A day at the front line in Sri Lanka

April 27, 2009

Access for foreign journalists to Asia’s longest running civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government troops, is very tightly controlled by the Sri Lankan government. Getting near the front line area known as the ‘No Fire Zone’ is only possible with an officially sanctioned trip organized by the Ministry of Defence. Last Friday, April 24, I went on one.

The trip started at 3.30am, when I arrived at the military air base in Colombo. We went through 3 security checks, before boarding our plane at 6.30am. We flew north for about 30 minutes to a small airstrip at a place called Mankulam. From here, we boarded two Mi-8 helicopters. To avoid any ground fire, the choppers fly at maximum speed just above the height of the tallest trees, and when I say just, I mean scraping the leaves. This fast and furious ride lasted just 30 minutes to the town of Kilinochchi.

We had a quick briefing, and then we set off in a convoy of armored personnel carriers towards the front. The carrier that I got into was a very old, clunky thing of which there was not much evidence of suspension. The roads in the area had suffered 25 years of a civil war, and were in seriously bad condition. Myself and and a TV cameraman tried our best to grab pictures as we sped along at around 50 miles/h but we were being thrown around so much, even for me to get the camera up to my face and see through it, was near impossible. We held on the best we could, and I managed to get a few ‘usable’ frames of a scorched and destroyed landscape. Every single dwelling was either destroyed or uninhabitable. It reminded me of East Timor in 1999. Burnt out vehicles lined the road. What was most noticeable was the absence of people. There were simply no civilians anywhere.

After what seemed like hours, but was actually only one, we arrived at the destroyed town of Puttumatalan. Here we got into jeeps. The troops that were escorting us got noticeably nervous. They held their guns at the ready now, looking more alert and more intently into the coconut groves as we passed. We must be close now, I thought.

After about 20 minutes driving down a dirt road, we turned a bend. Suddenly, there were thousands of exhausted and weary looking civilians. They were being given small amounts of food and drink by the soldiers, but only enough to last them a day or so. This was when our escorts really started to hurry us. It seemed they didn’t want us to talk or view these civilians for too long, and after just 5 minutes, we were told to get back in the jeeps. Frantic calls were made on radios, and we were told we were now headed to the front.

In just under 10 minutes, we arrived at the place where just days earlier the Sri Lankan government soldiers had pushed their way through the LTTE defenses, leading to a mass exodus of civilians. Smoke billowed less than a mile away where, we were told, troops were continuing to fight. Being so close, our escort now numbered almost 100 heavily armed soldiers. We were severely exposed standing on a road that cut a path through the lagoon, but this was where we were allowed to stay the longest of any of the other stops.

For a full 30 minutes, we photographed and filmed what we saw around us. Clothes and rubbish lay scattered across the dry plain. While walking amongst all this, I found a packet of film negatives that showed mourners at a funeral. Sadly, it was rather an appropriate subject matter in such a place where so many had most likely died.

After driving back to the battalion headquarters, we were once again in an armored personal carrier, driving back to the helicopter landing area, with our driver narrowly missing 3 cows and even skidding off the road on one occasion. Once we boarded the helicopter, everything went so fast, and before we knew it, we were on our plane and heading back to Colombo. Stepping onto the runway, it dawned on me what I had just done. In a single day, I had been to the front line of a war in an area that is extremely difficult to reach and come back to civilization. I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, but what about the people trapped in the war zone? They didn’t get to fly back to the comforts of a city. They continued to endure the horrors of war in dire conditions and horrendous temperatures, with minimal food, water, medical aid or even shelter. What about those who got out, but had a long journey to a refugee camp ahead of them, with no clear idea when they can go back home. It reminded me of a book I finished reading a few months ago called ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Herr about his experiences as a correspondent during the Vietnam war, and how he found it strange flying in and out of war zones. I could see what he had meant a little more clearly now – just the craziness of it all.


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As a western doctor working in the northeast of srilanka during the Tsunami period, I personally, the sinhalese srilankan army denying foreign aid to the tamils and diverting it to the sinhalese areas. The tamils and sinhalese of srilanka have very different language, religion, tradition and culture and srilanka is ethinically very polarized between tamisl and the sinhalese. Ever since the the british gave the majority northeast tamils of the northeast to be ruled by the southern sinhalese the country has become another Ruwanda. The 99% sinhalese army of Srilanka in 100% tamil areas has caused ethinic cleansing and genocide by the sinhalese srilankan government. For the last 50 years there has been violaence directed against the tamils by the sinhalese governemt sponsored serial “ethinic riots”. Please read the hongkong based AHRC.HK website for more information on the tamils persecution by the sinhalese. Srilanka borrows money from Iran to buy weapons from Israel, china and pakistan to bomb tamil civilians by using cluster bombs for the last 25 years.

Posted by Doc Forsythe | Report as abusive

Does Genocide of innocents civilans justify fighting terrorism ?..

