by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
It was 6.40 – 45 am on Monday August 14th.
Four Israeli built K-fir bombers appeared suddenly on the skies above a place called “Vallipunam” in Mullaitheevu district in the North – Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. It is believed that the planes piloted by foreign nationals had started out from Trincomalee and flown north over the sea and turned westwards towards Mullaitheevu .
The air craft were spot on. Instead of hovering in the air for a while as most bombers do before releasing their deadly cargo these planes set about their murderous task quickly and precisely. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse these agents of death and destruction dropped their bombs below.
With each K- fir dropping four bombs a total of sixteen was dropped in a matter of minutes. There was a cluster of small buildings and a large number of human beings on the ground. Some of the bombs hit the groups of humans with pin point precision while others hit buildings and clumps of trees. People apparently were the prize target while buildings and trees “collateral damage”.
Except for one which failed to explode the other fifteen wreaked havoc. The human targets most of them teen – aged girls ran in fear seeking refuge as aerial terror rained on them. Frenzied pandemonium reigned.The planes that dropped the bombs were also visually recording the desperate scene below with their sophisticated visual recording equipment.The four planes then turned back after accomplishing their mission of aerial terror.
It was hell on earth below. More than 200 women most of them teen – aged students were victims. Bodies lay in pools of blood with mangled flesh and limbs strewn around. At least 30 to 35 were killed on the spot. The death tally increased as victims were taken to hospital. By evening the death count was reportedly sixty – one. Around 260 – 275 were injured.
In addition to Govt hospitals some were treated at Private clinics too.Some with comparatively minor injuries got treatment and returned home.
[A girl, who lost her friend mourns at the hospital]
155 seriously injured victims were hospitalised. They were warded at the Mullaitheevu (52) Kilinochchi (64) Tharmapuram (26) and Puthukudiyiruppu (13) hospitals. Many of the victims according to UNICEF officials had lost their limbs.The condition of about 40 of these victims was extremely serious. Unconfirmed reports by Thursday 17th night said that the number of deaths was nearing ninety. Independent confirmation was not possible.
UNICEF Kilinochchi Head Penny Brune and SLMM Kilinochchi monitor Matti Vanionpaa inspected the massacre site and visited the hospitals where the injured girls were being treated.The UNICEF also provided fuel and medicine to expedite and aid the medical treatment given to the victims.
The SLMM later observed that the place was not a military installation. The SLMM also said that ten large craters had been made by the bombs. The UNICEF went on record that schoolgirls had been killed and injured in the incident and that there was no evidence of the victims being LTTE cadres.
In terms of human cost and suffering the incident was terrible. Yet the Colombo based media with a few honourable exceptions downplayed the incident. The focus was more on the “claymore terror” in Kollupitiya which killed seven and injured ten rather than the ” K- fir terror” that killed 61 and injured 155. Even the official statements of Countries like the USA and India were concerned with the alleged attack on the Pakistani envoy and ignored the Mullaitheevu bombing.
UN officials were more concerned than Colombo – based diplomats. UN Secretary – General Kofi Annan was ” increasingly alarmed at the ongoing violence in Sri Lanka” said a press release.” “He is profoundly concerned at the rising death toll, including the seven people killed in a bomb attack in Colombo today, and reports of dozens of students killed in a school as a result of air strikes in the north-east.” noted the communique.
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman called on both the Government and the LTTE to â€œrespect international humanitarian law and ensure children and the places where they live, study and play are protected from harm.â€ A UNICEF statement pointed out, “The bombing on Monday of a Vallepuram compound in Mullaitivu district that reportedly killed dozens of girls and wounded many more is a shocking result of the rising violence in Sri Lanka.” “These children are innocent victims of violence,” noted Veneman.
â€œThe latest shocking developments in Sri Lanka show once again that children continue to bear the brunt of this conflict,â€ said the Secretary-Generalâ€™s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, calling on the parties to cease hostilities and return to the negotiating table.”Independent sources have verified that a compound in Kilinochchi was bombed reportedly killing around 50 adolescent schoolgirls and injuring 100 others. These schoolgirls were injured while taking part in a training course on first-aid. Fearing reprisal, the Government has closed all schools disrupting the education of children throughout the island,” she said.
The bombing incident had shocked and deeply troubled the Tamil people. The on going conflict has seen much aerial bombardment of the Tamil homeland. Notorious among these incidents were the Navaly church bombing in 1995, The Nagar Kovil school bombing of 1996 and the Puthukudiyiruppu market bombing of 1999. But the Vallipunam bombing due perhaps to the fact that most victims were innocent schoolgirls horrified most people. Adding insult to injury was the blatant denial by the state that the victims were schoolgirls and the puerile attempt to describe them as child soldiers.
