Encountering ‘Death Counts’ in the Final Phase of the Eelam War


by G. H. Peiris

Continued from yesterday’s midweek

Using the ‘killed-to-injured ratios’ shown in Tables 2 and 3 along with the additional information referred to above the IDAG has derived a set of estimates on the numbers killed and the numbers wounded during the different time-spans of the Final Phase of the war and, based on those estimates, worked out the killed-to-injured ratios in each time-span as shown below:

There are several reasons for questioning the validity of the IDAG methodology in its application to the Final Phase of the Eelam Wars. Perhaps, the most obvious reason for scepticism relates to the impartiality/credibility of the sources of information. On close scrutiny an overwhelmingly large share of the raw data used by the IDAG appears to have been extracted from reports compiled by TamilNet and UTHR-J. No serious claim could be made that informants employed by organisations such as UTHR-J and TamilNet could have been impartial observers of the war zone, even if they were not supportive of what the LTTE was doing to the civilians in the NFZs. Political commitments and compulsions apart, this was a time the primordial sentiments of many among those working in the NFZs would have made them think that only an external military intervention (like that of Vadamarachchi 22 years earlier) could avert an impending Armageddon for their people. (Needless to stress, they do not deserve to be criticised for this.) In addition, there are several compelling reasons to doubt the impartiality of certain other organisations such as the UNOCHA office in Colombo which are also cited by the IDAG in order to authenticate its information base. Indeed, the IDAG’s quote from a TamilNet report according to which a TamilNet informant in the war zone "... personally witnessed nearly 300 dead bodies while fleeing from the area" makes the entire story in the 2nd Case Study somewhat surrealistic.

The second issue pertains to the IDAG assumption that the 3 ‘Case Study’ scenarios could be projected over a wider time-span in order to derive ‘injured-to-killed’ ratios’. Apart from the well known short-term oscillations in the intensity of violence in this phase of the war, it is ‘common sense’ (based on what we have seen or heard of artillery/bomb damage or other explosions) that the proportion of the number wounded to the number of deaths varies widely depending not only on the type of weaponry used but also on many features of the target such as its population density and its physical form. It would sounds almost banal to say, for example, that a shell falling on the confined space of a ‘hospital admission ward’ (at Puthumathalan Hospital, as several witnesses have claimed) crowded with wounded patients is likely to result in a higher proportion of ‘death-to-injury’ than, say a shell exploding over an open space with a thin scatter of people. This "common sense" finds confirmation in the two sets of data presented below (Tables 4 & 5).

(See Table 4)

The data tabulated below are from a report furnished by Dr. Sathiyamoorthy and Dr. Shanmugarajah (Regional Directors of Health Services, respectively in the Districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. The report is titled ‘Victims of Shelling in Vanni’. The two doctors claim that their report is based on information obtained from all hospitals in their respective areas of authority. The report could be accessed at www.scribd.com/doc/10556997/victims-of-shelling-in-Vanni

What these two sets of data (Tables 4 & 5) confirm more than all else is the randomness (or stochasticity) of the ratio of the number killed to number injured in incidents of attack - a fact which makes the procedure adopted by the IDAG for working out the ‘Probable Truth’ intrinsically unsound. In addition what these sets of data suggest as corollary is that (a) the ratio of ‘killed-to-injured’ is likely to have been substantially lower than the related IDAG estimates, and therefore, (b) that its estimate of the overall death-toll is excessively high.

