On the night of Sunday, the 19th April, the SL Army’s special forces crossed the waters of Nandikadal Lagoon and “blasted through a massive earthen wall built by the LTTE” (Hull & Sirilal 2009a) at a point near Pokkanai (see Figs. A & B) and secured a beachhead within the area that is best described as the Last Redoubt (rather than the “Second No Fire Zone – because that phrase is not legally valid). In doing so the Government of Sri Lanka was disregarding instructions, supported by threats, from the US government via its ambassador Robert Blake not to enter that arena.
A=Graphic Map composed by International Crisis Group
B=Graphic Map compiled by Daily Mirror
That is a separate issue. The focus here is on the reportage presented on that momentous event, a remarkable military operation. The military authorities immediately and hurriedly arranged for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to see real time aerial footage of the operations as conveyed by the SLAF’s unmanned aerial vehicles and its Beechcraft – including UAV footage that guided frontline commanders. The arena for this showing was the Battle Management Centre at SLAF headquarters in Slave Island, Colombo.
Immediately afterwards and in the course of Monday, however, foreign ambassadors and dignitaries as well as a selection of reporters were given the same privilege. The choice of personnel was not handled by Janaka Nanayakkara of the SLAF, but by the Presidential Office. Typically, perhaps, I have not been able – yet—to secure a list of those media personnel who gained this real-time insight into the momentous events taking place around the Last Redoubt and Nandikadal Lagoon.
A hot propaganda war was taking place throughout the war and it is imperative, now in 2016, for investigators to interrogate the interrogators, namely the reporters and media outfits describing the war. It is just possible that some media chains provided slanted reportage through sins of omission as much as commission. So this is a testing ground.
Reuters represented by C. Bryson Hull, Ranga Sirilal and David Gray, passes the test. For one: Hull immediately presented a short piece on 20th April with a classic title: “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone.” Secondly, Hull and Sirilal penned an essay on 23rd April that was entitled “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” Thirdly, their cameraman Gray then flew to the rear war zone courtesy of the SL military and presented an illustrated article on the 27th April (Gray 2009).
I am reproducing all three written presentations here for the historical record. But the piece de resistance lies within the series of 18 pictorial shots that are tacked onto the second item with captions describing each scene and marking the source. I have consistently underlined the virtue of photographs in illustrating and analyzing the context and the empirical evidence relating to the war. Reuters have anticipated me here in 2009. They have also taken care to choose images from Tamil circuits as well as the GSL military arms, while spicing the collection with a satellite snap from an US agency, a photo taken by Gray and another from a Reuters stringer.
There are significant dimensions that are not covered by these images. Not many readers will be familiar with the concept “berm” which refers to the bund-and-ditch defensive system deployed so effectively by the LTTE, in association with the existing waterways and irrigation tanks, to slow down the SL Army advances (see Fig. C). The most central dimension, however, is the situational context: namely, the manner in which the mass off civilian people were marshaled by the LTTE from early 2009 as a defensive formation along the coast in order to prevent a military operation that would cage them in on the eastern flank and prevent an international rescue operation from the sea orchestrated by the KP, the Norwegians and USA (Figs. D and E). 
Fig. C= a berm -Pic from Ministry of Defence
Fig. D= A tent city in the Last Redoubt–Pic from UNPoE
Fig. E = Congested main road in Pokkanai area –Pic from TamilNet, 29 March 2009 … SEE Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, 2014, for captions and more images
This is not to say that images are the be-all and end-all in evidence. They are individual pieces of data that must be examined closely for truth-value and degree of potential extension as qualified generalization. However, I insist that they are essential forms of “enlightenment” for readers/analysts who are urban drawing room personnel without any clue about the difficulties facing infantry commanders and frontline troops. Urbane urban folk are just too misty-eyed urbane in their capacity to comprehend the harsh realities of warring situations.
So, I introduce this presentation with the first five images in the Reuters selection before inserting their brace of articles and concluding with the other thirteen shots and David Gray’s experiences at the rear battle front. In doing so I stress that that it is only in rare circumstances that reporters and cameramen get to “witness a war” from an infantryman’s position. Where they have been killed “in action” so to speak, it is usually in situations of urban or guerilla warfare where there are no set frontlines and the flow of events is harum-scarum. The last phase of Eelam War IV did not have that character. Tony Birtley’s Al-Jazeera video presentations were from well to the rear of the ongoing battle. When Gray was taken to the western shore of Nandikadal Lagoon circa 25th April (Gray 2009), he had an escort of some 100 troops – In surmise one could say categorically that the government did not wish to risk his death. At that point of the battle the SL Army had men to spare. This is not always the case for armies in the cusp of war.
