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‘Bombs rolling in the air’ - Remembering the Navaly church massacre

On this day 25 years ago, the Sri Lankan air force dropped 13 bombs on St Peter’s Church in Navaly. More than 140 sheltering Tamils, who were encouraged by the military to seek refuge at the church, were killed on the spot.  At least 13 children were amongst the dead, with many more succumbing to injuries later as the local hospital was swamped with the wounded.

At approximately 4:30 pm on July 9, 1995, the St Peter’s Church in Navaly and the nearby Sri Kathirgama Murugan Kovil, which were both sheltering displaced Tamils from army bombardment, was attacked.

‘Bombs rolling in the air’

Eyewitnesses report seeing cluster bombs dropped in the church compound.

Chandrasekaran Selvanayagam and his then five-year-old brother Sasiraj  were at their home adjacent to the church on the morning of the attack and recall seeing aircraft circling the region.

“Before I could I could run bombs began falling," recalled Sasiraj, years later." Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion. That is all I remember till I woke up in hospital”. He has lost his sight completely in the attack. His mother was killed in their home.

A mother mourns her child.

Testimonies collected by the ICRC are reproduced below:

"Pragasam Rajendran (M) 73 years - was just at the entrance of his house which is adjacent to the church premises. Had seen the plane. His wife Nageswary stayed next to him and saw 'the bombs rolling in the air like pamphlets'. He had started shouting and alerted the others to lie down. As the wife laid down, she heard the first explosion and continuously some more.'

Anthony Manuelpillai (M) 73 years - who came to the church premises to fetch water from the well had seen the plane at a very low altitude and saw the bombs falling 'like rolling papers'.

Jeganathan Jeyakumar (M) 17 years - was at a junction which is nearly 100 yards from the church premises. He had seen clusters of white objects moving towards him. As the plane passed over him blaring, he said he lied down and heard a series of explosions around the church area.

Antonythas Arulammah (F) 40 years - who was near the school building inside the church premises had seen the plane dropping something without diving downwards. She said she lied down after someone nearby alerted her for falling bombs.

Velupillai Arulammah (M) 59 years - he saw the plane dropping bombs while he was cooking meals for the displaced people inside the church compound.

George Theva (F) 45 years - was standing on the road outside the church premises. She had seen the plane dropping some objects like 'big watermelon'.

Father James (M) - was at St.Anthony's Church, Manipay during the incident. He saw one plane and about 6 bombs falling one after another."

*Trigger warning*

Footage from Jaffna in the aftermath of the attack:

 

Reaction

According to eye-witness accounts, this church and several adjacent buildings were hit by further air force strikes at 4.30 p.m. the same day. During the attack 65 people were killed and 150 wounded, including women and children. That evening and into the night Sri Lanka Red Cross staff evacuated most of the wounded by ambulance to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital. Delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) present the next morning at the scene of the attack noted the widespread damage and measured the extent of the tragedy: many of the bodies had not yet been removed from the rubble.

- International Committee of the Red Cross Communication to the Press No.95/30 (11 July 1995)

"Thirteen babies were among the 65 dead found under the rubble of a Catholic church bombed by the Sri Lankan air force, an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) official said on Tuesday.

The military, which said it was not aware of any church being bombed, had dropped leaflets warning civilians in the rebel-held peninsula to seek refuge in temples and churches to minimise the chance of death or injury in air strikes.

 `This is really a violation of humanitarian law if a civilian area has been deliberately targeted,'' Henry said, adding that he had no information on whether the attack was deliberate or an accident.

- Reuters (11 July 1995)

"Pope John Paul said on Wednesday he was suffering along with the families of people killed when air force bombs hit a church in Sri Lanka.

"I want to express my deep-felt sharing in the suffering of so many people involved in the ethnic conflict that is tearing Sri Lanka apart," he told pilgrims and tourists at his weekly general audience. "I share the grief of those who lost their loved ones in the bombing of the church and school of Navali," he added.

- Reuters (12 July 1995)

I very much regret to report to you the tragic killings of innocent civilian refugees who had gathered at the above Church on the instruction of your Defence Ministry.

