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The Situation Report

4th July 1999

Fleeing human cargo in Ceynor Warehouse

By Iqbal Athas

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As dawn breaks, soldiers clutching binoculars look out from peepholes in their well fortified bunkers near Gurunagar Jetty. They scour the distant waters of the Jaffna lagoon.

Their main focus is a shallow stretch of water, off the Jaffna Beacon (a landmark), just a kilometre away. Through the sights of their binoculars, the soldiers catch the first glimpse of a human drama that unfolds twice or even thrice a week.

Men balancing travel bags on their heads, women hugging infants and children carrying parcels wrapped in polythene, wade waist or knee deep in water. Despite the discomfort, they free one of their hands to wave. The ritual continues, some times for hours, until their action catches the attention of the soldiers using binoculars. The family drill ends only when they observe an approaching fishing boat. They jump aboard with the belongings for a twenty minute journey.

The boat in turn is despatched from a parking lot for fishing craft alongside the jetty. That is after the soldiers alert local Red Cross officials that they had spotted another group of civilians. These groups, averaging five to nine, alight from their boats and walk some 200 metres into a row of spacious buildings the Ceynor warehouse.

In the good old days, it was a fisheries warehouse set up on a joint Norway-Sri Lanka programme. But it now lay abandoned barring for the presence of a handful of families who huddle themselves into various corners with their baggage of clothing. They are Sri Lanka's boat people. They arrive in Jaffna after parting with their measly belongings rings, gold chains, wrist watches and even gold sovereigns to pay for their passage.

They pay yesterday's fishermen who are today's human smugglers to defy an LTTE ban and flee the Wanni. Denied the right to go deep sea fishing due to security reasons, these fishermn have now mastered the art of smuggling people. They chart their motor powered boats expertly through the deep channels of the Jaffna lagoon to arrive at the shallow area before dawn to unload the passengers. The journey begins in the Wanni. After midnight, the families are escorted through safe routes, from transit points in a jungle area, to a coastal spot for the boat ride. It costs anything between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 per person with adults paying a higher fare.

Those returning, barring a handful, are all one time residents of the Jaffna peninsula. They fled after October, 1995, due to increased military action. This was when security forces launched "Operation Riviresa" to re-capture the peninsula. Some four years later, the yearning to return "home", by strange co-incidence, appears to be increased military action, this time in the Wanni area. The LTTE was raising a Civilian Militia and there was hectic military activity going on.

There appeared to be a significant difference in the groups that returned in the past years and those trickling in now. Earlier, Tiger guerrilla leadership had allowed civilians, who fled the peninsula during "Operation Riviresa," to return to their homes. But now, they had banned civilian movements to the peninsula. That seemed a way of preventing their secrets, like the raising of the Civilian Militia, military training, recruitment drives, classroom indoctrination campaigns in schools and other matters.

With a censorship, which is one year and one month old tomorrow, the story of the civilians who are beating an LTTE ban and risking their lives to return to Government controlled Jaffna, has not yet been told. There are only sketchy references in news releases put out by the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence the only official source on the ongoing separatist war for both local and foreign media. Periodically a one paragraph reference is made to numbers returning. Much the same as when details of an incident are given. Needless to say that hardly gives a Sri Lankan, leave alone those in other countries, a correct picture. This is one more example among hundreds to illustrate how competent men, trained and deployed to carry out military tasks, have continued to remain grossly incompetent in handling media responsibilities. Their inefficiency and ignorance about dissemination of information in this electronic age, sad enough, has denied the security forces and even the government a better image and a better public perception. Even though PA Government leaders and high ranking military officials acknowledge this lacuna, no steps have been made to rectify them.

The OP-HQ Ministry of Defence news release of July 1 amply illustrates the situation. This is what the one paragraph statement says: "On 30 June 1999 around 12.30 pm, 39 displaced persons belonging to 12 families from Jayapuram, Mallavi, Pallikuda and Pooneryn areas have reached Gurunagar Jetty by boat."

One would have thought that these "39 displaced persons", as the news release identifies them, had fled Jayapuram, Mallavi, Pallikuda and Pooneryn areas to reach Gurunagar Jetty by boat. If that was to be believed as the truth, the OP-HQ of the MOD has not given reasons as to why 12 displaced families from four different areas in the Wanni were now reaching Gurunagar. In other words, why were they displaced from these four areas. Were they forced out ?