*** END ***
SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY by Thuppahi
Al-Jazeera 2008 SL Army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 7 October 2008,https://thuppahi. wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=14022&action=edit&message=6&postpost=v2
Al-Jazeera 2009a “SL army claims control of rebel territory, 26 Jan 2009,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brMeGyyt8ow
Al-Jazeera 2009b “SL army closes in on Tamil Tigers,” 1 February 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZc_Am5HUSs
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009a “Political and Security Implications of Sri Lanka’s Armed Conflict,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Feb. 2009, Vol. 35/1, pp. 20, 22-24.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei 2009b “The Battle for the Vanni Pocket,” Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, March 2009, Vol. 35/2, pp. 17-19 — http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/aulimp/citations/gsa/2009_157395/ 156554.html
Gray, David 2009 “A Day at the Front Line in Sri Lanka (Photographer’s Blog),” 27 April 2009, http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2009/04/27/a-day-at-the-front-line-in-sri-lanka/
Holmes, Maj-Genl John 2015 “Expert Military Report,” 28 March 2015, Annex I of Report on the Second Mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances [i.e. Paranagama Report], August 2015, pp. 243-44
Hull, C. Bryson 2009 “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” 20 April 2009, http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSCOL450259
Hull, C. Bryson & Ranga Sirilal 2009a “Sri Lankan War in Endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 23 April 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-srilanka-war-idUSTRE53J0IZ20090422
IDAG [i.e. Citizen Silva] 2013 “The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice OR http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/TheNG.pdf.
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Cartographic & Photographic Illustrations in support of the Memorandum Analysing the War in Sri Lanka and Its Propaganda Debates,” 18 November 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/11/18/cartographic-photographic-illustrations-in-support-of-the-memorandum-analysing-the-war-in-sri-lanka-and-propaganda-debates/
Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of API WENUWEN API,” 1 Sept. 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/09/01/winning-the-war-evaluating-the-impact-of-api-wenuwen-ap/
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Truth Journalism? Marie Colvin hoist on her own Petard,” 5 November 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/11/05/triuth-journalism-marie-colvin-hoist-on-her-own-petard/
Roberts, Michael 2015 “The Realities of Eelam War IV,” 27 October 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/10/27/the-realities-of-eelam-war-iv/
Michael Roberts 2016 “Speaking to Gotabaya-I: Plans Afoot in 2009 to Rescue the Tiger Leadership,” 8 March 2016, https://thuppahis.com/2016/03/08/speaking-to-gotabaya-i-plans-afoot-in-2009-to-rescue-the-tiger-leadership/#more-20092
Salter, Mark 2015 To End a Civil War. Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka, London: Hurst & Company.
Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2009 “Sri Lanka: The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudukulam,” New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare, Manekshaw Paper No. 13, http://www.claws.in/administrator/uploaded_files/1274263403MP%2022.pdf
UNPoE 2011 Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, March 2011….http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/ POE_Report_Full.pdf.
FOOTNOTES & CITATIONS
 See Blake Despatches No. 283 of 12 March 2009 and 418 of 15th April (Wikileaks).
See Holmes, Maj-Genl John 2015 “Expert Military Report,” 28 March 2015, Annex I of Report on the Second Mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances [i.e. Paranagama Report], August 2015, pp. 243-44; Roberts, “Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of API WENUWEN API,” 1 Sept. 2014, https://thuppahis.com/2014/09/01/winning-the-war-evaluating-the-impact-of-api-wenuwen-ap/ and Roberts, “Realities,” 2015
 Reporters do not always succeed in getting their scripts presented wholesale to the public – their essays are sometimes mauled by the sub-editors and superiors.
 A “stringer” is a freelance journalist or cameraman hired for a specific job. See http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php?title=Dealing_with_stringers.
 Jeyaraj 2011, Salter 2015: chap. 11; Roberts, ‘Realities,” 2015 and Roberts, “Speaking to Gotabaya, I,” 2016.
 See Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014 and “Cartographic & Photographic Illustrations in support of the Memorandum Analysing the War in Sri Lanka and Its Propaganda Debates,” 18 November 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/11/18/cartographic-photographic-illustrations-in-support-of-the-memorandum-analysing-the-war-in-sri-lanka-and-propaganda-debates/
II. Bryson Hull: “Sri Lanka opens eye in the sky on war zone,” 20 April 2009, http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSCOL450259
Sri Lanka’s military on Monday opened up its aerial surveillance centre to journalists for the first time, offering a glimpse of real-time footage from a battlefield usually off-limits to independent observers. A handful of reporters were brought inside the Battle Management Centre at air force headquarters in Colombo, from where controllers monitor video from Israeli-made unmanned drones and a Beechcraft reconnaissance airplane.
