Priest from Jaffna speaks on Tamil struggle
By Kerryn Williams and Nadeem Ansari
CANBERRA — An Amnesty International forum on February 4, the 49th anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, heard a Catholic priest, Dr Edwin Savundranayagum, describe the massive human rights violations against the Tamil population perpetrated by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
He was an eyewitness to the major military offensive launched in the Jaffna Peninsula in October 1995, which led to the capture of Jaffna on December 2, 1995, and caused hundreds of thousands of Tamils to flee.
Savundranayagum gave a vivid description of the intensity of the artillery shelling during the 47-day onslaught, averaging one shell per minute, sparing no part of Jaffna and destroying 80% of the infrastructure.
He spoke of a woman carrying her daughter after the bombing of a college housing 350 refugees. She was crying out for help, but not even a piece of cotton could be found to block the bleeding hole in her daughter's head. The girl died two days later.
He described visiting the hospital in Jaffna during the shelling, where one of the wards was packed with patients without hands or legs. "So many people wounded and deprived of medical assistance, so many lives lost and wasted. What is the price we are paying to speak our language, live in our land? Should we really sacrifice so many limbs?"
Around 250,000 Tamils are living in the area of Jaffna captured by the Sri Lankan military, where movement and transportation of food, medicine and other necessities are severely restricted. More than 1000 people are missing after being captured by the military in Jaffna since October 1995.
"They talk about liberating Jaffna from the atrocities of the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam]. But are these not atrocities, the disappearances of all these people?", asked Savundranayagum.
The Wanni area, controlled by the LTTE, is occupied by around 450,000 people, mostly displaced from the Jaffna Peninsula. These people are living in miserable conditions under trees and in huts, without adequate food or medicine. All supplies to this area must pass through the military in Vavuniya, and people die daily due to lack of food and facilities.
At Vavuniya there are thousands more living in appalling conditions in 14 camps. Savundranayagum referred to Vavuniya as the "city of slavery", where you need a pass to enter, to leave and to stay. The army frequently accuses people of being potential terrorists and members of the LTTE, even small children.
Conditions in the eastern province are similar, with some areas controlled by the army and some by the LTTE. Movement between areas is tightly controlled, and basic necessities are in extremely short supply.
There are some 57,000 Tamils living as refugees in camps with deplorable conditions in Tamil Nadu, India. Savundranayagum noted that these people were fleeing the armed forces' horrendous shelling, contrary to the rumours that they were escaping the LTTE.
Comparing the rule of the army with the defacto LTTE governments, the speaker cited the widespread rape by members of the Sri Lankan military and their selling of illicit brew to the people as some examples of why the LTTE's rule was far preferred.
A member of the audience noted that while the international community branded the Tigers as "terrorists", it must be remembered that the LTTE had come into existence to defend the Tamil people.