Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper

SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgodarepeating original publication in jang.com.pk/thenews/apr2009-weekly/nos-05-04-2009/pol1.htm — where the full title runs as “Reading between the Lines: The International Media and the Conflict in Sri Lanka. The Curious Case of the Sunday Times” …..**

On Friday afternoon, Puthukkudiyirruppu, the last town under Tiger control, was still the centre of intense fighting. The air hums with the thud of shells and the crack of gunfire. Listen long enough and you can make out the different sounds, the crackle of heavy machine guns, the thump of mortars and the sharp retort of the T-56.

The odd one is a little close and I try not to jump, conscious that at least three soldiers are looking at me with curiousity. I could not help but notice the sidelong glances they gave the louder sounds became.  I stood spellbound at the entrance to the Puthukkudiyirruppu Hospital, fascinated by the sign outside. On the right hand side of the board was a large red cross, on the left hand side was a rifle, with two red marks through it. Beneath it were the words “Entering With Weapons Prohibited.” It reminded me of some of the signs I had seen in Peshawar.

Seeing what looked like yet another bunker inside I began sauntering through the gates to have a closer look. There were shouts of warning and a hand was placed on my arm. “Sir, there are mines everywhere,” I decided not to investigate. The truth would have to wait.

The building across the road shivers slightly and the squirrel dancing on the wire, decides to a makes a run for it. My escort looked quite relieved when I finally put down my notebook and jumped up from the pile of bricks, shells and bullets I was sitting on. “Shall we go?” I said, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.

On our way back, I lingered at a set of stores, the “Golden Palace,” which had once commanded the main approach road. I was told that this had been one of the main Tiger defence points. What I expected was a pile of rubble. Although the front has been blown out, the Golden Palace remained more or less intact. Despite the intense fighting, most of the buildings in the town were still standing. Although battered, blasted, pocked and scarred, their walls were still in place.

Golden Palace.Pud Golden Palace at PTK —Pic by Tammita-Delgoda

Pudukuduirrippu. Hosp PTK Hospital —Pic from Tammita-Delgoda

Kilinochi Hosp. Kilinochchi Hospital —  Pic from Tammita-Delgoda

Puthukkudiyirippu_Hospital01-cc Four Pics selected by Editor Thuppahi from selection dated 12 March 2009 in Min-of-Defence web site entitled “PTK hospital liberated from LTTE”

Puthukkudiyirippu_Hospital05--EE

Puthukkudiyirippu_Hospital03--bb Puthukkudiyirippu_Hospital06-- AA

PTK 12 FROM 25 Pics selected by Editor Thuppahi from http://defence.lk/picturegallery/picc.asp?tfile=Iranapalai_Junction&cat=ACHI — where the batch is dated 18th March 2009 and entitled “58 Division Troops reach Iranapalai Junction, -Puthukudiyiruppu”

PTK 23 This pic is from the batch dated 5th April –thus a few days after Delgoda penned his essay – in the Ministry of Defence site and about the time that the GSL forces caught the LTTE troops assembling for attack at Aanandapuram in relatively open terrain and killed about 623 in a furious bombardment ambush over a few days (see Jeyaraj: “Anatomy of the LTTE Military Debacle at Aananthapuram,” Sunday Leader, 8 April 2012 -originally 2009)

Having returned from the operational areas on March 21st, I was rather surprised to read an article in The Sunday Times, London, filed by Marie Colvin the very next day. The picture which this article paints seems very different to my own experience. As a writer and historian, who has just visited some of the areas in question, it is from this perspective that I have analyzed the article published by Marie Colvin in The Sunday Times. on 22nd March 2009 under the title “Artillery pounds wounded Tamils trapped on beach”

A THOUSAND amputees were among the wounded and dying waiting to be rescued from a beach in northeast Sri Lanka   yesterday, according to aid agencies.  Frightened Tamil families, the latest victims of the country’s 26-year civil war, were hiding in makeshift trenches as they came under artillery fire while waiting to be evacuated from Puthumathalan beach.

Last week the International Committee of the Red Cross removed 460 injured and their families from the area, using local fishermen to carry the wounded on wooden dinghies to the Green Ocean ferry leased for the operation. The ferry was due to return last night to rescue more of the injured.

