Shelling and Bombing of Tamil areas

Place: Tamil Eelam | Courtesy: Collection
| Date: 19970000

The Sri Lankan military makes widespread use of artillery and air strikes during its military operations, even in the most densely populated of Tamil areas. Major Tamil population centres such as Jaffna, Kilinochchi, etc. have been subject to the sustained and concentrated use of heavy weapons over several years, in contradiction of classic counter insurgency doctrine (i.e. winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace) - and international humanitarian law.

Apart from the people killed and maimed in these attacks, the Tamil populace suffers in other ways. Large numbers of people are forced to flee, usually on foot, carrying whatever little of their possessions they can. The large scale displacement of people, the destruction of large numbers of houses, schools and other properties results in severe impoverishment too.

The systematic bombing and shelling of Tamil civilian centres by the Sri Lankan military is neither casual or accidental - despite years of protests by Tamil MPs, international NGOs and human rights groups, Sri Lankan artillery and aircraft continue to target Tamil civilians. International pressure is averted by banning the press (and foreigners) from the Tamil areas.

Some military analysts believe that the indiscriminate use of bombing and shelling is as an inherent part of Sri Lankan military strategy - for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, continuous and sustained attacks on Tamil population centres could contribute to ‘inducing war weariness’ within the populace, thereby ‘breaking the desire to continue the fight’, and perhaps thereby resulting in a drop in public support for the LTTE.

Secondly, by impoverishing large sections of the Tamil populace and forcing them to be on the move continuously or herding them into refugee camps, the military can reduce the quality of the support that the Tamil public extend to the Tamil guerrillas, in terms of funds, information, supplies, etc.

Furthermore, the massive displacements of people that invariably result from Sri Lankan military operations, swamp the capabilities of the NGO’s in the area, forcing the LTTE to divert its resources to alleviating the humanitarian crisis (or risk alienating the Tamil populace).

The crisis is exacerbated by the Sri Lankan government’s tight blockade on food and medicine into the Tamil areas which has been maintained for many years.

Before the Sri Lankan army advances into a Tamil area, the villages and main routes in it are subjected to heavy shelling for several days, resulting in the entire population fleeing further into LTTE-held areas.

For example, in August 1996, when the Sri Lankan army attacked Kilinochchi town, few buildings escaped the bombing and shelling which was kept up for several weeks. Even the town hospital was destroyed, forcing the Red Cross staff to join over 200,000 Tamil civilians and flee into the surrounding dense jungle. Almost all of these people are still living rough in the Vanni scrub.

In other parts of the island, such as in the east, where the Sri Lankan army does not have the capability to launch major offensive operations, random shelling and bombing is used to harass the Tamil villages around Sri Lankan army camps. The artillery batteries in Batticaloa town, for example, regularly shell the surrounding areas (the SLA only holds Batticaloa town, the rest of the vast district is under LTTE control).

In any case, the predominantly Sinhalese government troops seem to consider the local Tamil population as the enemy too. The support the Tamil populace extend to the LTTE strips the civilians of non-combatant status as far as the Sri Lankan army is concerned.

The Tamils who continue to remain in Tiger controlled areas despite the embargo on food and medical supplies and other hardships, are seen as Tiger sympathizers - who must therefore face the consequences. Hence LTTE-held areas are often treated as ‘free fire’ zones, where the indiscriminate expenditure of ordnance is almost an accepted part of Sri Lankan military practice.

In short, the strategic objective seems to be to terrorize the Tamil people out of supporting the LTTE.

The results of this policy are devastating, as can be expected. In the past few years, hundreds of Tamil villages have been destroyed and thousands of Tamil civilians killed. Thousands more have been seriously injured, their treatment hampered by Sri Lanka’s long-standing ban on medical supplies into Tamil areas.

Villages and towns all over the Tamil homelands bear the scars of the Sri Lankan deliberate shelling. Destroyed or badly damaged houses, schools and temples provide stark reminders of the intensity of Sri Lankan military onslaughts.

Naturally, the Sri Lankan military denies that civilians are deliberately targeted, claiming that only ‘identified military targets’ are being attacked. However, the physical evidence in the Tamil homelands - shattered villages and towns - disproves the government’s claims.

The Sri Lankan government has banned the international press from the Tamil areas of the island for almost three years. Whilst foreign journalists were able to witness (and report on) the horrors of Chechnya, the Lebanon and Zaire, the Sri Lankan military’s operations are always carried out behind a curtain of censorship.

"During the shelling on the town of Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka on Thursday 18th. July, 7 people were killed and 11 were wounded. Amongst other civilian premises, shells also hit the Kilinochchi District Hospital. As a result, approximately 200 patients and their staff were forced to flee the hospital compound. The international staff of Medecins Sans Frontieres working in the hospital also had to flee.

The shelling of civilian premises and especially the hospital constitutes a grave violation of international humanitarian law." Medecins Sans Frontiers, 19 July 1996

"…frequent artillery shellings by army stationed at Kilinochchi and Elephant pass for least few days towards civilian residential and hospital areas causing death and injuries to innocent civilians and a large number of livestock are getting killed in addition to destruction of houses and plantation are against the Geneva conventions on human rights." Council of NGO's, Kilinochchi 19-08-97

"the civilian Tamil population continues to be a target of military operations, including intensive aerial bombardment, by the Sri Lankan forces." 53 NGOs' statement to the UN 11-04-97

"The deliberate pattern of indiscriminate aerial and artillery bombing, including the use of incendiary devices on civilians clearly violates International Humanitarian Law" TCHR April 1997

"Indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas from army and police camps has resulted in the displacement of most of the civilians from their places of original habitation.

In many villages in the Batticaloa district it has become a routine practice for the civilian population to move from their homes almost every evening and seek shelter in the nearest temple or church, for fear of shelling and mortar firing from army and police camps, and in the mornings go back to their houses.

The [Sri Lankan government’s] intensification and escalation of the conflict has been viewed with alarm by all those who value human rights and humanitarian norms.

The immediate impact of such a conflict on defenseless civilians is immense. They are subjected to heavy artillery attacks and bombings.

The flow of food items and medicines to the war-affected areas has been severely curtailed by the governments embargo, causing immense hardship and misery to the affected civilians.

An unknown number are dying and sick. The international relief agencies and non-governmental organizations continue to encounter restrictions with regard to their operations." Mr. Joseph Parajasingham, Sri Lankan MP, 1997

"We are also gravely concerned that the 'broad front' strategy adopted by the Sri Lanka army to 'steam roller' their advance in to the Tamil homeland has devastated acres of cultivable land, destroyed homes and forced hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians to flee their homes.

In November 1995, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali expressed deep concern at the massive displacement of around 400,000 Tamils in the north of the island. Since then these numbers have increased and today around 825,000 Tamils have fled from their homes in the North-East as a result of continued indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment of Tamil villages and Sri Lanka's reprisal attacks on Tamil non combatants." Liberation, NGO 3 April 1997