5 years on The White Flag Incident (2009 — 2014) – Part 3
12th May 2009
Photographs: The aftermath of an attack on a makeshift hospital on May 12th 2009.
Another hospital shelled
Artillery shells were fired at a makeshift hospital set up at a school in Mullivaikkal, killing dozens.
HRW reported that nearly 1,000 patients were in the hospital at the time of the attack, including many wounded during the May 9-10 attacks.
The OISL reported,
“According to witnesses, at around 8 a.m., on 12 May, shells fired by SLA fell directly in front of the admission ward of the facility, killing at least 20 people, including a district health administrator, medical volunteers, a nurse, and many patients. Many died instantly, others succumbing to injuries, some as a result of lack of medical care and medicine.”
“The shelling occurred at a busy time of the day, with many injured civilians from earlier attacks waiting for their treatment.”
“(A) witness described how there were many injured patients and many dead bodies all together in one place, people crying all around. Medical supplies were almost exhausted.”
One witness said,
“There were so many dead bodies that they could not be separated. There were pieces of bodies everywhere…”
“It was a terrible sight, with people dead and dying everywhere inside the hospital”
The US State Department report said,
“One shell landed in front of the admission ward, killing 26 people instantaneously.”
“Among the casualties was the Administrative Officer of Mullaittivu Regional Director of Health Services (RDHS), who was killed while arranging a patient’s admission to the hospital.”
“A witness at the hospital said that the shelling came from the direction of Iraddayvaikkal, which GSL forces had recently captured. Another source said that in addition to the 49 killed, scores of others were wounded, and he expected the death toll to rise. Shells were still hitting the area hours later, including one that landed about 150 yards from the hospital.”
“the smaller NFZ unilaterally declared by the GSL continued to come under attack.”
Photographs above and right: The aftermath of an attack on a makeshift hospital on May 12th 2009.
The OISL reports that later the same day,
“a shell landed near a tent accommodating hospital staff and volunteers, killing a nursing assistant and causing serious burns to six others”.
“At least two witnesses indicated that at that time, patients were being brought in with unusual burns, one of them describing the different parts of the body of the patients being blackened, with skin like “black charcoal”.
Several allegations of chemical weapons, including white phosphorus, being deployed by the Sri Lankan military have been made. The OISL continues,
“Likewise, while OISL received allegations of the use of white phosphorous, and witnesses described such incidents, particularly in the last few weeks of the conflict where bombs caused intense burning and blackened skin, it was not able to gather enough information to confirm that white phosphorous was used. OISL therefore believes that these allegations should also be investigated further.”
Dr Navaratnarajah Uyatchi, who was heading the last hospital in Mullivaikkal until the early hours of May 17th, told the British House of Commons in 2016 that he witnessed the Sri Lankan airforce drop chemical weapons within the vicinity of the hospital.
Also see our earlier posts:
Phosphorus attacks covered up in hospitals (02 November 2013)
UN team confirms cluster bomb use in Sri Lanka (26 April 2012)
Colombo uses chemical weapons: LTTE (14 April 2009)
US, UK want UN to facilitate ‘safe evacuation’ of civilians
Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband. A joint statement issued after the meeting said the two, ‘’expressed their profound concern about the humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka caused by the ongoing hostilities’’.
“They expressed alarm at a large number of reported civilian causalities over the past several days in the designated ‘safe’ zone”.
Photograph: Clinton and Miliband meet on May 12th 2009.
See the full text below.
“Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband call on all sides to end hostilities immediately and allow for the safe evacuation of the tens of thousands of civilians trapped within the safe zone. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam must lay down their arms and allow civilians free passage out of the conflict zone. The government of Sri Lanka must abide by its commitment of April 27 to end major combat operations and the use of heavy weapons.”
“Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband express their appreciation for the continued efforts of the United Nations and their staff on the ground in Sri Lanka. They call on the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers to allow a UN humanitarian team to visit the conflict zone to facilitate the safe evacuation of civilians. They urge both sides to allow food and medical assistance to reach those trapped by fighting, cooperate with the ICRC to facilitate the evacuation of urgent medical cases, ensure the safety of aid and medical workers, and permit humanitarian access to all sites where displaced persons are being registered or being provided shelter.”