The truth is different and I dare say the Media Spokesman, Brigadier Sunil Tennekoon (who earlier doubled in the unprecedented role as Director, Military Intelligence (DMI) and now continues as Military Secretary at Army Headquarters) and his staff are trying to cover up anything. It is just that they are unable to relate a very simple story that will convey a cohesive picture.

I have verified and confirmed that the 39 displaced persons belonging to 12 families from the four areas returned to Jaffna peninsula, their original homestead which they fled. They had found temporary shelter in the four villages in the Wanni. Like many other families who have been arriving in the past several weeks defying the LTTE, the 39 displaced persons had done so. Needless to say the paragraph about the 39 displaced persons in the OP HQ MOD news release did not receive any play in the local media. What then is the purpose behind such meaningless statements ? What good does it bring the security forces or the Government ? On the other hand, would not a meaningful statement give a fuller picture and thus project a correct situation ? Both the security forces and the government are let down by such public exhibition of incompetence and inefficiency. That too by the very men who are tasked to build a good image. That is at a time when their enemy, the Tiger guerrillas, continue with their own campaign against the security forces, both locally and abroad.

The returning families spend over a week at the Ceynor Fisheries Warehouse. This is whilst officials consult Grama Sevakas of the divisions where their houses belonged. Some who found their houses now came under the high security zone of the Palaly Defence Complex had to wait until alternative accommodation was provided. Others who were able to go to their former homes only found the walls sans the roof, doors and door frames.

During a visit to Jaffna last month, I spoke to several families who returned from the Wanni to settle in their original homesteads. They were awaiting clearance at the Ceynor Fisheries Warehouse. One important fact, which almost all of them confirmed, was the hectic military activity that is going on. They spoke of civilians moving around armed with long poles. "Practically everyone carried a pole. That was substitute for a weapon during training," said Kannamah (28), who was in an advanced state of pregnancy. She and her husband Raman (from a south western suburb of Jaffna) had returned with their seven year old daughter, Kavitha.

Raman, who said he was an English teacher, declined a request by Major General Nihal Marambe, General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Army's 52 Division, to take up a job in a school in the town area. He said he was longing to go to his former home and join his relatives.

"We left the area where we lived and stayed in the jungle for two nights. Food was brought to us by a person who was helping us to escape," Kannamah said. Asked why they needed to escape, she replied "I feared my husband will also be enrolled into the Civilian Militia. They (the LTTE) ordered us to join. They said we would not receive our rations if we did not take part in the drills and firing practices," she added. Raman who joined in declared "you cannot travel anywhere in the Wanni without seeing people moving around with poles. They told us we need to be trained and equipped to fight the Sinhala army," he added.

Kugan, a cultivator with relatives in a village in the Wanni said he feared for his only daughter, 17 year old, Devika. "If I stayed longer, she would have been recruited. I also would have to go for training," he said. Hence, he returned with his wife and daughter and were awaiting to be cleared.

The Ceynor Fisheries Warehouse with its Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), as the returning peninsula residents are being identified, has become a haven for intelligence personnel too. They conduct detailed interviews with the returnees and piece together details of life in LTTE dominated Wanni areas. There have been varied accounts. The civilians who were unaware of descriptions of various types of heavy weapons gave their own descriptions. Some even drew them, like one who spoke of a gun mounted on what looked like a cart on two wheels. There were a few who spoke of seeing a helicopter or a small fixed wing aircraft. Many spoke of the sanctions faced by civilians who disobeyed the Tiger guerrilla decree to join the Civilian Militia. They were denied not only their weekly rations but other courtesies. Those taking part in Civilian Militia activities were issued a "certificate" that entitled them to courtesies and better treatment at the hands of Tiger cadres.

Even with those accounts, the intelligence community still remains puzzled over what the LTTE is preparing for. The paucity of hard intelligence over this and other related matters have been causing serious concern for the Government. This concern was highlighted recently by none other than Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, a member of the National Security Council, in an interview in the prestigious Jane's Defence Weekly (JDW) June 16.

He told JDW's Asia Pacific Editor, Robert Karniol, that "our intelligence services are (still) very poor indeed." He said "Its crucial that foreign ministries and foreign intelligence agencies work closely together. However, we did not have an external intelligence agency until last year."

Concerns over LTTE intentions have been heightened since April, this year. Contrary to claims by the intelligence community that Tiger guerrillas planned a major strike to mark the anniversary of the so called Eelam War Three that month, there has been no such activity in the past three months. The absence of such activity prompted those at the higher levels of the defence establishment to raise issue. Why the prolonged silence and a deviation from the regular cycle of triggering off incidents as in the past years ? The questions were raised but the answers are yet to come. Concerns have grown in view of the "Black Tiger Week" which beings tomorrow.

