No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka
The Nanthi Kadal lagoon, a waist-high body of water extending for four miles along the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, bears few traces of the battle that took place here a little more than five years ago. Herons fly low over tidal flats and islets covered with sea grass. Palmyra palm trees sway over the thick bush that grows along the shore. The only hints of conflict are the strips of yellow tape that cordon off sections of the surrounding jungle, marked with skulls and crossbones and the word “mines,” printed in English, Sinhalese, and Tamil. At the end of a causeway over the lagoon a sign proclaims that this was the site of a “heroic victory” over “ruthless terrorists” by the Sri Lankan army, which rescued “one hundred thousand civilians” in a “Humanitarian Operation.”
In early 2009, the Sri Lankan separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made their final stand at this lagoon. The LTTE—sometimes called the Tamil Tigers—was founded in 1976, in response to Sri Lankan government policies that favored that country’s Sinhalese majority over the Tamil minority. The Sinhalese, who make up about 75 percent of the population, speak Sinhala, a language in the Indo-Aryan family similar to Hindi or Punjabi, and are practicing Buddhists. By contrast, the Tamils, who make up about 10 percent of the population, speak a quite different language in the Dravidian family of languages from southern India, and some 80 percent practice the Hindu religion; the remainder are Christians, descended from those converted by Dutch and Portuguese missionaries.
In 1956, the government made Sinhalese the country’s official language, with no special status for Tamil, a language at that time spoken by 30 percent of the population. And in 1972, it declared Buddhism the country’s national religion—again favoring the Sinhalese. The LTTE’s aim was to establish an independent state in the northeast of the country, where most Tamils live. Civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the LTTE broke out in 1983, when the LTTE ambushed an army convoy, and continued for over twenty-five years, with only brief periods of cease-fire.
By 2009, a three-year offensive by the Sri Lankan army had pushed the rebel forces out of their strongholds in the Vanni, the low-lying mainland region of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. With the LTTE’s dream of a separate state for the mostly Hindu Tamil minority now crushed, the surviving fighters and at least one hundred thousand civilians found themselves trapped along the shore, hemmed in by the Indian Ocean and the jungle, surrounded by government forces.
At the Nanthi Kadal lagoon, a Tamil fisherman casting his net off the causeway told me that two of his children had been killed by a burst of shrapnel during the last days of the battle; he didn’t know whether the insurgents or the government had fired the rocket. I asked him how he had managed to survive. “The soldiers announced to the people to come over to the army side,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “At the time, this causeway was destroyed, so we had to wade across the lagoon. Those who waded over were saved.”
As I interviewed the fisherman, two soldiers approached my driver and questioned him. The Northern Province remains a restricted area, and the government requires all foreign visitors to obtain prior approval from the Ministry of Defense; journalists remain barred. (I had come as a tourist.) When the driver picked me up, he appeared shaken. “They wanted to know what you are doing here,” he told me. It was best, he said, to leave immediately.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in May 2009, when the army annihilated the Tigers and their commanders were killed. Since then, questions have persisted about what happened in and around the Nanthi Kadal lagoon. Human rights groups, journalists, survivors, and even former high-ranking officials charge that an indiscriminate slaughter took place. The United Nations has alleged that tens of thousands of civilians died in the shelling and shooting at areas that the government designated as “No Fire Zones,” and tens of thousands more were killed in the war’s final days, as soldiers pressed the rebels from all sides. Tamil Tigers allegedly carried out atrocities as well, using civilians as human shields, and shooting some who tried to escape to the government’s positions. The bodies of 40,000 civilians and rebel fighters are believed to be buried in unmarked mass graves near the Nanthi Kadal lagoon.
The government has denied harming Tamil civilians, and has ruthlessly moved against anyone who challenges the official line. In January 2009, four assassins on motorcycles shot dead the journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who had attacked the government’s handling of the war and had been threatened many times. “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” he said weeks before his murder; the killing remains unsolved.
Another investigative journalist, J.S. Tissainayagam, was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lankan police in 2008 after publishing exposés about the war, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for inciting terrorism; an international campaign secured his release after eight months. When Channel 4, the British network, dispatched a team in November 2013 to film a documentary about the last days of the war, protesters, including Buddhist monks, blocked their train north, accused them of being LTTE agents, and forced them to abandon the trip.
Last year the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized an investigation into atrocities committed by both sides. The government refused to give visas to investigators, and charged that the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, a South African of Indian Tamil descent, was biased. The government was said to have intimidated witnesses who testified via Skype and gave depositions at the Human Rights Council’s headquarters in Geneva. The investigation has further polarized the country. “The Tamils feel there has to be truth, justice, and accountability,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights activist in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. “The Sinhalese feel that this is the past, we don’t need to go there, these are war heroes.”