A 'Pukkara' Air Craft had dropped a cluster of many bombs on this crowd of refugees who had taken shelter in the church resulting in the death of over 65 civilians including women and children and over 150 were seriously injured sustaining the loss of limbs.

Besides many were rendered homeless as many houses were razed to the ground and others heavily damaged, including our church and priest's house. All the people in this village have fled to safer areas as refugees.

Therefore we very earnestly appeal to Your Excellency to kindly instruct your forces to desist from bombing, strafing, artillery rocked attacks on civilian targets like Kovils, Churches, Schools and Hospitals."

- Bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundranayagam in a letter to Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga (10 July 1995)

"Most of the people huddled inside were women and children, many of whom were killed immediately. Others had limbs blown off. Survivors were brought by tractor to the town of Jaffna 6 km away, but the Jaffna Teaching Hospital and its lone surgeon weren't prepared. They soon ran out of bandages, antibiotics and beds. "The treatment was crude", said Subramaniam Jebanesan, the Protestant Bishop of Jaffna, who rushed to the hospital to help. "Limbs that could have been saved had to be amputated".

- Time Magazine (31 July 1995)

"St.Peters Church in Navaly and the adjoining St.Peter's School where hundreds had sought shelter were badly gutted. 56 bodies were retrieved from the debris, many of whom were women and children. The final death toll in Navaly was about 120. Rescue workers have reported that torn limbs and pieces of human flesh were strewn over the area."

- Press Release by Humanitarian Law Project, International Educational Development (12 July 1995)

“The Sri Lanka government, initially denied the bombing of the St.Peters Church. Then it criticised the ICRC representative for reporting the incident to the world media without consulting the Government. Later the government promised to hold an inquiry into the incident…The aerial bombardment of civilian population centres and places of worship follow a pattern set by the Sri Lanka armed forces over the past several years and President Kumaratunga's belated promise to investigate the recent violations, must ring hollow in the ears of the Tamil people whose kith and kin have lost their lives or their limbs in the bomb outrage.”

- A joint statement by 21 NGOs condemning the government’s killing of civilians. (1995)

 

Background

The bombing took place on the first day of the Sri Lankan military’s ‘Operation Leap Forward’, a large-scale military offensive against the positions of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) north of the city of Jaffna to retake the Jaffna peninsula.

In the preceding weeks, the Sri Lankan air force had dropped leaflets across the region, instructing Tamil civilians to seek shelter at churches and temples as the military offensive began.

The war effort was being led by then Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Negotiations she had entered into with the LTTE had broken down, and when the war resumed in July 1995, the Sri Lankan armed forces had rearmed and expanded, acquiring helicopter gunships, heavier artillery and armour, as well as re-deploying troops from the eastern province into the Jaffna peninsula ahead of a new military project.

Several Sri Lankan units still boast of their involvement in the offensive to this day.

Sri Lankan troops in Jaffna, 1995.

 

‘I have no blood on my hands’ – Chandrika

Kumaratunga toasting as she receives France’s highest national honour, 1998.

The Sri Lankan government initially denied any knowledge of the bombing, before attempting to blame the LTTE for the killings.

As the scale of the massacre became clear, then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar lashed out at the ICRC for releasing information on the attack. Members of the ICRC who attempted to protest the attack were reportedly summoned to Sri Lanka’s foreign office.

Meanwhile, Kumaratunga told reporters that “it was probably the work of the LTTE who were firing mortar shells in that direction.”

“The ICRC says all kinds of things," Reuters quoted her as saying. “There was fighting three kilometers northwest of Navali, so it was unlikely any action by the security forces would have affected the church or its environs.”

In 2015, she told an audience, "I have not done anything wrong… I don’t have blood on our hands”. Earlier that year, she had boasted of having won “75%” of the war during her tenure by going to war with the LTTE. And despite her tenure in office marred by the bombing of churches, schools and the massive military invasion of Jaffna, killing countless Tamil civilians.

Kumaratunga has repeatedly denied the need for an independent international investigation into war crimes. In 2017, she told a gathering in Jaffna, “We have no intention to drag the soldiers before courts and send them to gallows”.

