Regardless of who is responsible for the attacks, the Sri Lankan government has obligations under international law to take steps to prevent such killings, to ensure that those who commit them are brought to justice, and that the families of those killed are able to obtain redress
The lengthy brutal war between the armed forces of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to an end in May 2009. Even as the 14th anniversary of the war’s end is being observed, the island nation continues to grapple with the consequences of the conflict. The causes that led to war are yet to be addressed meaningfully. The scars of war haven’t been healed.
Commendable courage, valour and dedication was displayed by the combatants on both sides during this war. Thousands of heroes made the supreme sacrifice. Many others who suffered injuries lost their limbs or were maimed. Worse still was the pathetic plight of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire metaphorically and at times literally.
The Sri Lankan conflict described at one time as South Asia’s longest war was replete with instances of civilian killings. Some of these killings were accidental and euphemistically referred to as collateral damage. Many however were perpetrated by design and identified clearly as such. Though these killings were condemned by human rights organisations and the gruesome details publicised, very little action has been taken so far. Justice is yet to be done.
It has been my sad and often painful duty as a journalist to report on some of these incidents as and when they occurred in the past. Based in Toronto, I had to gather details and uncover the truth about what was happening in the northern and eastern theatre of war in Sri Lanka amidst great difficulty. Only journalists with reporting experience would understand how challenging this task would have been.
It is against this backdrop that I go down memory lane to re-visit a Saturday night of horrible happenings that I have written about 17 years ago. Subsequently many human rights organisations and fact-finding missions visited the area compiling comprehensive reports of what had happened then.
Thirteen Tamil civilians including two women and two children were killed in three incidents of violence on the night of Saturday 13 May 2006 in the Allaipiddy and Velanai islets off Northern Province’s Jaffna Peninsula. Another man and woman were seriously injured while at least 11 businesses including a telecommunication centre were destroyed through deliberate arson.
The northern archipelago off the Jaffna peninsula coast comprises many islands and islets. Only 13 of these are populated. Allaipiddy is one such islet. Situated along the Oorkavalthurai (Kayts) road that branches off from the Pannai causeway it is adjacent to Mankumban.
People of the islands are renowned for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. At one stage they dominated much of the retail trade and eateries in Sri Lanka. The escalation of the ethnic conflict has taken many of them to Western countries where they are doing well as professionals as well as in commerce.
The two-storeyed house in ward two of Allaipiddy that witnessed violence on 13 May 2006 also belonged to Tamil expatriates. With the owners living abroad some of their relatives were living there. They in turn had brought in some other relatives to stay. It was one big extended “family” living in a big, comfortable house that was the envy of many.
There was a lull in the fighting between the armed forces and LTTE at that time. A ceasefire facilitated by Norway was in force then. A monitoring mission manned by personnel from Scandinavian countries had also been set up. Though there was no direct confrontation of a major nature, the ceasefire itself was beginning to unravel slowly due to intermittent incidents of violence.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had been elected President in November 2005. He had appointed his brother Gotabaya as Defence Secretary. General Sarath Fonseka and Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda were then the Army and Navy commanders respectively.
Most of the northern islands were under the control of the Navy. The islands and islets had been under Government control from 1990 onwards. Earlier the Navy was assisted by Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) cadres in maintaining security in the island regions. After the ceasefire EPDP influence had waned considerably.
There was a big navy camp in Allaipiddy about 500 metres away from the two-storey house. There were also sentry posts and bunkers in the area. Security had been intensified after a landmine attack that injured two navy men.
The nominal caretakers of the two-storeyed house were T. Sellathurai and his son Amaladhas also called Amalan. Another small house in the same compound was used as a small shop. It was managed by Sellathurai with the aid of a couple from ward one in Allaipiddy. Amaladhas was engaged in business trading mainly in sea food products.
On 13 May 2006 at about 8:30 p.m. four men wearing shorts and tee-shirts had gone to the shop and bought biscuits and mineral water bottles. They ate and drank a little and began sauntering out. They appeared to be navy men in civils. Even before these men were in the shop “trouble” had started brewing in the vicinity.
Uniformed navy men on duty in the neighbourhood asked the drivers of the few vehicles passing through to “off” their lights. At the same time some EPDP cadres on motorcycles went up to houses in the area and asked them to turn all lights off. The lights near sentry posts were also turned off.
It was pitch dark when the four men emerged from the shop but they according to residents had “petromax” lanterns. After getting out of the shop casually the men started moving fast. They entered the big house where the inmates had kept doors open as they had no danger to fear. The four men had firearms.
Entering the house forcibly the men began firing at the people inside. The men went upstairs and downstairs shooting away at their targets. One person seated down near the doorway listening to the radio was shot dead. So too were a sleeping family of four. The parents and two children were killed in sleeping position. Three men staying on the upper storey were also shot dead. Eight people staying in the house were killed.