In the years after the Tigers’ defeat, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese Buddhist, enjoyed great popularity among the Sinhalese majority. Regarded by many supporters as the modern personification of Dutugamunu, an ancient Buddhist warrior king, Rajapaksa cast himself as a savior who had eradicated terror and brought to Sri Lanka peace, security, stability, and growth. Rajapaksa talked of ethnic reconciliation, but he mostly treated the Tamils as a conquered people. He stationed 40,000 troops in the Vanni and the Jaffa Peninsula, erected grandiose monuments across the north celebrating the Sinhalese victory, and appointed a governor, a former general, who gave the Tamils no say over their affairs. Security forces have harassed Tamils and kept them under close surveillance. I was told that almost all gatherings of Tamils—even birthday parties—require military approval.
At the same time, Rajapaksa appointed dozens of his relatives to government and party posts, and built huge and wasteful projects—casinos, toll roads used primarily by affluent Western tourists, even an international airport in his home village of Hambantota on Sri Lanka’s southern coast. He allegedly enriched himself on kickbacks from Chinese contractors. A Buddhist extremist group, the Buddhist Power Force, grew powerful under Rajapaksa, intimidating minorities and killing three Muslims after a rally last June. “There’s a sense that thugs are running around, getting a pass from the government,” a Sri Lankan journalist told me in Colombo. “There’s total impunity for the elites.”
Rajapaksa’s rule had seemed, until the last few months, unshakable. But when I arrived in Sri Lanka in early January, his aura had faded. The first presidential election since the immediate postwar period was to take place on January 8, and the opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, a former minister of agriculture and later health, and a Sinhalese farmer’s son who has been widely praised for his integrity and modesty, was gaining momentum. Raja paksa’s campaign blanketed the media with advertisements that reminded voters of the chaos he had quelled. One newspaper ad showed the harrowing aftermath of a suicide bombing carried out by the Tigers at the Central Bank in central Colombo in 1996 that killed ninety people, along with the slogan “Never again!” But Tamils and other ethnic minorities who had been treated badly by the Rajapaksa regime were preparing to vote in large numbers, and even some Sinhalese Buddhists admitted that they were fed up. After a decade of war crimes, lies, ethnic division, and corrupt and nepotistic rule, many Sri Lankans appeared to be yearning for a new direction.
The “great chronicle” of Ceylon, the Mahavamsa, describes the epic victory in 165BC of the Buddhist warlord Dutugamunu over the Tamil Hindu King Elara, who had invaded from southern India decades earlier and seized control of the island. Near the south gate of the king’s capital, Anuradhapura, Dutugamunu’s elephant gored Elara’s to death, then the Buddhist warrior killed the Tamil king with a spear. Dutugamunu rode triumphantly into Anuradhapura, constructed a 340-foot-high stupa, and unified Ceylon under Sinhalese rule. With the exception of an eighty-year period of Tamil rule in the eleventh century, Sinhalese Buddhists dominated Ceylon for the next 1,700 years.
The Europeans who conquered Ceylon—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch—portrayed the island as a fertile paradise. “The isle of Ceylon abounds in excellent rivers,” wrote Philip Baldaeus, a Dutch minister who went to the northern city of Jaffna with the invading Dutch army and documented the life of the Tamils in his Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon, published in Amsterdam in 1672.
Here are found the best elephants of the Indies…the best oranges, lemons, and citrons, exceeding by far those of Spain and Portugal…. But the pride of this island is the finest and purest cinnamon; no wonder if we have disputed the possession thereof for so many years with the Portuguese.
But tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority simmered. The British seized Ceylon from the Dutch in 1815 and began to favor the Tamils; when Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948, Tamils dominated the country’s universities and held 60 percent of civil service jobs, though they made up around 15 percent of the population. The Sinhalese assumed power and overturned the social order. As well as changing the national language from English to Sinhalese—a language that few Tamils spoke—the government revoked the citizenship of Tamils whose ancestors came from southern India. They favored Sinhalese applicants to the country’s universities, and declared Buddhism the national religion. Sinhalese intellectuals whipped up ethnic hatred, and pogroms against Tamils broke out across the south.
