Military moves into Silavatturai
The bunker line along the Medawachchiya – Mannar road and the scenes of soldiers combing the sides of the road for mines were clear indications of the tension gripping the area.
The tight security thrown over the area following the recent recapture of LTTE controlled areas did not deter the people in Mannar town from going about their day-to-day activities.
However, last Sunday’s recapture of the coastal areas of Silavatturai and Arippu, south of Mannar rendered some 4,000 people homeless overnight, forcing them into welfare centres. For many it was yet another displacement just like when they fled their homes on previous occasions.
This time the people were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in schools and places of worship in Murunkan and Nanaddan.
|Children collecting food rations at the Nanaddan camp.
The government called it a “humanitarian operation”, but the civilians had to trek miles to reach safety.
The Sunday Times learnt that some humanitarian aid agencies had been refused permission by government troops to enter the area to rescue the trapped civilians, as they claimed the situation was volatile.
Civilians from Silavatturai said they trudged miles crossing the Arivu Aru to get to Murunkan and Nanaddan, while the army had sent only four buses to transport the civilians who were stranded.
The International Committee of the Red Cross had also withdrawn from Uyilankulam crossing point in the backdrop of 12 civilians including three children under the age of 4 being killed in a claymore mine blast on Saturday while they were attempting to escape the artillery and mortar fire which had engulfed the area soon after the military operation had been launched.
The Uyilankulam entry and exit point was used recently by civilians as an alternate route during the Madhu church feast as the Madhu Road was closed due to security concerns arising from the shelling. Although the Army gained control of Silavatturai and Arippu on Sunday the LTTE launched a mortar and artillery attack on the government-controlled area of Manthotam in the wee hours of Wednesday.
When The Sunday Times visited Manthotam, on the Medawachchiya-Mannar Road, troops had consolidated in the area. Fighting had ceased by then. It was 7.15 a.m.
However, sounds of sporadic shelling could be heard for miles. Troops manning checkpoints along the Medawachchiya- Mannar road said the situation remained volatile and the LTTE could attack at any time from their stronghold in Adampan, 300 metres away from the Army bunker lines.
Silavatturai which has around 20 gramasevaka divisions is reported to be a ghost town with most of the inhabitants living in camps or with relatives in and around Mannar.
We visited one such camp, a small school, Nanaddan Maha Vidyalayam, that has classes upto GCE O/Level.
About a 1000 internally displaced people, mainly from the fishing community and from the Gramasevaka divisions of Arippu, Silavatturai, Kondachchi and Kokkupadayan are housed in this school.
Although the school’s third term has begun, students are unable to attend, as the their classrooms are full of displaced people. A few students who are sitting for their GCE O/L exams had attended school but had finished classes early due to the prevailing situation.
S. Sinnathamby, a fisherman from Arippu said he had gone to sea on Saturday morning and on his return had heard from his priest in the local church that government troops were planning to shell Silavatturai. “When we heard the news, we immediately left the place, leaving our catch for the day and our belongings. There was artilery fire everywhere. We left the place by crossing the Arivu Aru. The boat that normally takes a maximum of eight people took about 20 that day. We finally reached Nanaddan and the Army brought us to this camp after registering us,” he said.
Indranathan Fernando, a fisherman from Kondachchi said they had no problem with the LTTE, despite that shells fell in their backyard.“We don’t know why our village was hit. We had no problem with the LTTE but despite that our land has now been destroyed,” he said.
Xavier Cruz, a carpenter from Silavatturai said the LTTE had asked them to join their organisation but many did not want to. “We did not face a major threat from the LTTE. The only threat as such was when their unarmed tax officers in civvies went round some shops demanding money.
However, Gilda Priyani Peiris from Silavatturai had a different tale. She said her son had been assaulted and forced to join the LTTE. “We were harassed because we were Sinhalese. There is a small community of Sinhalese living in Silavatturai. However, we never wanted to leave the place as we have nowhere else to go. Now all we want to do is go back to our homes and rebuild our lives over again,” she said.
The Muslim IDPs from Silawatturai who are now housed in an old dilapidated mosque say they fear for what might happen in the future as their homes, shops and livelihoods have been destroyed in the recent shelling.
Around 77 Muslim families from Kuylankulam have been settled in an area known as Rasoolputhuveli. These IDPs say they never expected a military operation to take place in their hometown which is a mainstream Muslim village. They say they never faced threat from the LTTE although they roamed the area.
|Additional troops moving into Silavatturai
Kuylankulam’s gramasevaka M.I.M Haneefa, now a displaced person in Rasoolputhuveli said, they had to take cover to dodge the shelling from the Army.
“There was panic when the artillery hit homes and areas inhabited by people. We left all our belongings and ran. We first went to Kokkupadayan from there we went on foot to avoid the shelling. By the time we got to Nanaddan it was night fall and we were sent to an IDP camp where we were given food,” he said.
