A Year After Massacre, Sri Lanka Still Asks Who, When and Why?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jun 24 16:35:52 UTC 2007

June 24, 2007

A Year After Massacre, Sri Lanka Still Asks Who, When and Why?


MUTUR, Sri Lanka The victims had been ordered to lie face down, arms
outstretched, all in a row in the front yard of a white bungalow. Two lay
next to a parked van, interrupted perhaps in a bid to escape. Most of the
dead wore T-shirts bearing the name of the aid group that employed them:
the Paris-based Action Contre La Faim, or Action Against Hunger. The
bungalow was their local office, where they had huddled for at least three
days last August, waiting to be rescued as soldiers and rebels battled for
control of this town.

By the time help arrived, their bodies were decomposing. Photographs show
crows standing witness on a plastic patio chair. The massacre of the 17
was among the worst attacks aimed at aid workers in any conflict anywhere
in recent years, approaching the toll in the bombing of the United Nations
headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. But nearly a year after the
massacre, the most basic questions about the killings remain unresolved.
Sri Lankas government, enmeshed again in a bitter civil war and anxious to
keep international human rights monitors out of the country, is facing
rising condemnation from groups here and abroad who say the investigation
has been wanting because of the possibility that its security forces were

They point to serious gaps, including inconsistencies in ballistics
evidence that could implicate Sri Lankan soldiers. The International
Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights group composed of
lawyers, released a report in April identifying a disturbing lack of
impartiality, transparency and effectiveness of the investigation.
Predictably, the rivals in the fighting, the Sinhalese-dominated state and
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have traded blame for the massacre,
one in a pattern of extrajudicial killings that have become a regular
feature of the war. Each side says the aid workers were killed when the
other party held Mutur; exactly when they were killed, and who was in
charge then, is the major mystery.

[In the latest assault on aid workers, the bodies of two Sri Lankan Red
Cross Society staff members were found in early June in a suburb of the
capital, Colombo. They were picked up for questioning the day before by
men who identified themselves as police officers.] The massacre here
occurred at a turning point in the war, as government troops and Tamil
Tiger rebels clashed for control of the east. By Aug. 1, the battle had
reached Mutur, a small town that was a tricky place. Located across the
bay from Trincomalee, it had long been under government control, but was
encircled by rebel-held villages.

Its population was mixed, with Tamils and Muslims living with each other
alongside hundreds of largely Sinhalese soldiers. Trickier still for the
aid group was the fact that all its workers were Sri Lankan nationals from
Trincomalee, an hour away by ferry, and strangers to the town. And all
were Tamil, except one man, a Muslim. Foreigners can often shield national
staff from harassment and suspicion from the warring parties. But that
week, with Mutur already girding for trouble, local staff members were
sent out alone. Officials from Action Against Hunger said they could not
clarify why.

As the Sinhalese military fought to flush out rebel bases nearby, the
Tamil Tigers stormed the town, by their account, around 12:30 p.m.
Tuesday. That evening, from besieged Mutur, one of the aid workers,
Sivapragasam Romila, 25, called a neighbor in Trincomalee; her own family
did not have a phone. Her 18-year-old sister, Noilen, ran next door to
answer the call.  It was only then that she learned that her sister was
even in Mutur. Romila had gone off to work that morning at the aid groups
office in Trincomalee and later, unknown to her family, had taken the
ferry to Mutur, which she visited frequently in her work as a hygiene
promoter for the group.

Noilen said she could hear the shelling on the phone, louder than anything
she had heard before. Dont tell mother, but Im afraid, she said Romila had
told her. Noilen waited anxiously for two days for more news. Then Romila
called again. She told Noilen that the aid group was trying to get them
out. She said they were running out of food. Their instructions to the
Mutur group were unequivocal: remain in the house and wear the agency
T-shirts, call in to the Trincomalee radio room every hour. Help would be
on the way.

Officials from Action Against Hunger said efforts to retrieve the workers
were stymied by soldiers, who blocked the one long road that loops through
marsh and jungle from Trincomalee to Mutur. The fighting had prevented the
ferry from running. In interviews, the officials insisted that the
decision to instruct their employees to stay put was the right one. They
pointed out that a church, where civilians had sought shelter that week,
had been shelled, killing more than a dozen people.

Its easy to say afterwards they should have left, Franois Danel, the
groups executive in Paris, said by telephone. Our decision was for them to
stay. Its in our guidelines. By the morning of Friday, Aug. 4, with food
and water running out, many of the towns residents had fled. At 6:15 a.m.
Friday, the aid office in Trincomalee received a final radio call. What
was said, including whether the group wanted to leave Mutur with the other
civilians, remains unclear. The group said the conversation was not
recorded on the radio log, though it would not share its records. An
autopsy did not determine the exact time of death. The Sri Lankan court
hearing the case concluded that all 17 were killed early the same morning.

When the security forces reclaimed Mutur is disputed. The rebels contend
they cleared out shortly after midnight on Thursday after urging the aid
workers to be careful, a contention that is impossible to verify. The
military has made contradictory statements about when it took control.
Firzan Hashim, the deputy executive director of the Consortium of
Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group based in Colombo, reached Mutur
on Sunday afternoon. By then, no one was on the narrow road. The bungalow
used by the aid group had been ransacked. A rotten stench filled the air.
The aid workers had been shot at such close range, he said, that the
bullets had burned muscle as they entered.

The first serious autopsy, last October, showed that nearly all had been
shot in the head, two in the neck. The evidence presented in March to the
criminal court indicated that the bullets used were from automatic rifles,
7.62 millimeter, ammunition used by each side in the war. But that
evidence was incomplete. Malcolm J. Dodd, an Australian forensic
pathologist invited by the government to observe the autopsy, recorded
seeing something else. From Sivapragasam Romilas skull a minimally
deformed 5.56 millimeter projectile was retrieved, he wrote in a 64-page
report. A 7.62 millimeter bullet was enmeshed in her hair.

The 5.56 millimeter bullet is used in American-made M-16 rifles, carried
by some members of Sri Lankan security forces, though such a weapon could
just as easily have been stolen by the rebels or someone else. It is a
mystery why that evidence was only belatedly revealed to the court. The
government, apparently to deflect calls for an international human rights
mission, has appointed a panel to conduct an independent investigation of
the massacre and several other prominent human rights crimes. The inquiry
is separate from the criminal case, and it has not satisfied many here or
abroad. The Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based advocacy
group, said the official commission was no substitute for an international

[In a statement on June 11, the International Independent Group of Eminent
Persons, a government-appointed panel called in to observe the work of the
presidential commission, said the measures taken by the commission do not
satisfy international norms and standards.] The uncertainties surrounding
the investigations have only compounded the mourning of the victims
families. The last time Ganesh Sivaneshwari heard from her daughter,
Kavitha, 27, was Thursday night, Aug. 3. Kavitha, also a hygiene promoter,
had taken the Tuesday morning ferry to the aid office in Mutur.

Her father, Selaiah Ganesh, 54, a driver for Action Against Hunger, was
already there. It gave Mrs. Ganesh strength that week, knowing that her
husband and daughter were together. She trusted her husbands judgment. He
was able and well connected, she said, and he would know how to keep
everyone safe or get them out. What is left of father and daughter are
pictures on the family altar. On one afternoon, Mrs. Ganesh sat on the
unswept floor and wept.

Her husbands death has deepened her fear. Only reluctantly does she allow
her son Gajan to work, so the family can eat. She has sent another son out
of the country. Without Selaiah Ganesh, they no longer know how to keep
safe in the madness of this war. If my father were here, I wouldnt be
afraid, Gajan, 24, said. I am afraid now.



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