Mourners present flowers at a Memorial Service on 11 August for Aid Workers executed (File photo)
In the first week of August 2006, 17 workers of the French Aid Agency Action Contre La Faim were killed in Muttur in the Trincomalee District of Sri Lanka. A number of questions concerning the incident still remain unanswered. Though it is vital to try to find out who was responsible for the killings, and why, there are other questions too as to the fuller reasons for the deaths of so many helpless youngsters. Sadly hardly any attention has been paid by those responsible to questions such as
a) why they went into Muttur, which was in a state of unrest at the time
b) why they remained there when all other aid workers were withdrawing
c) why they continued in their office despite government officials and religious leaders begging them to take shelter elsewhere.
Answers to these questions may explain the virulence with which the Agency has been criticizing the government of Sri Lanka and its officials ever since the incident. They may also explain why such attacks are replete with factual inaccuracies, innuendo and self-contradiction.
They may also explain why, having asked for a public inquiry, and remained in Sri Lanka for eighteen months after the incident, the Agency decided suddenly to withdraw when they were being cross-examined by a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Government to look into the incident. This was followed by further criticism from a safe distance, following on a report of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, an organization that had independently sought the truth about the incident. This report points the finger of blame for the killings on a Muslim homeguard and two policemen. UTHR, it should be noted, has generally been accepted as acting in good faith, and ACF cites this report favourably, indeed triumphantly. Most recently ACF has issued a document which skates over its own role and instead points the finger at every agency of Government connected with the incident.
Though ACF has claimed to independent observers concerned with the truth that it conducted its own inquiry into its conduct in the matter, the findings of that inquiry have not as yet been made public.
Sending the workers into Muttur
The latest ACF document claims that ‘On the mornings of July 31 and August 1, 2006, 17 ACF aid workers left the Trincomalee base for Muttur, to carry out projects in the town and surrounding areas. The organisation had a local office in Muttur to facilitate activities and limit unnecessary transportation. On August 1, the team was due to return to Trincomalee on the afternoon ferry, however, rebel troops launched an attack on Muttur before the team was able to leave, and 17 ACF workers were stranded in the town.’
This needs to be clarified. According to UTHR, some workers were sent to Muttur against their will on July 31st. UTHR claims ‘The local staff members who were to go to Mutur on Monday 31st July did not want to go. We are told that two of them applied for leave and were turned down. About 5 food security workers were sent to Mutur on Monday. One supposes that instructions to go were routed through Colombo. Some who were sent expressed a wish that evening to get back.’
Then, on August 1st, the rest were sent out because ‘As for ACF, we learn that WS had second thoughts about sending his staff to Mutur on 1st August, but was persuaded to send them by the fact that FS’s staff was already there the day before. ACF also had a coordinator, a local man, but he does not seem to have applied himself effectively in ensuring the security of the staff, or was it that those above him did not heed his advice?’
UTHR also notes 'At security level 3, all decisions to send the staff away from base, Trincomalee town in this instance, to work in an outlying area, we learn, must be routed through the head office in Colombo. Whether this procedure was followed or the decision taken in Trincomalee itself with regard to the staff sent to Mutur during that fatal week is a question to which the answer is hazy.
ACF in Trincomalee had three expatriate staff attached to the base and other expatriates from a central pool were sent to stations as required. Those at the base were the Head of Base (HB), Programme Manager for food security (FS) and Programme Manager for water and sanitation (WS). There had been a change of expatriate base staff in June. Owing to a delay in finding replacements, the newcomers did not have the benefit of a transition period where they would have worked with their predecessors. The new arrivals had no previous acquaintance with Sri Lanka and no preparation for the kind of problems they encountered in early August. All they had to prepare themselves with was written advice left behind by their predecessors. We understand that one piece of written advice left behind was for them to ask the local staff whether they felt comfortable about going somewhere before sending them.’
Again, UTHR flatly contradicts the claim that the team was due to return on the 1st, since the regular practice was for workers to stay on in Muttur for a week. Indeed ACF itself notes that the Muttur office was intended to cut down on ‘unnecessary transportation’. The impression of its opening paragraph quoted above was that, having sanguinely sent in workers on the 31st and 1st, ACF decided on the 1st itself to withdraw all of them on that day, but was unable to do so because ‘The ferry service was immediately suspended, and an ongoing battle between the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ensued leaving roads around the town unsafe for travel.’
All accounts however are that the battle began only on the 2nd, when the LTTE began shelling Muttur and taking control of some areas in the town. ACF therefore fails to explain why, following the suspension of the ferry service on the 1st, a service on which it had planned to withdraw its staff, it did not send in a vehicle straight away. It should also be noted that, while ACF claims its staff was unable to get away on the ferry on the 1st, it has also been claimed that the ferry did go back on the afternoon of the 1st, which fits in with the fact that fighting began on the 2nd. If this is correct, ACF has some further explaining to do as to why the team did not go back to Trincomalee on the afternoon ferry on which it ‘was due to return’ – even though UTHR says ‘Those sent to Mutur were normally sent in vehicles on Monday to stay over in Mutur until Friday when the vehicle would return.’
Keeping the workers in Muttur
The ACF document claims that ‘A decision was taken in Colombo, and then Paris, to request all staff members to remain in the ACF office until the fighting ceased. The whole area fell under intense fire, however regular radio contact was established and maintained with the base in Trincomalee and the decision taken, seemed at the time, to be the safest option. On August 2, the situation in Muttur deteriorated and evacuation of the aid workers was deemed impossible.’
The phrasing of this suggests that the decision to keep the workers in Muttur was taken on the 1st, but by the 2nd evacuation was considered desirable but impossible. The timing of the ‘decision…in Colombo’ seems odd, since the fighting itself began on the 2nd. ACF, which had decided even on August 1st to send in its workers, against the will of some of them, into a tense situation, had no significantly different reason to consider changing its mind on the 1st. It was rather after the fighting started on the 2nd, as UTHR made clear, that ACF decided to keep its members in the ACF office.
Keeping the workers in their office
The ACF document recognizes that the office was not a safe place, using a rather circuitous turn of phrase, viz ‘the visibility of the compound was increased, identifying it as an NGO base’. What this means is that the workers were seen as outsiders, in a context in which the inhabitants of Muttur were aggrieved. ACF does not mention that the majority of inhabitants of Muttur were Muslim, that all but one of the ACF workers were Tamil, and that the attack on Muttur launched by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam also had racial overtones. The determination to stay on in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood can be seen as a sign of faith in common humanity. It can also be seen as bravado in a context in which, on the 2nd certainly, the Tigers seemed on the ascendant. It should be noted that, even before the shelling occurred, some Tamils had been taking shelter in public buildings, which roused suspicion that they were forewarned of the impending attack.
However by the 3rd ACF grants that plans for evacuation were considered – ‘The following day, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) tried to organise an evacuation by boat in which the ACF staff could participate.’ – though again it does not confirm that it had decided to participate in this ICRC effort. Certainly, when this ICRC effort fell through, and ICRC decided to evacuate by land – UTHR reports that ‘The ICRC too had pulled out leaving behind about two local staff in Mutur, who left with the people on the 4th’ - ACF did not participate.
The omission of such decisions in the ACF document confirms that a certain sleight of hand has been employed in what purports to be a factual account of what occurred.
ACF then claims that ‘A fall back plan of moving the 17 staff members to an internally displaced persons camp was also considered by ACF, however the stranded staff members told ACF that it would not be possible for them to leave the office due to the constant heavy shelling. Twenty minutes later, the camp was hit and ten civilians were killed.’
Part II tomorrow