Sophie Romanens, a Red Cross representative in Sri Lanka, said the scene was desperate. “The capacity for evacuation is far below the need,” she said. “We have to decide to take the casualties who are more badly injured and leave behind the ones who are less badly injured.” They are among 150,000 civilians trapped in an area of 13 square miles after fleeing a government offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers.

More than 300 civilians were being killed every week in artillery or air attacks, or were dying for lack of medical care, food or water, aid agencies said. The Tamils are desperate because the last hospital in the area was forced to close after twice being bombed by the Sri Lankan army.

The only medical treatment available is in a makeshift clinic at Puthumathalan, where the injured lie under tarpaulins with drips suspended from tree branches. The numbers trying to escape via the beach had “increased dramatically over the past week”, the Red Cross said.

The United Nations said 2,800 Tamils, mostly civilians, had been killed since the offensive began in January in the predominantly Tamil region of the island off the coast of India.  In an interview yesterday with The Sunday Times Balasingham Nadesan, the political leader of the Tamil Tigers, pleaded for an urgent ceasefire. He said the Tigers, classified as a terrorist organisation in Britain because of their use of suicide attacks, would enter negotiations with the government “without pre-conditions”.  The daily bombing and shelling was described by Nadesan as “geno-cidal warfare”. “We call for a ceasefire, loudly and clearly,” he said. “Continuous denial of humanitarian access to the civilian population, and non-stop artillery and aerial attacks, are creating an unbearable situation.”  He called for international monitors to see the situation, adding that the Tigers would respect the outcome of any referendum on an independent Tamil state as long as it was held “once people were allowed to return to their homes”.

Some civilians have managed to cross government lines to find safety at a hospital in the northern town of Vavuniya. The only foreign surgeon there, Hugues Roberts of Médecins Sans Frontières, said 960 casualties had been treated, most of them wounded by shells, landmines or gunshots. The victims ranged from a child of three to men and women in their seventies. “The ones dead, or gravely injured, we don’t see them,” said Roberts.

Joan Ryan, a Labour MP, said: “If the Sri Lankan government does not respond to this call for a ceasefire within 24 hours, Gordon Brown should call for the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth.”  A Commons debate on Sri Lanka is scheduled for Tuesday.

In what has in effect become a media war as well, the impact of this article is enormously damaging. The very title alone creates a damning picture of a merciless and indiscriminate onslaught against innocent civilians. How accurate is this picture?

 “A THOUSAND amputees were among the wounded and dying waiting to be rescued from a beach in northeast Sri Lanka  yesterday, according to aid agencies.  Frightened Tamil families, the latest victims of the country’s 26-year civil war, were hiding in makeshift trenches as they came under artillery fire while waiting to be evacuated from Puthumathalan beach.”

This graphic and harrowing account is actually 2nd hand for it appears that Marie Colvin is quoting aid agencies. On this particular occasion however, she does not appear to have had direct access, been there or seen for herself.

There is also a strong counter argument that Tiger artillery has been firing out of the no fire zone and that these guns are entrenched amidst areas inhabited by civilians. This can be assessed by a study of artillery radial patterns, the direction of falling fire and reports of Tamil civilians fleeing the area. I was also “told” by the military commanders concerned this has already been pointed to the Al Jazeera and BBC reporters who visited the area.

Last week the International Committee of the Red Cross removed 460 injured and their families from the area, using local fishermen to carry the wounded on wooden dinghies to the Green Ocean ferry leased for the operation. The ferry was due to return last night to rescue more of the injured.

Sophie Romanens, a Red Cross to take representative in Sri Lanka, said the scene was desperate. “The capacity for evacuation is far below the need,” she said. “We have to decide the casualties who are more badly injured and leave behind the ones who are less badly injured.” They are among 150,000 civilians trapped in an area of 13 square miles after fleeing a government offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers.”

This first statement from the Red Cross representative is a direct quotation. The next statement however, is not and from what I understand it appears that no one has any idea of the exact number? Given these facts, surely it should read “there are thought to be nearly 150,000 civilians trapped..?”