“Secretary Clinton and Foreign Secretary Miliband call for a political solution that reconciles all Sri Lankans, and establishes a meaningful role for Tamil and other minorities in national political life.”
TNA says 150,000 trapped and warns of more bloodshed
The Tamil National Alliance held a press conference stating more than 3,000 civilians had been killed in the last 3 days alone and warned of further massacre.
All the TNA MPs in the country, with the exemption of one trapped inside the conflict zone, were present.
TNA leader R Sampanthan said,
“there is genocide taking place in Vanni; the entire international community is being silent; we don’t want just statements of condemnations and pledges without any action; the killings of civilians must immediately be stopped; this is our urgent request”.
The MPs stated that there remain 120,000 to 150,000 civilians inside the conflict zone.
IDPs dying in Menik Farm
At least 61 elderly Tamil IDPs are reported to have died whilst captive at the Menik Farm IDP camp in Vavuniya, from May 1 to May 11.
The OISL says,
“Humanitarian workers reported sometimes seeing the bodies of elderly persons lying on the ground including two in different camps in June 2009. Many elderly were unaccompanied in the camps, in some cases separated from families who were in other camps and not able to reunite with them. Many witnesses had also described the elderly as being particularly weakened by conditions in the conflict zone.”
“On 27 April, the Vavuniya District Magistrate Court had ordered that all IDPs over the age of 60 who were sick and without relatives in the IDP camps were to be transferred to homes for elderly people. The decision was based on his findings that there were more than five deaths each day of elderly persons in the IDP camps due to starvation and malnutrition, and that the deaths of 14 elderly people had been registered in Manik Farm the previous day.”
11th May 2009
More than 3,200 killed overnight
The carnage continued in the No Fire Zone with more than 3,200 people killed overnight according to Lawrence Christy, the head of Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) Field Office.
He called on the international community “to intervene to stop the genocide and to provide food and medicine to the besieged civilians”.
The SLA offensive formations were firing using cannons, 50 calibre machine guns, artilleries, mortar and Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) guns reported TamilNet.
The then LTTE head of international relations Selvarasa Pathmanathan released a statement saying,
“The recent developments in Vanni are very disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Sri Lanka and its partners in this war to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty.”
“We are convinced that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the making and appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to prevail upon the Sri Lankan Government so as to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy.”
The United Nation’s OISL reports that there was only one health facility for all the civilians in the area”. It adds,
“Between 8 and 12 May the facility was shelled on several occasions as the NFZ3 came under intense daily bombardment by SLA artillery, the air force and the navy.”
The UN spokesman at the time Gordon Weiss said the shelling over the weekend had caused a “bloodbath”, stating,
“The U.N. has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we’ve watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months… The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend, including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath has become a reality.”
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona, said the government took “serious offence” at the remarks by Mr Weiss and had lodged a formal protest. “It is not the role of the UN office to say anything in public to embarrass the host government,” Mr Kohona said.
Security Council continues to take no action
The then British Foreign Minister David Miliband said he was “appalled by the reports that have come out of Sri Lanka over the weekend of mass civilian casualties”, at a press conference at the United Nations in New York.
“No-one can be in any doubt that this is an issue that deserves the international community’s attention,” he added, saying that “Our message is a simple one which is that the killing must stop”.
However, Mr Miliband claimed that there were only “up to 50,000” people trapped in the final conflict zone. Later estimates revealed the actual number to be as many as three times that.
He went on to state,
“As you know, the issue [Sri Lanka] has not yet been allowed onto the formal UN Security Council agenda. That’s why we will be having a range of meetings either side of today’s formal meeting on the Middle East.”
“I believe very very strongly that the civilian situation in the North East of Sri Lanka merits the attention of the United Nations at all levels.”
A leaked US embassy cable says that Mr Miliband referred to the government in Sri Lanka as “liars”.
Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch commented,
“If the Security Council stays silent on this issue any longer, it will be a failure of historic proportions… It is already late, but lives can still be saved”.
