Sri Lanka’s death zone

April 23, 2009

Donald Steinberg is Deputy President of the International Crisis Group,— Donald Steinberg is Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, The views expressed are his own. —

Civilians are dying by the hundreds and possibly thousands in the northeast of Sri Lanka. As government troops converge on the remaining forces of the rebel LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in a tiny strip of coastal land, tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped in the crossfire — getting killed and maimed in large numbers both by indiscriminate army shelling and by the rebels preventing them from fleeing, with equally lethal force.

Many thousands have managed to escape the free-fire zone in recent days, all with horrific tales to tell of those they left behind. Just how many civilians remain in the killing zone is not entirely clear. The government is saying that as many as 170,000 are now in government territory, with more than 100,000 people fleeing the zone since Monday.

Last month, however, they were claiming there were only 38,000 remaining to be liberated from LTTE control. Their current figure of 15,000 to 20,000 remaining with the LTTE should therefore be treated with great caution.

LTTE figures are also unreliable. The Red Cross says there could be 50,000 still trapped, and the UN publicly estimates 60,000. Sources on the ground put the figure significantly higher.

This is not just a numbers game. Knowing how many civilians remain trapped is critical both for preparing the international relief effort and for accountability. When the shooting stops, the government, which will surely defeat the rebels in this battle, must not be allowed to
hide missing thousands.

Unfortunately, the government is not allowing independent journalists into the conflict area to help establish these and other facts about what is happening there. Still, there are horrendous snapshots from aid workers and other reliable sources on the ground.

For example, an aid worker at one of the few remaining medical stations reported on Tuesday that the entire team was bunkered down due to the constant shooting, unable to treat any patients. He reported continuous heavy weapons fire in civilian areas with heavy casualties. He said that over 600 were seriously wounded in temporary medical posts, with about 100 of those dying soon after being admitted.

As firing has intensified, many of the injured are now not even bothering to come to medical points because it has become common knowledge no treatment is available. The ICRC reported on Wednesday that more than 1,000 seriously injured were in desperate need of treatment, but that medical facilities in what the government once called the safe zone have all but ceased to

While the government and LTTE — and their vigorous online supporters — try to blame the other side for the current carnage, such accusations lead no where. The fact is, both sides are at fault, and both sides are almost certainly guilty of war crimes. The international community needs to put all possible pressure on the parties to end this madness, which is only causing extreme suffering among the civilian population.

The Sri Lankan government should halt its offensive, with its shelling of civilian areas, and accept a humanitarian pause monitored by the UN and the ICRC of at least two weeks to allow relief supplies to get in and a humanitarian corridor to be established for civilians to get out.

UN agencies and the ICRC should be allowed to assess the needs and numbers of the trapped civilians, and to bring in the relief supplies. The U.S. could help matters instantly by releasing its latest satellite images from the war zone. Relief agencies on the ground must be allowed full access to all areas and at all locations where either civilians or surrendered Tamil Tiger fighters might cross over into government-controlled areas.

Both civilians and fighters who agree to lay down their arms need stronger international guarantees of their safety. Only international supervision, unhindered by the government, can provide the necessary
level of protection. The recent surrender of two senior LTTE officials, including Daya Master, their former media coordinator, suggest that with better guarantees others would give up too.

The Tamil Tigers should immediately allow civilians to leave the area and cease forced recruitment. All means of influencing the Tamil Tigers must be explored, particularly stepped up restrictions on foreign
financing and support for the group. The Tamil diaspora has an important role in persuading the LTTE to agree to an internationally supervised pause and allow the trapped civilians to leave the target area.

In any case, continuing intransigence by the Tigers should not be an excuse for the government to delay a humanitarian pause or to act in a way that results in the death and maiming of its own citizens. Indeed, the government is obligated under the international doctrine of “responsibility to protect” to prevent these atrocities.

Finally, it should be made very clear by relevant governments and international organisations to leaders of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government that they will be held personally accountable for breaches of international humanitarian law. There is no excuse, and certainly no amnesty, for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The world has woken up to this tragedy very late, but there is still time to save lives and lay the groundwork for future peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The message must come from the highest levels: “The world is watching, and you will be held accountable.”


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Dear readers,

The most gruesome act of genocide is being perpetrated in Srilanka out from the eyes of world. The rights of people which had been denied and who were demanding it is being silenced in the name of terrorism and majoritarianist democracy.

Yes, the minority Tamils in Srilanka are fighting for thier independence, self rule and destiny as their rights were denied by the Sighelese state for the past 60 years.

