In BBC Blind I have alluded to the growing disenchantment among the citizens of Thamilīlam from circa January 2009 onwards – even as other segments of the populace remained firmly attached to the Liberation Tiger cause and had faith in the leadership’s insistence that international intervention would save them.
The populace included former citizens of the Jaffna Peninsula who had moved across to the northern Vanni in the wake of the LTTE in 1995/96 after an army operation emanating from Palaly secured control of the western and central portions of the Peninsula. That enforced shift from hearth and home was resented by many Tamil residents and was pictured as an “exodus” by the dissident UTHR intellectuals in their courageous reportage. Rajan Hoole, the point-man in the UTHR collective, is a staunch Protestant Christian and the adoption of biblical metaphors is not surprising. Such imagery is not inappropriate either.
In early 2009, as some of the citizens of Thamilīlam decided to flee from the battlefield situation and furnace of war imposed on them by LTTE fiat, one witnessed a creeping exodus (see Figs. 2 and 3 in Appendix IV). However, as late as mid-April 2009 there were still about 246,000 people (inclusive of Tiger personnel) hemmed in within the 12 by 2 km space that I have depicted as the “Last Redoubt.”[i] Not one citizen was able to use the unilateral ceasefire declared by the government of Sri Lanka during the New Year period in mid-April 2009 to flee from their beleaguered situation.
However, an intricate military operation mounted by the Sri Lankan Army on the night of the 19th April and the following days penetrated the bunds and booby-trapped defences of the Tigers. This event enabled a multitude of people to escape from their hell-hole situation (though there can be little doubt that quite a few – maybe 2000 people in three days if Citizen Silva’s guesstimates are valid – died from crossfire, mortar shell and deterrent Tiger shootings). Official Ministry of Defence figures indicate that 102.873 people – including Tiger personnel who discarded guns and uniforms (if any had been worn) – struggled out across sand, water and/or land on the four days 20-23 April.[ii] This, then, was EXODUS TWO in the recent history of the Sri Lankan Tamil people. Figure 1 in BBC Blind served as one example of this momentous event, a harrowing one for those families who were injured in the process or for those who saw some kin folk die or had to make some awful choices – whether to stay with injured/dying relatives or to move on and escape.
After this exodus there were still around 135,000 to 146,000 people now crammed into the relatively small space of the Last Redoubt still defended by the Liberation Tiger forces (viz, Karayamullivaikkal-Vellamullivaikkal-Wadduvakkal). The Tiger functionaries – remarkable this – continued to service these people: doling out food, having outpatient dispensaries for instance (see Figs. 15-17). The ICRC and Sri Lankan Navy also continued their medivac operations — bringing in supplies and evacuating injured or ill people with the cooperation of the LTTE till the final medivac on 9th May 2009.
Fig, 21: Scene at Pulmoddai beach on 9/10 May 2009 as a number of civilians were landed – presented in Sunday Observer in an article by Dhaneshi Yatawara Fig. 22 — probably at Pulmoddai beach — BBC no date
It was not till the final Sri Lankan army assault (see Graphic Maps above) against fierce Tiger resistance – including suicide bombings and a remarkable Sea Tiger ramming attack on an army bunker on the beach – that the rest of the civilian population was able to survive (obviously at the cost of some deaths). This, then, was EXODUS THREE.
This collection of images below is designed to illustrate and mark these two moments – truly momentous processes – in the last phase of Eelam War IV, namely, Exodus One on 20-23 April and Exodus Two in mid-May. They must supplement the accounts provided by the UTHR collective, the detailed accounting in IDAG’s work on the “Numbers Game,” the books produced by Gordon Weiss and Frances Harrison and the series of comments generated by Narendran Rajasingham in response to items on web sites and the debates aroused within – comments that intelligently report on testimonies provided by those Tamils who escaped/survived when he chatted with them at detention centres in March/April and again in June/July 2009.
The pictures of the exodus are presented in what I think is a temporal order but I am hamstrung at times by an inability to assign dates or even sources to some of the images that have been gathered over the years. Needless to say, the photographs would have been taken by either SL army personnel or camerapersons embedded with the Army on the western side of the “Last Redoubt” — including the waterline of Nandikadal Lagoon, though a few are at the Vadduvakkal makeshift bridge at the southern end. I request those people who can provide missing dates and citations to kindly send this information to me at email@example.com.
I note here that the still photograph presented as Figure 1 (in my main essay) is clearly part of the motion picture series inserted within the recent government propaganda film called “The Last Phase” – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngNeF5WY64s. Both that video and the still pictures I have deployed are taken in the daytime. But the escaping Tamils also moved at night and would have been caught in crossfire as well as being subject to deterrent Tiger shooting in some places. In April 2009 I vividly recollect seeing video footage in Colombo relayed by one of the main Sri Lankan TV channels which presented crowds of escapees at night; with two (one woman, one a man) directing their anger at the LTTE by visage and word (in Sinhala). These moments were obviously selections. If any survivor had vent his or her resentment at the SL Army, it would not have been presented to the public.
The word “survivor” is worth highlighting in the circumstances that these Tamil people had faced in the Vanni Pocket from, say, late December and early January. Apart from shell fire and gunfire, some images indicate that people could have drowned in the deeper sections of Nandikadal Lagoon. It is possible that yet other corpses of those who collapsed in jungle or shrub would not have been found or identified and recorded. All these will be among those “missing” — deaths mostly unrecorded and impossible to mark. As such they could be among the “disappearances” highlighted in the protests and news reportage during the recent CHOGM brouhaha.
Both pictures 31 and 32 were widely displayed in media circuits by the government of Sri Lanka — presumably to “prove” the benign aspect of the final military operations. In fact, they could be read by hostile readers as “proof” of relentless and heavy shelling. As it happens this reading would have been mistaken. During the last few days the Liberation Tigers adhered to typical military practice of the sort displayed by the British Army at Dunkirk: they systematically blew up their vehicles, weaponry and explosives. All one has to do is to study the Defence Ministry web site relating to the last stage of the war in May: the two photographs on display here are among a series that show burnt out vehicles and blackened flotsam jetsam. People in Sri Lanka were informed then — circa 15th May — about these happenings; while Kanchan Prasad and Muralidhar Reddy, both embedded with the 58th Brigade on the SL army side, took note of this process because of the heavy explosive blasts that reverberated across the front (information conveyed personally by Reddy that month). What these two — and for that matter the SL Army — did not know is that the LTTE, as efficient as ever even in distress, had also buried some of their artillery (Fig. 33) — a fact only brought to light in 2013(?) by the effects of a mini-cyclone!!
[i] This is an estimate worked out by Citizen Silva (in IDAG 2013). It is lower than the figure presented by LTTE propaganda then but higher than the estimates provided by UN circles in Colombo and much, much higher than those asserted by the government of Sri Lanka. Without any expertise in this sphere I, too, was way out THEN in my amateur views on this specific topic. The variation in claims THEN is an indication of the clouds surrounding the issue.
[ii] Citizen Silva notes that some others trickled out between 24th and 30th April. By his count 135-146,000 people (including Tiger personnel) remained in the remnant section of the Last Redoubt on 1 May 2009. See IDAG 2013.