AL-Jazeera Video Footage and Reports from the War Front, 7th October 2008

Michael Roberts

 In step with my initiation of reports on the last phase of Eelam War IV that had receded from memory or been buried unknown, and the Tammita-Delgoda series, I bring to your attention here the Al-Jazeera footage from behind the SL Army lines on three occasions:

  1. 7th October 2008, entitled “Sri Lanka army closes in on Tamil Tigers.”
  2. 26th January 2009 … “Sri Lanka army claims control of rebel territory.”
  3. 1st February 2009… “Sri Lankan army closes in on Tamil Tigers.”

TONY BIRTLEY-SL-1 In contrast with the still pictures utilised by Tammita-Delgoda and more extensively by me in Tamil Person and State. Pictorial (2014), video footage is not only more lively and evocative, but encompasses sweeps of space and people in motion. To be sure, video documentaries involve editing with its cutting and splicing together. The continuity is not as continuous as it seems.

Situation Map, 23 December 2009 –thus two month later than the Al Jazeera video

77- War fronts 23 Dec 2008 From Ministry of Defence web site ….. “The SL Army’s main successes in 2008 were on the western front and the advance occurred from circa April 2008, the point where Madhu was captured. The SLA threatened the crucial A9 arterial road from November 2008 and, in fact, once Paranthan fell in December, the LTTE had perforce to abandon its administrative capital at Kilinochchi. The 55th Division in the meanwhile began its advance southwards along the north-eastern coast. They faced a “bleached and burning landscape of sand and water” and had perforce to pursue what was at times an amphibious war demanding improvisation (Tammita-Delgoda 200: 1,-3, 8-10). From the south the 59th Division pressed forward from Oddusudan towards Mullaitivu, which remained the LTTE’s bunker fortress where the high command was located. The three lakhs or so of people who were citizens of Thamilīlam had been ready to adhere to the LTTE’s enforced movement eastwards because they had little faith in the government of Sri Lanka” (Roberts, in Fig. 77, TPS. Pictorial).

However, I insist that any survey of Eelam War IV must necessarily absorb the footage provided by Al-Jazeera because of the experiential insights viewers can derive from this coverage, aided as it is by the incisive commentary provided by reporter Tony Birtley[1] who marshalled the video-cameraman behind the footage. Such experiential engagement at one remove is a vital ingredient for armchair bourgeois personnel like myself who study and write about the impact of war.

Birtley and his cameraman, I stress, were not in the vanguard of the SL Army advance and did not film any fighting encounters. But he is seen in a flak jacket (a precautionary act) on occasions[2] and one is occasionally exposed to the reality-effect of gunfire and shellfire. However, it is some of the imagery and the commentary provided by Birtley or some SL Army officers that provide us with critical pieces of information.

TONY BIRTLEY-SL-2

These three video-documentaries on the war also provide us with a temporal sequence that can be slotted into other studies of the war with the aid of maps and pertinent data. It is for this reason that I proceed serially in considerable detail. I will try and recover the commentary in the first video (other two will follow)  word-for-word or in paraphrase as much as possible and occasionally supplement the tale with the insertion of photographs/maps from my own stock.

***

VIDEO A — 7 October 2008

The opening scenes in VIDEO A as “Sri Lankan army closes in on the Tigers” in late 2009 depict SL Army soldiers advancing in loose formation, while Birtley’s background voice tells us that “some say [we are entering] the final phase of the war.” “[We see here] an army full of determination, an army in high morale and full of confidence.” They are “within a few kilometres of Kilinochchi” and we see here “a display of captured LTTE weapons.”

As the video reveals bare lands adjacent to the road with the occasional house, Birtley tells us that “a few weeks ago this area was controlled by the Tigers, but now the houses and villages are deserted, no sign of life except for the military, the civilians long gone.”

The camera focuses on an armed soldier squatting on a road (with captured weapons on display) and speaking to Birtley: “we don’t have any threat. We will soon capture Kilinochchi” says the soldier. This confidence was misplaced. It took the SL Army another eleven-to-twelve weeks to secure control of the LTTE’s administrative capital at Kilinochchi [the decisive step being the capture of Paranthan junction on the arterial road to the north of the capital, a loss which rendered Kilnochchi untenable and forced the LTTE to abandon its effort to retain the place].[3]

One reason for this delay in the soldier’s expectations was soon revealed by Birtley and his team as the camera focused upon a long ditch with water and a bund running alongside. Another soldier told Birtley — and thus the viewers — that the ditch and bund was 20 km long and supported by machine-gun nests and booby traps; and that it took them seven-to-ten days to punch through the defences. He was presumably referring to a struggle that had taken place in late September or early October. Parenthetically, let me note that the building of these seemingly medieval but effective fortifications was possible because the LTTE’s earth-moving machinery was augmented by that of several INGOs whose bulldozers were either commandeered by the LTTE or happily handed over by the Tamil functionaries who were middle-level staff in these agencies.[4]