Thw World leaders and India also have been watching all these and are silent as though they know about the atrocities being committed against the Tamils they are not able to differentiate between struggle for freedom and terrorism.

One becomes violent only at the last step when his rights are denied. In Srilanka if the Tamils had been given the freedom what they enjoy in India they would not have struggled both nonviolently since 60’s to 80’s and violently from 80’s till date.

The world has not ensured or recognised Tamils rights so on their own they fight for it. India and others countries only aided the Srilankan state and its oppression in the name of suppression of rebelion, ignoring the root cause, and simply supporting a neighbouring nation in the name of commonwealth solidarity.

I request the Government of India to remove / lift the ban on LTTE. The future of Tamils in Srilanka should not be guided by one anti-Tamil family in India. When the early stage struggle for independent home land by Tamils of Srilanka was accepted by India and its leaders as legitimate, the political killing which at times are legitimised by Governments, which is mentioned only by one family in India and its coterie should not let or shed any more blood of Tamils in Srilanka or elsewhere.

Ealam Independence is for free living of Tamils, it cannot be a thorn in the flesh of India like Srilanka which is anti Indian and is hobnobbing with China and Pakistan like anti Indian elements. Ealam is not being supported by these countries only because they know very well the lineage of Tamils and their support for India.

Support Ealam Independence. Jai Hind.

Posted by E Nagarajan | Report as abusive


Thanks for the well balanced article. Yes, I agree that both side should be severely warned and International world should step up their efforts and stop the genoside.

I Could see every where that Internation community has ban LTTE. But what about the Srilankan Governement ?
Have they been excused, because they are Government?
I couldn’t see that no one has put a real presure on SL Government. Now Time has come to world should put this war to a STOP and Please let this poor people live peacefully.

Posted by Johnson | Report as abusive

This was a rather well written article which unfortunately missed the whole point altogether. The Tamil Idiots need once and for all to be taken out!! Surely we have seen enough of the carnage caused by these misfits some of whom now want to lay down their arms in order to pick them up again at some later date. Any food or medical supplies sent into the area will immediately be taken over by the Tamil Mob and thus will extend this sad war even longer. You can’t make a pancakle without breaking the egg first, and sadly this egg has become rather rotten. In very basic terms this problem of the Tamil Rebels needs to be addressed and I am quite sure that people will know what I mean by this.

Posted by Peter Schwarz | Report as abusive

Why can’t the international organisations and the governments not understand that the tigers had never attacked or killed any singhalease people and that their targets had always been the srilankan forces.
When the tigers are not harming the singhalease how could anyone expect that they would hurt thier own people and make them human sheilds. Where were the international observers in 1953,1958, 1977, 1983? Their concern now is a laugh. Ha Ha

Posted by Shirley Gunaratnam | Report as abusive

Peter, you are damn incorrect. You have got no idea of the background of the problem. Therefore you comments are pathetic in my opinion.

Both parties at equal footing need to be brough to the negotiating table. The so called Government has greater responsibility to adhere to the international standards than any other.

LTTE are the only reps of Tamil in Srilanka. Not poodles like Douglas or Karuna. Or have I missed Ananadasagaree.

Fisrt things first – genocidal governmnet should stop the war, save the Tamils from mass murder, (what about investigations about the dissapearances & murders by the forces?).Then then political negotiation.

I thing is definite – There will be no reconciliation with Srilanka Genocidal government without a political settlement.

Posted by indr4n | Report as abusive

I fully agree with Peter Schwarz. The appalling point for me is the writer’s heavy reliance on relief provided by the so-called “international community”, which actually is no other than the Alliance of German Nations (W. Europe, N. America, Australia and New Zealand). The dismal attitude of relief mobsters to any administration of a country after disaster struck makes things only worse. The government should issue directives on what is needed and where. It not only has the right but is also obligated to its population to require compliance. Relief mobs fighting like scavengers for the best chunks of the carrion is disgusting, to say the least of it.
Let relief be channeled through the Red Cross, sadly the only decent relief organisation, that knows how to respectfully co-operate with local authorities.

Posted by Kate Decoy | Report as abusive

Peter is right on the bullseye. The article is well written but not realistic. How would respective govt act if RealIRA, Alqueda, Naga rebels cornered a similar number of hostages and black mail the rest of the world? would they listen to the INGO’s with warious agenda. Or would they go rather heavy handed. How did US govt acted in Afghanistan after 9/11.

What is now necessary is to eliminate the brigands. Let the Sri Lanka forces do thatas surgically as possible.