In 2018 she was awarded France’s highest national honour,  the Medal of “Commandeur de la Légion D’Honneur”.

Remembering the massacred

The ICRC compiled a list of 108 names that they identified as having been killed in the aftermatk of the massacre. At least 37 children are amongst the dead.

See the full list below.

Name of the dead Person Gender Age Address
Mrs.N.Annaladsumy female 57 110 BrownRd. Jaffna
Mrs.S.Gunamany female 57 Kopulam,Sandilipay North
Mrs.N.Vasanthamalar female 32 Kalaiyady, Pandaththarippu
Mrs.R.Pushparany female 36 Kalaiyady, Pandaththarippu
Mrs.P.Balayogini female 35 Kantharodai, Chunnakam
Miss.P.Balavalli female 13 Kantharodai, Chunnakam
Mr.S.Selvaratnam male 46 Nedunkulam Rd, Colombogam
Mrs.T.Pushparani female 34 Kaddudai, Manipay
Mrs.S.Parasakthy female 29 Chulipuram West, Chulipuram
Mr.S.Shanmuganathan male 25 Chulipuram West, Chulipuram
Miss.Kemalatha female 27 Navaly North, Manipay
Mas.S.Pratheesh male 16 Navaly North, Manipay
Mr.S.Kandasamy male 43 Thellipallai
Mr.P.Ketheeswara male 17 Vellantheru, Jaffna
Miss.R.Chithra female 15 Navaly South, Manipay
Mrs.S.Rasammah female 71 Sankaraththai, Vaddukkoddai
Mrs.N.Thevaranjini female 24 Navaly East, Manipay
Mr.P.Kalyanapillai male 60 4th Cross St, Jaffna
Mr.T.Jesuthaasan male 21 Main St., Jaffna
Mrs.S.Rasammah male 50 Chulipuram, Thelpuram
Mr.P.Uthayakumar male 35 Nitsaman,Chankanai
Mas.U.Satheeshkumar male 13 Nitsaman,Chankanai
Miss.U.Ushanthini female 12 Nitsaman,Chankanai
Mr.P.Nagamuththu male 75 Nitsaman,Chankanai
Mas.Jegatheesan Jeevadas male 17 Navaly South, Manipay
Mrs.A.Yogeswary female 35 General Hospital, Jaffna
Mr.K.Thurairajah male 55 Black Road, Chankanai
Mrs.K.Anjanadevi female 36 Kaddudai, manipay
Mrs.K.Kamaladevi female 45 Navaly East, Manipay
Mas.Vethushan male 12 Vellantheru, Jaffna
Mr.A.Gunaratnam male 40 Vellantheru, Jaffna
Mrs.K.Rahini female 35 Vellantheru, Jaffna
Miss.Dharshini female 14 Vellantheru, Jaffna
Mas.Piranavan male 05 Vellantheru, Jaffna
Mr.Lucas Jude Mohan male 23 Navaly South, Manipay
Mrs.K.Savithiri female 45 Navaly East, Manipay
Mr.V.Vanniyasingam male 57 Navaly North, Manipay
Mr.N.Chiththrabala male 50 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mrs.P.Langeswary female 24 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Miss.P.Mathivathana female 12 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Miss.C.Thaceswary female 17 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Miss.S.Jeyabalini female 19 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mas.Pirahatheepan male 07 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mr.N.Gopalakrishnan male 29 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mas.K.Kajanthan male 09 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mas.V.Jeyanthan male 04 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mr.S.Mahendran male 29 Chullipuram West, Chullipuram
Mas.S.Piratheepan male 13 Kuhanthiram valavu, manipay
Mrs.S.Saraswathy female 72 Navaly South, Manipay
Mas.K.Kailrajah male 09 Murugan kovilady, Navaly