 “More than 300 civilians were being killed every week in artillery or air attacks, or were dying for lack of medical care, food or water, aid agencies said. The Tamils are desperate because the last hospital in the area was forced to close after twice being bombed by the Sri Lankan army.  The only medical treatment available is in a makeshift clinic at Puthumathalan, where the injured lie under tarpaulins with drips suspended from tree branches. The numbers trying to escape via the beach had “increased dramatically over the past week”, the Red Cross said. “

As I have not been to the beach side, where these reports emanate from, I can neither confirm or deny them. Apart from the ICRC, no one else has access to the seaside. However, what should be borne in mind is that the ICRC representatives who supplied these reports are local people from the area and that they are very much at the mercy of the LTTE.

The Sri Lanka Navy only comes into the picture when it escorts the Green Ocean ferry back into government controlled waters. However, from then on, it is the Navy which assumes the immediate responsibility for looking after the injured and transporting them to nearby hospitals. Another salient fact is that Navy vessels up and down this coast have been rescuing civilians on a regular basis for the last few weeks.

“The Tamils are desperate because the last hospital in the area was forced to close after twice being bombed by the Sri Lankan army.”

This “last hospital” referred to is the Puthukkudiyirruppu hospital which I have just visited. Although I have not actually been inside this building, I have visited the hospital in Kilinochchii and this certainly has more than one bunker inside it. Thus it is fairly clear that that the hospitals in this area are not purely civilian targets but fortified points defended by the LTTE. This factor must be taken into account when speaking of attacks on hospitals.

Picture 038 Picture 046 

Picture 063 Pics of makeshift hospital in the Last Redoubt, probably at Putumattalan, taken in mid-May by Kanchan Prasad … thus a set of scenes two months after the Tammita-Delgoda article in another area that saw heavy fighting

From what I have seen is that if there was indeed whole scale bombing and artillery fire of the type that has been reported, then all I would have found is ruins and rubble. As I have already pointed out, a large number of buildings still appear to be standing, even though they have been the focus of fierce fighting. This appears to suggest a relatively restrained and selective use of heavy artillery.

There is also the very real human cost to consider. In a conventional military conflict, infantry is generally sent in only after the whole area has been flattened by artillery. With regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka, perhaps the question which should be asked is how many lives are being lost as a result of having to send infantry in to attack heavily defended emplacements with limited artillery support? What price has Sri Lanka’s army had to pay for respecting the civilian factor?

Another issue is the complex and delicate matter of who is a civilian? It has now been established that many civilians have been pressed into service and forced to fight. Many of them are stationed amongst Tiger cadres to make sure that they do fight. Everything I have seen also suggests that Tiger positions are deliberately located amongst civilian huts. There are also a growing number of accounts of war weary civilians turning on the Tiger cadres themselves.

“Some civilians have managed to cross government lines to find safety at a hospital in the northern town of Vavuniya.”

The impression given here is that the civilians have to find their way through government lines in order to reach safety. However what they are actually doing is “escaping” from the Tiger territory into Army lines. It needs to be emphasized that Vavuniya is a town deep inside territory controlled by the Government of Sri Lanka and that the hospital in question is a government hospital.

Civilians reaching Vavuniya usually only do so with the active aid and support of the security forces. On more than one occasion we were nearly run down by convoys of Ashok Leyland buses (government transport) speeding down the A – 9 as they carried IDPs towards Vavuniya.

Apart from escaping by sea, the other main route for the fleeing civilians is by land, across the lagoon into army lines. There seems to be absolutely no recognition of the efforts made by the Sri Lanka army to cope with and reach out to this vast influx of desperate people. Interviews with army personnel on the forward line reveal that clear guidelines have been laid down as to how to deal with the refugees as they arrive and a determined attempt at conciliation is definitely being made.

They have been told that we will kill them , that we are murderers, so we try to show the opposite from the very beginning. The first thing we do is to give is water to everyone coming across the line, as well as biscuits for them to eat. If there are women, we try to get a woman soldier to reassure them. If they are old and feeble, we try to carry them, if they are wounded, we send for stretchers and if we can, we try and bring a vehicle to the spot.”

