Making sense of a war

Still Counting The Dead — Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War: Frances Harrison; Portobello Books, London.Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 399.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chen _R.Gopalaratinam

It would be four years in May this year since the Sri Lankan forces succeeded in military annihilation of the LTTE. The victory came at a heavy cost as thousands and thousands of innocent Tamil civilians caught in the war zone became collateral damage. Sadly till date there are no clear answers on the magnitude of the humanitarian tragedy and the culpability of the victors and the vanquished.

This book by a former BBC correspondent Frances Harrison, who had a four-year stint in the island nation from 2000 to 2004, is a valuable source material to the literature on the four decades of ethnic conflict as it seeks to fill several gaps on what could have gone on in the last five months of war from the perspective of LTTE activists/sympathisers as well as innocent civilians.

The book has ten chapters, besides the introduction and the author’s conclusions. Each chapter recounts gripping ‘tales’ of the battle zone as narrated by a UN official, pro-LTTE TamilNet journalist, the head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat (Pulidevan) who got killed under controversial circumstances presumably on the last but one day of the war, a government doctor, a nun, a teacher, an LTTE media department woman functionary with two children, an LTTE fighter, a shopkeeper and a rape victim married to an LTTE fighter.

Significantly, all the actors in the book barring the deceased Pulidevan identified as the ‘spokesman’ have managed to buy their way out of the island nation by heavily bribing the corrupt military, police and bureaucracy.

The sub-title of the book ‘Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden war’ leaves no scope for ambiguity on the conviction of the author, which echoes the sentiments of most westerners, that it was a ‘war without a witness’.

Call it conceit/naivety/notions of self importance, the author notes with smugness that nobody has told the tales of the victims: there were simply no international journalists or aid workers in the war zone in the final months to send harrowing accounts of civilian suffering to CNN or BBC. It is time for these conscience keepers to beef up their bureaus in conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as part of their mission to minimise humanitarian tragedies.

Ms. Harrison’s belief is rooted on the premise that after the UN was forced to leave the war zone in the third week of September 2008, the Lankan forces and the Tigers abandoned the rules of engagement and civilians were fair game for both the parties. The assumption is flawed as in this era of satellite technology and Google mapping it is not easy for the regimes and non-state actors to get away with slaughter and mayhem.

To the credit of the author it must be said that at the very beginning she acknowledges the limitations of the book by clearly identifying its theme, prejudices of the narrators and the chief objective behind the endeavour.

In her own words, “It is a not history of the whole war and does not tell the suffering of the ordinary soldier or Sinhalese commuter living in fear of bomb blasts — that is the (entirely legitimate) subject for another book. It is an account of the victory from the perspective of the defeated.”

Failure of UN

The author is unsparing in her outright condemnation of the international community for their alignment without any qualms, in the last months of the war, with the Sri Lankan government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, leaving 400,000 civilians to the mercy of the forces and the Tigers. However, she conveniently skips as to why the world chose to do so and how the LTTE was proscribed by more countries than Al-Qaeda.

The account by the UN official lays bare the serious limitations of the organisation in a complex conflict zone like Sri Lanka where the rebels were in possession of nearly one-third of the land mass and two-thirds of the sea of the island at some point of time. When what is referred to Eelam War-IV began in July 2006, the Tigers were in control of 12,000 kilometres of land.

Some aspects unveiled by the official show the utter callousness on the part of some of the UN staff. Recounting the scenes on the day the staffers were preparing to leave he says, “Soon the aid workers were having a party, cracking open cold beers and congratulating each other on getting out safely”. Ms. Harrison does not hide that the LTTE Peace Secretariat head was her source, friend and confidant. By her own account the lines of her role got blurred.

“For months I’d been asking Puli what the Tigers planned to do, as they lost one town after another … I talked repeatedly of surrender but it was clear, it was taboo”, she writes. At another place she concedes her admiration. Talking of him she says, “These are the qualities of a good spokesman, ultimately they cost him his life”.

Some of the questions raised by the civilians in the war zone are mind-boggling. An enraged teacher, whose version figures in chapter six, asks stunned Red Cross workers who had come as part of the mission to evacuate the injured, disturbing questions on the role and rationale of the international organisations and aid workers in a conflict zone.The book by its very nature is a series of narratives of different actors in the war theatre. But the question is can the macro accounts of harrowing tales of ten players be juxtaposed to the micro level. By getting into the contentious issue of causalities Ms. Harrison has left scope for such a possibility.

The figures are all muddled and make no sense. She quotes a UN estimate of 100,000 dead in the four decades of Sri Lanka’s war. There is no clarity whether it includes Tamil and Sinhalese civilians, the LTTE cadres and the security forces. She jumps from an estimate to another on the civilian causalities in the territory under the Tiger control in the last phases of war.

She says, “Experts for the UN concluded later that the overall casualties were extremely high and a death toll of 40,000 could not be ruled out”. There is no elaboration as to who the experts are, where have they put the figure and the basis on which they have arrived at the conclusion.

Later she goes on to say, “The death toll could be 55,000 if the population figure for January 2009, given by a senior civil a senior is used. A Tamil Catholic bishop did the sums using the government’s own population data for the late 2008 and found 146,679 people unaccounted for”. At another place the author writes, “Simple mathematics leaves anywhere from 26,000 to 146,679 people unaccounted for, presumably dead”.

There are a few other oddities in the book which are surprising coming from a seasoned journalist. In the fourth chapter on the government doctor in the war zone she notes, “Even though the northern jungles had been under rebel administration for years, such was the power of the government bureaucracy that it still deployed doctors and civil servants in these areas”. The government functionaries were actually another buffer for the LTTE.

Still Counting The Dead — Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War: Frances Harrison ;

Portobello Books, London.

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017.

Rs. 399.

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 9:03:40 AM |

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