In the 1970s Velupillai Prabhakaran, a Tamil high school dropout from the Jaffna Peninsula, formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Initially supported with arms and training from India, the Tigers attacked a military barracks in Jaffna in July 1983, slaughtering thirteen soldiers and setting off reprisals against Tamils across the country. Soon the civil war had affected most areas of the country. Insurgents and government forces battled across the north and east, as Tamil assassins and suicide bombers struck the Sinhalese heartland—massacring bus passengers in Anuradhapura, setting off a truck bomb at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, the holiest Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, repeatedly blowing up civilians and soldiers in Colombo, and murdering a president and a foreign minister. In 2002 Norway negotiated a cease-fire between the exhausted combatants, allowing the Tigers to govern 5,800 square miles of conquered territory and to impose their own system of taxes, roads, and courts.
But in 2005, Tamils boycotted the election, handing a victory to the Sinhalese hard-liner Mahinda Rajapaksa. Abandoning a faltering truce, the president and his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the minister of defense, dispatched troops to attack the Tigers by land, air, and sea. The soldiers seized Kilinochchi, the Tigers’ capital in the north of the country, in January 2009. On May 18, Prabhakaran was allegedly captured and executed in a field not far from the Nanthi Kadal lagoon. (The Sri Lankan government maintains that its troops killed him in an ambush.) Shortly after Prabhakaran’s death the remnants of the LTTE surrendered. During a quarter-century of fighting, more than 100,000 Sri Lankans had lost their lives.
Today, it is impossible to visit Sri Lanka and not be reminded of the horror of the war and its repercussions—as three new books and a television documentary about the conflict and its aftermath make clear. No Fire Zone, a Channel 4 film by Callum Macrae, uses rare footage from the conflict zone and interviews with UN officials and Tamil survivors to document the atrocities carried out by the Sri Lankan army during the fighting in 2008–2009. (Macrae’s team were the ones stopped by protesters on the train heading to the Northern Province in 2013.) The ninety-minute documentary leaves no doubt that the army was guilty of war crimes, including indiscriminate civilian killings, summary executions, rape, and torture. Sri Lankan forces bombarded clearly marked hospitals and military-designated safe havens, slaughtering thousands, while their leadership issued bland assurances that no civilians had been harmed. The harrowing film shows the executions of surrendering Tiger soldiers, in violation of the Geneva Convention. This footage has been labeled fake by the Sir Lankan government, yet it is authenticated by forensic pathologists.
One of the youngest victims of extrajudicial murder was the Tiger leader Prabhakaran’s twelve-year-old son—caught and questioned about his father’s whereabouts and “offered a snack before he was taken and executed in cold blood.” After the war, 300,000 civilians languished for years in prison camps, while thousands of suspected former fighters vanished. Macrae points out that Sri Lanka now has more “disappeared” people than any other country in the world except Iraq. Sri Lankans who attempt to uncover the truth do so at their peril.
In one of film’s most disturbing sequences, Macrae introduces a care-worn, middle-aged Tamil woman who lost two sons in the conflict and sought to draw attention to the disappearance of her youngest, a fifteen-year-old Tiger conscript, by organizing demonstrations along with relatives of other young men who had vanished. “Unknown faces follow me and track me, whenever I go home after protests. This is a serious threat and at times I am scared to live here,” she said in a video message sent to the filmmakers in February 2014. Four weeks later, we are told, she was arrested under prevention of terrorism legislation and detained indefinitely without trial.
In Noontide Toll, a collection of short stories by the London-based Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekera, a Sinhalese chauffeur-for-hire spends his days driving around in a haunted landscape remade by three decades “of mad artillery shelling, of armoured divisions and Tiger troops, of air-tosurface missiles and suicide bombers, all the bloody battles of nation and separation.” As he takes tourists, development workers, returning exiles, and others through the former war zone, the driver observes a country in limbo, where the conflict informs every conversation, and where the still-rubbled landscape has assumed a kind of perverse normality:
The first time you see a toppled water tower or a building with its sides ripped off, it is undeniably a shock…. But…soon…you don’t look twice. You don’t think about the boy who lost his home to a whistling bomb, or his mother who stepped on a landmine and lost both feet and now has to hobble around on stumps. North or south, you try to avoid thinking too much.
The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War digs far deeper into Sri Lanka’s deceptively placid postwar society. A work of nonfiction by the young Indian writer Rohini Mohan, the narrative follows the lives of three damaged Tamils: Sarva, a nautical engineer in Colombo, whose brief dalliance with the Tigers in the 1980s exposes him decades later to arrest, torture, and imprisonment in the country’s gulag; his mother Indra, who becomes consumed by her son’s disappearance and devotes her life first to finding him, then agitating for his release; and Mugil, a young woman who joined the Tigers as a teenager, rose within the ranks, and then winds up imprisoned with her entire family in horrific conditions in a displaced persons camp after the rebels’ near annihilation.