Posted by Ranjith Liyanachchi | Report as abusive


The rebels are definitely responsible and they have to lay down their arms. But at what cost? Do we have to sacrifice so many lives to “make a pancake”?

Sri Lankan government should resolve the issues politically for any hope of lasting peace. It is upto the government to fix things using this tiny opportunity to break this vicious cycle.

Posted by Onion | Report as abusive

Death of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka is not something new. LTTE and the SLA were competing and blaming each other in killing Tamils since 1980s. If this had to come to an end, let us look at the end which is peace. Any how some Tamils had to die and that is inevitable unless the LTTE take a bald step to release them all OR as it claimed by some LTTE stooges, if the civilians do not want to leave, the LTTE shall chase them out of war zone.

Whatever it is, in the name of God, what shall NOT take place is the escape of LTTE and its leader in the name of of the safety of Tamil civilians.

Posted by Arun Vincent | Report as abusive

LTTE is a tangible manifestation of the disappointment and frustration from of Tamil community that has been oppressed for so many years. Unless the genuine grievances of the Tamil people are dealt with, the voice of the oppressed will be heard louder and louder.

What is happening to the people who rescued from the death zone created by Army in the concentration camps surrounded by barb wires
“Many are tortured or simply shot. Also, it is regularly rapes. ev=hp&hl=en&js=n&u= presse/pressemitteilungen/sri-lanka-noch -immer-hunderttausend-zivilisten-im-kamp fgebiet-eingekesselt/3206/&sl=de&tl=en

Posted by Ravi | Report as abusive

This conflict can only be solved through the meeting the aspirations of the Tamil nation. Their Right to Self Determination must be accepted.

Srilanka has a lot to hide from the international community!
Before Ceylon was invaded and ruled by European Colonisers, there existed at least two sovereign states one belonged to Sinhalese and other belonged to Tamils. It is the British who forcibly merged the two nations in the island and ruled it as a single state. On leaving the island in 1948, British handed over the whole country to Sinhalese. Because of this blunder, ever since British left the Island, sinhalese started exercising ethnic Cleansing of Tamils in a very systematic way using their 100% Sinhalese military. Tamils have paid enough price to end this “forced marriage”! Let them go free!

Posted by Raj | Report as abusive

Peter , How dare you say “Tamil idiots” , you are really a nut as I am sure only person who can put a comment like this only can be
-someone who don’t know what exactly going on in Sri Lanka – or
-You are a Singhalese – or
-you are a canibal

Posted by Karnan | Report as abusive

Its not clear beginning why they want to say less figure in the safe zone? Srilankan government don’t want to show the world how many people get killed by them in safe zone? Where these 170,000 people kept in? How do we believe there is no genocide going on among these people? Why srilankan government is not allowing UN staffs to military screening areas? There is hundreds of questions should be answered.In srilanka every tamil MP’s get killed there is no independent investigation, so how can ordinary people in concentration camps can express their view? How do you varify the true story?

Posted by sivakumar | Report as abusive

Tamils have been suffering state terrorism for sixty years:
1.Professor Francis Boyle(who single-handedly won two World Court Orders in 1993 on the basis of the 1948 Genocide Convention that were overwhelmingly in favour of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina against Yugoslavia to cease and desist from committing all acts of genocide against the Bosnians) of Illinois College of Law:
a. 3 February 2009: “It is the culmination of the long-standing GOSL policy to inflict genocide upon the Tamils in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which Sri Lanka is a contracting party. As a United States Citizen Defense Secretary Rajapakse should be prosecuted by the United States government for violating the US Genocide Convention Implementation Act and the US War Crimes Act.”
b. 11 March 2009: ”Any one or more of the 140 state parties to the Genocide Convention must immediately sue Sri Lanka at the International Court of Justice in The Hague”.
2.Professor Sornarajah, Faculty of Law, Singapore National University, 24 March 2009: “Every indicia of genocide is satisfied by the conduct of successive Sri Lankan governments, the oppression accentuated in intensity by the present government which has unleashed immense terror through its armed forces on a people in the name of suppression of terrorism. There is a duty incumbent on every state to ensure the protection of the Tamil people. It is important that this duty be taken seriously so that such scourges on humanity are not repeated’’.

