India's My Lai - the Valvettiturai Massacre

Place: Valvettiturai | Date: 19890802

On 2 August 1989, the so called Indian Peace Keeping Force deliberately killed over 50 Tamil civilians in Valvettiturai in the Jaffna Peninsula in a massacre that was later described as India's Mylai.

David Housego reported in the London Financial Times on 17 August 1989:

"... On Tuesday I was the first western reporter to visit Valvettiturai, a small coastal town near Jaffna, where Indian troops carried out reprisals on August 2 after the Tamil Tigers, the Tamil guerrilla movement, ambushed one of their patrols close to the main square, killing six Indian soldiers and wounding several, others.

After 41/2 hours of walking around the town and questioning many people, it becomes clear that angered soldiers deliberately shot dead unarmed, civilians, burnt a large number of houses, and brutally. beat many of the boys and men they caught.

The local Citizens Committee has identified 52 bodies and says that over 120 houses were burnt - making it by far the worst atrocity alleged against Indian troops in the two years they have been in Sri Lanka.

Most of the killings took place in the hours after the ambush, but the burning and ransacking continued , for another two days while Valvettiturai was under curfew and surrounded by Indian troops.

What is also certain is that the official Indian explanation for the deaths - that civilians were caught in crossfire in the wake of the ambush - has no credibility. Mr. S. Selvendra, the president of the Citizens Committee and a chartered accountant, is calling for a public inquiry.

Almost a fortnight after the event, a smell of charred remains hangs over Velvettiturai. Of the 15,000 people perhaps half have left in fear or despair. Many who remain are distraught over the loss of relatives or belongings, and uncertain how to begin again or where. What seems to have happened an August 2 is that two patrols of Indian Peace keeping Force (IPKF) troops about 30 men in all approached the centre of the town on foot in parallel columns at about 11.15 in the morning. This was market time, when the streets were most crowded. They were ambushed by firing from the roof and the street. Six soldiers were killed and 13 injured, including an officer...

What follows are abbreviated eyewitness' accounts of four particular incidents that occurred after the ambush.

Mr N Senthivadivel, 50, was in his photographer's shop overlooking the square when the firing began. He threw himself to the ground. Later he was taken out and made to sit cross legged with about 25 people on the square. From there he saw soldiers set fire to some of the shops and throw kerosene to add to the flames.

At about 2pm a soldier came along and said in broken English that he was going to shoot them. Two jeeps arrived and firing began. The soldier then turned round to those seated and fired on them. Two people, Mrs K Sivapackiyam, a washerwoman, and Mr K Thangarajah were killed and 10 more injured.

S Rajeswary, 52, is the wife of the head of the divisional land survey office. After the firing about 50 people sought shelter in her house well over 200 yards from the square - because it has a concrete roof and thus offers protection against shelling.

About 1.30pm, four soldiers broke into the house. She came out of the kitchen into the hall with her husband; they were holding their hands up. She pleaded with her husband not to step forward but he advanced to speak to the soldiers. They shot him. They then called for the other men and shot four of them.

After that they sprayed bullets killing four more people and injuring nine. Apart from her husband, Mrs. Rajeswary also lost her eldest son, 28, who was trapped in his shop which had been set on fire.

Mr A R Sivaguru., 68, a retired postmaster. With some 70 other people - he took shelter in the house of Mr Sivaganesh which also has a concrete roof. About 4pm, some six soldiers climbed over the back wall of the house and entered the courtyard. Women fell it their feet crying and pleading with them not to shoot but were kicked aside.

A sergeant then separated off the young men ages ranging from 18-35 and told them to sit in front of the cow shed next to the house. The soldiers then fired on them, killing four. When one woman screamed at her husband's death she was told to be silent otherwise she would be killed.

Mr Nadarajah Anantharaj, principal of a local school and secretary of the Citizen's Committee, still bears the mark on his face of wounds he received. This account of his treatment at the Udupiddy IPKP camp nearby is taken from his sworn affidavit. "There (at the camp) I saw many people who came along with me bleeding and crying. Four Sikh soldiers then started beating me with heavy wooden rods and with their fists.

"One soldier dashed my head against the wall One soldier pressed a wooden rod on my throat and was standing on the rod which was preventing my breathing. At that time I heard a voice shouting "Kill him, kill him." I was almost losing consciousness when I managed to push the rod on my throat away, toppling the person who was standing on it .

