Still Counting the Dead - survivors of Sri Lanka’s hidden war, by Frances Harrison is published by Portobello books and out on Oct 4.
In the winter of 2008-2009, the world’s attention was focused on the Israeli incursion into Gaza. A continent away – and out of sight of the media -- Karu and Gowri, a Tamil shopkeeper and his wife, were caught up in the climax of Sri Lanka’s decade-long civil war between the Tamil Tiger guerrillas and the government.
Living in the heart of rebel-controlled territory, they were bombed, starved, imprisoned and threatened with death.
Karu and Gowri – not their real names – are among the survivors of Sri Lanka’s brutal ethnic war whose stories are recounted by former BBC Sri Lanka correspondent Frances Harrison in a book focusing on 10 Tamils who lived through the conflict’s final bloody months. It is a tale which is both gripping and deeply disturbing.
By 2008, the civil war had been raging for two-and-a-half decades and the government had embarked on a new campaign, determined to crush the Tamil Tigers’ bid for independence and end the conflict. Government troops advancing into the northern Tamil heartland met fierce resistance, amid allegations by each side of atrocities against Tamil civilians caught in the middle.
Tamil fighters were accused of using civilians as human shields and refusing to let them flee the war zone, and government forces were accused of treating civilians as though they were combatants, bombing, shelling and maltreating them on a large scale.
Gowri gave birth to her daughter in a bunker and was forced to queue for handouts as she was too malnourished to breastfeed her child.
Karu witnessed his mother being killed by a government shell and was severely injured himself. Death was everywhere and had somehow become normal. That Karu and Gowri survived and are currently living in an immigration detention centre in Australia, is mostly down to sheer luck.
Other accounts have emerged of events during the closing months of the war. Last year, a U.N. panel found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, documented in British TV Channel Four’s harrowing documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.
Still Counting the Dead adds a new layer of detail to the conflict. We come to know the 10 survivors intimately and get a sense of what it was like for Tamil civilians living through the horror.
The government urged the United Nations (U.N.), a potentially inconvenient witness to what was coming, to pull out in Sept. 2008. Apart from sending in a few food convoys, the world body ultimately stood aside – perhaps, Harrison suggests, because many of its member states were happy to see what they regarded as another terrorist group defeated.
We meet Dixie, a U.N. worker posted in the rebel territory who is disgusted at the international community’s inaction. After leaving Sri Lanka, he resigned and began to speak out about the organisation’s failure to protect the people it had left behind, until the U.N. ordered him to stop.
The world was aware something untoward was going on in northern Sri Lanka – the U.N. received satellite images after its withdrawal of shelling in civilian areas.
But no one knew the full extent of the bloodshed. Aid workers were expelled and journalists denied access to the war zone. It was, Harrison told me, “a piece of history that was threatened with becoming a bit of a black hole.”
Sri Lanka’s government accused the International Red Cross of spreading panic when it spoke of a humanitarian catastrophe. The Sri Lankan army was, it said, pursuing a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties.”
Nevertheless, the relentless offensive continued. The so-called “no-fire zones” set up for Tamil civilians were in fact the front line. There was intensive shelling of civilians.
Witnesses interviewed by Harrison said cluster bombs, prohibited by international law, were used against fleeing civilians, and hospitals in the area were systematically attacked by the army.
According to U.N. figures, as many as 40,000 people may have died in the first five months of 2009; the final death toll may be higher.
Harrison has interviewed Tamil survivors scattered across the world from Norway to Australia, gained their trust and told their story in a compelling way.
Harrison had followed the end of the war in Sri Lanka from afar, through Sri Lankan journalist friends who went into exile. But it was in 2009, when the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution on Sri Lanka that ignored calls for an international investigation into alleged abuses, that she decided the story of the defeated needed to be told.
“I thought the international community would take some stand. Instead I saw them congratulating Sri Lanka, literally patting them on the back, for having defeated the Tamil Tigers. To me this was shocking, a travesty of justice.
“In some shape or form – whether it’s a war crimes trial or a truth and reconciliation process – it needs to be acknowledged just how dreadful the suffering of those people was during the war, and who was to blame for that.
“Obviously it’s not only one side – the Tamil Tigers also have a responsibility for what happened. And that needs to be recognized so that those people can move forward.”
A U.N. advisory panel to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an independent international investigation but Ban has rejected this, saying he does not have the authority to order it.