In a world exclusive report aired Tuesday, India’s Headlines Today (HT) television broadcast eyewitness accounts of mass slaughter, the use of chemical weapons and cluster bombs, and torture, rape and sexual humiliation in internment camps by Sri Lanka’s military.
The accounts were gathered inside Vanni from survivors of the catastrophic violence of 2009 by one of HT’s investigative reporters, P. Priyamvatha, who traveled undercover into the region – described by the channel as “the most densely militarized place in the world.” She conducted her interviews in Tamil. Responding to the documentary, titled ‘I witnessed genocide’, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India condemned it as “tendentious, unsubstantiated, inflammatory” and questioned Priyamvatha’s bona fides.
Along with the footage broadcast Tuesday, Headlines Today published on its website further details of the eyewitness accounts of what they endured in the final months of Sri Lanka’s war, and thereafter in militarized internment camps.
Though many people were too afraid to speak on camera, Priyamvatha persuaded a dozen to do so. Headlines Today broadcast the interviews with faces pixelated out.
The eyewitnesses’ accounts give further form and add detail to the mounting evidence of war crimes and crimes and humanity during Sri Lanka’s genocidal onslaught into the Vanni.
Survivors recounted their experiences of mass death through shelling and bombing of hospitals and government -declared ‘Safe Zones’ and the use of cluster and chemical bombs (referred to by the survivors as “koththuk-ku’ndu” and “eri ku’ndu”).
One woman said on May 14, 2009 alone – just five days before Sri Lanka declared the LTTE defeated and the war over – she witnessed three thousand civilians being killed.
Amongst survivors who spoke on camera were those who had been wounded or seen family members killed in bombardments, witnesses of rapes and sexual abuse in the camps, a father whose son had been conscripted by the LTTE, and two ex-LTTE cadres, one who had volunteered in the final months.
Undercover, in ‘the most militarized place in the world’
Priyamvatha, who traveled without Sri Lankan government permission into the Vanni as a passenger on a motorcycle, conducted her extensive interviews in Tamil.
“As [we] reached the Vanni region, it was swarming with soldiers of the Sri Lankan army, made up almost entirely of the majority Sinhalas. There was a soldier on patrol every few meters and there was a check post on every 100 meters,” she said.
“The army has built major military cantonments across the Vanni on land mostly forcefully acquired from the local Tamil population.”
“A sense of fear and insecurity could be seen among the local Tamil population, with very few people agreeing to speak on camera,” she said.
“The people, interviewed at secret locations, feared death if the tapes fell in the hands of the security personnel.”
Death from above
Rosy, 45, narrated how she lost her four daughters and other family members to a single bomb on May 14 – the day after she moved into the safe zone at Vattuvaha which was then attacked by air force jets.
“On that day of the war alone I saw 3000 people die before my eyes,” she said.
Another survivor, Rathi, was in a bunker when a shell landed outside killing her son and husband.
Her daughter, Lavanya, said: “Army bombed us at Vallipuna. They used chemical bombs. It fell on the ground from air, went into pieces, but there wouldn’t be sound.”
Another woman, Devi, said: “I was going to surrender with my family through a priest. But my second child was affected by chemical bomb. It’s phosphorous. He was completely affected.”
She doesn’t know what happened to the priest, she says on the broadcast.
Thambi, an eight-year-old, who had lost his entire family except his mother, showed Priyamvatha his wounds.
“There was shelling always. There were bombs everywhere. Look at this injury. I had to run for my life,” he said.
A witness of the shelling of a hospital recounted three children’s brains being blown out.
Rape and humiliation in the camps
Some women described rape and sexual humiliation by Sri Lankan troops in the camps in which the government interned the hundreds of thousands of survivors until long after the end of the war.
Some of them were kept at a camp kept hidden from the international community.
“It is a torture camp. No basic amenities were allowed. NGOs weren’t allowed,” said Sundari.
She said many women were raped. Many are too ashamed to speak of what had happened to them.
“Girls are raped. But how will girls [speak about this]? They would be embarrassed. It is a matter of dignity.”
The soldiers subjected the women in the camp to sexual humiliation, she said.
Whenever women experiencing their periods wanted sanitary pads or new undergarments, they had to line up in public so that soldiers could make a spectacle of handing these out, she said.
Some women refused to undergo the humiliation and went without, she added in the broadcast.
Women who sought to bathe were leered at, photographed and subject to lewd comments, she added.
There were shortages food and water also.
“We drank water from drains, from wells where dead bodies were thrown. I know a mother and a child who fell into well and committed suicide due to hunger. I saw with my eyes,” Rosy said.
An ex-LTTE cadre spoke of their treatment in one of Sri Lanka’s ‘rehabilitation’ camps, where they were subject to humiliation and deprivations.
“It was beyond torture. We were kept like cattle. … More than reforming us, we became more violent,” one said of the camp in which 800 were kept.
Another cadre, Shiva, who joined in the final months of the war, said: “[The] Sri Lankan army grabbed our land. They used weapons against us and our people. I joined LTTE in the last phase of war. They called, but I went to save the rights of our people. There was a necessity.”
Sri Lanka’s response
Following the broadcast of the documentary Tuesday, Headlines Today sought a response from Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, in a panel discussion.
“First of all I have to say that we are seriously concerned about your channel, which is a very good channel, broadcasting tendentious, unsubstantiated [and] inflammatory broadcasts – and especially her report,” he said, referring to Priyamvatha.
When asked why Sri Lanka isn’t allowing international journalists free access to the Vanni he responded: “that’s not true. Any journalist can get accreditation [from the defense ministry] and go.”
He went on to say: “Your journalist may have gone and met people who are identified by people motivated to bring disrepute to our country. That’s different.”
His comments prompted a swift response from an outraged Priyamvatha.
“I would like to clarify it was an unbiased report,” she said, addressing the High Commissioner. “I was not guided, and I was not taken on a guided tour by any particular organization. I met civilians, talking about both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.”
“As a journalist who has worked in this field for eight or nine years, I can tell [you] with surety I have done my groundwork, I have gone there, I have recorded and documented,” she said.
“Every civilian – if you have seen the video, if you have heard what they have spoken, every word was recorded on the ground, [only] after crosschecking – whether that number of people in that family was really killed, where they were killed, whether in a safe zone or not, how they were killed, – that is what I have reported.”
In reply, a sullen Mr. Kariyawasam, perhaps forgetting why he had been invited on the program, said: “You have only one side of the story.”
“I find your use [of] the word genocide irrational and biased,” he added, prompting a heated exchange with Headlines Today editor (Assignments) Rajesh Sundaram, in which the High Commissioner stated:
“Now let me say something. Sri Lanka belongs to us. People of Sri Lanka. We in Sri Lanka have a democratic system. … We are trying to provide restorative justice, not retributive justice … We are more concerned about citizens more than you people.”