The Final Stages of War and the Fate of LTTE Surrenders (Part 11)
(Some pictures are very disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised)
Monday 18 May 2009
0130: Nadesan calls Nehru. He says the army is very close. In the background is shelling and small arms fire and screaming. Nadesan again confirms there are 3000 LTTE and 22,000 civilians who want to surrender.
Nadesan: “Why are they shelling?” He asks if the government has really agreed to the terms of the surrender. Nehru assures him they have. Pulidevan takes the phone and is shouting in panic, “Why haven’t you stopped the shelling; there are people dying and bleeding to death?”
Nehru: “Please don’t shout at me, I am not the one shelling you!”
Pulidevan: “You said they were going to stop the shelling. Are you sure they are going to accept the surrender?’
Pulidevan: “We will call you back.”
0145: Nadesan calls Nehru to see if there’s any news from the government which there is not. Nadesan says he is in direct contact with Washington.
0156: Basil phones Nehru: “We have arranged everything. How do we identify those surrendering?”
Nehru suggests a white flag.
Basil: “Ok. I will mention this to the President.”
Nehru: “Please arrange a ceasefire and they would like me to attend there when they surrender.”
Basil: “Ok we will see.”
0330: Pulidevan calls Tomas Stangland in Oslo to ask for help (at midnight Norwegian time). He also calls Tore Hattrem, the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka. [Press reports that Pulidevan spoke to Erik Solheim that night are incorrect.] Nadesan calls his brother in London to say he’s surrendering; he says there are 1000 injured rebels stranded with him.
0409: Palitha Kohona is informed by SMS that Pulidevan and Nadesan want to surrender together with approximately 40 LTTE cadres.
0436: Nadesan calls Nehru who relays what Basil said to him at 0156 and instructs Nadesan to hoist a white flag. Nadesan asks if Nehru will be there when he surrenders and he says yes.
Pulidevan calls Tomas Stangland in Oslo again – late night Norway time.
0500: Nadesan calls Nehru back to say they are taking heavy casualties.
0511: Nadesan calls Nehru again hoping for news. Shelling and gunfire is still audible.
0528: Nehru calls the US Embassy who tell him the Americans are working on the surrender and are deeply concerned.
0530: Marie Colvin wakes up Vijay Nambiar. He tells Colvin that he’s received assurances from the Sri Lankan President that the surrendering Tigers will be safe and there’s therefore no need for him to go to oversee the surrender. She questions him on the wisdom of this decision.
0551: The UK Embassy’s second secretary calls Nehru who explains the situation. The diplomat says, “We have urged the government to accept the surrender and there is huge international attention on the conflict. It is vital that the civilians get out so we would encourage them to raise the white flag.”
0545: Marie Colvin calls Nehru. She agrees to call Nambiar again.
0556: SMS from Palitha Kohona to European intermediary: “Thanks.” in reply to 0409 SMS.
0602: Nadesan calls Nehru for news. There is none. He says the casualties are very heavy. Nehru gives Nadesan the telephone number of Basil Rajapaksa to call directly. They can speak to each other in English.
0609: Pulidevan calls his European intermediary to say he’s about to set off for the bridge. He keeps the line open for a couple of minutes and then the satellite connection cuts off. This was most probably his last call though he also reportedly spoke to his sister in law in Canada around this time.
0610: Nehru speaks to President Mahinda Rajapaksa who says he has consulted the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all the plans are in place for the surrender which the government is willing to accept. Nehru offers to go and supervise the surrender but the President says, “No our army is very generous and disciplined. There is no need for you to go to a war zone. You don’t need to put your life at risk”. Mahinda Rajapaksa tells Nadesan to call his brother Gotabaya on his direct number. Nehru is reluctant. The President says: “Ok, speak to Basil”. Mahinda is clear he has given the order to his brother Gotabaya to accept the surrender and protect their lives.
0620: Basil calls Nehru and says he has spoken to Nadesan and told him everything will be ok and his surrender will be accepted. “Waive a white flag and hold it very high,” he tells him. Basil gives instructions on the route to take. He says the 3000 LTTE is to come separately from the civilians.
0620-30 approx: Nehru calls Nadesan and hears gunfire in the background. He tells them to keep the line open but it drops off.
Nadesan: “We are ready. I’m going to walk out and hoist the white flag.”
Nehru: “Hoist it high, brother – they need to see it I will see you in the evening.”
0646: Kohona has been informed that Pulidevan and Nadesan are on their way to the bridge and replies by SMS: “That is very good news. Now let us rebuild the country and the shattered lives of all our people.”
