The long agony of a city under siege

November 2 1987

The long agony of a city under siege

November 2 1987

The long agony of a city under siege


The grim battle for the Sri Lankan rebel stronghold of Jaffna raged on last week, pitting more than 10,000 Indian troops against an estimated 2,500 Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Despite early predictions that the city of 150,000 on the Jaffna peninsula, at the northern tip of the island, would quickly fall, Indian officials admitted after two full weeks of fighting that they controlled only a third of it. As house-to-house fighting continued, Maclean’s correspondent Ben Barber entered the war zone. His report:

The Indian and Sri Lankan authorities, allies in the all-out war to crush the Tamil Tigers, had ordered the battle zone closed to reporters. But we took back roads to avoid Indian Army checkpoints and then a hazardous ferry ride across the Jaffna Lagoon, entering Tigercontrolled territory last Wednesday. And in a 24-hour tour of the outskirts of the beleaguered city—whose centre was sealed off by Indian troops—we saw and heard reports of widespread

suffering among civilians caught up in the small but savage war.

In the capital, Colombo, Indian and Sri Lankan officials had angrily denied reports that Indian troops were shelling civilian areas, calling in aerial attacks and raping and shooting civilians. Indian spokesman Laxmi Purio called the reports “blatant lies” and “sexist rubbish.” But we found evidence to the contrary. In the Mandi Kai Hospital, 32 km northeast of the city, a young woman named Mahendra Kanageswary told us, “I was in our house yesterday at the village of Urumpirai when Indian soldiers came and shot me.” She claimed to have no idea why they had opened fire. Sitting in a chair with bandages on her arm and leg where two bullets were still lodged, she added with chilling calm: “My father and mother are both dead. I don’t know why they were shot, either.” As she spoke, a heavily bandaged woman from the same village, who gave her name as Rasamalar, was wheeled in on a hospital trolley. “Her husband and two

of her three children were killed,” said Kanageswary.

In the same ward of the hospital, located in a Tamil-controlled sector, lay 20 wounded children. A brother and sister shared a single bed. The five-year-old boy had been shot in both ankles. His nine-year-old sister had an upper chest wound from a shell or mortar fragment. Both had been wounded during heavy fighting at Kaitadi, a suburb on the eastern outskirts of Jaffna.

In the rebel-controlled village of Nirveli, 14-year-old Arunanthi Kamaleswaran said that he had seen Indian soldiers sexually assault three Tamil girls at Urumpirai the previous day. He said that the soldiers herded a group of civilians together at gunpoint, then stripped the girls. When three boys intervened, claiming that the girls were their sisters, they were shot dead, Kamaleswaran claimed. He said that he escaped with only a beating because he was younger than the other boys. He also said that there were six other bodies be-

side those of the three boys at the site, four of them young women who were naked. The Indians placed tires on top of the bodies and set fire to them, he said, and one Indian told him, “Even your women have taken up arms against us—already we have shot five of them.”

Indeed, young Tamil women—1,000 of them, according to a rebel spokesman —are fighting alongside the Tigers.

One of them, who called herself Dharsha, was an attractive 22year-old who wore her gleaming black hair in double braids and proudly displayed a cyanide suicide capsule on a thong around her neck. “We want to be free citizens of a Tamil state,” Dharsha said.

“We are a subject race.

My parents know I belong to the Tigers and approve. Even if I were to swallow the cyanide they would approve.”

Everywhere we went, barefoot fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam moved with ease among the civilian population, enjoying the obvious support of fellow Tamils.

But the civilians have had to pay a terrible price. Anton Balasingham, the Tigers’ chief planner and tactician, told us that last Wednesday, the day of our arrival, had seen the worst fighting of the siege, claiming the lives of 250 civilians in and around the main city hospital and other strategically important buildings in the rebel-held city core. Balasingham also played a tape-recorded message which he said had just been brought out through Indian lines from inside the beleaguered city centre. According to the recorded voice of a rebel—quoting a doctor who was himself wounded in the incident—Indian troops had massacred 100 hospital patients the day before. The doctor also claimed that Indian soldiers raped and killed several nurses and killed five doctors. There was no way to verify the report, which Indian sources have denied, claiming that the hospital was abandoned until their troops arrived and reopened it.

Despite the carnage, the Ti-

gers will not give in to the Indians, who are attempting to enforce a peace agreement aimed at ending four years of communal strife between the island nation’s Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority. Said Balasingham: “We can still hold on — we have the weapons. If the Indians and the Sri Lankan government are bent on physically liquidating the

movement, then we will fight a guerrilla war. It will take years for them to round us all up.”

The two sides in the conflict differ greatly in their estimates of casualties. At week’s end, Indian officials claimed that their troops had killed 640 Tigers in two weeks of fighting and had lost 130 of their own men. But Balasingham said that the Tigers

had lost only 43 fighters, while more than 400 Indian soldiers and 400 Tamil civilians had died. At Mandi Kai Hospital, the staff said that more than 50 wounded Tigers had been admitted. We saw 10 of them in one ward, their torsos naked in the heat, still wearing the traditional Tamil checkered sarong. Two wounded men touched hands across the space between their beds and sang a quiet song. Another, who gave his name as Rahda, said that he had been shot two days earlier in house-to-house fighting in central Jaffna. He appeared to be semidelirious as he muttered, “There are so many Indians.”

Getting out of the battle zone on the afternoon of Oct. 22 proved to be more difficult than getting in. The only escape route was to retrace our steps and to leave by boat from the jetty at Gurunagar, 19 km from the centre of the city. Our taxi roared along the three-metre-wide road leading to the dock, weaving in and out of scores of refu| gees as they fled the “ peninsula on bicycles a¡ and on foot. When we reached the causeway, with its five-kilometre stretch of open road, our driver anxiously scanned the sky for aircraft.

There was good cause for his anxiety—as I discovered when we reached the dock. Ninety minutes before, eyewitnesses said, a Sri Lankan army helicopter gunship had machine-gunned a group of terrified civilians. A large pool of blood stained the bullet-pocked dry dock where, witnesses said, two people taking cover under a barge had been killed and 46 others wounded.

The ferry boatmen had fled the scene, leaving a mass of refugees waiting for transportation. Along with about 70 refugees—mostly women and children—I clambered aboard an eight-metre boat. The men used poles to push the boat across the lagoon to safety. In the near distance the explosions of mortar shells and the rattle of automatic fire signalled that the siege of Jaffna continued unabated. >£>