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Sri Lanka

Lifting A Veil On The Macabre Final Months Of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Sri Lanka’s government likes to proclaim that the country has put its bloody civil war behind it. But a visit to the Tamil stronghold reveals open scars everywhere.

A woman displaced in Sri Lanka's civil war in 2008. (trokilinochchi)
A woman displaced in Sri Lanka's civil war in 2008. (trokilinochchi)
Vanessa Dougnac

KILINOCHCHI -- May 18, 2009 was a momentous day in Sri Lanka's civil war, but it did not – as many claim – completely turn the page on the country's drawn-out bloody conflict.

That day, the government's Sinhalese soldiers waved their flag on Mullivaikal beach to hail their victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had fought for three decades to create an independent territory for the Tamil ethic group. The rebel army was decimated. One man turned the victory into his own: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the three-year military conquest of LITE-controlled territory in northern Sri Lanka.

But what the official story doesn't mention is the Kilinochchi district, the former center of the rebellion, where residents continue to live under strict military control. Nor does it include an honest assessment of the devastation that was rained down on residents in the Tamil territory.

Signs of massive destruction are everywhere in the district's villages: demolished houses, walls riddled with bullets, bombed-out buildings. Two years later, families still live in tents or shelters. "No house was spared," says K.D Saran, the Kilinochchi governor.

The army and government blame the LITE. "Before fleeing, the terrorists destroyed everything," says Ubaya Medawala, the division general and army spokesman. "It was a way to discredit us."

But many in Kilinochchi tell another story. "The army destroyed everything," says one resident named Prashan.

Inside the shelters, families bear the marks of the brutal conflict. Many of the women are widows. Children live with pieces of shrapnel buried in their skin. Many people are disabled or wounded. An old man has lost his mind. A little girl no longer speaks.

"I still have two bullets in my belly," says one wheelchair-bound Tamil man. "My wife and my two sons died while we were running during the bombings."

A woman named Meera, her newborn in tow, traveled in 2009 to Puthukkudiyiruppu, in the Mullaitivu District. "The LTTE fired, but the army fired back at us. The Tigers used us as human shields, but the strategy didn't stop the army," she recalls.

On Feb. 7, Meera crossed the front line with a small group of people. She managed to escape, but many of her companions did not. More than 200,000 civilians went on to join the Tigers. In the camps they dug trenches that for many would later become their graves. "I begged my husband to leave with our kids but he didn't want to," says Anandhi Sasitharan, the wife of Elilan, a LTTE political leader.

The rebels recruited young Tamil. A man named Amirdelingam recalls that he was powerless when the LITE seized his two teenage sons. He will never see them again.

"At the beginning of February, the army said on the radio there was a secure zone for the civilians where there wouldn't be any shooting. They pushed us to go there. But once we arrived, the massacres continued," says Prashan.

Fifty corpses a day

At the time, the international community was aware of what was happening to the civilians. But the United Nations kept the number of casualties secret: thousands died between January and May. It was only this past April that the UN finally published a report detailing the human rights violations committed on both sides.

An employee from the Vavuniya hospital, located in a free zone, testifies to the scale of the bloodshed. "Fifty corpses came in plastic bags every day," he says. Many people accuse the army of using bombs forbidden by international law. "I saw five bodies burnt by a phosphorus bomb," says a nurse, who also accused the military of using banned "fragmentation bombs."

The coastal village of Putumattalan is mentioned in almost every story about the war. A local resident named Thuvaraka cries as she recalls what happened. "On Feb. 18, we were in the trench. The day before there had been casualties. We wanted to dig more but we didn't have time," she recalls. "Fifteen rockets were fired at 3 a.m. My son had a piece of shrapnel in his neck. My daughter looked unscathed. I tried to wake her up, but she was dead. I've never understood what happened." Nineteen other people died in the same attack.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only organization that managed to save some injured people, evacuating them by boat. "There were 150,000 civilians on the coast," says a witness for the Red Cross. "They were starving. Some of them had horrible wounds. But then the army, which was behind the Nanthi Kadal lagoon, started to open fire again."

On May 18, the army made a breach through the lagoon, and the Tigers surrendered. Anandhi, the wife of the rebel Elilan, recalls what happened: "I saw my husband at about 7 a.m. The day before he had spoken with foreign politicians on satellite phones in an effort to surrender. But it was in vain. Father Francis Joseph, who spoke English, tried to serve as an intermediary for the imprisoned Tigers: my husband, Thangan, Iniviyan, Theepan, Kutty, Babu, and Raja with her three kids. We never saw them again, neither the priest nor the kids."

Detained by the military, Anandhi was taken on a bus with civilians to the city of Omanthai, where "blood puddles were splashing her feet."

Some 230,000 Tamil were stuffed into the Menik Farm camps. The displaced Tamil stayed there for several months in appalling conditions. As for the former Tigers (12,000 according to authorities), they are isolated in detention centers. Estimates suggest some 4,000 remain locked up, though detailed information is scarce. There is no official list identifying the detention centers, which are off-limits to visitors. A British documentary made by Channel 4 showed images of prisoners being executed by Sinhala soldiers. The government denies the accusations.

Today in Kilinochchi, the army has dotted the recovered territory with Buddha statues and monuments honoring the heroes who died during the conflict. But the Tamil cannot mourn their dead – or even properly count them. Since 2008, more than 100,000 Tamil have gone missing in the Wanni region.

Today, peace and reconciliation depend on justice, and on admitting the truth about what took place. So far, the Tamil have neither truth nor justice, which is why Sri Lanka did not turn the page on its civil war, as the government claims, on May 18, 2009.

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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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