0656-0700: Basil phones Nehru from his mobile phone. He tells Nehru to ask Nadesan why some LTTE are firing at the army. The implication is Nadesan and group are caught in the crossfire. Basil orders Nehru to keep his mouth shut and not to talk to anyone about what has happened, especially internationals. Nehru gives Basil Nadesan’s satellite phone number and suggests he calls him directly.
0800: Johnston Fernando MP tells Nehru that Nadesan and the others are all dead. The source is a friend who is a commando in the security forces. Fernando calls his friend on speaker phone who says the LTTE leaders surrendered, accepted tea and were then beaten. Nadesan’s wife begged them to stop as they had surrendered however they were all shot by the commandos.
For days, tens of thousands of exhausted frightened survivors of the war had been pouring over the Wadduvakal Bridge – a long narrow earthen walkway over the lagoon. The army controlled the bridge and detained all those who surrendered on the southern side. In the aftermath of the intense fighting, there were still corpses lying around.
One survivor said, “I crossed the bridge at 0130 on 18 May. The Sri Lankan army put up beams of light in the sky to help us see. There were dead bodies on both sides of the road and in the middle and I saw a great number of bodies floating in the water.”
At 0430 on the 18th May, Witness 1 tried to cross the frontline in the dark. He was detained on the northern side of the bridge with a group of fighters and civilians and kept in a destroyed building.
Witness 2 watched the surrender from another vantage point. He was behind an earthen defensive embankment (about 2 metres high and 25-30 metres north of the bridge). Witness 2 says several white jeeps arrived and army officers got out of them. He says no gunshots were fired by the LTTE towards the army.
Witness 2 says several white jeeps arrived and army officers got out of them. He says no gunshots were fired by the LTTE towards the army.
Witness 3 was part of the second batch of cadres who surrendered during the white flag incident. He had stayed in a bunker close to the political wing leaders Pulidevan and Nadesan and was not privy to the full details of their surrender negotiations though he knew these discussions were going on from 16th May. He was later briefed by Pulidevan on the details of the surrender plan:
“We were told that we would have to surrender unarmed and raise a white flag. We were told to throw away all military equipment…Pulidevan told us our security had been guaranteed by the security forces.”
This witness saw Pulidevan and Nadesan and others walking towards the bridge at dawn on 18 May 2009. He later met Col. Ramesh (from Batticaloa) who was in civilian dress and moving towards the bridge. As they crossed the bridge in a crowd of people, Col. Ramesh told Witness 4 that the political leaders including Pulidevan and Nadesan had already crossed the bridge carrying a white flag. He said he didn’t think there would be any problems because everyone had surrendered.
“The sound of crying and pleading and the smells of explosives, blood and dead bodies was beyond endurance. There was no one at this time to bury the corpses. I had to overcome my normal reactions and emotions and exhaustion and simply try to focus on saving my family As I tried to escape south towards Wadduvakal, I saw dead bodies and blood spread everywhere. I had to step over the corpses as I walked.”
At 0630 am on 18 May 2009, approximately twelve people left the bunkers carrying at least two white flags. All wore civilian clothing – the men were in white sarongs and shirts.
Witness 2 was lying on the embankment watching the surrender. He saw that the man carrying the white flag was Nadesan and he also identified Nadesan’s wife and Puidevan in this group.
The first batch to cross was met by two different teams of soldiers, including according to an eyewitness, the 58th Division Commander, Shavendra Silva (currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN in New York), who went up to greet them.
Several witnesses heard Nadesan’s wife shouting in Sinhala to the soldiers. One witness saw the men in the group had their hands held behind their backs by the soldiers though he couldn’t see if they were tied or handcuffed.
About twenty metres behind the first group was the second one led by the police chief Illango (also known as Ramesh) who was also carrying a white flag. Witness 3 was in this group. They passed many dead bodies and could hardly see the lagoon through the dense bushes. Witness 3 saw about 200 troops in the bushes. He then noticed the destroyed building surrounded by about 100 soldiers where Witness 1 was being detained. He confirmed seeing civilians inside this building.
The second group watched the first group approach the security forces. Witness 3 saw about 20-5 soldiers in uniform and armed with AK47 rifles surround the first group. He observed Pulidevan and Nadesan’s group being escorted across the bridge surrounded by soldiers.
Then his group was surrounded by armed soldiers. The police chief Illango spoke to the troops in Sinhala. Their group was surrounded and escorted in the same fashion across the bridge. Witness 3 was separated from the others and taken to a sentry post, interrogated and slapped and then loaded onto a bus and taken to a detention camp for former LTTE cadres.