That real-time information is then fed to commanders fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists. In the Indian Ocean island’s 25-year-old war, the fight on the battlefield has often been measured by how much propaganda mileage events there can garner to frame the conflict to a wider world that rarely spares it much thought. With tens of thousands fleeing the war zone and major international pressure on the government to protect them, the military hastily called journalists to view what it said was a mix of live and recorded video of the morning’s exodus.
“All of these small dots are human beings waiting to be checked,” Vice Air Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke told reporters, pointing to video on a widescreen monitor showing throngs of people around a few makeshift structures. He then aimed a laser pointer at an adjacent screen with a Google Earth (GOOG.O) map to chalk out the 1.5 km (1 mile) path he said people had taken, crossing an earthen berm built by the Tigers and then wading through a lagoon to reach the army-held areas.
“I think the civilians saw the army was close and thought it was a safe route. Probably the civilians spied them because this is an open space,” he said, making a circle with the laser pointer. He then showed video he said was taken at about 8 a.m. (0230 GMT) from around 7,000 feet (2,134 metres), which showed a stream of people running to reach the earth berm. They appeared much like a string of marching ants. Another video taken earlier in the morning showed what he said was an LTTE vehicle firing a heavy weapon, its muzzle blast flaring black in gray image from an infrared camera.
Less than an hour before Gunatilleke had given President Mahinda Rajapaksa a similar briefing. Sri Lanka’s military has a reputation for keeping most outsiders away from its operations except via carefully organised trips to newly captured areas. Local media are allowed to the front, and Reuters got a visit in February. For decades, the LTTE held the propaganda edge with an active web site, TV stations and a strong diaspora network it used to make its message known. But Sri Lanka’s military under the current government has rapidly made up ground through state media and dedicated personnel and web sites to shape its message. Although there was no way to verify independently that the taped events matched what happened in the morning, Gunatilleke ordered the drone’s pilot to move for a closer look at another area of the no-fire zone at the request of journalists. That showed large numbers of people thronging on the beach, the surf washing up close to them.
III. Bryson Hull & Ranga Sirilal: “Sri Lankan war in endgame, 100,000 escape rebel zone,” 22 April 2009,
Thousands more civilians surged out of Sri Lanka’s war zone on Wednesday while soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels fought the apparent endgame of Asia’s longest-running war despite calls to protect those still trapped. In the third day since troops blasted through a massive earthen wall built by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and unleashed the exodus, the military said at least 100,000 people had been registered for onward transit to refugee camps.
Among those who came out was the LTTE’s ex-spokesman Daya Master, a former schoolteacher who was the Tigers’ voice to the English-speaking world for years and arranged media visits to the self-declared state the separatists had fought to create. The military said he was the most senior rebel to surrender, an act that is in contravention of LTTE founder-leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s dictate that followers wear cyanide vials to be taken in case of capture. He surrendered along with the translator for the late LTTE political head S.P. Thamilselvan, as troops thrust deeper into a former army-declared no-fire zone that is now the last battleground in a war that erupted in 1983.
For a third straight day, the military progress drove the Colombo Stock Exchange higher, traders said. It closed up 1.4 percent, near a three-month high.
The military says troops now control all but 13 square km (5 sq miles) of the Indian Ocean island, where the remnants of the LTTE and Prabhakaran fought to create a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. “Confrontations are taking place. Whenever we come across LTTE cadres, we are fighting them. The rescue operation is continuing,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said. The number of people who have fled this year is now around 173,439, according to the military tally.
UN CONFIRMS EXODUS: The United Nations confirmed this week’s outflow. “It is 60,000 plus and counting, and we have heard various reports of up to 110,000 coming out,” said the U.N. spokesman in Colombo, Gordon Weiss. He cautioned the reports were preliminary and not confirmed. The LTTE has accused the military of fabricating the numbers and of capturing people it says are staying by choice. It has ignored all calls to free civilians while urging a truce, and on Tuesday vowed no surrender despite facing overwhelming firepower.
Independent confirmation of battlefield accounts is difficult because outsiders are generally kept out. Dashing the LTTE’s hope India would step in to help a group it trained in the 1980s, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee on Wednesday told reporters: “We have no sympathy for the terrorists, but every sympathy for the civilians.”