It is in this backdrop that the LTTE was known to be acquiring more military hardware. Past months have seen reports of cargo vessels unloading weaponry in the north eastern waters, particularly off the Mullaitivu coast. Western intelligence channels have spoken of their acquiring Surface to Air Missiles from an Eastern European country. Local intelligence officials were this week checking reports that the LTTE had also acquired anti tank missiles from a source in Eastern Europe.

Most of the recent LTTE acquisitions have been stand off weapons, ones that could be engaged without the deployment of large manpower. Whilst securing new weaponry, raising a Civilian Militia and conducting enhanced training in the Wanni jungles, Tiger guerrillas have also enjoyed an added advantage. That is the respite they received since Government announced it was calling off "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) on December 4, last year.

There have been no major military offensives directed at the Tiger guerrillas that would have led to heavy casualties to their rank and file. Since "Operation Jaya Sikurui" was called off, subsequent military offensives beginning from "Operation Rivi Bala" and the subsequent series of "Operation Rana Gosa" have been largely unopposed and have led only to the re-capture of vast chunks of territory. Resultantly the deployment of troops in those areas were spread thin further.

However, in the past seven months (since the abandoning of "Operation Jaya Sikurui"), phase two of "Operation Rana Gosa 4" saw some fierce contact between troops and Tiger guerrillas though the declared objectives of that phase of the offensive is yet to be fully achieved. In the backdrop of a high pitched propaganda campaign over the latest offensive, the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence declared that 250 Tiger guerrillas, as usual a square figure, were killed in three days of fighting. However, Reuters news agency on Friday quoted the LTTE as saying that "84 guerrillas were killed." A high ranking Army official insisted that until yesterday "we have radio intercepts which speak of 161 dead being identified as Tiger cadres."

The lull in operations has been the subject of speculation. Since the battle for Mankulam and the subsequent abandoning of "Operation Jaya Sikurui" strategy for a landline of communication to Jaffna operations have been comparatively low profiled. The Government has maintained a slow and easy tactical posture aimed at re-occupying fairly extensive territory mainly in the western Wanni through the series of Rana Gosa operations. The LTTE resistance to Rana Gosa has been at best only token though the military claim large numbers of Tiger guerrilla casualties as against LTTE statements. Be that as it may, the fact is that the LTTE low- level response to the Army's advance has surprised the defence establishment.

There is no doubt that the LTTE is consolidating itself on the ground. Information of re-equipping their inventory with new types of arms, equipment and increased training activity confirms that the Tiger guerrillas are planning new tactics and strategies. That this re-organisation on the ground has been accompanied with a revamping of their international movement indicates that the LTTE are gearing themselves for a co-ordinated military-political offensive at a time of their choosing. When this will be is the question.

The ostensibly well meaning declarations by the LTTE for a negotiated settlement to this vexed problem, with third party mediation, is grist to the mill of the western democracies and NGO groups who see internationally sponsored peace initiatives as instant solutions to problems. The track record of the LTTE by itself questions the sincerity of these overtures. That apart, the flurry of international activity by the LTTE makes it manifestly clear that resistance on the ground will be timed when the international climate is favourable to them.

It is imperative to the LTTE that they gain the image of freedom fighters as opposed to being tagged as a terrorist group. Their advent into the African scene is perhaps with that intent. What better than the example of South Africa, even though there is a mismatch in the two situations.

With only three months to go before the break of the monsoon it is essential that both the Army and the LTTE jockey themselves to ground that will be tactically advantageous, to them both, during the difficult monsoon period as well what will be best positions to manoeuvre from after the monsoons. The need to consolidate on present positions is likely to be the influencing factor in the immediate few months. It is therefore unlikely that the coming month will see a major change in the operational pattern that has been seen this year.

That the Government is likely to go in for national elections soon will also influence the level of operational activity. The Government that boasts of having brought back over a thousand square kilometres of territory under its control, would no doubt prefer to go in for an election with that success, rather than venture into a greater level of confrontation and chance high rate of casualties.

The responses of the LTTE in that regard will also be interesting. The pressure the LTTE exerts militarily could well depend on what their political preference would be to the outcome of a national elections.

The stage appears to be set for a military and political stalemate in the coming months with the LTTE subtly holding a measure of initiative which could influence the course of the political scene which will take the country into the next millennium. (ends)

The Fifth Column

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