(Reuters) – Meena Krishnamurthy still remembers the coloured slippers littered in the dirt around a bombed-out orphanage in Sri Lanka and a legless teenage girl unable to leave her dirt bunker, begging for a drink of nearby contaminated water.
Then there were the bodies, too many to count, including her own stillborn baby which she was forced to bury in a bucket before hastily retreating as Sri Lankan troops advanced.
Australian Krishnamurthy was 23 when she landed in Sri Lanka in 2004 for what she says was a return to discover her Tamil heritage. There was a ceasefire in country’s 25-year war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) she fell in love with a Tamil man.
But by the time she left in 2009 at the end of the war, she says had witnessed firsthand the atrocities of one of modern Asia’s longest-running wars.
Now, three years later, she has decided to speak out publicly, asking why no one has been held accountable for the atrocities she witnessed in the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers.
“What I witnessed was a massacre,” recalls Krishnamurthy, referring to the final battlefield in Mullivaikkal on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast.
That tiny stretch of beach is where Sri Lankan troops finally defeated the Tigers, who had surrounded themselves with hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields.
Western nations are pushing Sri Lanka for an independent probe into allegations that thousands of civilians died in May 2009 as government troops closed in on the Tamil Tigers, a group on the terrorism lists of more than 30 countries.
Canada has criticised Sri Lanka over its human rights record, setting the scene for a confrontation at a Commonwealth summit in Perth, Australia this week.
It has threatened to boycott the next summit, due to be hosted by Sri Lanka in 2013.
More than 50 leaders are expected at the October 28-30 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Sri Lanka has rejected accusations of human rights abuses but said it was impossible to avoid all civilian casualties during the final offensive to wipe out the Tigers. It warned that the issue could split the Commonwealth, made up mostly of former British colonies.
Protesters say they will target the Perth summit and, among a number of demands, will single out “war criminals and parasites”, including Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
CALLS FOR INDEPENDENT INQUIRY
Krishnamurthy said she taught English to Tamils, sometimes Tiger rebels. She said her boyfriend was an accountant for the Tigers, who was forcibly conscripted in the later stages of the war.
She said neither was involved in LTTE actions, but she has no idea of her boyfriend’s whereabouts today.
Sri Lanka’s pro-government newspaper The Nation reported on Sunday that Krishnamurthy was recruited as a propagandist and worked under two senior LTTE leaders, Nediwayan and Castro, who head one of the best-financed remnant LTTE groups from Europe.
The LTTE itself attacked civilian targets throughout the war and was widely accused of forcibly recruiting children to its ranks, and at the end of the war, almost anyone between the ages of 13 to 50.
She said she survived the worst of the war by living in dirt bunkers, cowering like everyone else at the sound of aircraft, waiting for the inevitable bombing or shelling.
“You watched the wounded lying at the wheels of vehicles seeking cover from the bullets and shells. They reached their hands out, skeletons of hope, asking for a soul to save them,” she told Reuters in an interview.
“But you had to save yourself, so you walked past them, turning away with guilt. You could not help them, but you can help them now, this is why I am doing this,” she said.
“The truth can no longer be hidden from the world as memories will be shared.”
A U.N. advisory panel report says there is “credible evidence” both sides committed war crimes, which the government rejects.
“Both the LTTE and government forces violated the laws of war and that…should be investigated by a credible and independent body,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said last week.
The ICG has issued several reports documenting charges that the military targeted civilian sites, including hospitals, and that Tiger rebels killed and silenced opponents, recruited child soldiers, and attacked civilians in the majority Sinhalese community.
Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is due to present a war crimes report to Rajapaksa on Nov. 15, and many in Sri Lanka expect it will, like many previous probes, find little and bring no one to book.
“Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 must not be allowed to go unpunished,” said John Dowd, president of The International Commission of Jurists, Australia (ICJA).
ICJA last week handed Australian police what it says is direct and credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lanka Navy during the last stages of the war in 2009.
Sri Lanka’s Canberra high commissioner Thisara Samarasinghe was the navy’s eastern and then northern areas commander in the last months of the war. The high commissioner rejects any wrongdoing, but the ICJA says military superiors hold “a command responsibility” for the actions of subordinates.
TAMILS SAY THEY STILL LIVE IN FEAR
Speakers at a Global Tamil Forum in Sydney last week spoke openly about their dreams of justice, but said the outlook for Tamils in Sri Lanka was bleak, with rights abuses continuing.
“It’s been 3 years (since the war ended) and all we are seeing in the north and the east is a slavery position. We feel that we are slaves. It is strongly militarised,” said Tamil National Alliance MP Eswarapatham Saravanapavan.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was formerly the political proxy for the Tamil Tigers, but has since the end of the war dropped demands for a separate nation for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils.
“Most of the things are not brought to light…when the night comes it is the army who rules,” Saravanapavan. “People are scared. They live in isolated places and the army can do whatever they want.”
(Reporting by Michael Perry, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)