THE RESCUE THAT WORLD FORGOT
Posted on May 20th, 2018

BY M.L.WICKRAMASINGHE

As the country looks back on May 19, 2009, the memorable day that three decades of terrorism was mercifully ended, the world has deliberately forgotten one of the key contributors to that  outcome-the rescue of Tamil civilian human shields taken hostage by LTTE for use as its sole survival strategy during the last stages of Eelam War IV.

The western governments and the international media consistently used the war crimes allegations to tarnish Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) and downgrade one of its heroic and humanitarian acts – the mass rescue of Tamil civilians at Nanthikadal. The intention of this article, as Sri Lankans are notorious for having  short memories of the good done unto them by their own, is to remember the civilian hostage rescue operation undertaken by the Sri Lankan Security Forces facilitated  by the political will of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the guidance of the defense officials.

The war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka leveled by western governments, human rights INGOs, and the international media has been under challenge since late 2011. The Sri Lankan Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) did not deliberately target civilians and hence did not commit war crimes.

In late 2014, key western legal and military experts commissioned by the Paranagama Commission including Major General J.T. Holmes, the former Commander of the British Special Forces, concluded that Sri Lanka had not committed war crimes during the last stages of the war.

In October 2017, Lord Naseby, after scrutinizing the diplomatic dispatches sent by Lt. Colonel Gash, the Defense Adviser in the British High Commission in Colombo, on the situation existent during the last stages of Eelam War IV, made a significant statement in the British Parliament that action may be taken to remove allegation of war crimes against Sri Lanka.

The rescue of civilians (taken hostage by LTTE for forcible use as human shields, forced labour, ill trained military auxiliaries and child soldiers ) took place at a location of Prabhakaran’s choosing – a narrow strip of land lying between the Nanthikadal Lagoon and the Indian Ocean beginning at Puthumaathalan to the north, and running through Ambalavanpokkanai and Valayanmadam and down to Vellamullivaikkal to the south. This was the final location to which LTTE brought the Tamil civilians as hostages. The northern and southern borders of this strip of land were very narrow making it difficult for civilians to escape the LTTE guards. The Government lines to the west were separated by the Nanthikadal Lagoon. The Indian Ocean was to the east, opening a potential escape route for the LTTE leadership. But for the ‘Tamil civilian human shields’ caught in the LTTE nutcracker it was a veritable open prison camp, where death stalked for anyone who dared to escape.

Complicating the situation further, was the high earthen bund built by LTTE blocking access of the civilians to the lagoon and across the waters to the Government lines. Yet, civilian escapes or attempts at escape  that occurred around Nanthikadal in the weeks and days before the Sri Lanka Security Forces (SLSF) engineered the  rescue operation, clearly showed that Tamil civilian hostages  were willing to take the gamble of escaping from the clutches of LTTE even in the face of death. Such was the desperation of majority of the civilian hostages, especially those who had young teenage children.

LTTE was equally adamant to keep them as hostages/human shields for the protection of the top leadership due to two future expectations. One was the belief that large numbers of civilians corralled as human shields would provide an excuse for the western international community to intimidate the Sri Lankan government to bow down and announce a cease-fire to enable top LTTE leadership to escape via the Indian Ocean with probable western international community assistance. The Indian establishment, too, was aware of a plan by the West to save Prabhakaran and his top aides to fight another day politically or militarily” according to Shivashakar Menon in his book titled ‘Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy’, Menon emphasized that political leaders both in Delhi and Tamil Nadu were not amenable to such a plan. The then Sri Lankan President too declined such a demand made by the West.

The second was a ‘bait’ offered to SLSF to begin an attack with all fire-power at its disposal  to take this last small bit of LTTE occupied land abutting Nanthikadal and to finish off the war quickly. This of course would certainly lead to a humanitarian catastrophy providing a quick opportunity to western governments to rapidly and physically intervene in Sri Lanka and pluck the LTTE leadership out of Sri Lanka .(Ref:- Michael Roberts: Reflections: Interpreting Gash Files IV-https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/04/29/reflections/interpreting-the-gash-files) and even lay the ground-work for other far –reaching geo-political and devolution goals. The Sri Lankan Government, too, perhaps being aware of the game plan did not fall into either of these traps. Even if GOSL was unaware of these plans, neither the Sri Lankan Government nor the SLSF would have taken the second option.

In this situation it became the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Security Forces (SLSF) to release Tamil civilian hostages/human shields from the clutches of LTTE. If SLSF was resigned to allow the status –quo to remain on the banks of Nanthikadal, then civilians who try to escape would be preyed upon by LTTE cadres. As Major General Holmes observed in his Report to the Paranagama Commission, the dilemma facing the SL Army was whether to stay put on their lines, permitting the daily preying of Tamil civilian hostages by LTTE on the one hand, as well as absorbing LTTE attacks on SLSF lines, soldiers and officers, and military assets. Major General Holmes was of opinion that the only option open for SL Army (or, for that matter, any Army facing such a situation) was to go in to the LTTE area slowly and with calculated caution for the protection of civilians, which task, according to Major General Holmes, the SLSF had accomplished very well and within the rules of IHL.

