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Remembering the Jaffna exodus

Ten years ago, the entire town of Jaffna, the largest Tamil population centre in Sri Lanka, streamed out of their homes ahead of a major offensive by government troops against their town. On October 30, 1995, half a million men, women and children walked several miles east, crossing the Navatkuli bridge into the neck of the peninsula. Many then made the dangerous boat journey on to Kilinochchi in the Vanni as to the north of Jaffna, heavy fighting raged as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) battled to keep the massed might of the Sri Lanka Army at bay.



The exodus, as it came to be known amongst them, undeniably marked a turning point in Tamils’ self-understanding. The context in which the exodus took place was aptly summed by The Times of London, whose correspondent, Christopher Thomas, wrote on October 30: “Many civilians have been killed by government shelling and bombing, which has hit residential areas of the town. There is panic among the 600,000 Tamils on the Jaffna peninsula. The greatest humanitarian crisis of the war is in the making...Tamil civilians in Jaffna are evidently terrified by the advancing of the soldiers and are looking to the Tigers to save them from what they are convinced will be a massacre.”



Despite claims by the Sri Lankan government and other critics of the Tigers that the LTTE had forcibly relocated the people of Jaffna, the simple fact was that as tens of thousands Sri Lankan troops blasted their way towards the town, its residents were desperate to get out. That they had to, and were able to, escape the onslaught, which an awed Indian Army general described in the anodyne term ‘broad front’ changed Tamil attitudes to the Sri Lankan state, the LTTE and the conflict.



The senior professors and lecturers of Jaffna University observed in a letter to the UN Secretary General on November 28: “if lives have not been lost or people have not been injured on an even larger scale it is not because of the sensitivity and concern shown by the security forces for the safety of innocent civilians but because of the precaution taken by the people in evacuating quickly from areas where intense shelling and bombing were taking place and seeking shelter elsewhere.”



Jaffna has been considered the cultural capital of Tamils in Sri Lanka for centuries. It was in the northern peninsula that the Tamil armed struggle against the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan state began in the late seventies, following decades of unsuccessful political campaigns. Following the 1983 pogrom, open conflict erupted between Tamil militants and the armed forces. In the 80’s the LTTE emerged through a series of clashes amongst the Tamil groups as the primary challenger to the state. The peninsula was the site of much of the fighting of the 80’s, first against the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and in the late 80’s, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).



When the Indian army withdrew in 1990, the LTTE assumed control of Jaffna, except for the SLA base complexes along the peninsula’s northern cap and its neck. Following the second phase of the war (sometimes referred to as Eelam War 2), the LTTE entered into negotiations with the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Those talks broke down in contentious circumstances. The government accused the LTTE of rebuffing its peace efforts. The LTTE said the government was insincere about the peace and was playing for time. What is clear is that when the war resumed in July 1995, the Sri Lankan armed forces had completely rearmed and expanded, acquiring helicopter gunships, heavier artillery and armour. Moreover, the SLA had gradually transferred substantial numbers of troops from the eastern province into the Jaffna peninsula ahead of a new military project.



The first SLA assault on Jaffna, codenamed ‘Operation Leap Forward’ came on 9 July 1995. Despite rapid initial progress, it was stalled by a major LTTE counter-offensive. Despite the success of their ‘Operation Tiger Leap,’ the Tigers realised that Sri Lanka had prepared for an offensive of unprecedented proportions. The LTTE, it is understood, promptly began to prepare a rear area in the Vanni, relocating strategic resources, including arms factories, and supplies whilst bolstering their defences in Jaffna.



But another lesson was quickly learnt by the Tamils: heavy loss of civilian life was to be expected. On the first day of ‘Leap Forward’ itself 65 civilians were killed and 150 seriously injured when St Peters Church and the neighbouring Murugamoorthy Hindu Temple in Navaly were bombed by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). Thousands of people from the Valigamam sector had fled their homes as they army advanced and most heeded notices dropped by the SLAF that they should seek shelter in places of worship to avoid being targeted. Hundreds had fled to the temple and church at Navaly.