Diaspora Tamils and those of Tamil Nadu were quick to react. The Tamil Nadu legislative Assembly passed a unanimous resolution condemning the incident and expressing condolences. Many political parties including the Indian Communist and Marxist parties issued statements. Moves are afoot to get Colombo censured in the Lok Sabha too. There were also many protest meetings, demonstrations and processions in Tamil Nadu. Posters were plastered on walls. Effigies of Mahinda Rajapakse were burnt. Tamil Nadu chief minister Muttuvel Karunanidhy described the Colombo Govts conduct as “Sandaalathanam” (atrocious villainy).
Tamil expatriates in the West too were active. Newspapers, radios and TV gave sustained coverage to the issue. Sympathy fasts and demonstrations were staged. Religious observances were held. Efforts were on to lobby Politicians and the mainstream media. It appears that the issue would be exploited by pro – tiger elements to whip up support for the Tamil cause among the Diaspora and possibly the mainstream communities too.
Reinforcing the cliche about truth being the first casualty in times of war is the “spin” being put on the incident by both the Govt and LTTE.The Govt particularly its hyper active cabinet spokesperson on defence affairs Keheliya Rambukwella says that the bombed site was a tiger transit training camp and those killed and injured were child soldiers. When evidence to the contrary is pointed out Rambukwella and other defence spokespersons go off at a tangent making bizarre arguments in support of their case. However much the Govt may try to justify the incident the plain , harsh truth is that aerial terror has been unleashed to perpetrate a massacre of innocents.
The LTTE went to town initially saying that its orphanage “Sencholai” had been bombed and orphaned children killed. As more information came to light the tigers began changing stance. Many contradictory statements were made by tiger agencies. As more details were revealed it became clear that the LTTE had not been stating the whole truth. While the victims were certainly not child soldiers as made out by the Govt it is also incorrect to assume that the LTTE had no connection whatsover to the teen – aged students attending a residential workshop at the targetted site.
While the Govt and LTTE put their respective spins to the incident very little is known of what the families of victims think and feel. Politico – military arguments and counter – arguments virtually ignore the tragic human dimension to this endless and unnecessary conflict. The respective arguments leave many people confused about the real situation.Furthermore many of the positions articulated are based on ignorance and half truths. What is required is to shed more light than generate heat on the tragic incident.
Let us take the “Sencholai” girls orphanage first. Setting up of “Sencholai” for children orphaned by the war was a brainchild of LTTE supremo Velupillai Pirapakaran it is said. It was set up in Sandilipay in Jaffna peninsula in 1991. It was relocated to Kilinochchi in 1995 and to Mullaitheevu district in 1998. As time went on other social service institutions were also set up.The orphanage for boys for instance was called “Kantharuban Arivucholai”.
Some of these institutions were housed at a place called Vallipunam. It is about five miles from Puthukudiyiruppu along the Mullaitheevu – Paranthan road. Vallipunam originally had chena cultivation and hence its name. Later several large farms owned by Jaffna Tamils came into being. A rain fed tank Naddalmottankulam helped irrigate fields. There were teak and Cashew groves in addition to livestock, paddy and cashcrops in the vicinity at one time. To its interior lies thick jungle infested by Elephants. The postal address of Vallipunam falls under Viswamadhu.
Five institutions were housed within a one mile radius in Vallipunam after the tsunami.. They were the Sencholai orphan girls home with 245 children. The Bharathy Illam girls home for girls physically affected by the war and the tsunami. There were 160 girls here; The Iniya Vaalvu illam was a home for deaf and blind children and had 78 children. The Vasanthan Childrens home with 60 girls was for children mentally challenged due to the war and tsunami. The “Senthalir” home for very young children with 120 children was the fifth.
.The area in which four institutions were housed was called peace village. The “Senthalir” home for very young orphaned children was also in the vicinity but not within the peace village premises. It was earlier in Mullaitheevu town area and was hit by the tsunami. Scores of young kids perished. Vallipunam was in the interior and away from tsunami wave reach.
“Senthalir” reportedly is run by agencies independent of the LTTE or its affiliates.The Bharathy and Iniya Valvu illam homes were run by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) while the other two including Sencholai were directly run by the LTTE
Apart from a token armed tiger presence for security reasons the zone was empty of armed personnel. Besides most of the tigers there were females. The “Sencholai” compound housing teen – aged girls had parapet walls all round. The Sencholai place was called “Valaham” or campus.The administrative director of Sencholai is Janani whose nom de guerre when being an active tiger was Sudarmahal.
Male tigers were declared out of bounds unless for an approved , specific purpose. The tiger leader being a man of puritanical discipline was not taking chances with the orphaned girls for whom he had deep attachment and concern. Prabha would often visit the peace village and meet with these innocent victims of war.