A leaked US embassy cable highlights notes of the meeting, hosted by the UK and French Foreign Ministers with like-minded Security Council members. The UN Secretary-General and Council members discussed Sri Lanka during their monthly lunch, it adds.
“The Foreign Ministers of the UK, France, Austria and Costa Rica, as well as the U.S. and Mexico all strongly supported SC action, with Russian FM Lavrov on the defensive. Lavrov said the situation in Sri Lanka is a humanitarian disaster, but not a threat to peace and security. He said other fora in the UN were better suited to address this issue. He added that there were plenty of similar instances when the Security Council did not act. China said that the Security Council’s informal meetings on Sri Lanka had made a difference.
Ambassador Rice disagreed, and said the meetings had not yet made a difference; displaced persons were not receiving help, and the shelling continued despite government assurances to the contrary. On the margins of the meeting, the French said they intend to bring Sri Lanka to the Security Council this week, and would push for a product.”
See the full text of the cable here.
Joint Letter to Japanese Prime Minister on Sri Lanka
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect wrote a joint letter to Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso calling on his government “to support efforts for the [United Nations] Security Council to keep the situation in Sri Lanka under close and regular review and to consider the situation in Sri Lanka formally at the Security Council.”
Extracts reproduced below.
“If the world continues to look away from the suffering of civilians in Sri Lanka, as it has largely done until now, it will be a failure of historic proportions. We believe that Japan, a powerful player on the humanitarian stage and the largest international donor to Sri Lanka, has an important role to play in saving countless civilian lives, as well as to implement aid policies that ensure sustainable peace, human rights and development in Sri Lanka. It is time for Japan to show that it is prepared to shoulder its responsibilities.”
“Meetings in recent weeks have been held only informally in basement rooms, deliberately kept out of the Council’s main chamber, because of the reluctance of some member states. We believe this must change and formal meetings of the Security Council must be held urgently so that the Council can take the necessary measures to address the humanitarian and human rights crisis.”
“The Council should make clear that both the government and LTTE would be held accountable for their actions, and create a UN commission of inquiry to examine violations of international humanitarian law by both sides.”
Tamil diaspora continues protests
Protests continued in capitals across the world, where the Tamil diaspora had taken to the streets to demand a ceasefire.
Photograph: Tamil Canadians protest on the Gardiner Expressway on May 10th 2009.
A day earlier, Tamils in Canada including women and children, held a peaceful protest, blocking the main Gardiner Expressway that runs through the city.
In Washington DC, more than two hundred American Tamils protested in front of the White House.
Photographs: Tamils protest outside the White House on May 11th 2009.
10th May 2009
Photograph: A Tamil woman mourns after her relative was killed in a Sri Lankan military attack on May 10th 2009.
Thousands killed in one day
As many as 2,000 civilians were reportedly killed in a barrage of artillery fire by the Sri Lankan military throughout the day, reports TamilNet.
“Dead bodies are found in bunkers and inside the tarpaulin tents,” TamilNet added.
Rescue workers had counted at least 1,200 bodies with fears that many more had been undiscovered.
See more here. (Graphic images)
Photographs: The aftermath of intense shelling by the Sri Lankan military on May 10th 2009.
The US State Department quoted a local source in the NFZ as reporting that “a congested civilian area was under heavy shell attack with many houses and vehicles burning”.
“Many civilians’ temporary tarpaulin houses were struck by shells, and many hundreds of civilians were killed.”
“A local source for an organization also reported heavy shelling with an estimated 1,000 killed and another estimated 1,000 injured. Embassy Colombo also reported that heavy shelling occurred in the NFZ, killing at least 300 civilians.”
“More bodies were on the beaches and along road sides. The source said that heavy arms appeared to have been fired from government-controlled territory into a mainly civilian area under LTTE… The death toll is thought to be closer to 1,000; many of those killed would have been buried in the bunkers where they were slain, and many of the gravely wounded never made it to the hospital for treatment.”
A leaked US embassy cable notes,
The Embassy has credible information that the Sri Lankan Air Force conducted an air strike south of the civilian safe zone yesterday afternoon, May 10.
Read the full cable here.
