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Remembering Nagarkovil

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The tenth anniversary of the massacre of twenty-six children by a Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft that dropped three bombs on their school was marked in a quiet ceremony last Thursday.

The ceremony at third milepost in Point Pedro - where the Nagarkovil Maha Vidiyalayam is temporarily functioning - comes three months after the tenth anniversary of another massacre nearby at Navaly.

On July 9, 1995, a Sri Lankan military air and artillery on Navaly St Peters Church and Navaly Murugamoorthy Kovil killed 147 Tamil men, women and children who had sought refugee in it from a military offensive in the Jaffna peninsula.

The international outcry over Navaly did not preclude further attacks on Tamil civilians.

On September 22, 1995, SLAF aircraft bombed the Nagarkovil Maha Vidyalayam school yard crammed with 750 children on their lunch break, killing 26 – of whom 12 were six or seven year olds – and injuring 150 others, 40 seriously.

Two surgeons from French medical agency Medecins Sans Frontierers (MSF) worked through the night at Point Pedro’s Manthikai hospital carrying out 22 amputations - in four cases removing both legs. Ten of the amputees were under 12.

“The scene of the attack was visited by the International Red Cross and pieces of human flesh were found strewn around the area including the tree branches,” said International Educational Development, an NGO on the United Nations Economic and Social Council Roster.

Because of the government’s economic embargo at that time, no vehicle transport was available to take the injured from Nagarkovil and Navaly earlier to the hospital.

The air strike on Nagarkovil was part of a two-day bombardment of the Vadamaradchi region of the Jaffna peninsula. Earlier that day, SLAF bombers targeted Manalkadu and Katkovalam killing six people. Intense shelling from the Palaly Army camp killed seven members of the same family including four children.

MSF reported on 23 September that of 117 injured Tamil civilians admitted to hospital during the Sri Lankan offensive more than half had died from their wounds.

In a statement released in Paris, MSF said 200 people, including the children, were wounded when bombs fell on the school near Point Pedro on Sri Lanka’s northern coast.

Of some 150 children who were wounded, 15 died within three hours of being brought to hospital, the relief agency said. MSF said 42 children from the school and elsewhere died at the hospital in subsequent days.

“I condemn in the strongest terms this attack on a school where innocent children were killed. Whatever the political situation in a country nothing justifies attacks on educational institutions,” Director-General of UNESCO, Fredrico Mayor, said.

In Australia, Ted Grace, an Australian federal parliamentarian and Chairman of the Caucus Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence & Trade called for public condemnation of Sri Lanka in a speech in the Australian Parliament on 27 September.

“Our Government which is deeply committed to upholding human rights should publicly condemn such crimes committed against humanity and should be alarmed at the Sri Lankan Government’s determination to carry out such acts with impunity,” he said.

International Educational Development expressed its grief and shock at the attack, saying “the actions of the Sri Lanka armed forces, coupled with the economic blockade imposed on the Tamil homeland, are a clear contravention of the Geneva Convention relating to non international armed conflicts.”

The Nagakovil attack came hours after the Sri Lankan government imposed strict rules on reporting from the Northeast.

It has been argued that the attack on Navaly church, which came days after civilians in the path of an Army offensive had been told to seek shelter in places of worship and the attack on the school, with children in white uniforms being unmistakable from the air, were part of a strategy of deliberate targeting of civilians to undermine support for the Liberation Tigers.

Sri Lanka’s government was unmoved by the international outrage over the attacks. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar slammed INGOs and others who protested civilian deaths in Sri Lankan military operations.

Sri Lankan state media reported that Mr. Kadirgamar, infuriated by UN agencies’ criticism of the Navaly attack, had declared that they have no authority to speak on Sri Lanka’s domestic problems and accused them of attempting to expand their mandate.

While the Navaly attack had drawn both international condemnation and heavy coverage in the local press, the Nagarkovil attack, which received internationally coverage only due to the presence of the MSF doctors, was almost unknown to the Sri Lankan public due to strict controls on reporting.

“This insidious censorship, which clearly had nothing to do with protecting national security, again exemplified the government’s intention of ensuring that only its own version of the conflict was available,” Article 19 said of the censorship which was lifted three months after it was imposed – after the military offensive was over.

Article 19 added: “the government appears to have been intent on conveying an image of a ‘clean’ war, in which the LTTE were targeted but civilians protected, to maintain support for its offensive.”

As Rev Fr Devanesan, addressing the students and parents at last week’s anniversary observed: “the attack was a crime against mankind. Politicians and members of the civil society in the South who are now ardent proponents of human rights remained silent without bringing this atrocity to the notice of the international community when the incident happened.”