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The news out of Sri Lanka has been dire for weeks and I had been deliberately ignoring it. But, a few days ago, my wife and I watched the news of the protest marches in Toronto. We saw footage of a hospital that had been shelled 4 times.
Artillery shells slammed into the hospital in the northern district of Mullaittivu on Monday evening. Strikes on the hospital on Sunday — including one that hit the pediatric ward — left 11 people dead, including some children, according to an aid worker who spoke to witnesses.
Government forces and Tamil rebels are locked in a battle for the remaining rebel strongholds in northern Sri Lanka, where the the country’s ethnic Tamil minority has been fighting for an independent homeland since 1983.
Humanitarian groups say as many as 250,000 unprotected civilians are trapped in the area. The civil war has left more than 70,000 people dead.
It was disturbing to see the footage of the dead and injured, lying on the sand, with blood staining their faces and clothes. The camera captured some hands and arms before fading away. Only later I realized that there was no body to go with those appendages.
Doctors, nurses and medical administrators working out of a single room in their makeshift hospital in the school have become the eyes and ears of the world in this conflict. The government in Colombo has sought to dismiss them, to claim that they are pawns of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or even to claim that some do not exist.
Yet the medics continue to provide a running commentary on the slaughter. Today their number was reduced by one more, as a government-appointed administrator joined the toll of the dead. He and two volunteer workers were among at least 47 people killed when a shell struck the hospital at about 7.30am.
The Sri Lankan government first claimed that the shelling was from the Tamil Tigers. Once it was established that the hospital had been shelled by government forces, then the amount of dead was disputed.
Government officials have accused aid organizations and foreign media of sensationalizing civilian casualties.
“It looks as if it’s convenient for certain agencies to exaggerate the numbers so that this can be converted to a humanitarian crisis in the public eye, ” Secretary of Foreign Affairs Dr. Palitha Kohona told CNN.
Conveniently, the government has banned reporters from the area and censors the BBC in Sri Lanka. Independent verification of the casualties was not possible.
A young tamil woman was also interviewed on the same news story. She was asked about the support of the marchers for the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). A field of red flags floated behind her as she vehemently, and unreservedly support the Tigers as the voice of the Sri Lankan Tamils and skirted issues of the group’s use of child soldiers.
Talk of the Tamil Tigers is what has politicized this whole issue and taken the focus away from the innocents getting slaughtered. The news, politicians and even some of the protesters are confused about the real issue. It does not matter if you label the Tigers freedom fighters or terrorists, because the issue is giving civilians a chance of safe passage between these warring factions.
Steven Harper declared the Tigers a terrorist group — by extension it seems that he is willing to lump the dying innocents along with real fighters. So in the political climate of Canada, Liberal support for the protests vanished because of the possibility of being of being called terrorist supporters. Playing politics with lives is what gave the world Rwanda, and it just keeps happening.
The act of calling a group , terrorists does not negate the reasons why that group was created. It does little to foster an understanding of the situations and creates solutions of the “cowboys of Indians” mentality. Iraq and Afghanistan are unfortunate examples of this type of “thinking”.
The Tamil Tigers were born after the 1983 riots in Colombo.
In Colombo, there were troubles in the the fifties and the seventies. The worst was in 1983 when the city went mad and there was wholesale destruction and murder of Tamils.
The official version was it was extremists responsible for such violence. But, my wife was there during the riots. She witnessed people being dragged out of cars and burned and Tamil houses being the specific target of burning. Curiously she witnessed the the looters using electoral lists to accomplish their task. I wonder how they could have gotten such lists ? In spite of the madness there were people who took care of their friends and neighbors and endangered themselves to help my wife and her family.
My mother was in her teens during the 1958 riots in Colombo. Two weeks before looting and burning of Tamil houses were marked. No one knew the meaning of the marks, until the looting began.
Organization and government collusion was necessary for the pogrom. How else do you get election rosters and know which houses to mark ? The roots of the ethnic conflict began after the British left the country in a power vacuum, with the minority Tamils holding most of the high posts and the majority Singhalese wanting to redress the balance. Misunderstandings, counterattacks and a political system bent on creating more strife (not unlike Rwanda) have been making it worse ever since.
In a weird way the two fighting groups have morphed into each other. Both have subscribed to extreme violence, torture, and extortion. I once asked my late Grandmother why no one criticized the Sri Lanka government — she told me that you just don’t. There was no questions or discussion, one just did not question the government and remain healthy. When the Tigers were created, there was hope in Tamil communities outside of Sri Lanka, that maybe Tamils could have a voice in their own country. But, years later as their fundraising efforts expanded to Canada, there was some fear of refusing to give “donations”.
Caught in the middle of the fighting are just people trying to live their lives. It is these people that remain invisible as the battle rages on. Intervention means giving these people a chance to get out of the conflict zone with their lives, because neither side really cares about them. The latest news is the the Tigers have called for a ceasefire
“In the past 24 hours, over 3,000 civilians lie dead on the streets while another 25,000 are critically injured with no medical attention,” said the statement.
In contrast, Sri Lanka military officials said earlier that all the civilians who had been trapped in Sri Lanka’s northern war zone had escaped.
The government rejected the ceasefire calls, saying that as all trapped civilians had now fled from the area of conflict, there was no reason to stop its offensive.
Like all accounts from the war zone, neither claim can be independently verified.
This would be the time and the place for UN observers. Given the fact that the Sri Lankan government and army did not “know” about the bombing of the hospital, independent verification of the safety of the remaining civilians is critical to ensure the entire problem is not bombed out of relevance.