To repeat, then, there are three main accusations being leveled against the Government with respect to the fighting itself: i.e. that it shelled indiscriminately in and around civilians, that it shelled hospitals, and that it denied the civilians humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine. Now the Government denies each of these accusations (I will get to that in a moment) but let’s just look at the accusation as to indiscriminate shelling. It seems to be this really is the overriding accusation being leveled against the Government. (I will turn to the other two in my summary.) So, the primary question is whether, given the ground conditions that existed during the relevant period, the Government did in fact shell indiscriminately? And this brings us back to the numbers.
To return, the numbers, as we saw, are that roughly 3,000 civilians perished during the period in question. To repeat what I said earlier, if the civilian death toll over 6 months was roughly 3,000, and that under the extremely trying conditions under which the last phases of the war was fought, I for one cannot see how any reasonable person can say that there is a case to be made here that civilians were targeted indiscriminately. It is simply not a picture consistent with that of an army on the rampage, engaging in atrocity after atrocity, including targeting civilians indiscriminately.
b) Testimony of outsiders
I shall now turn to the testimony of certain outsiders who were either present in the conflict zone for extended periods of time during the fighting, or visited the conflict zone during the fighting briefly, but had a chance to make first hand observations. This type of testimony is also very useful in gauging what may have been really going on in the conflict zone during the relevant period, particularly in gauging whether the picture painted by the numbers may be accurate or not. As I said earlier, members of the Western Press were not present in the conflict zone in large numbers, though there were a few, but members of the Indian Press were present, particularly correspondents from Frontline, the respected Indian news magazine, and also from All India Radio/Doordarshan. And as for international organizations, ICRC was present throughout.
I’ll cite just three examples of comments and observations, two from the senior journalist B. Muralidar Reddy, of Frontline, who was present in the battlefield right up to the end of the war on May 19, 2009, and one from David Gray, a Reuters correspondent, who was taken on a tour of the battlefield about a month previously, in April. (I’ve pulled these at random from the internet: there are many others, but constraints of time and space don’t allow citing them all here.) The observations quoted give a dramatic and at times poignant glimpse into the realities of the battle-zone, and need no additional commentary. I’ll simply highlight certain points which I think are important as I go along. I’ll start with B. Muralidar Reddy.
Now, Mr. Reddy was part of a group of “embedded” reporters, in the sense that their visit was facilitated through the Defense Ministry and the Sri Lanka army. A critic might see a problem with this. Mr. Reddy, however, prefaces his report with the following remark, which I think is important not only with regard to assessing his credibility, but to certain inferences I want to draw from his statements later:
There were no conditions spelled out on the coverage from the war zone. We were allowed unfettered and unhindered movement up to 400 meters from the zone, where pitched battles were fought between the military and the remaining cadre and leaders of the LTTE….Most important was the fact that we had interference-free access to the internet, including Tamilnet, the website perceived to be pro-LTTE and based somewhere in Europe. Within the constraints of internet time available, and not-unexpected problems of connectivity and speed in a war zone, there was just enough time to read and absorb the reports on the websites before sending news dispatches to our headquarters. No questions were asked.
He then says, “Here is an account of what I saw and heard and otherwise sensed in the last 70 hours of Eelam War IV,” and proceeds to give his narrative. I quote at length.
Information gathered by this correspondent from a group of the last batch of 80,000 civilians to flee the LTTE-occupied zone reveals that the Tigers made a determination on May 10 that they had lost the war and that no purpose would be achieved by holding on to the civilians. However, it is not clear on what note they wanted to end the war.
On May 11, the Tigers seemed to have deserted their sentry-points, dismantled their defense-lines, and destroyed everything they could. The exodus of the last batch of civilians started on May 12/13 and perhaps by the night of May 15 there were no civilians left in the 1.5 square-kilometer area the Tigers were boxed into.
The accounts of the last hours provided by the civilians by and large tallied with the evidence that has surfaced so far. The detention of Sea Tiger chief Soosai’s family by the Navy on May 15/16 and the discovery of Prabakaran’s aged parents in a camp by the military on May 27 provided the ultimate proof that the Tigers had decided to spare the life of the civilians.
The May 15 decision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—the only outfit present inside the war zone until four days before the war ended—to suspend humanitarian operations inside Tiger-held territory proved beyond doubt that the overwhelming majority of civilians were out of the battle-zone and that the military and the Tigers were engaged in a no-holds-barred fight. The beaming faces of the commanders and troops spoke volumes about the fate that awaited the Tigers.
A number of important points can be highlighted from the above passages, read with Mr. Reddy’s prefatory remarks. For instance, it is clear that he had an opportunity to speak with and interact with the civilians who were just coming out of the battle-zone. It is also clear, from the prefatory note, that he had access to the internet, and therefore would have been generally aware of the increasing clamor being made internationally, particularly by Tamilnet and other LTTE-friendly sources, that Government troops were massacring civilians. It is reasonable to presume, therefore, that as an experienced journalist he would have been on the look-out for any statements by the civilians that might corroborate that such massacres were in fact being carried out. Meanwhile, since he had the opportunity to actually interact with the civilians, it is also reasonable to presume that he would have also taken the opportunity to ask them directly what they knew of any such massacres.
To my knowledge, there is not the slightest indication in the article (or in any of his other articles), that he heard the civilians say Government troops were carrying out massacres, or that he felt or “sensed” the need to ask the civilians directly about such matters.  In my view, one can draw only one reasonable inference from this: namely, that his on-the-spot observation and “sense” was that no such massacres were in fact going on. It is also important to note that we are talking here about a situation where the civilians had just come out of the battle-zone—they wouldn’t have had time to reflect on or even digest the events they had experienced, or, more important, to be “coached” by anyone as to what they ought to say to reporters. Such spontaneous and unvarnished testimony is generally considered the best and most credible form of eye-witness testimony, and is recognized as such, for instance in courts of law. The fact that there is no record anywhere in Mr. Reddy’s reports that people coming out of the battle-zone ever said massacres of civilians were going on is therefore doubly significant.
Second, I want to focus on Mr. Reddy’s observation, “The accounts of the last hours provided by the civilians by and large tallied with the evidence that had surfaced so far…that the Tigers had decided to spare the life of the civilians.” What does this mean? It means, in my view, that it was Mr. Reddy’s assessment, based on his first-hand observations, that the threat to the civilians in this situation came, or had come, primarily from the Tigers: his comment, to repeat, is that it was the Tigers who had decided to spare the lives of the civilians, meaning that it was the Tigers who had held the power of life and death over them in the first place. The inference one can naturally draw from this is that his observation and “sense” must have been that once the civilians were free from the grasp of the Tigers—i.e. once they had crossed over to Government lines—they were safe. Is that a picture consistent with that of a Government indiscriminately attacking and killing civilians?
I could go on, but I’ll turn to the second set of quotes, which are from Mr. Reddy’s report for the period covering May 13-16, that is, still a few days prior to the very final hours of the war. (The passages I quoted earlier were for the period covering May 16-19.) In any event, here’s part of what Mr. Reddy says:
It was pitiable to see terror-stricken and emaciated mothers clutching on to their babies and running towards military check-points. In a brief interaction before boarding government buses that took them to the Omanthai checkpoint, a group of newly arrived civilians inside the NSZ narrated the travails they had endured in the past two months.
“My 45-day child was born inside a bunker. After he came out of my womb, these are his first glimpses of the big bad world,” said a mother who had covered the naked body of her child with a white towel to protect him from the blistering sun.