6.2 Tigers take the lead
Given the unprecedented magnitude of this natural calamity, immediate implementation of well coordinated relief operations was seen as the need of the hour. Despite the tensions with the Colombo government, Tigers showed a tremendous capacity in swiftly responding to the situation and bringing it under control. As it was highlighted by numerous external observers, mainly foreign correspondents who roamed the island, Tigers easily out-performed the Colombo government in carrying out well organized and coordinated relief operations in their areas.
On December 31, 2004, BBC’s Jeremy Bowen filed a story from Tiger administered Mullaithivu: “Tamil Tiger rebels here say that more than 3,000 people died in Mullaitivu - that is out of a population of more than 5,000. Buildings on the beach were completely flattened by the waves. There is almost nothing left standing..... You get the impression that the clean-up operation is very organised. The Tigers are planning to chlorinate wells and spray disinfectant around.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4137669.stm see also http://www.humanrights.de/doc_de/countries/sri-lanka/tsunami/video/bbc_mullaitivu_g_subs_512.wmv)
But more descriptive reports followed. On January 03rd , 2005 “The Washington Times” ran a special report filed by the New Delhi Bureau Chief of the Associated Press, who commended Tiger relief operations in an article titled “Tamil relief teams fast, efficient”: “Veterans of a long guerilla war, the Tamil rebels who control northern Sri Lanka moved with military precision to help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The speed and efficiency of the massive humanitarian operation showed an administrative capability that underscored the rebels' demand for Tamil independence from the Sinhalese-dominated southern part of Sri Lanka. Within minutes of the disaster, soldiers of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were evacuating survivors and pulling bodies from the still-roiling water, villagers and aid workers said. In a well-practiced drill, squads set up roadblocks to control panic and prevent looting. Others requisitioned civilian vehicles to move the injured to hospitals. Many donated blood. Teams with digital cameras and laptops moved into disaster zones to photograph the faces of the dead for later identification, then swiftly cremated or buried the corpses.
Sathinathan Senthan, the village mayor of Kallappadu, said boats of the elite Sea Tigers, the LTTE naval arm, which had a base in the neighbouring town of Mullaitivu, arrived even as the tsunami floodwaters were receding. Other sailors arrived on bicycles, he said. By the end of the first day, the first refugee centres were set up. Women in the Tigers' camouflage uniforms began registering the survivors and recording the relief items they received -- ensuring no one received more than he should.
"They applied a very efficient military machine. All they had to do was give the command," said Reuben Thurairajah, a British doctor who watched the manoeuvre in amazement....
Meanwhile, in the south, the government was struggling to cope while politicians argued over who was in charge. From the field came isolated reports of corruption and hijacking of relief trucks.” (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2005/jan/03/20050103-095929-7247r/)
On the 5th of January, 2005 “Boston Globe” correspondent Jehangir S. Pocha’s report from Kilinochchi provided more details about the nature of the relief measures carried out by the Tigers: “The Tigers appear to have taken the initiative in organizing their own relief program, creating refugee camps, and providing comparatively efficient assistance efforts. Yet nine days after the tsunami hit, ''international aid here is limited and no new international [organizations] have set up operations" in Tamil areas, said N. Karthigesu, senior Tiger relief coordinator at the Pallai refugee camp 15 miles west of Kilinochchi.... There is an air of industriousness, and ''without it we'd be dead," said Karkarthigesu. ''Most things you see here we've done ourselves. The government [in Colombo] talks a lot, but we haven't seen a thing from them." Some international aid workers have said they were surprised by the speed and efficiency with which the Tigers organized relief efforts after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26. While some Sri Lankan authorities appeared to be overcome by a shock-induced inertia for days, the Tigers organized search and rescue operations in the first hours of the disaster, according to refugees. The Tigers also set up a multi-agency task force of Tiger officials, representatives of the international organizations present in the area, local non-profit groups, and even some Sri Lankan government officials. This facilitated the quick disposal of bodies, clearing affected areas and setting up more than 35 refugee camps. (http://www.boston.com/news/world/articles/2005/01/05/sri_lanka_rebels_take_up_aid_effort/?page=2)
The paper ran a moving editorial in the same issue, quoting the Executive Director of UNICEF who seemed to be very impressed by the swiftness and precision of the relief operations put in place in the Tiger administered areas: “A relief organization that cooperates with the Tigers, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, or TRO, has been assisting not only Tamil Hindus in the northeast but also Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslim families. The central government, however, wants nothing to do with the Tiger-linked TRO... After visiting a Tamil town in the northeast that was destroyed by the tidal wave, Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, said Monday that the TRO's "well-coordinated relief arrangements put in place within so short a time are all really commendable.... The tsunami took away the lives of 12,000 Sri Lankan children, Sinhalese as well as Tamil. Those bereft parents whom Bellamy saw wandering along the beach and looking out to sea for a sign of their lost children are no more or less grief-stricken for belonging to one ethnic group or the other.... It is enough that Tamil and Sinhalese parents have lost children to the sea. No more of their children should be lost to a pointless war." (Boston Globe – January 05, 2005)