.The area also had a number of bunkers where people could hide if there was bombing. This was a precaution in case of possible aerial bombardment The location and description of the peace village and its inmates were well known to the Government and NGO’s and international aid organizations. Many NGO representatives often visited the place.
The “Sencholai” however was relocated to a place on Iranaimadhu road in Kilinochchi in January this year. LTTE chief Praba himself formally declared the new campus open.The new campus contains eleven residential blocks for different age groups. It also contains a special block for infants, dining, study halls and two kitchens.The campus also has an administration block, a skill development center, a cultural hall, a health center and a library. The program for building the campus started in June 2003 Plans of adding computer facilities, audio-visual facilities and other features to the new campus are being worked out.
Though the orphanage proper moved to Kilinochchi in January the older campus remained as “sencholai” still.Though not utilised fully it was used at times to house woman members of the peoples militia for physical training. According to an European NGO official he had seen people undergoing physical exercises on at least two occasions in April – May this year.In any case the LTTE never kept its “Makkal Padai” ( people force) a secret and flaunted pictures of such training publicly through its media organs.
On some occasions even Sencholai kids were brought here for week – ends as a form of a picnic or excursion. In recent times the LTTE was also contemplating a relocation of Sencholai to its former venue because it thought Kilinochchi would be targetted indiscrminately in an escalating conflict.
Among the various administrative structures the LTTE has is the Tamil Eelam Education Board which coordinates educational functions. The director or shadow education minister is “Baby” Subramaniam or Ilankumaran. Within the LTTE , Ilankumaran is second in seniority only to Prabakharan. The Education board has very little independent resources and relies mainly on the Government’s educational infra- structure and personnel to implement its projects. As is typical of many things in tiger controlled regions a curious parallel administrative network is in force.
One project envisaged by the TE educational board was a residential workshop for teen – aged schoolgirls. With the conflict escalating and bombing and shelling on the rise the need for first aid knowledge and disaster coping techniques was essential.It was decided to hold a residential workshop for ten days to focus on these matters.It was organized by the TE educational board in association with zonal education departments and the Principal associations. It was funded by an NGO called the Centre for Women’s Rehabilitation and Development (CWRD). The ten day workshop was held at the old “Sencholai” campus in Vallipunam on Aug 11th and scheduled to end on Aug 20th.
“The workshop aimed at developing student leaders by building self confidence through understanding self, building inter-personal relationship, knowing leadership qualities, effective time management, helping self and others by learning first aid, and learning principles of gender equality,” said V.Ilankumaran in an interview to the “Tamilnet” website.The idea was to train girls with leadership potential who in turn would train other girls in their respective schools.
Participants were selected from eighteen schools in Mullaitheevu, Kilinochi and Oddusuddan. The respective schools were Paranthan Hindu Maha Vidyalayam (MV), Kandawalai MV, Murasumottai MV, Tharmapuram MV, Piramathanaaru MV, Bharathy MV, Viswamadhu MV, Udaiyarkattu MV, Iranaippaalai MV, Mullaitheevu MV, Semmalai MV, Kumulamunai MV, Vattraappalai MV, Oddusuddan MV, Valathukarai Muthaiyan Kaddu MV, Katsilaimadhu Govt Tamil mixed school, Vithiyananda Kalloori, and Puthukudiyiruppu Central College.
Only the brightest and best girl students from the GCE )OL and AL classes were selected. In addition some seniors in “Sencholai” were also enrolled. Many parents were reluctant to send their young teen – aged daughters for a residential workshop. But since the LTTE was behind the whole project neither the parents nor te teachers or for that matter the students had no choice. The decision had been made by the tigers and the people had to simply obey. Nevertheless several parents had openly grumbled about the project to the LTTE themselves.
[A female cadre is trying to move a body of a girl, who was killed at Sencholai]
About 400 students ranging from the ages of 14 to 21 participated at the workshop. Most girls were in the 16 – 19 age group. The day began with assembly at 7 am and ended with lights out at 9. 30 pm. Apart from leadership training first aid measures etc there was also disaster management techniques pertaining to natural calamitieslike fire and floods, tsunami. aerial bombardment and shelling etc.There was also time for games, singing, debates, drama , poetry etc. Great emphasis was laid on practical training in first – aid.
Some of the instructors were from the LTTE’s medical corps. There were also other senior and senior ex – tiger woman cadres as workshop assistants. There were some school teachers – both male and female – as administrators, lecturers, instructors and resource persons.Officially the workshop was conducted by the principals Associations of Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu with the assistance of both zonal Educational divisions. Unofficially it was a Tamil Eelam Educational Board project. Many people sent their children only due to coercive LTTE pressure.