Satellite imagery analysed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International showed evidence of bombshell craters, destroyed permanent structures, mortar positions, and 1,346 individual graves, from May 6th to May 10th 2009.
IDP tents inside the No Fire Zone on May 6th (left) and May 10th (right). There is almost complete removal of all structures that were present.
Red arrows indicate craters from possible artillery or air fire from May 6th (left) and May 10th (right).
Further analysis of crater morphology shows evidence of fire in a similar tactic to that described in a US Army field manual.
Possible mortar craters landing in a ‘Lazy W’ formation (left) as detailed in a US military manual (right).
Possible mortar craters landing in a ‘Six Star’ formation (left) as detailed in a US military manual (right).
‘The Tamil people are dismayed’
The LTTE released a statement stating,
“At this very moment (Sunday, May 10 2009), the Sri Lankan Government has unleashed its ferocious military aggression against the hapless Tamil civilians living in the so-called “Safe Zone” in Vanni, Sri Lanka. More than 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed in the last 24 hours. The wholesale bombardment by Sri Lankan planes and shelling on a densely populated, non combatant civilian safe zone is state terrorism and a war crime.”
“The international community and UN have an obligation to protect the Tamil people facing genocidal aggression directed in a manner against all international humanitarian laws. It is clear that the Sri Lankan Government has prevented all aid agencies and humanitarian organisations from visiting the conflict zone. The Tamil people are dismayed that the United Nations and the International Community have failed in their obligations to protect the endangered civilians.”
“Every passing day is resulting in the loss of countless number of civilian lives and alienation of the entire Tamil community.”
‘It is a genocidal war’
Catholic Priest Father Francis Joseph writes to the Pope from inside the No Fire Zone, calling on the Church to break its silence on the massacre of Tamils. The father, who was later detained by Sri Lankan security forces after passing through a military checkpoint in May 2009, has not been seen since.
Extracts of his letter are below.
Last night’s toll of the dead is 3318 and of the injured more than 4000. It was a barrage of artillery, mortar, multi-barrel shelling and cluster bombs…
The cries and woes of agony of babies and children, the women and the elderly fill the air that was polluted by poisonous and unhealthy gases…
I deem it my duty to point my finger at the Church for its silence while some of the countries like USA, UK, France and some of the European Union countries and others, even the UN have voiced their dismay at the way the Sri Lankan Government is conducting a war to annihilate the Tamils…
Let it be known that under the guise of eradicating terrorism, the Sri Lankan Government is waging the war to annihilate the Tamil nation. It is a genocidal war.
See the full text of the letter here.
9th May 2009
‘Artillery from all directions’
The US State Department quoted a local as stating that the No Fire zone “received artillery fire from all four directions for over 12 hours”.
“He estimated that over 1,000 were killed and another 1,000 injured.”
Human Rights Watch reported two witness testimonies from the day.
“K. Kanaga,” a 35-year-old woman whose name is withheld for security reasons, said that around 7 p.m. on May 9, she and 15 others were hiding in a bunker that they had built under a tractor when a shell struck the tractor. “If it hadn’t been for the tractor, we would have all been dead,” she said. About eight to 10 shells struck the immediate area, which was populated with tents and improvised bunkers. Kanaga’s 45-year-old cousin was staying in a tent nearby; she never reached the bunker and was killed in the attack. “Many other people were injured as well, but I don’t know how many,” Kanaga said. “I could hear their screams.”
“R. Raman,” 29, said that he and his family had been hiding in their bunker in Mullaivaikal – a dug-out trench without any cover – for several days. “We were being attacked from all sides,” he said. “My wife and I only left the bunker to get food and water for our three children.”
Early in the morning on May 9, a shell struck one of the tents closeby, killing Raman’s 15-year-old nephew and wounding his nephew’s older brother and sister. Raman believes that the shell came from Sri Lankan army positions and may have been targeting LTTE forces that were deployed in the jungle about 100 meters away. Several shells struck the tented area inhabited by displaced civilians.
Photographs above and right: A makeshift hospital pictured on May 9th 2009.