From late July, the Sri Lankan armed forces began a continuous artillery and air bombardment to soften up the Valigamam sector. Civilian losses mounted steadily with occasional spikes such as the killing of 22 children at Nagar Kovil High School, bombed on September 22. The all-out ground assault to recapture the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE began on October 1. The first phase, ‘Operation Thunder,’ was intended to capture parts of Valigamam sector to the north of Jaffna town. After two weeks the SLA succeeded, despite heavy casualties, in capturing key towns including Atchuveli, Avarankal and Puttur. With the SLA’s strategy to cut off Jaffna town becoming clear, the LTTE deployed forces to prevent SLA columns from advancing to the Navatkuli bridge which linked Valigamam with Thenmaradchi to the east.



The assault on Jaffna town itself, codenamed ‘Operation Riviresa’ (Sun Ray), began on October 17. Heavy fighting raged at several locations. On October 29 Sri Lankan forces overran LTTE defences in Neervely after a pitched battle. Only one major defence line, in Kopay North, now lay between them and a relatively easy progress towards the Navatkuli Bridge. It was the SLA’s battlefield tactics which panicked residents most. As former IPKF commander Lt. Gen. Amarjit Singh Kalkut later put it “[the SLA] followed a strategy of broad front; [it] is a very secure method, but you need large forces, which they have got; it is more time consuming, but they’re in no hurry; and thirdly it causes a lot of destruction.”



He explained: “You are actually steamrolling through the area. Step by step. Do a certain distance first, then clean up, and converge on the next one. Any building from which resistance comes or is likely, bring it down with air bombing or tank fire. You clean up. But then as you pass, you’re leaving rubble behind. So for that problem [the Sri Lankans] have resorted to censorship so that this doesn’t come out. … They have concentrated overwhelming force for a Broad Front and have made sure there is no adverse publicity. World opinion, the press, don’t know what is happening because it is all controlled.”



On the morning of October 30, LTTE Political Wing cadres appeared on the streets and made public announcements urging civilians to seek shelter the other side of Navatkuli bridge in Thenmaradchi. Virtually the entire population, half a million people, massed in the centre of the town and started the long walk towards safety, taking only what they could carry. The narrow bridge at Navatkuli became a bottleneck as people pushed to cross over to the relative safety of Kaithady and then on towards Chavakachcheri, in the southern half of the peninsula.



The Toronto Star’s Paul Watson, quoting Gerard Peytrignet, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sri Lanka reported: “About half of the … refugees are living and sleeping outdoors in heavy monsoon rains. The rest are holed up in churches, schools and relatives’ homes. The refugees have very little food or proper sanitation. Doctors are already seeing cases of dysentery and eye infections, and while cholera hasn’t struck yet, the conditions are perfect for a deadly epidemic.”



Most of the refugees sought shelter in and around Chavakachcheri, a large market town few kilometres down the road from Navatkuli Bridge. The town was incapable of absorbing an influx many times own population and life quickly became a misery there with shortages of food, clean water, shelter and sanitation. Disease took hold quickly. The town also came under air attack. The Hindu, quoting Jaffna Government Agent, Mr. K. Ponnambalam, said 42 civilians were killed on October 31 alone.



Many people moved on to the Vanni. Without a land route – the Elephant Pass causeway being dominated by an SLA base complex – they crossed the Kilali lagoon, buffeted by the elements and under increasing air attack. Reuters, reporting that “the Tigers have ferried civilians in boats across the lagoon to camps on the mainland,” quoted refugees as saying “a number are at the mainland ferry hoping they may be on the next boat to cross the lagoon.”



AFP quoting Thillai Natarajah, a senior government official in Kilinochchi, reported that 60,000 refugees had poured into the area from Jaffna by November 4, and the total was expected reach 300,000 soon. “More than 10,000 people are streaming in every day. Most people are housed in school buildings and temples. But the situation is getting desperate,’ Natarajah told AFP. “Many of those were drenched in rain and without a second set of clothes.” He added that there were food shortages.



Having rationalized the military assault on Jaffna as a mission to ‘liberate the Tamils from the LTTE’ the Sri Lankan government first claimed the Tamils “were deserting the LTTE” and then, realising what was unfolding, said the “LTTE was forcing them out.” Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgmar also played down the scale of the displacement and rebuffed international offers of assistance for the victims.



