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Two Indian Reporters’ Post-War Pictures at the LTTE’s Last Redoubt, May 14-19, 2009 June 10, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Roberts, Michael, Sri Lanka , trackback

Michael Roberts

Editor’s note: To view the pictures referred to in this article please go to the link here.

The Sri Lankan government kept a tight lid on the foreign media personnel allowed into the war zone. This is hardly surprising. If one was a company commander at the battlefront seeking to best the LTTE forces in front of one’s troops it would be pretty silly to have personnel with mobile phones reporting back in circumstances which could be intercepted and relayed within minutes to the enemy networks.

Because Western media were mostly kept out, a cliché appeared on the airwaves in 2009: Eelam War IV, it was stressed, was “a war without witnesses.” In late May 2011, Gordon Weiss repeated the same phrase in the course of a two-minute interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (a rare privilege for anyone).

This terminology was, and is, not intended to be taken too literally. After all, the same sources cite the testimonies of Tamil witnesses speaking about the bloodletting in the course of the last five months of the war; and a few international and local UN workers have provided some of the evidence utilised by the UN Panel Report and by Weiss in his ‘The Cage’. What is being suggested and highlighted in this popular sound-bite is the fact that the GOSL kept out foreign journalists so that its atrocities (alleged) would not see the light of day.

The issue of atrocities during this stage of the conflict is a tendentious one that I cannot address here; and, indeed, I have doubts about my capacity to do so. But it is significant that Weiss and others have not got their facts fully right about the media coverage. Let me begin with two ‘minor’ examples that contradict that message.

First, in April 2009 I recall seeing David Chater, an Englishman reporting for Al-Jazeera, providing commentary with video footage from naval ships parked on the sea battlefront opposite the so-called No Fire Zone which was the last arena of struggle.

Secondly, a body of journalists, including several foreigners, was taken to the Tigers’ former administrative capital of Kilinochchi in January immediately after it was captured, clearly as part of a governmental propaganda exercise. A note on this moment reveals that the propaganda impact was effective: “The Colombo based media contingent, including the international correspondents, who were flown to the town two days after it fell into the hands of military were surprised to note that very few concrete structures in the city had suffered any kind of damage.” (Email communication from Muralidhar Reddy, 3 June 2011). But, as Muralidhar Reddy notes, it was not difficult for them to work out the fact that the LTTE had decided upon a tactical retreat after the junction of Paranthan had been lost.

The sweeping and fallacious character of the assertion, “a war without witnesses,” derives from the manner in which The Hindu correspondent Muralidhar Reddy was able to visit the front on several occasions in the period October 2008 to April; and in the course of these visits interviewed around 80 Tamil refugees who had managed to escape the LTTE clutches. I stress here that the terms “frontline” or “front” refers to the rear of the battle lines as few reporters anywhere in warring conditions are embedded among the point-men in advancing infantry formations. Reddy’s last visit in April was with a contingent of foreign journalists, including several Westerners and at least one working for Al-Jazeera. Kanchan Prasad was part of this contingent and she recalls that the BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka was also present. (Email, Prasad to Roberts, 4 June 2011). It was on this occasion that the reporters would have seen the arrival of some of the 120,000 or so Tamil civilians and Tiger cadres in civilian clothes after the intricate defences of the LTTE’s last stronghold on the western shores of Nandikadal Lagoon were breached on 19April. I was in Colombo then and saw second-hand some of the footage presented by pro-government Lankan media personnel.

The depiction of this wonderful moment of human escape – for those who reached safety – from the furnace of war demands literary skills that I do not possess. Even still photographs cannot fully capture the mass effect, though they are useful. That many of these survivors were in a dire state of malnutrition and exhaustion was evident and subsequently confirmed by Murali’s evaluation of their condition as well as some indications that a few had died in transit to the MSF hospital or the staging locations around Vavuniya. As momentous in my memory was the virulent criticism of the LTTE expressed by one woman and one weather-beaten man speaking in Sinhala to a TV cameraperson.

It was immediately after this miraculous moment that I met Muralidhar Reddy in Colombo. He was quite positive that the civilian casualties during this episode had been light. Knowing him and his critical views on government policy in the period 2006-08, I cannot entertain any ad hominem arguments seeking to sideline his witness, especially if they are from self-righteous crusaders or Westerners who will only trust persons of their own persuasion (and sometimes their own skin-colour). They will have to show due cause for any allegations of partisanship and have to indicate how some 120,000 people, including Daya Master, George Master and numerous Tiger fighters in civilian outfit, could have emerged from the battle zone if there had been massive shelling.

As significant was the witness provided by Reddy and Kanchan Prasad when the two Indians were the only foreigners among a large posse of local media personnel who were taken to the Kilinochchi on 14 May. (Email notes, Prasad to Roberts, 24 May 2011 et seq). Kanchan Prasad was not the only woman, there being two others among the Lankan ‘brigade’. Kilinochchi served as their base because that was where Internet connections were available; but Prasad and Reddy travelled to the Last Redoubt across the Lagoon on every day from 14 to 18 May inclusive. Prasad was the cameraperson and it is her snapshots that provide us with vistas of the debris and flotsam of war on this sandy 42 square kilometre patch of land with its scrub, trees, and several buildings, a significant proportion of them intact or slightly damaged.

Selections from this camera work are provided in the section on “Pictorial Images” in http:// thupahi.wordpress.com to give students of this issue some impression of the scenario so that they can begin to break free from the fog of deceit and misreading that has been peddled and disseminated by a number of sources, some quite well-meaning human rights personnel and others manipulative or ill-informed migrants (both Tamil and other). These pictures must be seen as a beginning and nothing more. Careful probing of the testimonies from Tamils who were part of the 180,000 or so who survived the ordeal of war between 18 April and 19 May must be the larger part of this study. Particular weight must be attached to the testimony of former Tiger cadres who have gone through the rehabilitation process and are trying to return to the normalities of everyday living. Those Tigers (reckoned to be at least 500 in number, but perhaps more), whether functionaries or fighters, who successfully posed as civilians and then slipped out of the detention centres at Mänik Farm and made their way abroad as asylum-seekers will be a more problematic source of information because their ideology and circumstances would encourage disinformation. But that is another terrain metaphorically speaking. For now we must be grateful to Prasad and Reddy for their invaluable ‘footage.’

 

 

 

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