The men then went outside to the shop. After firing a few shots they threw a grenade inside. Three people were seriously injured. With Naval and EPDP personnel ordering “lights out” earlier and hearing reports of gunfire and explosions, the people of the area were terrified and stayed indoors. Allaipiddy was not densely populated even in earlier pre-war times. Now the population was quite sparse.
It was left to Fr. Amalathas the Catholic priest at nearby St. Philip Neri church to collect some people and visit the scene of violence. They were horrified by what they saw. Eight people were lying dead. What was most appalling was the brutal killing of two children including an infant.
The dead victims at the Allaipiddy house and their ages:
1. Ketheeswaran Yathursan – 4 months
2. Ketheeswaran Thanushkanth – 4 years
3. Agnes Esther Ketheeswaran (23)
4. Palachamy Ketheeswaran (25)
5. Sellathurai Amalathas (28)
6. Abraham Robinson (29)
7. Ganeshan Navaratnam (50)
8. Joseph Anthonymuttu (64)
Fr. Amalathas and the Allaipiddy residents then ran to the shop. They found three persons inside who were injured but alive. They then tried to take them to the Jaffna hospital via the Pannai causeway. The navy men on security duty refused to let them proceed. Finally Fr. Amalathas had to telephone the then Jaffna district judge of their plight who in turn contacted the navy top brass and obtained necessary “permission”.
The three injured people were rushed to Jaffna hospital. But Sinnathurai Sivanesan (46) succumbed to his injuries. He may have lived if the navy had allowed him to be brought to the hospital without delay. Sivanesan’s wife S. Mohanambikai (46) and T. Sellathurai (61) though seriously wounded were alive and received medical treatment under intensive care.
The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) was duly informed. To their credit the monitors arrived at Allaipiddy within a few hours and inspected the scene. The frightened people gathered around them like a drowning man clutching at straws. With old men, women, middle-aged men, young men, child and infant being killed people from all ages were afraid and insecure.
The Allaipiddy residents requested the monitors to stay with them that night for protection. Some even fell at their feet and pleaded. But the SLMM could not help. Their mandate and regulations pertaining to the monitoring mission did not permit it. Besides there was the question of security. The monitors left for Jaffna.
Thereafter the petrified people both Hindus and Christians gathered at the St. Philips Neri church for safety and spent the night there under the watchful eye of Fr. Amalathas.
If this was the situation in Allaipiddy where nine were killed and two injured the night of violence had not ended for the people living in the northern islands. A road forking off from the Allaipiddy-Mankumban-Kayts road goes through the Vangalavaadi junction in Velanai west. A tea boutique – closed for the day – in Vangalavadi was attacked between 10 to 10:30 p.m. Ratnam Senthuran (38) the owner was dragged out and shot dead. The assailants also set fire to the place.
Further up on the same road is Puliyankoodal junction in Velanai from where three roads go to Naranthanai, Suruvil and Kayts respectively. There was a row of shops and businesses at Puliyankoodal. Among these was a telecommunication centre kept open 24 hours of the day.
A gang of armed youths speaking in both Tamil and Sinhala arrived at the spot between 10:30 to 11 p.m. They wore dark blue balaclavas to hide their faces. Some also had red bands tied around their heads.
The main target of the gang seemed to be the telecommunication centre. Three members of the same family running it were shot dead. The victims were the father Murugesu Shanmugalingam (72), mother Shanmugalingam Parameswari (65) and son S. Kantharoopan (29).
Another son managed to run away and hide down a well to escape the assailants. Some people from the other businesses also ran out and escaped.
The marauders exploded grenades inside the telecommunication centre. They also took fuel from a nearby depot and set fire to the place. They also set fire to the other businesses in the area. The fuel depot was also burnt down. The commercial establishments including the telecom centre burnt down at Puliyankoodal numbered 10.
The navy was very harsh on the people the following Sunday 14 May. They were not allowed to travel outside the islands. With an unofficial curfew in force most people kept indoors through fear. One consequence of this action was that the outside world could not know much about the previous night’s massacre, violence and arson. But the clampdown was relaxed to some extent the following day. With people being able to travel to Jaffna town and Kayts more details of the violence emerged.
There were a few eye-witnesses to the violence and killings. The prime suspects were the Navy and the EPDP. It appeared that the Allaipiddy massacre was done by one group and the Velanai violence by another. There were many theories about the targets of violence and a brief account of earlier incidents in the area is necessary to understand the context better.
The relative calm of Allaipiddy was shattered on 30 April 2006 when a tiger claymore mine went off at the main junction. Two navy men were injured. They were airlifted to Palaly and then Colombo. The incident took place at 6:40 p.m. Some sailors at Allaipiddy ran amok. They entered houses in the area and assaulted people. A 74-year-old man Ramasamy Sangarapillai was shot to death despite his pleading not to shoot him.