"The next day, the Commanding Officer of Vadamaradchi (region), Brigadier Shankar Prasad, the Deputy Commander, Col Aujla, and the Udupiddy Commanding Officer, Colonel Sharma, met me and expressed their apologies ... The Brigadier told me I had been ill-treated by mistake . . ." .....

.Why did the Indians respond so brutally? Part of the answer is that their troops have been under great strain in the Vadamaratchi region, with isolate patrols coming under and the Tigers firing rockets into the IPKF camp. This has left officers and men with nerves on edge.

Were the killings and the brutality the result of soldiers running amok or did they have the approval of their officers? With substantial reinforcements brought into Velvettiturai in the wake of the ambush, officers were certainly present in the town during the shooting and the burning of homes. Some inhabitants believe that senior officers gave their tacit approval to the reprisals, if not more.

One of my informants claimed that he had heard a senior officer say in anger not long before "I will burn Point Pedro" (a neighbouring town where there has also been trouble). "I will kill everybody.' This may have been ill chosen words of intimidation not meant literally..."

Rita Sebastian reported in the Indian Express on 24 August 1989:

"There were many males and females in addition to children inside the house. We confined ourselves in a room. At about 2.30 pm somebody knocked at the door of the h6use. The Indian Peace Keeping soldiers who came inside the house first shot Mr Subramaniam and ordered the males and females to stand separately.

They shot the males and then shot the females. I fell on the floor along with the dead and pretended to be dead and got up after the armed forces left. I saw my mother and brother dead, all totalling nine people.

Later I left for the Madanthai Pillaiar Kovilady in search of my brother and sister. Since curfew was clamped I could not come back.

Later, on 4.8.89 at about 2 pm curfew was relaxed. When we went to Surveyor Subramaniam's house, we found the dead bodies of nine people, putrefied, with offensive smells and could not identify them. I identified my brother and mother from the clothes they wore. At about 5.30 pm, with the help of the neighbours, we cremated the dead bodies of these two together with other seven dead bodies in a pit in the adjoining land."

This is 18-year old Rajeswaran Pushparaja's affidavit, swom before the temple priest in his capacity as a Justice of Peace. (J.P.)

Mr Subramaniam, in whose house Rajeswaran and his family sought refuge, was a retired Superintendent of Surveys and a respected member of the community.

Another affidavit, signed by Arunadathy Sivalingam, married and 49 years of age reads:

"About 1.20 I heard gunshots coming from the direction of the 'junction. I also heard the very loud noise produced by the firing of shells. This noise went on for about 25 minutes. Then there was silence. I had cooked our lunch and was waiting the arrival of my husband. At about 2 pm some IPKF soldiers rushed into my house and started damaging all the articles.

At this time there were only two males in the house - my husband's brother, Nadarajah, aged 62, a retired postmaster and my husband's nephew, Arudsothy, an employee of the Kankesanturai cement factory, both of them were shot dead by the soldiers despite our appeal to them that they were honorable citizens. We even showed their national identity cards to them."

These are just two of the many affidavits sworn eye witnesses to the massacre in Valvettiturai, a village on Sri Lanka's northern coastline on August 2, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force retaliated against the killing of six of their men in an LTTE ambush, by gunning down over 50 defenceless civilians.

Even today, more than a month after the incident, grief, bewilderment and a growing anger are visible. The village is eerily silent and deserted save for the lone cyclist riding past the cluster of homes, shops and boutiques reduced to rubble. Here and there you see patches of scorched earth where the dead were cremated, since the putrefying bodies could not be moved.

"It was the worst crime perpetrated against the people of Velvettiturai," says, a senior citizen of the village. "For three days, from August 2 to 4, a curfew imposed by the IPKF prevented people from burning their dead. And when the curfew was lifted, with so many of the men dead or missing, it was women who had to burn the bodies which traditionally no Hindu woman would do."

Susheela Devi and Mahalakshmi were among the women who had to do this. We came upon them behind the bullet-riddled gate of one of the houses, where on that August morning they were widowed within minutes of each other. The men they were married to were brothers. Forty-year-old Mahandraraiah was a driver, and his brother Velummylum a labourer. Susheeladevi weeps as she tells you her story.