Posted by lito | Report as abusive

you can see how sinhala ppl are raciest and crazy about Tamils. Somany tamils are killed. Army cheif said 0 Tamils affected. another army cheif said today in CNN, there will be casulities. 200 LTTE left and 50000 army is fighting with them. everyone can easly understand this problem. There is a genocide going. Most of the nice sinhala people are now changed to raciest because of media in sri lanka. Everyone comment in a cural way. They want to get rid of LTTE but they dont even care about Tamils. Pls save the Tamils. If they are brave they can fight directly with LTTE. LTTE is outnumbered AL army is well armed and india china and pakistan give arms to them. If internatioal community cant ask them to stop the war, ask Sri lanka to fight like a brave man. not a 3rd grade coward who uses banned weapons and gases and stop killing Innocent tamils.

Posted by venkattan | Report as abusive

In addition to the above it is also important to protect the tamils fleeing the war into the hands of government troops, since all the tamils are considered enemy by the government forces.
I heard that the people fled are taken into concentration camps and totured and many might have been killed. World always wakeup late. I hope that the aid wagencies, journalist and foreign governments will presurize the srilankan government to gain access to these people.
Last but not least, there should be an independant election to findout whether tamils in North and East want a separate homeland and it is not the majority Sinhalese to decide the fagte of the minority Tamils future.

Posted by Skanthan | Report as abusive

You have seen 200,000 tamils supporting the LTTE in London. It is apparent from this that who is killing the tamils and what the tamils wanted. In this procession everyone called for Tamil eelam homeland and claimed that Prabaharan as our leeder. If you ask a tamil in government controlled areas, it is impossible to say anything against Srilankan government since it is undoubtedly leeds to the deth of those who voiced and their loved ones. The truth comes out when they are have freedom of expression like in United Kingdom.
The Un should send forces to safeguard tamils and the conduct a free and fearless referandom like in Kosawo to findout whether tamils want independance form Srilanka. I have no doubt that there will be more Pirabaharans in the future as long as the Tamil eelam is under the rule of Srilankans

Posted by Pathmini | Report as abusive

Tamil are not terrorists, we are freedom fighters, the sinhala parliamen are the real liars. They let you see, what they want to see you, CENCORED version of the true world.
Just watch the people, who are interviewed are like, angry and soo, but if u think a little, u know that a person cant be angry at this state, they must be shocked over the situation, and traumatic attacks, because they had been used to the daily bombings.
So when they come into the sinhala peoples area, the innocent people will be in a situation, where they cant say the truth and react as them selves, because they know the sinhala will kill them or send them to the KZ camps(known from the 2 world war).
Look at the past, srilanka havent done anything good for us tamils till date, and i dont believe they will do anything to us, we want same rights as sinhala people, and we want to live like a sri lankan citizen, not like a slave in the country.
They keep boombing in the area of tamils, and they keep make the reputation, like the tamils heroes, but how can they be both at the same time. This is called a drama.

I believe the only solution for tamils are Tamil Eelam.

Posted by Thibakaran Ravikumar | Report as abusive

Dear open honest Human beings of the World,

as a Tamil i have be persecuted belonging to this ethnicity so my forfather for last 62 years in the hands of racist, chauvanistic Singhalese voted extremist government, their State forces, police and buerocrats! more than 6 decades of discrimination,toture,rape, murder in the hands of Singhalese Government openly have taken place its a fact please read the “unspeakable Truth” ebook i posted in the link! We cant and dont want to live in a united Sri Lanka. The Democratic World with its peace loving Human beings must give us our right to determine through a independent UN Monitored Referendum whether we want to Stick to Sri lanka or want a separte country called Tamil Eelam to protect,safeguard our People and traditional Tamil Homeland occupied by our ancestor for more than 2500 years by Historical facts! Please join us World to fight for our Life with dignity and respect!

If you also want No more war, no more suffering and death to my innocent Tamil people let us vote through the ballot box whether we Tamils want Tamil Eelam or not to end the bloodshed for once and all! Thanks Friends!

Posted by rangan Soori | Report as abusive

Bit of a shame for the LTTE.

They managed to craft a home of their own. Using pretty horrible tactics. Suicide bombs for one. Had they been happy with what they had, they may have been able to keep the land they had.

But it is too late. Their tactics have alienated all other nations. They no longer have any allies to pull them out of their trouble. Nobody is going to help the LTTE now. Not after all they have done.

And even at the end, the LTTE look bad. It seems to the world that they are holding innocents hostage, and shooting them when they flee. Yet the leaders surrender meekly when it is all done. That is what they will be remembered for.

I wonder if the leader of the LTTE will commit suicide as he has often claimed? I think it is more likely that he will surrender. Even more likely that he will flee Tamil, assuming he has not fled already.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

To Shirley: Not quite sure what planet you have been living in for the last 30 years; but if you genuinely care for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka; open your eyes and try to realise the real issues at hand.