FACTS: SriLanka
1. The Tamils and Sinhalese have a very different separate distinct language, religion, traditions and culture. The Tamils are the majority in the Northeast and the Sinhalese in the south. The Tamils were never ruled by the Sinhalese before the British. Can one southern majority rule race another majority race of the Northeast?

2. The SriLankan army is made up of 99% Sinhalese who cannot speak Tamil. If the Srilankan army is only for the Sinhalese who is for the Tamils ?

3. There has been serial Srilankan state sponsored Sinhalese attacks and ethnic cleansing against Tamils decades before 1983 (when LTTE was not active) in Srilanka. Similar to Tutsis and Hutus or Serbia and Kosova ot Israel and Palestine. How many Tamils were killed before the 1983 by the Sinhalese mobs ?. Why was the TNA the tamil party allways won in the Tamil areas ?

4. Independent media or journalist, NGO are not allowed in to Tamil areas by the Sinhalese SriLankan government to speak to the people freely. Who speaks for the Tamils civilians voice ?.. will the truth be heard ?

Posted by Doc Forsythe | Report as abusive

it is interesting to see that you have visited sri lankan war zone once in your life time to actually see what is going on. for me, for all these 39 years of living in SL I could visit and see this part of my country [ which you have visited] only once. That is again, after paying approximately RS. 35 to LTTE terrorist organisation as a entrance tax and a 14 year old girl with a T56 getting into our vehicle to escot us to the area we were going[ this was during 2003 ceasefire]. Though I loved to go and visit the nothern part of my country I could not do so because there were land mines for over 25 years in the area you have visited. Thus it is no big news to me about sufferings of civilians in this part of the country as a sri lankan who was born and lived in SL. The fact that is more important to me now is that we can hope in future we will be able to share our grief and happiness with these human biengs [who have escaped the terrorists and would have had the stamina and luck to endure these few months of agony] without land mines between us. That we can go to work and come back in the cities [including the one that you came back to] of Sri Lanka without bieng feared that our lives are at the hands of a suicide bomber. that I can talk to my tamil friends who studied and lived next to our houses without fear of not knowing which side they were supposed to take under gunpoint. That my decision to leave sri lanka purely based on 25 year civil war and the related issues [when what i really wanted to do was to be in my country] can be one day reversed.
Therefore while I understand your heart felt passion on humanitarian issues related to these innocent civilians I will not support any kind of negativity with regard to the actions that the Sri Lankan govenment is taking to end this cruelty. It is true there is utter suffering on both sides. But that needs to be handled once these terrorists lay their arms.
In any case there is a saying “there is no fairness in war” . That is why we as a country gave into terrorism for so long with ceasefires thinking we can make friends with terrorists. But it was proven that it is not a good tactic. Thus we will have to finish what we started now.

Posted by kelum Perera | Report as abusive

I can see why the Sri Lankan govt does not allow any foreign media, especially from the west in to the frontline of Sri Lanka army and terrorist group, LTTE. This reporter talks about East Timer, I must ask why not Northern Ireland, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan or Lebanon for that matter. East Timor was the one that was separated by the Western countries’ interference from its geographically close major land just because barbaric Portuguese invaded it and converted the people to Christianity. This western reporter is, no wonder, as usual so cynical to talk about East Timor during this trip. He never had a single good word or appreciation of the government forces for taking him to the war front and brought him back in one piece. Sri Lankans were suffering from the world most ruthless terrorist movement fro three decades and those who are in cozy chairs do not feel it because they did not have an Al Queda type attack by this terrorist group, yet. One must understand those who bred terrorists, have been attacked by very terrorists they once brought to existence. Good examples are once Bin Laden was bred and supported by the West and finally Bin Laden turned against them. Similarly, India bred LTTE leaders and LTTE turned back and killed one of their Prime Ministers. I must say Sri Lankans should finish this war for once and for all no matter what the cynical west is talking from their mouth and other end at the same time.

Posted by Jay Dias | Report as abusive

You said it “the most noticable was the absence of people”. The LTTE took along the civilians with them from the towns they fled. The 180 to 200 thousand civilians
that ended up in NFZ would normally have remained in the towns that the Army captured
had not the cowardly LTTE moved them along for a HUMAN SHEILD. Even Saddam Hussein did not do such a thing in the Iraq war. The LTTE
must take responsiblility for the plight of the Tamil civilians both inside and out of the NFZ. It is time the Inernational community realised that the LTTE must be eliminated forthwith. Also, countries like Canada, Britain and Australia must screen those seeking ‘refugee status’ in their countries before the radical Tamils slip in and will sooner or later dislike being an ethnic minority in the countries of adoption
and history could repeat itself.

Posted by leonard | Report as abusive

This is the reality of the WAR. No matter who is right and who is wrong human suffering never ends. There is (hope was) one stupid megalomaniac-desperado wanted to be a liberator and didn’t want to come for any negotiation. There was one section of the society who funds war and let so many innocent die for their mythical dream. They enjoy luxuries in the west but never realize the futility of the war. And there is these arms and ammunition producer? They want war because they want to sell their weapons. How many people died in the Vietnam War? (Two third of the population had perished in that war). How many people died in the Iraq war? People have killed more people in the history of the world than any natural disaster. This is very unfortunate saga. Peace!