Miss.K.Vinoba female 05 Murugan kovilady, Navaly
Mr.C.Nagaratnam male 60 Murugan kovilady, Navaly
Miss.R.Thanushala female 05 131 Mount Carmal Rd, Gurunagar, Jaffna
Mrs.R.Sasikala female 02 kandy Road, Chavakachcheri
Mr.S.Rajadurai male 35 Navaly South, Manipay
Mrs.R.Maheswary female 34 Navaly South, Manipay
Mas.R.Chandrakanthan male 13 Navaly South, Manipay
Miss.P.Sutha female 11 Navaly South, Manipay
Mr.V.Satkunarajah male 30 Navaly South, Manipay
Mr.P.Selvaratnam male 60 Navaly South, Manipay
Miss.T.Thuvarakadevi female 21 Madaththady, Tholpuram
Mas.T.Nareshkumar male 11 Navaly South, Manipay
Mr.M.Thiruchchelvam male 54 Valanpuram, Colombothurai
Mrs.S.Maheswary female 27 Tholpuram Centre, Chullipuram
Mr.H.Sithamparam male 72 Tholpuram Centre, Chullipuram
Mr.P.Uthayarajah male 22 Navaly South, Manipay
Mr.P.Indrakumar male 15 Chulipuram West, Chulipuram
Miss.K.Thevachelvi female 10 kaddupulam, Chulipuram
Mrs.V.Liladevi female 35 5th Cross Street, Colombothurai
Mr.S.Jeyaseelan male 40 Navalar Street, Navanthurai
Mrs.K.Navaladchumy female 42 Illayathamby Tea Room, Manipay
Mr.K.Thevakulasingam male 36 Sivan kovilady, Thirunelveli
Mas.A.Yogeswaran female 16 Kapiranjoy Camp, Chunnakam
Mr.M.Pararajasingam male 42 Kaddudai, Manipay
Mr.G.Saththiyananthan male 63 no.14, Kalaipulavarveethy, Jaffna
Mas.S.Gopikan male 13 Uduvil, Chunnakam
Miss.N.Jeyatha female 25 Uyarapulam, Anaicoddai
Mas.N.Thevaganesh male 15 Uyarapulam, Anaicoddai
Miss.V.Abirami female 10 Uyarapulam, Anaicoddai
Mrs.K.Maheswari female 55 Thavady North, Kokuvil
Mr.T.Thiyagarajah male 59 General Hospital, Jaffna
Mr.T.Anantharajah male 34 General Hospital, Jaffna
Mr.T.Kulasingam male 70 Uduvil West, Chunnakam
Mr.SivaBalasubramaniam male 50 Petnathy Road, Kokuvil
Mr.S.Thevar male 50 Petnathy Road, Kokuvil
Child of Thevar female 10 Petnathy Road, Kokuvil
Child of Thevar female 07 Petnathy Road, Kokuvil
Child of Thevar female 05 Petnathy Road, Kokuvil
Miss.S.Anjanathevy female 27 135, 3rd Cross St, Jaffna
Mas.K.Vasikaran male 10 Tholpuram, Chulipuram
Mas.B.Ananda Alagan male 16 Tholpuram, Chulipuram
Mr.P.Ravi male 20 Vannarappannai, Jaffna
Miss.T.Sujeeva female 17 Navaly South, Manipay
Mas.P.Krishnakumar male 01 Vadaliadaippu, Pandaththarippu
Mas.R.Rajamohan male 16 Araly South, Vaddukkodai
Mr.N.Narayanasingam male 50 Araly South, Vaddukkodai
Mrs.S.Rasammah female 57 Nitchamam, Chankanai
Mrs.M.Sarasu female 75 Nitchamam, Chankanai
Mr.M.Ponnambalam male 40 Navaly East, Manipay
Mrs.S.Ratnapoopathy female 66 200 Kasturiar Rd., Jaffna
Mrs.I.Pawalam female 70 Pannakam, Chankanai
Mrs.S.Suseeladevi female 43 ICRC Jaffna
Mrs.V.Sellammah female 34 Kaaduppulam, Chulipuram
Mr.Veerasingam male 43 Muthaliyar kovilady, Manipay
Mr.S.Jeyabalan male 50 Pulawar veethy, Kalviyangkaadu
Mr.N.Saravanamuththu male 60 Kaddudai, Manipay
Mr.K.Pathmanathan male 24 Near Ponnammah Mill Jaffna
Mrs.K.Revathy female 36 Murugan kovilady, Navaly

25 years on from the massacre, no one has been held accountable for the killings.

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