"When the soldiers came into the compound they fired at the house, set fire to the car and then came into the kitchen, into which we had all run. As one of the soldiers pulled my husband into the yard, his mother and I held on to his hands and tried to drag him back, pleading with the soldier to let him,go. The soldier just didn't heed our pleas, and pushing us aside shot my husband dead. They did the same to Vellummylum. We pleaded, we begged on our knees, even my 75-year old mother-in-law Valliammal did so."

Valliammal was injured in the shooting because she refusd to let go her sons. She is now in hospital. In a neighbouring house, five sisters watched their 31-year-old brother Nadarajah Ravindran, being brutally gunned down. Fourteen-year-old Umadevi was witness to yet another scene of horror:

"The IPKF soldiers ordered the men to kneel down and opened fire. Four died on the spot and four were seriously wounded."

The dried bloodstains in the shed outside are the only evidence of the killings. As we walk down the sandy lanes of Velvettiturai, now largely deserted since almost half of its population has fled to neighbouring villages, we meet Leela Soundaraiah. When she heard the firing she and her five children jumped over the wall and sought refuge in a home further down the lane. What she returned to when the shooting was over was the burnt down shell of her house. A few yards away, the documents and money in the safe of the Rural Bank had been burnt to cinders.

At the home of Sabaratnam Selvendra, a chartered accountant who fled Colombo after the July 1983 communal riots and went to live in his ancestral home in Velvettiturai, where he took over the chairmanship of the Citizens Committee, we see documented evidence of what really happened in Velvettiturai, that August day:

Fifty two bodies have been identified, 12 persons are still on the missing list and presumed dead, 43 injured, 122 houses and 45 shops burnt, ten cars, 50 bicycles, 175 fishing nets and fishing gear destroyed.

The Valveltiturai Citizens Committee is one of the very few Citizens' Committees Peninsula, although its membership has come down from the original eleven to three. In the last three to four months, there were no incidents in the area," says Mr Selvendra, "one of the reasons being that with the village identified as the home of LTTE, no rival groups have been operating."

However, seven IPKP camps ring the village like a noose, and that fateful day, after the LTTE ambush of the IPKF patrol, the noose tightened with reinforcements arriving. Once the IPKF reprisals began there was no escape for the villagers.

"The crossfire syndrome has become the convenient excuse for civilian casualties, but in this case it wasn't so." says a village elder. "As the firing started people in the streets .rushed into the buildings and nobody was killed at that time. It was later. when the reinforcements arrived, that the enraged soldiers dragged people out of the buildings in which they had sought refuge and shot them dead. Young ,men who were almost a kilometer away from the scene of incident were dragged into the area and were seen being rolled on the ground with the soldiers kicking them with their boots and hitting them with their rifle butts.

"They poured something on the walls of the houses before setting them on fire," says a retired government servant, in whose house two rooms were completely burnt down. With the help of neighbours, he managed to salvage a part of his house. Sivamoneydevi Thalayasingham lost two of her sons that day.

Twenty-one-year-old Sivakumar and 18-year-old Jeyamohan were at the village cinema hall. from where they were dragged out and taken by the IPKF, she told me. They were among 35 people who were detained that first day. Only seven of them returned to tell their terrible tale - the rest were doused with petrol and burnt.

VALVETTITURAI is not an isolated incident of IPKF atrocities on innocent civilians. In recent weeks, two other such massacres took place - on July 26 and on August 21.

We go down to Pt Pedro, seven miles away. We travel the same way as we did on most of our journey, avoiding the main roads and IPKF sentry points, and taking bylanes and tracks no more than dirt roads. Most of the time, we are guided by some helpful villager who rides ahead of us on his bicycle.

At the base hospital in Point Pedro we are just in time to see Dr. John Louis, anaesthetist, and Dr. Richard Casey, surgeon, of the French team, finish their operations for the morning. Since July 10, they tell us, they have handled 80 gunshot cases. "Things are getting worse, not better," says, Dr Louis.

On July 26, following the killing of an Indian soldier in an LTTE ambush in the area, 13 people were found dead within a radius of one mile. "Two or three were killed in their homes, others on the road, old men and young men."

