Questions still haunt Sri Lanka aid massacre

by Peter Apps | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 9 April 2008 16:21 GMT

I remember the stench from the bloated corpses of the 17 dead Sri Lankan aid workers in the hospital and the cries of their families outside as I wondered if I had shaken the hands of their killers.

Last week, a local human rights group detailed the hours before and after the murder of local tsunami workers in August 2006 and I'm asking the same question again.

The workers from international aid group Action Contre la Faim (ACF) were gunned down in their compound at close range, the bullet wounds clearly visible on their bodies.

Exactly a month after the massacre, I would break my neck in a vehicle smash on another assignment in eastern Sri Lanka.

Two weeks after that, I was in a London hospital room beginning months of agonisingly isolated hospitalisation.

But this story is not about that. It is about the little I know of what was at the time the bloodiest attack on the humanitarian community since a 2003 bomb attack on the United Nations Baghdad headquarters.

People remember the Baghdad bomb. I'm not sure whether they remember what happened to the ACF staff - maybe because they were all local, maybe because their massacre and what happened in Sri Lanka that month coincided with the bloodiest phase of the much better covered Lebanon war.

I was there in the northeastern Trincomalee district to cover the first proper ground fighting since a 2002 ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels - a conflict that was genuinely shocking despite months of gradual escalation.

I watched from a hotel across Trincomalee harbour as both sides shelled Mutur, a government-held Muslim enclave between Tiger-held ethnic Tamil areas and majority Sinhalese settlements further south.

I saw the town's entire population flee south along a narrow dusty road through shellfire on foot, truck and motorbike.

What I did not know was that while I watched the exodus, the ACF office in Trincomalee told its staff to stay put in the now deserted town. The radio contact that morning was the last they heard from the almost entirely Tamil team.

The following day, some local journalists and I landed in Mutur with the military. It was a media tour designed to show that the town was back in army hands. Buildings were smashed, electricity lines cut by shellfire, dead cows in the streets.

WHO TO BLAME?

Weighed down in my heavy body armour in the intense heat and with sporadic gunfire still sounding from the town's outskirts, I was glad to get back out on an assault boat before dusk.

The following evening, I got a call telling me that bodies of the ACF workers were strewn in their compound and I realised we must have walked within metres of the still-fresh corpses.

They were far from fresh by the time I saw them days later in Trincomalee's morgue, having been carried miles by road on open tractor trailers. The smell was so bad that residents streets away covered their faces with cloths.

Officials denied the killing and blamed the rebels, but most of the relatives loading their loved ones into closed caskets outside the morgue pointed their fingers towards the military - and the aid agency for sending them to Mutur that week.

So who did it? The Tamil Tigers before they left the town? The commandos on whom I relied on my protection on our media tour? The unusually tall naval infantryman with an M-16 who I exchanged a nervous grin with?

Or was it the policemen, auxiliary home guards and soldiers who shared their brackish, salty drinking water with me?

Tuesday's report from Sri Lanka's University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) says it was probably the latter.

In what Human Rights Watch describes as "an extraordinary piece of investigation", they blame a Muslim home guard and two police constables for most of the killings. You can find the full report here .

"BAD JOKE"

They say the home guard's brother had been killed the previous day by a Tiger and he wanted revenge. They say senior officers implicitly approved and that an "air of celebration" prevailed at the police station after the massacre.

They and other observers say the official investigation was simply "a bad joke" and cover-up. International experts invited in by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to oversee the enquiry are leaving the country saying it falls woefully short.

The government says the enquiry continues, urging patience.

UTHR says three witnesses have been killed and a fourth has disappeared - and the disappeared in Sri Lanka often stay that way. Others they know have fled the country.

So as war continues to rage, it looks like my further questions will remain unanswered.

Was the bearded special forces commander I met with a knife in his belt the same man who UTHR says ordered security forces to "finish off" any Tamil speakers in civilian clothes?

From my new desk and wheelchair overlooking the skyscrapers of London's Canary Wharf, it can all feel an impossibly long time ago and a long way away.

But the raw questions remain, and just because they may well never now be answered, it does not mean they should not be.

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