Sri Lanka’s hostage rescue in the area spreading from Puthumaathalan to the north to Valayanmadu   to the south was one of the biggest hostage rescue operations in the world. It was planned and implemented with restraint, and due care, and commitment to civilians. Here the army adopted different measures and ways of fighting to minimize adverse effects on civilians they were trying to rescue. In this operation, there were even self imposed restrictions on how they used their own personal weapons. They did not use personal weapons as freely and normally as they would in other battle situations due to the presence of civilians.

In this operation, the soldiers were not given any air support. Although the area was bordered by the sea, the troops were told that they would not be given naval gun-fire support either. All these operational limitations were placed on the Army rescuers to absolutely minimize adverse effects on civilians who were to be released. The soldiers and field level officers who went in to the rescue, knew, that for some of them, it would be a journey of no return, but the assigned tasks were accepted heroically and with dedication. The exceptions would have been negligible. There were more exceptions at the ‘higher moral end’ symbolized by Captain Ajith Gamage. He sacrificed his life in protecting lives of escaping civilians and his men who were assisting the civilians, by consistently targeting the LTTE cadres who were seen directing fire at the escaping civilians, from dawn to mid-morning of April 20, over and above the call of duty. In death he showed that his call of duty was also for the civilians. He was posthumously awarded the highest military medal for gallantry- the Parama Veera Vibhushana and promoted as a Major.

Retired Major- General Kamal Gunaratna in his Sinhala language book titled ‘Rana Maga Osse Nandhikadal’ likened the handicaps faced by soldiers in this particular rescue operation – to a man fighting with both feet and one arm chained. Professor Michael Roberts analyzing Situation Reports sent by Colonel Gash to British Foreign Office as released through Lord Naseby, highlights  Gash’s view, – that the Sri Lankan Security forces were adopting a measured and restrained approach in military action. Major General Gunaratna’s analysis  of the SLSF’s military approach to release civilian human shields kept by LTTE in the narrow strip of land abutting Nanthikadal, and Colonel Gash’s observation of SLSF approach to battle during the last stages of Eelam War IV match well. Kamal Gunaratna’s book gives a perceptive and useful account of the marked difference with which SLSF approached, planned and implemented the rescue of Tamil civilians forcibly corralled by LTTE on the banks of Nanthikadal, compared to Army’s normal operations.

The SLSF hostage rescue plan envisaged the Special Forces soldiers and commandos to infiltrate into LTTE held area and open passage-ways in the earthen bund while other soldiers were to provide support and protection for civilians to cross the lagoon, with another group of soldiers  deployed to receive the Tamil civilian escapees at government lines.

The rescue process began after the mid-night of April 19. The Special Forces and Commandos secretly crossed the Nanthikadal lagoon at points close to Puthumaathalan and breached the earthen bund in the wee hours of the morning at three places. These became ‘pathways to freedom’ for the Tamil civilian human shields of LTTE. Captain Gamage referred to earlier for his gallantry, led one of the Teams that opened one of the ‘pathways to freedom’. Thousands upon thousands of civilians went through the opened pathways in the bund to wade across the lagoon to government lines; those who were corralled closer to the sea chose to reach the sea and run north along the beach to cross into newly liberated area north of Puthumaathalan. On the first day itself (April 20), about 40,000 Tamil civilians had crossed over to SLSF lines.

On April 21, the Army succeeded in bisecting the earthen bund, thus opening a wide corridor from Nanthikadal lagoon to the sea-coast just south of Puthumaathalan. This enabled another 26,000 + civilians to escape. On April 22, the soldiers again breached the bund at several places close to Valayanmadam, helping about 34,000 to reach the SLSF lines safely. ( Ref:-Professor Michael Roberts- https:// thuppahi.wordpress.com)

As the rescue progressed (although LTTE cadres were under strict orders to prevent the escape of civilians by any means), some LTTE cadres themselves threw away their weapons and crossed over to the government side mingling among the escaping civilians. This was easily done as almost all LTTE cadres by that time fought in civilian attire. Some LTTE cadres subtly escorted their near and dear ones to the mainstream of escapees so they could be enabled to safely cross over to the SLSF lines.

But a few other LTTE cadres in civilian attire also mingled with the escaping civilians for a separate but villainous purpose. They were the suicide bombers who venomously exploded their suicide bombs killing escaping civilians as well as soldiers helping in the rescue. Aerial surveillance photos also showed some LTTE cadres firing indiscriminately at the fleeing Tamil civilians. They shot at both Sri Lankan soldiers as well as at the Tamil civilians. During the hostage rescue, some soldiers, a few officers as well as some Tamil civilians made the supreme sacrifice. Despite these tragic aberrations, (which unfortunately is inherent to any hostage rescue operation in any part of the world), the hostage rescue operation was a high success.

Statistics confirm the significance of this humanitarian campaign. During January 01 to April 18, 2009, only 72, 570 Tamil civilians had escaped from LTTE. The SLSF hostage rescue (under reference) enabled 103,873 Tamil civilians to escape from the clutches of LTTE in 04 days.

Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain 70 years ago. It is now about time for Sri Lankans to learn to assess the veracity or otherwise of undue western condemnation of positive actions of Sri Lankans. In this aspect Sri Lankans can take Indians and Chinese as examples. And pertaining to this event, it is also about time too, for Sri Lankans, to remove their ‘political party and ethnic group (viewing) glasses’ and recognize this feat of our Security Forces in staging a laudable civilian hostage/ human-shield rescue operation.

(The writer is an ex-Journalist, Communication Researcher, and a retired Officer of the International Civil Service.)

 

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