Peter, that was a fair response, but I felt there is a little need to differentiate between the Tamil people and the ‘Tigers’ (and perhaps also Expat Tamil communities).

Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka , and face political challenges perhaps faced by most minorities within a democracy. However, Tamils have never been disallowed their right to vote in Sri Lanka , and their votes have always been just as valuable as that of any other Sri Lankan.

A political solution away from the battle field is necessary to address concerns of not only the Tamil minority, but other minorities in Sri Lanka , including those of the Muslims and Burghers. Most Sri Lankans will agree, many such issues have been addressed to some degree by past governments, but a lot more remains to be done.

The Tigers in thge other hand are a very powerful organisation dependant on this war. They rose to power via propaganda not too dissimilar to what we are seeing right now across western capitals. Their primary funding comes from their ex pat supporters, who depend on an unstable Sri Lanka to lay claim to refugee status internationally. Unfortunately, these protesters who claim to represent the Tamil people of Sri Lanka , show little real interest in the Tamil community back home. The reason for this is two fold. In one hand, many ex pat Tamils owe it to the war in Sri Lanka to be able to live abroad in developed countries. In the other hand, no Tamil is free from the curse of the Tiger, and are forced into paying taxes and carrying out protests as required by the organisation, in order to avoid harm by Tigers to their extended families back in Sri Lanka .

The ‘genocide’ (as claimed by the Tiger protesters across the globe) is carried out by the Tigers, against all Sri Lankans including Tamils, and not the government. The Sri Lankan government has a responsibility to its people to eliminate the nation of this evil. The real majority in Sri Lanka today is the man and woman who just want their streets to be free of suicide bombers and highly armed forces such that they and their families can go about their day to day business without the threat of being randomly blown up (or abducted to fight a guerrilla war)!

Achieving peace in Sri Lanka is a two fold path. One requires the establishment of a political system that better acknowledges minorities and their needs; the other, requires the elimination of the Tigers who have in numerous occassions before, used peace talks as an opportunity to simply rearm while down.

Posted by Rajesh Weer | Report as abusive

Democracy has failed in Sri Lanka because individuals vote along ethnic lines and the Tamil minority has no ability to shape government.

The Tamil claim for self-governance arises from several historical and contemporary facts. Tamil sovereignty was handed over by the Dutch to Britain in the Treaty of Amiens 1802 as part of the transfer of sovereignty of both Sinhala and Tamil nations in the island of Ceylon. Unfortunately, Britain, having united the two nations for administrative purposes did not return sovereignty to the Tamils but left them in the hands of a government trusting democracy to provide the required safeguards.

In 1977, the Tamils who live in the North and East gave a mandate for their elected representatives in the Sri Lankan parliament to seek independence. However, the Sri Lankan government made it illegal to seek separation. There followed a rebellion of armed resistance to the Sinhala state.

Sadly, the failure of Britain to recognise the fault lines of democracy has become a tragedy today for the 3 million Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka for four thousand years. It has taken the gruesome form of a civil war between unequal forces.

A separate state in Sri Lanka with self-governance in the North and East for Tamils in their traditional homeland will certainly bring peace to Sri Lanka and its people. Both communities would prosper in this beautiful island with all of nature’s gifts. It is the duty of people everywhere to call for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka and work towards a peaceful resolution of this long running conflict and not remain silent because the people affected are not their own.

In the area of conflict there are no international monitors, no international journalists and even Medicine Sans Frontiers has been barred from entering the area.

The world would be a poorer place if the bloodbath in the conflict area were to continue now that it has become common knowledge. What is the point of today’s thrust for globalisation if its weaker communities are allowed to wither and die ?

Posted by jay dharma | Report as abusive

My simple questions is that Why the sinagalese government who runs the “state terrorisom” upon the minority tamil people for the past six decades is not ready to allow the independent agencies into the conflict zone? and why the international community or UN are not insisting for that?

Posted by Gnana Gandhi | Report as abusive

SL Government fight against world most dangers terrorist organization. there is no dout about that. They killed Indian formar PM Rajive Gandi and Sri Lankan President R. Premadasa.
Not only killed politician they have killed thousands innocent people by using bombs and knifes and other weapons.

Why they can not joined the democtacy and get elected by elections.There is lot of tamils people work as MP’s in Sri Lanka.

World might know Colombo population contain 52% tamils and they live in harmony with other community.So why LTTE ask separate state. It is not possible using guns and bombs. Try to understand world and people power.

Posted by Prasanna | Report as abusive