74- EMBANKMENT DITCH DEFENCE SYSTEM -vIDATH Fig 74 in Roberts, TPS. Pictorial

73a-EMBANKMENT FOXHOLE 73b-bund-water at SINNA PARANTHAN Fig 73  in Roberts, TPS. Pictorial … “the 55th Division of the SL army advancing towards Mullativu “confronted 14 earth bunds, sometimes with large tank trap ditches or water filled moats in front” (de Silva-Ranasinghe, “Downfall,” 2010b). For further details on the defence system, see de Silva-Ranasinghe “Good Education,” 2009c and Tammita-Delgoda 2009.

As the visual coverage moves on, Birtley tells us “the Sri Lankan military has changed the fortunes of this conflict.” As Birtley himself (in flak jacket) comes into view, an officer says “This is the last battle … their backs are to the wall.” The last emphasis was (and is) spot on. To many observers in Colombo as well as abroad it was clear from mid-2008 that the LTTE was sliding to defeat because it was outgunned and outmanned and had lost its supply lines to India as well as most of its warehouse ships.[5]

Birtley clarifies this dimension precisely at this point in the film: the government, he states, “has spent 1.5 billion dollars on its military forces and expanded its personnel to 175,000 over the last five years. [This] has paid dividends. They have retaken the Eastern Province last year [2007] and have now retaken two/thirds of the LTTE territory in the north.”[6]

At this point the camera — obviously surveying the scene from a vehicle moving left to right — pans across some cemeteries, tuyilam illam in the Tamil conception, on one side of the road and Birtley speaks of “graveyards of LTTE fighters, some freshly dug.” In matter-of-fact tone he adds: “some graves are desecrated. [This] indicates the deep-rooted ill-feeling that has grown in the war — the same ill-feeling that caused the conflict.” 09. Mavirar Cemetery w-s from eelamweb A maaveerar tuyilam illam –From eelam.web

The riveting documentary then moves towards its conclusion with Birtley rightly questioning some of the bombastic forecasts presented by a few soldiers by stating that “the Tigers may be wounded, but they are still dangerous and able to strike back as they have done in the past.” “Some in the Army say that the fighting will be over by Christmas; but the rainy season is approaching which will slow the advance and if the Tigers retreat their last stand will be in the jungles of Mullaitivu and that will be costly and bloody.”

Birtley’s evaluation was on the mark, though the LTTE’s last stand was not around Mullativu,[7] but centred upon the coastal strip on the eastern side of Nandikadal Lagoon and betwixt lagoon and sea because their high command was anticipating an international rescue operation to avert a “humanitarian disaster.” The pressure and persuasion exerted upon the Tamil civilians of Thamilīlam to move enmasse towards the east as they retreated was designed to seduce such an operation from nations, led by the USA, partial to the survival of the LTTE as a political force. Birtley’s comments thus far in this specific documentary do not reveal any sign that he discerned this aspect of the military-political scenario.

     FOOTNOTES

[1] Birtley’s Linked in Profile is as follows: “More than 35 years as a journalist covering everything from agency to regional and national newspapers, regional and national television and more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent. Have covered some major conflicts of the last three decades including: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Cambodia, 1st Gulf War, Tanker War, Kurds, Libya…Have worked as Middle East correspondent for the now defunct TV-am, ITN, Channel 4 News, ABC News as well as contributing reports for BBC, CNN and other international broacasters…. Have won several awards including RTS Television reporter of the year. was badly wounded in the besieged Muslim town Srebrenica. Specialties: international events, conflict reporting, morals of the media, working of the media. lectures about the media and the changes over the last 30 years, and the fact and fiction of war reporting.

[2] On one occasion Birtley is actually in casual clothes walking down a road with soldiers in a straggle walking behind him.

[3] The description within square brackets is my interpellation and is not part of the Al-Jazeera documentary.

[4] It would be extremely naive to think that the Tamil functionaries working for the ICRC, ZOA and other such international NGOs would be wholly committed to their organisation and totally lacking in patriotism and reverence for the state of Thamilīlam. But this seems to have been the position adopted by the US Embassy and foreign pressman, such as Ravi Nessmann, located in Colombo.

[5] For the bare details describing the sinking of seven LTTE rouge ships, see Figs. 68 and 69 in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, 2014, pp. 112-13.

[6] See Roberts, “Winning the War: Evaluating the Impact of API WENUWEN API,” 1 September 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/winning-the-war-evaluating-the-impact-of-api-wenuwen-ap/ AND the serial pictorial story in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial (Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, ISBN 978-955-665-231-4).

[7] The Ministry of Defence picture gallery indicates that they were securing key sites around Mullaitivu from circa 1st February 2009 — including “Prabhakran’s main hideout.”

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