A NOTE by Thuppahi:
Reuters have been scrupulous in citing the source of each image in a way that does not endorse the veracity of the pictorial data. A few have been sliced out of presentations by the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (the govt TV channel). There is no doubt, however, that a gigantic exodus of Tamil civilians and deserting soldiers occurred and the numbers cited by NGOs and those turning up at the camps that were being hastily set up confirm the tale of the pictures. That there would have been injuries and deaths in the crossfire and whatever shelling that occurred (given infantry movement forward it is likely that mortars rather than heavy artillery would have been the favoured shell fire) is also certain and one must trawl through TamilNet and other pro-Tamil sites for this data. … Michael Roberts
III. David Gray : “A day at the front line in Sri Lanka,” 27 April 2009 …. http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2009/04/27/a-day-at-the-front-line-in-sri-lanka/
Access for foreign journalists to Asia’s longest running civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government troops, is very tightly controlled by the Sri Lankan government. Getting near the front line area known as the ‘No Fire Zone’ is only possible with an officially sanctioned trip organized by the Ministry of Defence. Last Friday, April 24, I went on one.
The trip started at 3.30am, when I arrived at the military air base in Colombo. We went through 3 security checks, before boarding our plane at 6.30am. We flew north for about 30 minutes to a small airstrip at a place called Mankulam. From here, we boarded two Mi-8 helicopters. To avoid any ground fire, the choppers fly at maximum speed just above the height of the tallest trees, and when I say just, I mean scraping the leaves. This fast and furious ride lasted just 30 minutes to the town of Kilinochchi.
We had a quick briefing, and then we set off in a convoy of armored personnel carriers towards the front. The carrier that I got into was a very old, clunky thing of which there was not much evidence of suspension. The roads in the area had suffered 25 years of a civil war, and were in seriously bad condition. Myself and and a TV cameraman tried our best to grab pictures as we sped along at around 50 miles/h but we were being thrown around so much, even for me to get the camera up to my face and see through it, was near impossible. We held on the best we could, and I managed to get a few ‘usable’ frames of a scorched and destroyed landscape. Every single dwelling was either destroyed or uninhabitable. It reminded me of East Timor in 1999. Burnt out vehicles lined the road. What was most noticeable was the absence of people. There were simply no civilians anywhere.
After what seemed like hours, but was actually only one, we arrived at the destroyed town of Puttumatalan. Here we got into jeeps. The troops that were escorting us got noticeably nervous. They held their guns at the ready now, looking more alert and more intently into the coconut groves as we passed. We must be close now, I thought.
After about 20 minutes driving down a dirt road, we turned a bend. Suddenly, there were thousands of exhausted and weary looking civilians. They were being given small amounts of food and drink by the soldiers, but only enough to last them a day or so. This was when our escorts really started to hurry us. It seemed they didn’t want us to talk or view these civilians for too long, and after just 5 minutes, we were told to get back in the jeeps. Frantic calls were made on radios, and we were told we were now headed to the front.
In just under 10 minutes, we arrived at the place where just days earlier the Sri Lankan government soldiers had pushed their way through the LTTE defenses, leading to a mass exodus of civilians. Smoke billowed less than a mile away where, we were told, troops were continuing to fight. Being so close, our escort now numbered almost 100 heavily armed soldiers. We were severely exposed standing on a road that cut a path through the lagoon, but this was where we were allowed to stay the longest of any of the other stops.
For a full 30 minutes, we photographed and filmed what we saw around us. Clothes and rubbish lay scattered across the dry plain. While walking amongst all this, I found a packet of film negatives that showed mourners at a funeral. Sadly, it was rather an appropriate subject matter in such a place where so many had most likely died.
After driving back to the battalion headquarters, we were once again in an armored personal carrier, driving back to the helicopter landing area, with our driver narrowly missing 3 cows and even skidding off the road on one occasion. Once we boarded the helicopter, everything went so fast, and before we knew it, we were on our plane and heading back to Colombo. Stepping onto the runway, it dawned on me what I had just done. In a single day, I had been to the front line of a war in an area that is extremely difficult to reach and come back to civilization. I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, but what about the people trapped in the war zone? They didn’t get to fly back to the comforts of a city. They continued to endure the horrors of war in dire conditions and horrendous temperatures, with minimal food, water, medical aid or even shelter. What about those who got out, but had a long journey to a refugee camp ahead of them, with no clear idea when they can go back home. It reminded me of a book I finished reading a few months ago called ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Herr about his experiences as a correspondent during the Vietnam war, and how he found it strange flying in and out of war zones. I could see what he had meant a little more clearly now – just the craziness of it all.
22 responses to “Reuters in Word and Image: Depicting the Penetration of the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, 19-22 April 2009”
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