] For details, see S. Tammita-Delgoda, Sri Lanka. The Last Phase of Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudumatalan, Manekshaw Paper, No. 13, (Delhi, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, December 2009).
[xiii] This large mass included the important figures of Daya Master and George Master. Muraliyar Reddy was at the frontlines then and interviewed several of the Tamil refugees. He told me (when we met inColombo just afterwards) that civilian casualties were relatively few. Note, too, that Reddy was agreeably surprised at the helpful manner in which the army personnel treated Tamils who walked out – a reading confirmed by subsequent inquiries among the IDP inmates by Narendran Rajasingham and his associates in group of Tamil moderates after they visited a transit camp in March 2009 and two of the Mänik Farm detention camps in July 2009.
[xiv] My estimate is made up of (a) the roughly 60,000 IDPs who were been rescued in May; (b) a proportion of the circa 11.000 LTTE personnel held by the Government by May-June 2009 and detained separately from the IDPs; and (c) those who died between 23 April and 18 May.– an uncertain figure that can only be a wild guess. The range of disagreement on the demographic statistics while the war was at its height can be seen in the following estimates:
a) 20,000 in one government statement (AFP, “Sri Lanka’s brutal war, takes heavy toll,” 9 May 2009).
b) 50,000 (“the UN has said the number could be as high as 50,000” — AFP, “Sri Lanka’s brutal war, takes heavy toll,” 9 May 2009).
c) 120,000 to 165.000 in a TamilNet statement, 9 May 2009.
[xv] “Yes there were loud explosions on the night of 14, 15 and 16. We had managed to sneak into the military operations room for a UAV view of what was going on the LTTE held territory. … However, it was not clear those nights if they had given up the battle because clear signs that they were preparing for the worst were evident only from the night of 16th. It is also possible that military was shelling or firing into the LTTE area on the night of 14, 15 and 16th May” (email note from Reddy, 26 May 2011).
[xvi] Kanchan Prasad is Special Correspondent, Prasar Bharati. I met her and Muraliyar Reddy in mid-2010. Previously I had regular contact with Reddy in Colombo through April and May 2009 after I was commissioned to write an article for Frontline.
[xvii] Prasad and Reddy were at the frontlines from the 13th May till the 19th May [leaving before the finding of Pirapharan’s body]. There were no other foreign media personnel, but Prasad stresses that “there was a considerable presence of the local media there – both print and electronic,” among them two females (Email, 25 May 2011). This contingent included tow females.
[xviii] Refer to my comments on the statistics on civilian deaths in circumstances when one cannot separate “civilians” from “Tiger soldiers” or new conscripts recruited to provide logistical tasks for the LTTE fighting machine (http://thuppahis.com/2011/06/07/the-landscape -of-the-ltte%e2%80%99s-last-redoubt-may-2009/.