Thirdly, there is once again the ever-elusive issue relating to the ‘Principle of Discrimination’ enunciated in Article 48 of the UN Additional Protocol 1 of 1977 - and hence, the impossibility of separating the ‘non-combatants’ from the ‘combatants’ in the type of war fought in the Vanni in the early months of 2009 through a ‘Injury-to-Death Ratio’ method or, for that matter, through any other method referred to in the present critique. There is, in the use of this method, an untenable assumption that medical personnel and others who worked at the treatment centres were able to make the distinction between the LTTE cadres (for most of whom the T-shirt, the denim or the sarong was the only battle-dress available, especially at the concluding stages of the war) and the others. That is pure bluff. Without reiterating the obvious, it is sufficient to recall the statement made by one of the most passionate defenders of the rights of civilians entrapped in conflict situations, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, according to which:

"The changing patterns of conflict in recent years had dramatically worsened the problem of compliance with international law.... In situations of internal conflict, whole societies are often mobilised for war and it is well neigh impossible to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants"

3.3. The ‘Sporadic Information Method’: A Sample of Applications

Many published estimates of the civilian death toll in the Final Phase of the war have been based largely or entirely on miscellaneous sets of information either selectively extracted from other published sources or orally conveyed by "credible"/"authentic"/"reliable"/"authoritative" informants/eye-witnesses whose identity is seldom revealed. It is also of interest that the authors of these estimates - UTHR-J, TamilNet, ICRC, UNOCHA, UNSG-PoE to mention only a few - have tended at times to resort to the practice of citing each other in order to authenticate one or another of their guesses or claims.

3.3.1. University Teachers for Human Rights - Jaffna

Among the major studies that contain detailed probes into the unresolved issues concerning the Final Phase of the war (which I have referred to at the outset) those that have depended almost entirely on this method are the two ‘Special Reports’ Nos. 32 and 34 (titled, respectively, as A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Foreboding and Let Them Speak: Truth about Sri Lanka’s Victims of War, published by the UTHR-J. In view of this, and also in the context of the fact that the uniquely voluminous writings by the UTHR-J have been used as sources by several others, I find it necessary to examine the way the UTHR-J has employed this method in these two reports.

The following extracts from the UTHR-J reports are intended to convey an impression of: (a) the sources of evidence on which the UTHR-J has relied, (b) the vistas of specific events and episodes in the last days of the war re-created by compilers of the reports, based presumably on information that includes hearsay, rumour and personal anecdote which (with a few exceptions) are said to have been narrated by persons referred to only by pseudonyms, (c) the nature of the ‘quantitative information’ embedded in such narrations, and (d) that the UTHR-J has directed its attacks on both the government of Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE. A few of the UTHR-J reconstructions (which are not reproduced below), sad to say, are as melodramatic as the ‘Kollywood’ creations in Tamil Nadu.

"I (an unnamed informant) had moved to the church in Iranapalai. During February the Kfirs came on a bombing raid. I got into a bunker. A little later a 1000 kg delay bomb fell about 15 feet from my bunker and penetrated the ground. Fortunately, this bomb failed to explode. Later the LTTE came and dismantled it to extract about 600 kg of explosive...A few days later... the bomber dropped ‘air bombs’ (bombs that explode above the surface) in the field, killing about 15. About the same time a delay bomb (1 ton or 1000 kg) fell on a temple close by. I saw a goat, a man, a mat and some cooking utensils being thrown above the height of a coconut tree...These bombs when exploding use the ambient oxygen for combustion creating a vacuum, resulting instantly in a powerful blast of wind. The blast wrenches at the clothes and renders them in tatters, leaving the injured women partially exposed. Several girls had stayed in a bunker to avoid conscription gangs (This is one of many references by the UTHR-J to the conscription of civilians). The blast covered the bunker killing all of them".

"From 21 to 29 January the Th?vipuram Safety Zone (i.e. NFZ 1) experienced intensive shelling by the Army which then was battling for Visuvamadu 3 miles to the west, resulting in astounding levels of civilian casualties. Civilians who faced intense shelling on 20 January said that is has become worse once the area was declared a safety zone the next day."

"A teacher spoke (to the UTHR) of an instance where a man of about 50 was standing with a crowd when the army began shelling, killing many in the crowd and making others restive. The man appealed amicably to the LTTE commander standing nearby (saying) Thamby (brother) at least at this stage, you must let the people go. In a move apparently to suppress any desire in the crowd to leave, the (LTTE) commander pulled out his pistol and shot the man dead."

To be continued tomorrow

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