According to eyewitness accounts this has frequently been at the risk of life and limb. To get an idea of the dangers involved, one has only to look at the various deaths sustained by army personnel as a result of suicide blasts on the line and in the IDP camps.

 Some civilians have managed to cross government lines to find safety at a hospital in the northern town of Vavuniya. The only foreign surgeon there, Hugues Roberts of Médecins Sans Frontières, , said 960 casualties had been treated, most of them wounded by shells, landmines or gunshots. The victims ranged from a child of three to men and women in their seventies. “The ones dead, or gravely injured, we don’t see them,” said Roberts”

These words seem to suggest a special emphasis on a foreign surgeon as the only reliable source. This seems a rather curious attitude to take when the majority of doctors treating the IDPs are in fact Sri Lankans.

Joan Ryan, a Labour MP, said: ‘If the Sri Lankan government does not respond to this call for a ceasefire within 24 hours, Gordon Brown should call for the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth.’ A Commons debate on Sri Lanka is scheduled for Tuesday.” 

 The Sunday Times article highlights the focus which has been placed by the international media on the army’s bombardment and the resulting casualties. There is a clear propaganda value in this and the beneficiary is very definitely the LTTE.

  ****

**  In response to a query Tammita-Delgoda informed me (email, 1 October 2014) that he spent three days at the battle front with Major Kamal Gunaratne’s 53rd Division on 19-21 March.Thuppahi NOTE

 

 

 

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22 Comments

Filed under citizen journalism, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, news fabrication, politIcal discourse, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, tamil refugees, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes

22 responses to “Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper

  1. chandre Dharmawardana

    And yet Marie Colvin is regarded as an example of some one with a track record of model reporting of “facts” in war zones. She was killed in the middle east and at that time there were many accolades – but perhaps that may have been party as obituary.
    The allusion to Nadesan claiming that the bombing is “geno-cidal” is clearly open to legitimate doubt. I doubt if the man even knew that word and what it means. Either someone wrote the script, or gave the script to Colvin claiming that this is what Nadesan said.

  2. Kumar Mahadevan

    Marie Colvin who was part of the ‘ECHO CHAMBER’ called the free and accurate WEStERN MEDIA, Reputable reporting.. Trusted Journalism etc etc.. and all other title’s they bestow upon themselves like dictators.. . WHo have Close relationships with the westen governments and policy makers who tows the line of the said western policy makers.. and have NEVER broken a credabile story against any Wrong doing of these Western Governments (Unlike: Assange, Manning, and snowden, Greenwald).. are the people who help sell the whole IRAQ war which led to over 1 million Iraqis dead and that nation broken, and help sell the so called Syrian Jihadi Groups as a Legitimate Opposition.. The same Groups which the west Fights in Afgnaisthan , Yeman and Mail as Al-qaeda and Helped Armed them to the hilt as Freedom fighters in syria.. MANDRIAN’s of these ‘ECHO Chambers’ Such as Colvin help sell this (yet again) twisted False Narrative as in Libya. As the Dawning of a Freat democracy.. Only to find these fighters All armed and turning their guns, and Knives against their Creators.. Like Colvin and the USA Ambassador in Libya the Americans call this (Friendly Fire) was Tragicaly murdered by the same people they helped. And today a 3rd Iraq war.. Thanks to these Echo chambers and their socalled honest Journalist…Gone are the days of TRUE JOURNALIST who are Truly Impartial and will report accurately the story from all angles.

  3. Kumar Mahadevan

    ‘More than 300 civilians were being killed every week in artillery or air attacks, or were dying for lack of medical care, food or water, aid agencies said.’

    What a statement indeed.. (Or, OR , OR) Clearly Marie IGNORED how these civilians (Numbers) if at all were killed 300 a week (WHAT A CLAIM) as she or these socalled (Nameless) Aid agencies she had avoided to give us.. Could not accuretely tell her readers How these civilians were killed was it ‘ (Artillery AND Air attack) Artillery only, Air Attack Artillery.. Becuase to use the word ‘OR’ in all her piece should lead the reader to belive she is now in the relm of ‘supportive properganda’ without giving the accurate mechanism of how these deaths have occured along with the names of these socalled AID agency who deal with alternatives rather than FACT.

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