Five Years on The White flag incident 2009-2014 (part 1)
This is the story of the killing or disappearance of several groups of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who surrendered to the Sri Lankan army on or about 18 May 2009 at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. They were told by the government if they carried a white flag they would be safe crossing the frontline. But when they surrendered it became apparent they had been lured into a trap. Several were executed in cold blood – others have never been seen since.
The surrender of the political leaders of the LTTE – Pulidevan and Nadesan – is commonly known as “the white flag incident”. It involved approximately twelve people surrendering, including the leaders. Photographs of their dead bodies later appeared.
There was however more than one white flag incident. At least 103 other LTTE leaders and those associated with them were seen later that day surrendering while unarmed. Some were led by an elderly Catholic priest called Father Francis Joseph; witnesses saw them loaded onto a bus under army guard. They have not been seen since and are presumed to have been disappeared by the Sri Lanka security forces.
An analysis of the available evidence points to an organised government plan at the highest level not to accept the surrender of the top civilian, administrative and political leadership of the LTTE – but rather to execute them. In the immediate aftermath of the surrenders, the Sri Lankan government presented a number of contradictory explanations for the killings of the political wing leaders but none for the other people who disappeared.
Five years on, the families of the disappeared and dead desperately need to know what happened to their loved ones and why.
The white flag incident allegedly involved several very high-level Sri Lankan officials.
The President’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa, allegedly took the lead in the negotiation of the surrender of the political leaders. He reportedly had the surrender deal approved by his siblings – President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Permanent Representative to the UN mission, Palitha Kohona, who was then foreign secretary, is alleged to have played a key role, sending text messages to the LTTE with instructions on how to surrender safely.
An eyewitness saw Shavendra Silva (seen in the next photo pointing at the corpses) accepting the surrender of the political leaders. Silva is now Mr Kohona’s deputy at the United Nations.
The last months of Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war saw an unprecedented slaughter of minority Tamil civilians. The United Nations now estimates between 40-70,000 people died in five months in a tiny corner of the north-east of the island. That makes Sri Lanka one of the bloodiest wars this century and yet the least reported of mass atrocities.
The fighting took place around a series of shrinking “no fire zones” declared by the Sri Lankan government. These were designated areas where civilians were told to gather to avoid being harmed. However, these three “no fire zones” where tens of thousands of civilians congregated were repeatedly shelled and bombed by government forces.
Hundreds of thousands of people were constantly on the move for months, trying to escape the fighting. They finally gathered on a tiny spit of land along the coast. They camped out on the hot sand beaches, digging trenches and chopping up their best wedding saris to make sandbags.
By May 2009 the situation in the conflict zone had become utterly desperate.
Every makeshift hospital had been shelled. A handful of doctors were left, doing amputations without anaesthetic or antibiotics which the government refused to allow in. People were starving because the government would not allow enough food in. Civilians were being pounded by supersonic jets and heavy artillery including multi-barrelled rocket launchers. Everyone had witnessed death and few thought they’d survive the carnage.
“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, weapons which the Sri Lankan government denies using on the civilians in the no-fire zone. The cries of woes and agony of the babies and children, the women and the elderly fill the air that was polluted by poisonous and unhealthy gases and pierced the hearts of fathers and mothers, of elders and peasants of old men and women of all walks of life. I am not unaware that this letter would arouse the wrath of the Sri Lankan government which will resort to the revenge by killing me.“
On 10th May 2009, a Catholic priest inside the war zone, Father Francis, wrote to the Pope in Rome describing what he was experiencing.
By the time Father Francis wrote his letter to the Pope on 10 May it was already clear that the LTTE was defeated. From once having controlled nearly a third of the island, they now were crammed into an area little more than 3 kilometres square. The LTTE were reportedly running out of ammunition and manpower and were forcibly recruiting civilians who didn’t want to fight. The war only had a week to go.
By 14th May discussions began on a possible surrender. A day later, fighters report the LTTE leader sent a message to his cadres saying they could if they wanted to try and escape. Some fighters took off their uniforms, laid down their weapons, and mixed with their families and the fleeing civilians hoping they’d pass undetected.
The LTTE leadership had to make a choice whether to fight to the end or surrender. They decided that the political wing leader, Nadesan, and his deputy, Pulidevan, should negotiate a surrender and take with them the injured and others who wanted to lay down their arms.