Parents were allowed to visit the participants in the evening and those from distances were allowed to sleep on the premises. It was a pleasant school boarding house like atmosphere that prevailed.One of the participants was a 14 year old girl from Vavuniya town who was visiting Kilinochchi. She had gone along for a “lark” and was killed.
Monday Aug 14th was the fourth day of the workshop. The itinerary on that was something like this. 7. am – Assembly; 7.15 to 8.00 physical exercises;8 – 8.30 breakfast; 8.30 to 9.30 Self – Confidence and Personality Development; 9. 30 to 10.30 Artificial respiration training;10.30 – 11.00 interval;11.00 – 1.00 First Aid practicals; 1-2.00pm lunch; 2-3.00 rest; 3-4.00 lecture on determining your future;4-4.30 tea;4.30 – 5.30 games;5. 30 – 6.00 break ; 6. 00 – 7.30 poetry reading; 7. 30 – 8.30 dinner 8. 30 recreation; 9.30 lights out. Alas this time – table turned terrible that bloody Monday.
The girls were moving to the middle compound for assembly to begin at 7. am. They were chatting to each other in scattered, small groups. One large group was huddled around a radio listening intently to the news. It was then that death and destruction came down from the skies. It was the group listening to the radio that suffered greatly.The identities of all victims are yet to be established. It appears however that some of the tiger instructors and senior cadres assisting the workshop were also affected.
Among those killed Fifty – One were students from 11 schools. Four were education officials and teachers. The others are presumed to be LTTE instructors and woman cadres.
According to reports filed by Kilinochchi Education director T. Kurukularajah and Mullaitheevu Educaton Director P. Ariyaratnam the breakdown of the killed 51 students and respective schools was as follows.Udaiyaarkattu Maha Vidyalayam – 11;Viswamadhu MV- 09; Mullaitheevu MV – 08; Kumulamunai MV – 05; Semmalai MV – 04; Vithiyananda College – 04; Puthukkudiyiruppu Maha Vidyalayam – 03; Tharmapuram MV – 03 Muruganantha MV – 02Oddusuddan MV – 01; Pirammathanaaru MV – 01.
With parents and family members coming to know of the calamity people were running to hospitals in search of their loved ones. There was also a groundswell of anger against the LTTE . They felt that the LTTE had unnecessarily contributed to the situation. They opined that such a residential workshop was ill – timed and ill – advised.With the conflict intensifying the tigers had carelessly exposed their dearest ones they felt.While blaming the LTTE for its irresponsibility most people however were extremely critical of the Govt for the massacre and its callous denial.
Speaking in Canada to the uncle of a dead girl was a sorrowful experience. He spoke of the academic brilliance of his niece and how the family was planning to send her to a foreign university. “Aniyatamaik Kondu poi Kaavu kodithittaangale” ( They have taken her unnecessarily and sacrificed her) he lamented.
Realising perhaps the depth of feelings among families the tigers did not try to derive propaganda mileage by staging mass funerals. Instead they allowed families to take the bodies and hold individual funerals. The Wanni in particular and Tamil areas in general are in a mournful atmosphere. The victims were not tigers but mainly , academically clever teen aged students with hopes of a bright future.
[A mother, who lost her daughter mourns at the hospital]
The Government continues to insist that the victims were child soldiers of the LTTE. This is a blatant falsehood. There is no denying that there are child soldiers in the LTTE. But these were schoolgirls not child soldiers. Even if they were child soldiers the state cannot kill them Rambukwella asks rhetorically “Are we to hug and kiss a child soldier” No! But they cannot be massacred by aerial bombardment indiscriminately either. They can be killed only in combat and what happened in Vallipunam was no combat but a cold – blooded masacre through aerial terror.
It is hyppocritically ironic that the Government and other Sinhala chauvinist organizations who shed copious tears for the plight of Tamil child soldiers are geefully justifying a massacre of Tamil children. As stated in these columns the Rajapakse regime has embarked on a war that has genocidal attributes. By the way what has Mullaitheevu got to do with the “water war” in Maavilaaru?
While Rambukwella and the various defence service spokespersons incriminate themselves as war criminals through their boastful utterances the supreme commander has gone one better. Mahinda Rajapakse reportedly told a gathering of Newspaper editors that his air force could have bombed the vehicles taking the injured to hospitals but did not do so out of magnanimity. This man who calls himself a true Buddhist and specialises in taking ” Malthattu” to “Pansalas” does not seem to have any awareness of war conventions or humanitarian law. After all Rajapakse is a lawyer.
The Sri Lankan Government is in the dock..The massacre of innocent schoolgirls through aerial bombardment is nothing less than a war crime or crime against humanity. Will Justice be done?
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August 19th, 2006