Meanwhile, as the Toronto Star noted: “Sri Lanka’s military won’t let journalist cross into areas controlled by the LTTE [while] relief workers are so afraid of making the government angry, they refuse to photograph or shoot video of the refugees suffering and smuggle the pictures out to reporters.”



Nevertheless, observing that “reports of the massive displacement of the civilian population in northern Sri Lanka are a source of deep concern,” United Nations Secretary General. Boutros Boutros Ghali called for “humanitarian assistance on a significant scale to minimize the suffering.” The Belgian relief agency Medicines Sans Frontiers made a worldwide appeal for aid for an estimated 500,000 refugees, a figure the Sri Lanka government said was greatly exaggerated.



However Foreign Minister Kadirgamar claimed that only about 150,000 people had been displaced. Saying the government will not allow foreign relief agencies to operate independently, and blamed the U.N. and the international community for rushing to conclusions “without knowing all the facts,” said Kadirgamar: “We can take care of our problem.”



“We do not intend to permit any outside agencies, including the UN...to carry out independent operations”, Mr. Kadiragamar was quoted as saying by the BBC which reported on November 6: “Sri Lanka has banned international agencies from aiding Tamil refugees over fears that some are not impartial.”



The Toronto Star reported: “While Sri Lanka’s army fights to crush Tamil rebels, it’s battling on another front against foreign relief workers trying to care for 400,000 war refugees. The refugees, including hundreds of wounded civilians, are caught behind the civil war’s front line. Western relief agencies accuse the military of blocking desperately needed aid. Tight restrictions are preventing the delivery of drugs, tents and blankets as well as equipment to build latrines, said frustrated aid officials, who spoke on condition they not be named.”



In an outraged editorial, the Boston Globe said “Because the war zone has been closed to reporters and cameras, the human calamity visited upon the Tamils has become a tree falling unheard in the forest. Yet their suffering is as grievous as that of refugees in the former Yugoslavia.”



“The government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has insisted that it be the entity to distribute international humanitarian aid … [But] since most of the refugees who fled the government forces closing in on the city of Jaffna are now in territory controlled by the Tigers, relief supplies channeled through the government could not help those in need, whatever the intentions of the government.”



The paper demanded: “For the sake of a single humane standard, the United States and other governments should insist that humanitarian aid to refugees be delivered under international supervision. There is also a need for outside parties willing to help broker a ceasefire and a negotiated peace between the Tamil minority and the Sri Lankan government. As in Bosnia, millions of civilians must be saved from the madness of their leaders.”



The people of Jaffna endured enormous suffering during the exodus and in its aftermath. But the Sri Lankan state’s reaction to the humanitarian crisis and the LTTE’s role in the battle for Jaffna has, despite criticism leveled against the movement, had a profound impact in the shaping of the Tamil national identity.



The Jaffna university professors’ letter to the Mr. Boutros-Ghali stated: “Tamils have now been completely alienated from the mainstream of Sri Lankan polities. The present government by its activities has helped communalism to raise its ugly head again in the South on an unprecedented scale. No part of Sri Lanka is now safe for the Tamils to live. After the recent events there is hardly any Tamil in the North and East who thinks that a settlement of the ethnic problem under a single Sri Lankan polity is desirable or possible.”



The point was inevitably made more forcefully by LTTE leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan in his Heroes Day address on November 27, 1995: “we see such tragic experience and suffering as a tremendous contribution by our people to the cause of national emancipation. This mass exodus proclaims to the world that our people are determined to live as free beings with self-dignity and that they are prepared to face any form of suffering to [do so].”



“The invasion of Jaffna is a gigantic historical blunder made by Chandrika regime. As a consequence of this act the Colombo government has closed all avenues for peace,” Mr. Pirapaharan said. And then he made an impassioned call: “It is only by strengthening our military power we could live with security; we could gain our lost territories; we could return to our homes as free men. The task of building the military power of the Tamil Nation has become the inevitable historical necessity today.”