Mohan describes the Tigers’ swashbuckling style and egalitarian ideology, and the seductive power they exert on Tamil youth. “The girls rode motorcycles and wore jeans; they could stand up to any man,” she writes of Mugil when she joined the rebels after fleeing a government offensive in Jaffna to the Tiger-held town of Puthukkudiyirippu, at the edge of the Nanthi Kadal lagoon. “Mugil started to wave to the older girls when they passed by on bicycles or motorbikes; when the akkas waved back or smiled, it made her day.” Young Tamils like Sarva in the upcountry south had no direct contact with the rebels, but they “had grown up imbibing the fears, wishes and bitterness of the elder members of the community.” Like Sarva, many joined the movement.
Sarva is betrayed by an informant who recognizes him from their training camp. Snatched off the street by men in an unmarked van, he enters a netherworld of interrogations and brutal beatings in dank cells, much of it overseen by the sinister Inspector Silva. Mohan captures a country of dueling narratives as irreconcilable as those of the Palestinians and the Israelis, of suspicions and betrayals instigated by an all-powerful security apparatus:
During Inspector Silva’s nightmarish interrogation, Sarva had looked at the informer standing against the glass window in the same room and—to avoid an incriminating confession—denied knowing him. Sarva had wanted to charge at him for his betrayal, crash through the high window, and send them both plunging to their death. But even if he’d had the nerve to do that, he could never know why the man had snitched, whether he had succumbed to torture or bargained for his freedom.
When Sarva is eventually released, thanks in part to the efforts of his mother, he undertakes a tortuous journey through South America, and eventually obtains political asylum in England. Mugil’s story has no such upbeat ending. Trapped in a bunker during the government’s final offensive on Kilinochchi, she flees through the jungle, is swept up with tens of thousands of other Tamils and interned for many months in a disease-ridden camp, and is finally resettled on the Jaffna Peninsula. Sri Lankan security forces arrest Mugil’s brother after he impulsively draws a Tiger flag on a cloth and hoists it up a flagpole, and at the end of the book, Mugil herself is thrown into prison because of her past. Mohan writes of a regime for whom every Tamil is a potential rebel and forgiveness is impossible:
The state that came down hard on former combatants and those still obsessed with the Tigers did not invest time or money in rehabilitation and counselling in the detention camps…. Instead, it criminalized any recollection of the past. Memorials and commemorations were classified as acts of terrorism, warranting detention without bail. For the past few years, the government had been raising the bogey of an LTTE resurgence, with rarely any evidence to justify the mass detentions and curfews that followed. President Rajapaksa’s regime need ed an excuse to exert more control, curb more freedoms and claim more power, and what better way to do that than the tried and tested paranoid fear of the militants’ regrouping.
In another strong work of nonfiction, This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, the Indian Tamil journalist Samanth Subramanian captures the vast gulf between north and south two years after the annihilation of the Tigers. “Sri Lanka still felt tense,” he writes, “and the peace was already curdling into something sour and unhealthy.” Subramanian meets bloggers, ex-soldiers, former Tamil militants, and Buddhist extremists; witnesses the repression of Tamil civilians; and ventures into the former battlefields to recreate the carnage-filled final days of the military offensive. He spares neither side, documenting Sinhalese army abuses while providing a disturbing portrait of Prabhakaran, the Tiger’s late leader. In the final years of the war, he writes,
the movement was no longer about what was best for the Tamils but what was dictated by his whims and delusions. He kept himself safe for decades through his utter paranoia,…executing any Tiger who displayed even a tinge of insubordination or disloyalty, appearing rarely in public. He acquired, along the way, the habits of a comic-book tyrant. He kept three leopard cubs as pets; he ate orgiastic amounts of food, even when his men were surviving on spare rations; he pitted his guerrillas against each other in fly-swatting contests because he couldn’t bear the odor of pesticide. He had become the despot of a banana republic that did not yet exist.
On election day, January 8, I boarded a train from Anuradhapura to Jaffna, a 120-mile, five-hour journey on the old British-built Northern Line. The train was nearly deserted—most people had stayed close to home in order to vote, and there was some fear of violence carried out against the opposition by Buddhist extremist groups. A campaign poster on the wall of my compartment showed President Rajapaksa gazing toward Adam’s Peak, a 7,300-foot-high sacred mountain in southern Sri Lanka, his hands clasped in prayer. Rajapaksa has built a cult of personality since the government’s victory over the Tigers, and his image adorns billboards and posters across the country, usually posed against majestic landscapes and Buddhist icons.