“We have no problem in the camp but we want to get back as soon as possible to rebuild our tattered lives. We hope the military would allow us go back home before the Ramazan fasting season begins,” Mr. Haneefa said.
However, a Muslim farmer in the same camp said the farming community was harassed on and off by the LTTE. He said some farmers had to pay Rs.1 per Kg of rice sold as tax for the LTTE.
Vijey Luxmi from Silavatturai, now an IDP at the Don Bosco vocational training institute camp in Murugan said her family was afraid to go back to their home as fighting could erupt again. About 800 displaced people are housed in this camp.“We have no place to go to other than this camp. We had to leave the area due to the heavy shelling. We don’t know what to do. The future is unpredictable,” she said.
Meanwhile security forces have raised concern over the possibility of LTTE infiltration into the IDP camps. Don Bosco camp’s Commanding Officer Major Lal Gamage said identifying possible LTTE operatives in the camp has become one of the greatest challenges.
|Children playing in the mosque
The government claimed that Silavatturai was a major Sea Tiger base and weapons training point for LTTE cadres. However during the weeknd operation only five LTTE cadres were reported to have been killed. According to Military Spokesperson Prasad Samarasinghe large quantities of arms and ammunition have also been recovered from Silavatturai.
Brigadier Samarasinghe told The Sunday Times, from a military point of view the operation at Silavatturai was significant to cut off major Sea Tiger movement and arms trafficking.
“We can now open the Wilpattu national park that has been closed for sometime. We don’t have to worry about Sea Tiger movements now. The LTTE used to move to Kalpitiya and Chilaw from here but now their access point has been blocked. The people in the area were also suffering because they were being harassed by the LTTE. We could say that this is one of our greatest victories. The area is safe now,” he said.
Meanwhile an Army officer attached to the Thalladi Camp in Mannar said the Silavatturai LTTE leader identified as Luxman has reportedly been hauled up for a disciplinary inquiry by the LTTE hierarchy for charges of abusing his powers. He has also been accused of raping female LTTE cadres.
It is learnt that, based on these charges eight security personnel given to him had been withdrawn by the hierarchy last month. The Sunday Times also learns that three days before the Silavatturai operation was launched 26 fishing boats were spotted passing Thalai-Mannar and reportedly heading to the Wanni. The fishing boats were said to have taken the LTTE cadres who were earlier based in Silavatturai
The Thalladi Camp which is Mannar’s main commanding base had received intelligence reports of an internal dispute brewing within the LTTE in Silavatturai and had also learnt of the LTTE cadres withdrawing from the area before the operation.
LTTE spokesperson Rassaih Illanthiriyan told The Sunday Times they had only a minimal military presence in the area, which was mainly an administrative locality of the LTTE.
“We were mainly involved in political work in the area. It makes no difference if the area was in our control or not. How can the government call this a humanitarian operation if thousands of people have been displaced? We had no armed cadres there for them to continue the bombardment of Silavatturai,” he said.
Meanwhile the Army and the LTTE from their stronghold in Adampan continue with sporadic shelling, while the IDPs from Silavatturai keep streaming into safer areas.
|Make it safe for the people: Mannar Bishop
|Mannar’s Bishop Rayappu Joseph
Mannar’s Bishop Rayappu Joseph has urged the government to ensure the safety of civilians in the ongoing military operations in Mannar and has appealed that civilians stranded in villages be taken to safer areas before any military action is launched.Excerpts:
What is the present situation in Mannar?
Mannar is facing a crisis situation as the government and the LTTE are focused on the war which has displaced over 17,000 people in Mannar since last year. On Saturday 6,000 people were displaced by the Silavatturai operation and more IDPs keep on arriving. Our main focus is to look into their safety.
What steps has the church taken to ensure the well being of the people in Mannar?
I have spoken to the international community about it. I have also had several meetings with the Mannar Government Agent and the Military to ensure the well being of the IDPs. Right now our main objective is to rescue villagers who are stranded or caught in the crossfire of the battle front.
People claim that the Sri Lanka Army is involved in a military build up to takeover the LTTE controlled Mullikulam camp. That would affect about 175 families that are stranded there.
Yes, that is correct. Nearly 850 people are living in the small coastal village of Mullikulam. There is a shortage of food and water there. We organised 10 buses to be sent into the area but the government security forces did not allow us to go into the area because there are rumours that the road is mined
Did you bring this matter up with the government that is carrying out “humanitarian operations” in Silavatturai and Arippu?
I have written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the ongoing situation and have appealed to him to direct the Security Forces to make arrangements to assist the civil administration of the District of Mannar so that we can transport food and medicine from Mannar to Mullikulam by sea and also evacuate the people of Mullikulam and Silavatturai by sea to a safer location.
Since the capture of Silavatturai and Arippu do you see a difference in terms of peace?
Well now the situation has intensified. There is regular shelling and more and more people are getting displaced. Mannar has gone from bad to worse. The government and the LTTE should cease fighting and take steps to bring peace to the area.