Shelling Suffering of the Tamil People, 1990-91 – Ben Bavinck

 Uriyan lagoon crossing from Jaffna, December 1991 -Pic from Bavinck’s book

Whatever the veracity and authenticity of Niromi de Soyza’s Tamil Tigress, there is one motif about life in the Jaffna Peninsula in the mid-1980s which is quite correct: this is when she speaks of the “random bombing” or shelling to which people in the region were subject. During the time of Eelam War I this shelling would have been from artillery fired from the Jaffna Fort, the military complex at Palaly or naval ships. Or, alternatively, it would have been from aerial strikes. This feature was again reproduced during the time of Eelam War II (1990-1996) and thereafter in the domains controlled by the LTTE Since neither the Sri Lankan services nor the IPKF (October 1987-late 1989) had UAVs, it is probable that most such bombardments were indiscriminate in their effects even if those directing the gunfire were aiming at some target associated with the militant Eelamist outfits.

Apart from the testimony of Tamil people and whatever records are available in government hospitals and the Jaipur Centre for amputees in Jaffna, we now have the diary records kept by Ben Bavinck which have been made available through the energy of the UTHR personnel and the publishing firm, Vijitha Yapa Publications based in Colombo. The first volume covering the period August 1982-October 1992, is in print as Of Tamils and Tigers:  A Journey through Sri Lanka’s War Years, (Colombo, Yapa, 2011, ISBN 978-0-95664411-1-3). Because it is a detailed day-by-day account it complements the work of the various UTHR publications.I have gone through the first volume and selected extracts that provide information on this theme. The selections are not exhaustive, but are chosen for their diversity and range. The intent is to document one mode of suffering undergone by the people of Jaffna in this particular period during the governments directed by JR Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa. I acknowledge the generosity of Nirmala Rajasingham in authorizing Vijitha Yapa to provide me with a pdf version of the book to reduce a laborious typing work (email, 12 August 2011). I stress here that she did not know what themes I would select and that I will be presenting other motifs such as Bavinck’s record of tales/testimonies received about the killings in the south from both the JVP and the government counter-insurgency operations. These motifs will be expanded from time to time.

It will be evident that in some instances Ben Bavinck is reporting tales conveyed to him by others – so the testimony is second-hand or third hand I many instances (though not in all insofar as firsthand observation also figures). However, there is no way in which ALL the second and third-hand reports are fabrications and, in my view, the majority can be regarded as authentic because of the type of sources they emanate from. no study of this source can evaluate the material without attention to the intergrity, energy and personality of Bavinck as Calvinist man. Michael Roberts.


9th August 1990, Colombo: Today we were informed about the next instalments in the never ending succession of murders. Twenty-eight Sinhalese people were taken from a bus in Horuwopotana on the Anuradhapura–Trinco road, and slaughtered. Apparently near Amparai, 40 Tamils have been killed. In the last few days Muslims have been killed in several places.

   People now coming from Jaffnaare indignant about what they say are helicopters dropping human excreta when flying over towns or villages in Jaffna. It is felt to be very humiliating. But is it true?[1]

18th August 1990, Jaffna: The next morning started with the apparently customary aerial bombardment of the Mutthiraisanthi square, adjoining the church. One bomb exploded near a house. Two wounded people were transported on bicycles to the first aid post near the vicarage.

   These bombardments are taking place because of all the LTTE activity at this square. Here the Tigers have their offices, where passes are issued to those who want to leaveJaffna. 

19th August 1990: Sunday morning after church at Vaddukoddai, I cycled to Navaly … They gave me a message for the people in the south. In it they complained that the government was not treating the people inJaffnaas Sri Lankan citizens, but as aliens. No empathy was shown for the feelings of the people here and no action was taken to curb abuses by the armed forces. They confirmed that there had been definitely six cases where human excreta were thrown out of helicopters inJaffna, for instance near Bishop’s House. They also pleaded that the government should come with proposals for a political solution.

   After leaving these good people I continued on my bicycle to Vannarponnai, where I heard that a Methodist lorry was stuck at Iyakachchi and that the Methodist pastor had to stay with it to prevent the theft of its contents. They were busy organising another lorry fromJaffnato go there.

5th October 1990:  …. Kayts seems to have been also badly damaged. Even though Jaffnahas been shelled and bombarded for four months, during the siege of the Fort, the number of casualties has been remarkably low. The reason for this is most probably the fact that practically everyone has dug an air raid shelter. But the destruction is very great. The town around Main Streetis destroyed up to 3rdCross Street and the area betweenHospital Road and the Fort is also badly affected. The market and all the cinemas are badly damaged. The hospital though has not suffered too much. All over the centre there are also incidental hits by bombs or shells.

 13th December 1990, To Jaffna: We went to Jaffna with a full car. … InJaffna, the food situation is difficult but not alarming. Food is being distributed regularly, even though this sometimes is delayed. There is however a shortage of medicines. Even Panadol cannot be purchased. Prices of food are high. Fuel prices fluctuate. Petrol last week cost Rs. 400 per litre and kerosene Rs. 60–70 per litre. There is no electricity and at night the darkness is total.

   Bombardments and strafing by helicopters is much less common. Sometimes attacks are made on specific targets, as for instance on a little munitions factory in Vaddukkoddai, and on a school in Point Pedro. Both times the target was missed, but in Point Pedro one Methodist church member was killed. It is also easier to obtain passes to go toColomboand one is allowed to travel by day through Sangupiddy. The schools are open again. One can see many children on bicycles in the streets.

Still, people are under heavy strain….

11th February 1991, Colombo: A curfew has been declared in Vavuniya. The army has started an offensive and heavy fighting is taking place. … I also heard about the bombing of a market in Puthukudiyiruppu where 20 people seem to have died. The jetty at Kerativu also seems to have been strafed by helicopters.

 21st May 1991, to Jaffna: … There are hardly any aerial bombardments, but shelling by the heavy guns at Palaly has taken place recently at places like Vaddukkoddai, Madduvil and Valvettithurai. The reason may have been that in these places ceremonies took place to commemorate the Tiger crew of a boat, which carried out a suicide attack on a navy ship. In Vaddukkoddai, two houses and a primary school were hit and a child of two years old and a boy of 16 were killed. These shells, like the ones fired now from Karainagar, reach without any preceding noise. People therefore feel totally exposed. Friends of mine abandoned their normal bedroom under a tile roof, and now sleep in a room under a concrete part of the roof.

[1] Definitely true. On one occasion at some point in the 1990s I was at a funeral house inColombo and overheard an air force captain seated beside me telling his pals that the air force dumped shit from buckets when flying over in theJaffnaPeninsula in helicopters. I did not take notes or mark the date but recollect this incident vividly.


Filed under accountability, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, cultural transmission, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, unusual people, war crimes, world events & processes

4 responses to “Shelling Suffering of the Tamil People, 1990-91 – Ben Bavinck

  1. jagan sriram

    what is there to comment? tamils of jaffna endured all these sufferrings and still they are at the same place or in fact in a worse situation.i would blame tamils for the plight in which they are finding themselves. tamils live all around the world they are large in number but they are hardly united.atleast now world tamils should unite to find a political solution to tamil problem in srilanka which essentially means merging of north and east and getting passed 13th amendment .this can go a long way in renaissance of tamil culture and language in north and eastern part of srilanka.i hope this happens.

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