In the course of the negotiations for surrender, the two men started sending out messages back and forth to a range of Sri Lankan politicians and diplomats and a journalist.
They sought and received guarantees that they would not be harmed.
One of the intermediaries was a Tamil MP known to both the LTTE and government officials. His name is Rohan Chandra Nehru.
On 14 May 2009, Nehru informed Basil Rajapaksa to be on standby for an LTTE message on a possible surrender. But Basil Rajapaksa sounded disinterested and then didn’t call the MP back for three days.
Nehru also tried for two days to contact the UN Secretary General’s special envoy, Vijay Nambiar. He says Mr Nambiar never called him back.
Sunday Times Journalist, Marie Colvin, did eventually speak to Mr Nambiar who told her that there wasn’t much interest on the part of the Sri Lankan government in surrender because “They seem to want to go all the way.”
Below is a chronological record of some of the phone calls made back and forth to the war zone as well as text messages sent by the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary as the LTTE leaders negotiated their surrender.
At this point the LTTE still had access to a centralised Internet service working off a satellite base station until at least 14 May 2009; then they appear to have relied on Thuraya satellite phones.
Their phone communications reveal mounting desperation and panic. Interlocutors outside the war zone report hearing shelling, gunfire and screaming in the background during the calls.
From the 48 hours of communications documented here, it is clear the LTTE informed a wide range of officials that they were about to surrender. It’s also clear that the top echelons of the Sri Lankan government agreed to the surrender and provided details on how the surrender should be made.
The agreement on the surrender came from three of the Rajapaksa brothers, Mahinda, Basil and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as well as the Foreign Secretary, Palitha Kohona.
Mr Kohona later denied any involvement in the incident despite sending four text messages about the details to the LTTE through an intermediary in Europe.
At one point Basil Rajapaksa reportedly spoke directly on the telephone to Nadesan of the LTTE about the surrender just before it took place.
Communication (Sunday 17 May 2009 – All times Sri Lankan):
0846: Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona to Nadesan via a European intermediary: SMS: “Just walk across to the troops, slowly! And comply with instructions carefully. The soldiers are nervous about suicide bombers.”
1529: Another SMS from Palitha Kohona: “white flag, hands up, walk slowly”.
Midday approx: Nadesan calls Rohan Chandra Nehru MP in Colombo. “I will give you an answer around the evening, or anytime, my leader is instructing me, keep your phone free so I can call you”. [Shelling heard in the background].
1830: Nadesan calls Nehru. “We are ready to surrender under the leadership instruction”. The rebel leader, Prabhakaran had given Nadesan and the LTTE permission to surrender. Nadesan tells Nehru to speak to Basil Rajapaksa to arrange, “full security and ceasefire for when we come out.” Nadesan reports heavy shelling in their location with many casualties.
1900: Nehru calls Basil Rajapaksa. He tells him that Nadesan said there were 3000 LTTE cadres (including the political wing) and 22,000 civilians who wanted to surrender as soon as possible. Nehru tells him that the LTTE political wing and others want a ceasefire and security guarantees to surrender.
Basil Rajapaksa: “I am happy to hear this, it is anyway too late…I told you to tell them to surrender in those days but I will speak to the President and I will call you back.”
Nehru calls a number of embassies to tell them an agreement has been reached, including Norway, Britain, US. He calls Nadesan’s brother abroad.
1930 approx: Nadesan calls Nehru. Nehru tells him that Basil informed him that the President has accepted their surrender conditions. The conversation is very difficult because of loud shelling. Nadesan says he will prepare everyone to surrender.
Nehru tries to call Basil back but his phone is switched off. He tries the President without success.
1930: Nehru receives a call from Basil Rajapaksa who says, “we are taking the necessary steps and the President has accepted the conditions.”
Nadesan calls Sunday Times journalist Maire Colvin in London (the call patched via South Africa). Nadesan says: “We are putting down our arms…We are looking for a guarantee of security from the Obama administration and the British government. Is there a guarantee of security?”. Nadesan asks Marie Colvin to call UN Special Envoy, Vijay Nambiar who is traveling. The first time Nadesan tells Marie Colvin that it will be difficult to persuade the Sri Lankan government to accept a surrender.
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 are 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 fire 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.