Posted by Spearhead | Report as abusive

It is quite strange to read these stories as written by the SO CALLED JOURNALISTS that they all sound like these guys go to war fronts to see the roads and life like in their home towns in western world.

Most disgusting part as I see is that the ridiculous attempt to bring disrepute to others where they have no other connection what so ever or made no contribution to improve anything at all. Instead goes on comparing lives in normal situaions to war fronts.

Underling truth is that inorder to make a living today’s journalists would not hesitate to go to any low level.

Why the world has to see things in the eyes of journalists to make their judgement !

Isn’t it obvious that this guy should have waited till the war is over and the roads are done, so that he could have a smooth ride after all. Common men. write something sensible !

Posted by Sunil Arewgoda | Report as abusive

Hey, you can not compare every thing to Western conditions. This is how we survive

Posted by konapu bandara | Report as abusive

As I person who has lot of Tamil Friends in Sri Lanka and in USA now, I would like to see the end of LTTE and dawn of peace to the people in North and East. The end of LTTE will be the true Liberation of all the people in Sri Lanka.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

To leonard, your closing comment which insinuates that Tamils were refugees to SL is both insensitve and inaccurate.

This standard belief is the undercurrent of much of Singhalese prejudice towards Tamils. The fact is Tamils have lived in north of Sri Lanka as long as the Singalese have.

Lest he should appear an ill informed racist, I would suggest that Leonard refrains from making further contributions.

Posted by PS | Report as abusive

All i can see is that the sinhala commenters are still as racist as thier fathers who brought the wrath of the LTTE on them.

Posted by ajen kandy | Report as abusive

How a sinhala person feel if LTTE control the south sinhala side or may be Panandura area. That is the problem going on currently. Let the Tamil rule their own people and Sinhala occupied forces shoule leave North and East and go back ot their South and sing some Baila songs and drink Pol Arrack.

Posted by Dinesh | Report as abusive

Dear Sir,
Your coverages on war zone between LTTE and Govt.forces, peoples sufferings on the existing situations are excellent.
Your photos are all very fine.
I wish Her countries problems will be solved at the earliest.
Let Peace and Prosperity prevails to all countries.

Posted by krishnamurthi ramachandran | Report as abusive

LTTE is the only terrorist group in the world who has killed two world leaders and over 100 politeciens . they invented the suiside bomb kit and introduced cianide capsule to commit suicide once captured. Sri Lanka Army is helping these tamil ceviliens by relesing them from the LTTE cos they were held by froce against their will. the world has bigger problems like USA bombing afganistan yesterday and killing 200 innocent ceviliens …. and the war going in Iraq !!!

Posted by Sathyawel Sinnathambi | Report as abusive

Most of the western countries and their so called journalists make their living by selling this war. Therefore they do not want to see the end of this war in Sri Lanka. They know nothing about the brutality of LTTE. We Sri Lankans (Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims etc.) suffered it for nearly 30 years. So please do interfere with our FREEDOM.

Posted by Asiri | Report as abusive

Thank you western media for your tireless efforts to capture the essence of the situation by putting your life on the line. One day truth will come out. If it is left to SL media, their propaganda seem very obvious in revealing their own device. Such as one video I saw in Channel 4 UK news, where they had dressed up full-cheeked kids in Tiger uniform, while the entire clip was full of skinny, malnutritious Tamil men, women and children wandering all over the place.
Thank you again, and God bless you for what you’re doing.

Posted by zac | Report as abusive

Truth is the only victim of this stupid war. I married a Tamil and spent time in northern Sri Lanka during the conflicts. Both the Singhalese and Tamils are wonderful people. This single fact should be understood. If one looks for differences one will surely find them. There is no quick fix here other than patience and no answer but time, and the will to heal. Anger, pain and fear keep us bound to our lower nature. Despite everything that has happened on both ‘sides’ wisdom must lead us gently back to mutual tollerance and respect. As someone once pointed out: “If one went to the moon one would see only one Human Race”.

Posted by Blyth | Report as abusive

1)This coverage is of only 20% remaining 80% depands on people word’s in war zone.
2)It’s not LTTE who kept people as human sheild as once LTTE asked people to go under UN eye, but people refused as they were afraid of SL Army torture.Only a seperate Homeland for tamil “EELAM” would be a solution to this.
3)Let UN take poll on North for people’s desire on seperate homeland.
4)Norway knows the fact about LTTE & SL Army,were they did not ban LTTE
5)SL Killed a fellow sinhalese Lasantha Wickrematunge(Journalist) for his publications against Govt. move in Tamil’s freedom act.Lasantha wickrematunge baged UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2009.
6)SL hold’s 165 place of 173 countries for Reporters Without Borders.As they try to cover up their flaws.
7)Northern part under LTTE rule was well packed and diciplined
*Let all our tears vanish and EELAM Rise…..*

Posted by Muhilan B.E | Report as abusive