After war broke out in the 1980s, the Tigers bombed the Northern Line trains many times, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Later, they tore up tracks and railway cars and used them to make bunkers for their troops. The line shut down in 1990, but Rajapaksa’s government made restoring service between north and south a priority, borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from the Indian state-owned railway, and in late 2014 laid the final stretch of new track, running between Jaffna and the port of Kankesanthurai on the northern coast. Human rights activists say that the government has plans to resettle thousands of Sinhalese soldiers and civilians in the north to dilute Tamil dominance, and they suspect that the rail line’s resumption will accelerate the process.
I fell into conversation with Anthony Shivakumar, a Tamil social worker for World Vision who was born and raised in the southern town of Kandy. He was heading to his wife’s family’s home in Pandatherippu, a coastal village on the Jaffna Peninsula. In 1990, his wife, then a fifteen-year-old girl, had fled the house with her parents and siblings during a naval bombardment of the coast, and resettled in Colombo. Now, after a quarter-century, the couple had reclaimed their abandoned property and were in the process of resettling there. Shivakumar, a Roman Catholic, had no regrets about leaving the south, where he had lived for most of his life. “From my childhood I was feeling crushed by the Sinhalese people,” he said. “We even had to give up our bus seats to them. You would sit there and they would approach and say, ‘get up.’ That was the life we were living there.”
We pulled into the station at Kilinochchi, the former capital of the Tamil Tigers. In spite of the heavy presence of the Sri Lankan military here, the surveillance, the absence of a free press, the army’s domination of business ranging from pet-grooming salons to barber shops, Shivakumar told me that he felt a weight lift whenever he entered the Northern Province. “I always breathe easier when I cross the border,” he said. “I feel like it’s a different country. We all speak the same language, and there is nobody to crush me.” Shivakumar had a keen sense that political change was imminent, and he welcomed it. “The president is everywhere,” he told me, casting a glance at the poster of Rajapaksa on the wall. “He is like God.”
The following morning, January 9, in a meeting with parliamentary leaders that few Sri Lankans could have imagined possible months earlier, Rajapaksa conceded his defeat. He vacated the presidential palace in Colombo the same day. His opponent, Maithripala Sirisena, who had begun his campaign in obscurity, had achieved a definitive mandate with just over 51 percent of the vote, a margin of 400,000 votes. Slightly less than half of the Sinhalese Buddhists had voted for him, along with 70 percent of Muslims and Tamils. The voter turnout—81.5 percent—was a record high for Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of jubilant people took to the streets of Colombo, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, and other cities. “What is surprising to many of us is that the transition has been peaceful,” Bhavani Fonseka, the human rights activist, told me.
As Rajapaksa’s support had ebbed away in the final days of the campaign, some people close to him had allegedly plotted a military coup—and the president himself was said to have consulted with the chief justice of the Supreme Court about the legality of imposing a state of emergency. But according to human rights activists and journalists, the commander of the armed forces had made it clear that he would defy any attempts to circumvent the people’s will, and Rajapaksa and his circle had been forced to back down.
Sirisena had been careful during the campaign not to alienate the Sinhalese majority. He had toed the ruling party line on the UN, vowing to resist attempts by the “international forces or the Tamil diaspora to drag…Rajapaksa, his family or anyone in the security forces to an International War Crimes Court.” He had also insisted that he would not withdraw troops from the Northern Province. Yet on his first day in office he sounded conciliatory, promising in remarks at the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth to work for “religious coexistence and communal harmony, ensuring freedom and rights of every religion.”
The next day, my last in the Northern Province, Anthony Shivakumar invited me to visit him and his family at their home in Pandatharippu. I drove down a dirt road through the jungle, past homes that had stood empty for decades. I found Shivakumar, his wife, and their three small children in the dirt courtyard of their small bungalow, which had graffiti scrawled on the pink-concrete façade and a leaking tile roof. He was upbeat but cautious. “We feel that anyone but Rajapaksa will be an improvement,” he told me. His neighbor’s abandoned property next door was a tangle of toppled palmyra trees, trash heaps, and weeds.
Shivakumar had been encouraged by a surprising development that had taken place that morning: in another sign of changing times, the new president had forced the resignation of the governor of the Northern Province, a figure loathed by the Tamils, who had commanded the army during the brutal last years of the civil war. A few days later, Sirisena announced that he would replace the general with a diplomat who had served on a truth commission that had recommended an inquiry into human rights abuses committed at the Nanthi Kadal lagoon—a recommendation that Rajapaksa had stubbornly ignored. It was too early to talk of reconciliation, but Sri Lanka seems to be one of the few places in the world where ethnic hatred is subsiding.