Barrage hits NFZ as last ICRC ship leaves
The Sri Lankan military launched a barrage of heavy weapon fire in to the No Fire Zone as the last ICRC-chartered ferry that visits the conflict area leaves.
“Fighting also made it impossible for the ferry to approach the shore on the previous day, 8 May,” said an ICRC press release.
“The plight of the people remaining in the combat area is desperate, ” said ICRC’s head of delegation in Sri Lanka, Paul Castella.
“We need unimpeded access to them in order to save lives. “
Head of Sri Lankan army visits Vanni
Then Commander of the Army Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka flew to Vavuniya to meet with senior military commanders and “review the latest developments of the security situation in Vanni areas,” reports the military.
Photograph: Sarath Fonseka visits the Vanni, with other senior military officials on May 9th 2009.
“Army Commander, after being received by Commander Security Forces Headquarters Wanni (SFHQ-W) Major General Jagath Jayasuriya, was conducted to the SFHQ auditorium where he met senior ground commanders and discussed the present security situation in Wanni. He also issued further instructions to his ground commanders,” said an official military website.
8th May 2009
Photograph: Shells land inside the No Fire Zone on May 8th 2009.
With GPS coordinates, Sri Lanka attacks hospitals
The Sri Lankan military stepped up its barrage of the No Fire Zone with heavy shelling reported, including with cluster munitions.
The US State Department quotes an HRW source in the NFZ who “witnessed an SLA drone conduct reconnaissance above the Valayanmadam hospital”.
“Shortly thereafter the hospital was attacked, killing four or five people including a doctor and wounding more than 30. Several sources informed HRW that each time a hospital was established in a new location, GPS coordinates of the facility were transmitted to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the facility would be protected from military attack. Witnesses said that on several occasions, attacks occurred on the day after the coordinates had been transmitted.”
Final ‘No Fire Zone’ declared
The Sri Lankan government declared the third and final No Fire Zone.
The OISL reports “tens of thousands of civilians were squeezed into this tiny area”.
“The SLA force now confronting the LTTE was probably in excess of 50,000 soldiers, with significant heavy weapons capability and air supremacy… The SLA was on one side of a large lagoon, the LTTE on the other, the civilians being at some distance behind the LTTE.
However, witnesses, described to the OISL “continuous shelling and devastation as the shells hit the ground”. One source told the OISL,
“Firing from the SLA would pass over the LTTE front line “and impact on the civilians behind it”.”
“He said that everyone was squeezed into a small piece of land and practically each time a shell fell, people would be injured and killed. Another witness said he saw nine people being killed when a shell hit a mango tree by a well where they had gathered. One saw a woman killed when a shell hit her bunker… she had a sewing machine and used to make cloth bags to fill with sand for the bunker. “
Often, people fled when family members were killed – they had no time to mourn or bury the dead…” Another witness described seeing more than a 100 dead bodies, including children, near his bunker.”
Meanwhile, General Shavendra Silva, the Commander of the 58th Division, stated,
“At the last stages of the operation we just did not go blind, everything was planned through UAV pictures and where we exactly knew where the civilians and the LTTE were and where we found that at least a little bit of confusion whether the civilians are too close to the LTTE cadres we had to resort to other means and buy time to separate the two parties.”
No food, no medicine
The US State Department reportedly said that “local sources in the NFZ reported that a supply ship had arrived but was forced by the GSL to return to Trincomalee with its cargo of food and medicine still on board. The sources reported that the SLN had refused to allow them to offload the cargo, and then began firing on the beach.”
“An organization reported that shipments of food and medicine to the NFZ were grossly insufficient over the prior month and that the GSL reportedly delayed or denied timely shipment of life-saving medicines as well as chlorine tablets. A source in the NFZ reported that patients were brought to the hospital for fainting attacks attributed to their lack of food.”
“Mothers were crying at the hospital and asking for milk powder. They had not eaten and were unable to feed their children, but the hospital did not have milk powder in stock.”
Photographs: The aftermath of attacks inside the No Fire Zone on May 8th 2009.
Heavy rains at internment camps
Rains in Vavuniya, where hundreds of thousands of Tamils were being interned, cause mass flooding.