By Elisha Yoon
The documentary screening of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, held in New York, laid bare disturbing images of execution, death, and murder.
“I think this is a blatant lie,” Palitha Kohona, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations, declared before gathered journalists, diplomats, and human rights activists.
Sponsored by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the screening inflamed passionate debate. “Because it provokes independent observers like you, it clutches at your heart-strings and provides the feeding ground for propagating this myth,” said Kohona. “It is easy to provoke people, get them emotional with this type of video.”
A grim smile surfaced on Elaine Pearson, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch, while the filmmaker, Callum Macrae, closed his eyes and slowly shook his head.
The British documentary, a Channel 4 production, reveals the alleged atrocities mounted during the last stages of the war. The footage, captured on cameras and mobile phones of both Tamil civilians and Sri Lankan soldiers, shows the bitter end of the protracted conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the secessionist rebels, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
A recent UN report conducted by an independent panel of experts confirmed that around 330,000 civilians were trapped in government-designated, no-fire zones in the last months of war. Tens of thousands of civilians died, mostly from systematic shelling by the government, according to the report.
The film further accuses the Sri Lankan government of extrajudicial killings and obstruction of food and medical supplies, both of which were also confirmed by the panel.
To these allegations, the Sri Lankan government has responded with hostility, calling the report biased and unsubstantiated. Following the screening, contentious debate erupted when the credibility of the footage was criticized.
The controversy, however, obscures the film’s larger thematic implications, which are crucial to understanding the voiceless victims in conflict. What Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields uncovers, beyond the atrocities of war, is the distressing plight of women and children who bear the brunt of the brutalities.
The often obscure distinction between civilian and Tamil fighter allowed the LTTE to utilize civilians as buffers and hostages. Caught between a destructive, double-layered conflict, women and children were subject to intense suffering.
“One of the problems we had was that the LTTE was not letting everybody leave the no-fire zones. The human shield was kept there by force,” Kohona told MediaGlobal News. “The Tamil fighters located their heavy guns where the civilians were trapped, thereby deliberately provoking counter-fire from the government.”
“And children must have gotten hurt, I am sure,” Kohona added.
In one scene, a woman recounts the amputation of a six-year-old boy’s leg without anesthetics. Another man recalls the death of his 14-year-old son who died helplessly in a lorry when the government forces shelled the civilian convoys.
In another striking piece of footage, a girl huddles in a trench as she cries out to her mother lying motionless on the ground. Imminent danger from a second round of shelling, a tactic the film claims was often employed by the government forces to kill as many people as possible, keeps the girl from tending to her dying mother.
Besides the ceaseless barrage on innocent women and children, harrowing scenes of gender-based violence are also documented in the film.
Captured on mobile phone, a footage shows Sri Lankan soldiers transporting naked female bodies. One soldier says, “This one has the best figure,” referring to one of the stripped bodies dumped onto the truck like a sack. Another soldier expresses his desire to mutilate the breasts of a dead woman.
“The language used was quite chilling when they were clearing these bodies,” Macrae told MediaGlobal News. “There is very clear implication of sexual abuse, sexual assault, possibly rape. There is a sexual nature to the footages, which is very, very disturbing.”
Although the UN report confirms the rape and sexual violence against Tamil women, the scope and details of the assault remain unclear. Most women are also reluctant to report cases of sexual violence due to the stigmatization of rape, which further obscures a comprehensive understanding of the situation.
“As filmmakers, as journalists, our job was to gather the evidence and try to get to the truth,” said Macrae. “It’s not our job to say what you have to make of it. That, in a sense, is your job,” Macrae told the audience.