The most recent incident was on August 21 significantly, the day after the visit of the Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence, Ranjan Wijeratne to Velvettiturai on a fact-finding mission... It was after the minister left, and the soldiers from the Point Pedro camp who had provided security for the minister at Velvettitirai were returning to their home bases, that a third "massacre" took place.

Nobody seems certain what triggered it off, but the general feeling is that an Indian soldier had been fired upon by the LTTE, which sent the IPKF on th' rampage again. The death toll this time was 13, although only 11 bodies ended up at the Point Pedro base hospital. Around 6.30 on the morning of August 21, the IPKF visited the home of 65-year-old Murugar Sinnathurai, a retired government servant.

He was drawing water at the well when the IPKF surrounded the house, threw grenades and shot at random at the (walls and the roof of the house, say his wife and daughter. Then, they pushed him into the compound. While his family pleaded with the soldiers and Sinnathurai himself begged them to let 'him go, a soldier shouted "fire" and another fired. "The bullets went through his heart," sobs his wife as she shows us where he fell dead. In a nearby rubbish dump the bloodstained lungi he wore that morning is all that remains of the man. About a mile away, we watch the last funeral ceremonies for 19-year-old Arulanatham Sudharan, cremated the day before.

His mother is too distraught to talk to us. It is his father who takes me into his son's bedroom, his study, throws open his Cupboards points to his books and his notes. and asks me.

"Do you call him a Tiger? My son was at his 85-year-old grandfather's for the night and had just wheeled his bicycle out onto the road to return home when the Indian soldiers returning to their camp dragged him away and shot him dead just a short distance away."

He had four bullet wounds, two in the heart and two on his thighs, says a visitor to the house. We drive on to another house, where another family mourns their dead. A father, a son and a brother-in-law shot dead while their wives looked on. "We have had nothing to do with any kind of militancy, and they shoot us down like dogs," says a man in the house.. "Not even the photographs of India's great leaders like Gandhi and Nehru and Subbash Chandra Bose, hanging on the walls of the homes here deter them."

Driving back to town in the late evening, I remember what an Indian army captain said to me some months back about army excesses: "When a soldier is slapped by a man and he cannot find the man who slapped him, he slaps any man who looks like him." And that was what the IPKF massacre of innocent civilians at Velvettiturai and Point Pedro was all about. "

George Fernandez, Indian Opposition M.P. and one time Cabinet Minister commented a few months later:

"When in early August, 1987, I had said that Mr. Rajiv Gandhi's military adventure in Sri Lanka would be India's Viet Nam, I had not anticipated that India's Viet Nam would also have its own My Lai. Of course, I was aware and I had also said repeatedly that soldiers everywhere alike, their training and the rigours of their life, not to speak of the brutalisation caused by war, making them behave in the most inhuman ways when under pressure.

That is why when in the early days of India's military action in Sri Lanka, stories of rape and senseless killings by Indian soldiers came to be contradicted by the India government publicists I joined issue with everyone who came to accept that our soldiers were cast in the moulds of boy scouts who went around the fighting fields of Sri Lanka looking out for opportunities to do their day's good deeds, particularly for damsels in distress.

Now, in Velvlettiturai, the Indian army has enacted its My Lai. London's Daily Telegraph commenting editorially on the barbarism exhibited by the Indian army in Velvettiturai says that, if anything "this massacre is worse than My Lai. Then American troops simply ran amok. In the Sri Lankan village, the Indians seem to have been more systematic; the victims being forced to lie down, and then shot in the back".

But that is not the only contrast. My Lai was brought to the notice of the world by American journalists. The fight against the American army's atrocities against civilians in My Lai was led by the American people, particularly the American press and the youth and students.

Velvettiturai was uncovered by David Housego, the Delhi-based correspondent of London's Financial Times who visited the scene of the massacre 13 days after the black deed had been done on August 2. His report appeared in his paper on August 17, though London's Telegraph had carried on August 13 a story on the incident from its New Delhi correspondent, Jeremy Gavron, based on the information that was already circulating in India's capital.

The Indian press - a miniscule section of it - caught up with it only on September 3, with a report by Rita Sebastian in the Indian Express.In fact, there was a planned black out of the news of Velvettiturai by the Indian government, in which a large section of the Indian press was only too happy to collude. The armed forces are India's most sacred cow -at the best of times, but when they indulge in atrocities, they are more so..."

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