Witness 2 says about an hour or so after the surrender, he was on a dirt road parallel to the A35 highway and spotted the corpses of Pulidevan and Nadesan lying in a ditch by the roadside with soldiers standing around taking photographs. (see map)
“I instantly recognised the bodies of Pulideevan and Nadesan. I knew as soon as I looked at their bodies that they were dead. Both men were lying on their backs in the ditch.
The Sri Lankan government has produced a number of contradictory explanations for what happened that morning at the bridge.
The then foreign secretary Palitha Kohona denied there was any surrender deal and yet he sent at least 4 unambiguous text messages to the LTTE that confirmed the surrender deal – SMS that are produced for the first time in this report.
Mr Kohona claimed the LTTE shot their own leaders in the back for daring to surrender against orders. The extensive negotiations about surrender do not indicate a furtive attempt to defy LTTE orders. Three eyewitnesses did not report any firing – indeed one was with the people surrendering and was not shot. Furthermore, the government never produced the leaders’ bodies to prove the entry wounds were in the back. In other instances, they have been quick to demonstrate evidence of LTTE perfidy but not in this case. In addition, other witnesses say that the LTTE leader sanctioned surrender after 15th May for all his fighters who wanted to take their chances and cross over to the army.
The Sri Lankan military put online a web page claiming responsibility for the killing of Pulidevan and Nadesan (by the 58th Brigade of Shavendra Silva whom eyewitnesses place at the spot) but then removed it offline.
The defence secretary suggested a young recruit might have shot the leaders in the dark by accident as there was still fighting going on elsewhere. However, the communications records and witness testimony show the surrender did not occur in the dark but after dawn. Eyewitnesses say there was no shot fired by either side at the surrender.
The former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka, in an interview with the Sunday Leader newspaper in Sri Lanka in December 2009, reportedly alleged that the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had ordered the 58 Division Commander, Shavendra Silva, to kill any LTTE leaders attempting to surrender.
General Fonseka backtracked on this allegation, reportedly saying there had been an illegal order from the Defence Secretary to kill LTTE leaders surrendering but it hadn’t been carried out: “Two days after the war ended I learnt through some journalists who were entrenched at the time with then Brigadier Shavendra Silva that an illegal order had been conveyed to General Shavendra Silva by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This illegal order was however not carried out at ground level. I take full responsibility for what happened on the ground.”
In court General Fonseka later denied telling the journalist that the Defence Secretary had ordered the executions of the LTTE leaders surrendering.
However, in July 2010, General Fonseka reportedly implied in a speech that the army was after all responsible for the killings:
“I got messages not to shoot those who are carrying white flags. A war is fought by soldiers. They do so by putting their lives on the line. Therefore, the decisions about war should be taken by the soldiers in the battlefront. Not the people in air-conditioned rooms in Colombo. Our soldiers have seen in life the kind of destruction carried out by those people before they decided to come carrying a white flag. Therefore, they carried out their duties. We destroyed anyone connected with the LTTE. That is how we won the war.”
In 2011 General Fonseka was sentenced to three years in prison and fined Rs.5000 by a court for “propagating a false rumour’ in connection with the original Sunday Leader story.
Eyewitnesses say it was not just the LTTE political wing leaders who were targeted, but at least 102 other administrative, financial, political, humanitarian leaders of the LTTE, in addition to unarmed military wing cadres and non-combatants such as children who also surrendered later the same day. There were also other LTTE figures who surrendered in the days before and after 18 May who have disappeared or been killed in the custody of the Sri Lankan security forces.
It appears to have been part of a cold-blooded plan to wipe out any future Tamil representatives. The names collated in this report are by no means an exhaustive list. Almost all of those who were seen as unarmed and in the custody of the security forces have never been heard of again after surrendering on 18 May 2009. The onus is on the Sri Lankan government to explain what happened to these people.
Father Francis, the priest who wrote to the Pope in desperation, disappeared without a trace on 18 May 2009 when he escorted a group of about 40 LTTE members to surrender. He was a well-known figure in LTTE areas and several eyewitnesses now out of the country saw him getting on a bus under the custody of the Sri Lankan military.
Even the influential Catholic Church has been unable to get any word of what happened to their priest.
Once people crossed the bridge they were herded into pens, secured with barbed wire, to be searched and screened. Suspected LTTE fighters were separated like these women fighters identifiable by their short hair which marked them out.
There are several photographs now available that show prominent LTTE figures or their family members alive and in Sri Lankan army custody at the end of the war. Those same people have either been photographed dead or have disappeared subsequently.
NOTE on Photographs: Most of the photographs and videos used have not been forensically authenticated by this project. However, the pictures of 12-year-old Balachandran and some of the pictures of Isaipriya were independently authenticated in the past by Channel 4.
Continued in Part 11