It’s war in Sri Lanka and civilians are paying for it

IT IS said that in any war, truth is the first casualty. After truth, the second major casualty is the civilian population. At times of war, truth is manipulated to the advantage of one party or another. So is the suffering of the civilians caught in a war. This is happening not only in Iraq, but also in Sri Lanka. In recent violence, it was largely civilians who died. It is ordinary people who have been displaced and forced to live in fear.

By Ameen Izzadeen

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Published: Tue 20 Jun 2006, 10:09 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

Unlike in Iraq, where only coalition troops casualties count and are counted, in Sri Lanka, ceasefire monitors and the NGO community keep a tab on both troop and civilian casualties. According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, of the 700 people killed since April this year, some 350 are civilians. It is a war where scores are equalled also by killing civilians. As violence escalates, both sides stand accused. As the country skids back to a full-scale war, we fear that more and more civilians will fall prey to violence that has been besieging this country for nearly a quarter of a century.

In the face of incidents in the past few days —the Kebethigollawa bus bomb, the aborted attack on Colombo sea lanes, the clash between the Navy and the Sea Tigers in the northwestern town of Mannar and the subsequent attack on Tamil civilians inside a church —we have begun to discuss our fears of attacks closer home when we meet friends or relatives. We hear more and more parents saying: "We are scared to send our children to school."

But we also know that when violence stalks us, we have to learn to live with it. A friend of my wife told her he was leaving for Australia with his family and advised us also to do it. But there is no guarantee that death will not visit us in a foreign land in a different form.

We are forced to face violence —as a penance for the sins of our politicians who have failed miserably to find a solution to the problem. Right from the beginning, it is the politicians who have aggravated the ethnic crisis. While ultra-nationalism blinded some, selfish greed for power prevented others from taking positive measures to unite the country. When we talk of uniting the country, only a few think in terms of uniting the people who remain divided on ethnic lines. For many, sadly including the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, what matters is the unity of a landmass. They stubbornly refuse to accept the notion that the unity of the country lies in the unity of the people. We have not realised that there is an urgent need to transcend the "us versus them" distinction. Even the steps we take for the sake of peace have not stopped the widening of the chasm. As a result, the civilians continue to suffer. The gloomy picture encompasses civilians of all ethnic groups. The Tamils living close to military camps and LTTE bases leave their villages fearing reprisal and bombing by security forces. On Saturday, they learnt that even a place like church is not safe when armed men went berserk and killed seven civilians and wounded more than 40. The victims say the assailants were security forces personnel but the military denies it. Refugees fleeing to India and NGO accounts say that armed hooded men visiting Tamils houses in the night, raping women and looting their property.

The Sinhalese living in villages bordering Tamil-dominated areas also flee, fearing LTTE attacks. In the aftermath of last week’s horrendous bus bomb in Kebethigollawa that killed 64 civilians, including 15 children, more Sinhalese have begun to leave their villages. They have found refuge in schools in neighbouring areas while military provide them round the clock security.

Muslims in Muttur, an area between Trincomalee —a garrison town of sorts —and LTTE-held areas are under constant threat from the Tigers. Recently, they received an ultimatum from an LTTE front organisation to leave their villages in 48 hours. Most of them fled, but they were brought back by the security forces with an assurance that they would be provided with adequate security.

Some civilians in this predominantly Muslim area believe that the security forces want the villagers to remain, because the area stands as a buffer against attacks from LTTE bases in Sampur. They are caught in the crossfire. In the wake of the April 25th suicide bomb attack on the army commander in Colombo, the Air Force launched air strikes on Tiger positions in Sampur, but some bombs fell on Muttur villages and killed a few civilians.

Last Thursday television images showed men and women of the Sinhala village of Kebethigollawa weeping and beating their breast at a village hospital morgue where the bodies of the victims, including children lay on the floor. The last time we saw such scenes was in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. The greatest respect we can pay the Kebethigollawa massacre victims and all other civilian victims is to see that no more civilians are killed in this conflict; no more civilians are displaced and victimised in any manner. That is the wish of all peace-loving people who watch helplessly as the country fast slides into a full-scale war.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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