Relations between the navy and people in Allaipiddy began to sour after 30 April. The navy felt people in the area were harbouring tigers. Their suspicion fell on the big house occupied by S. Amaladhas and others. The prime suspect was Ganeshan Navaratnam who was also staying there. Navaratnam was a business associate of Amaladhas. He was from Kottadi in Jaffna and a father of five children. Three of them were in the Wanni and believed to be closely linked to the tigers.
The navy and EPDP from the area regarded the house as a tiger den. They suspected all inmates there. On 3 May 2006 some navy men went to the house, inspected it casually and then asked the residents in a friendly manner to give them the house to set up camp. This was refused.
“Pearl Cruise II”
Tension however was simmering from 1 May in Allaipiddy. The flashpoint may have come after the LTTE attack on the “Pearl Cruise II” and other Navy Dvoras on 12 May 2006. In a blatant violation of the prevailing ceasefire a flotilla of sea tiger boats attacked a naval convoy in the waters off the Point Pedro coast. The Naval gun boats were escorting the ship “Pearl Cruise II” that had 710 Army and Naval personnel returning to duty in Jaffna. The Naval gunboat P-148 was sunk in the confrontation. Lieutenant Commander Lalith Edirisinghe and 16 other Navy personnel were killed.
Some of the naval personnel who came on the Pearl Cruise II passenger ferry had resumed duties in the islands on the morning of 13 May. It was suspected that some navy men angered by the earlier incidents had attacked the house and killed the occupants.
As far as the Velanai violence was concerned the Navy in the area had been angry with the business people for shutting down during hartals organised by pro-LTTE politicians. Despite the navy insisting they remain open the businesses had closed defiantly. The tea boutique owner and the family running the telecom centre were perceived as active tiger supporters. Both had refused to pay “kappam” money to the EPDP. There has also been some tensions with navy personnel demanding “free” telephone calls and free cigarettes, food and tea.
Despite the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa announcing that an inquiry would be conducted nothing substantial materialised. None of the assailants were penalised because no one was ever found guilty. However several reputed human rights organisations identified the alleged perpetrators as belonging to the Navy and the EPDP.
Let me conclude with an excerpt from an Amnesty International Statement issued on 16 May 2006.
“Amnesty International is alarmed by the increasing number of civilians killed as a low-intensity armed conflict appears to be escalating, despite a 2002 ceasefire agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More than 200 people have been killed over the past month alone, the majority of them civilians, and more than 20,000 others have been displaced from their homes.”
“In separate incidents over the past weekend, 13-14 May, at least 18 civilians were reportedly killed in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Thirteen Tamil civilians were reportedly killed in a spate of incidents on Kayts Island, a small islet off the northwestern coast of the Jaffna Peninsula that is strictly controlled by the Sri Lanka Navy, which has a major base there. On 13 May, at about 8.30 p.m., unidentified gunmen reportedly entered the home of Sellathurai Amalathas in Allaipiddy and opened fire. Eight people were killed on the spot, including a four-month-old baby and four-year-old boy, and one other person died later in hospital.”
“In another incident, at around 10:30 p.m. the same night, unidentified gunmen reportedly entered the home of 72-year-old Murugesu Shanmugalingam in Puliyankoodal, also on Kayts Island, and shot him and two other members of his family dead. Ten shops in Puliyankoodal were reportedly burnt down. In Vangalavady, gunmen reportedly entered the home of Ratnam Senthuran, a tea shop owner, and shot him dead. Other members of his family also were shot and injured, but managed to escape.”
“The government has condemned the Kayts Island killings and announced that a police investigation is underway. Amnesty International welcomes these initial steps but notes that there is a disturbing pattern of incomplete or ineffective investigations by the government, with the result that perpetrators of such violence generally operate with impunity. “
“The LTTE has accused the Sri Lanka Navy of responsibility for the attacks on Kayts Island, a charge which the Navy has denied. However, Amnesty International has received credible reports that Sri Lanka Navy personnel and armed cadres affiliated with the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, a Tamil political party that is opposed to the LTTE, were present at the scene of the killings. The government in turn has suggested that the LTTE orchestrated the attack in order “to divert international opinion”.
“Regardless of who is responsible for the attacks, the Sri Lankan government has obligations under international law to take steps to prevent such killings, to ensure that those who commit them are brought to justice, and that the families of those killed are able to obtain redress.”
Avoid harm to civilians
“Amnesty International calls on all parties to the conflict—including the government of Sri Lanka, the LTTE, and other armed groups—to take all possible measures to avoid harm to civilians and respect international humanitarian law, which prohibits murder or violence to those taking no active part in hostilities.”
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)