The positive remarks made by western media who observed the Tigers’ efficiency on the ground, were repeated by many others including Indian defence and policy analysts, who held strong views against Tigers. One such example was provided by an article written by a retired Indian Army Colonel and a specialist on counter insurgency intelligence, who served as the head of the Military Intelligence during the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s (IPKF) failed mission in Sri Lanka. On January 21st, 2005 he wrote: “....LTTE showed its organizational capability and discipline by organizing relief efforts in a matter of hours in areas under its control particularly in the north, in cooperation with Tamil Relief Organisation (TRO). The first relief camp came up on the same day. LTTE went about systematically to organize its international effort to collect support in cash and kind from all over the world directly, independent of TRO’s own effort. It set up special action committees for collecting funds in ten countries including France, Italy, Denmark, Norway, Germany, UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Holland and Australia.... The TRO has a better organization and has more than two decades of experience in relief. It has a lot of commitment difficult to find in a government mechanism. According to TRO, 3000 persons are involved in the relief work. Over 100 professionals from the Tamil Diaspora network and the international community are presently working with us in afflicted regions apart from 12 medical teams (including 52 doctors from the Diaspora and 18 international doctors) are involved in healthcare and work to prevent outbreak of epidemic diseases. Fifteen engineers are working on immediate and long-term rebuilding of shelters, water purification and sanitation. Local psychiatrists are providing counselling support to the traumatized victims of the tidal wave.” (http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers13/paper1226.html)
But on the contrary, the Southern mainstream media showed more interest in publishing stories about “how tsunami crippled the tigers” and how the entire Tamil areas have ‘run into a state of utter confusion and disorder.’ Without sending any of their reporters to the affected areas, “The Island” ran a story on 2nd of January, 2005 titled “Tsunami deals a crippling blow to LTTE” based on undisclosed sources: “the LTTE simply could not cope with the scope of the disaster. Unlike in the south, where television stations, companies, and members of the public organized a massive relief effort which dwarfed that of the government, the Tigers could not count on any such effort in their war ravaged and impoverished areas. Road conditions from Kilinochchi to the Mullaittivu district coastline were also very bad, as the roads have not been repaired to any great extent, unlike the A9 highway where work has been completed.” (http://www.island.lk/ 2005/01/02/features9.html) By twisting facts “The Island” report not only covered up the real situation in the affected Tamil areas, but it also tried to prevent the affected Sinhala people in the South from realizing the truth about government’s incapability in dealing with the situation. It simply symbolized the sentiments of the Sinhala nationalist forces, which remained unchanged even in the midst of a unimaginable tragedy.
Despite the disagreements that caused a certain tension between the Government and the Tigers, the most impressive initiatives were launched on the grass root level by the unaffected ordinary people who made attempts to organize relief aid to the affected areas in the North and East. While condemning the Government’s discriminatory policy, the Tigers welcomed these people to people initiatives.
But the most devastating blow came when the Colombo government prevented the visiting UN General Secretary from visiting the most affected areas in the North-east of the island which remained under the administration of the LTTE. Besides the LTTE’s official appeal, numerous statements were made by Tamil religious and community leaders appealing Kofi Annan to visit the Tsunami hit regions in the North and East. On January 7th, 2005, - on the very day the General Secretary arrived in the Island, Bishops of Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee issued separate appeals inviting the Mr.Annan to visit the areas and meet the affected people. “All the coastal cities in the northern province of Jaffna had to bear the brunt of the tidal wave. About six thousand people have perished in this disaster, two thousand are missing and 170,000 people had been rendered homeless. The town of Mullaitivu has been totally devastated and all buildings have been razed to the ground... as Roman Catholic Bishop of Jaffna together with the Bishops of Trincomalee-Batticaloa and Mannar and all the people of Jaffna I am humbly requesting the Secretary General Mr. Koffi Annan to visit the affected parts in the north and meet LTTE leaders and discuss with them about the future rehabilitation of the Tsunami victims” the joint statement appealed. (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=13906) A similar appeal was submitted by the International Federation of Tamils (IFT), a consortium of expatriate Tamil organizations on the same day, which emphasized: “..We would like to call your honour, to visit Mullithivu and north eastern part of the Island of Sri Lanka to console and support the badly affected people. Your visit is important to us as that region is facing severe uncertainty on the question of aid and future mechanism for rehabilitation...” (http://www.tamilnet.com/ art.html?catid=13&artid=13904)
On the 8th of January, on behalf of the civil organizations, a group of community representatives, which included Consortium of Civil Organizations, Consortium of NGOs, National Awareness Front, Medical Professionals Association, Society for Three Wheeler Owners, Federation of Farmers‚ Associations, Federation of Women's Organizations, Association of Businessmen, and Tamil Students Association met the UNICEF representative in rebel capital Kilinochchi and handed over another appeal pleading the UN official to visit the region. (http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=13911) But the Colombo government remained adamant by not including the region for the travel schedules.
On 8th, a Reuter report titled “Politics muddy Tsunami relief efforts” revealed the displeasure held by the UN General Secretary regarding Combo’s unchanging position on his travel schedules: “Politics have got in the way of tsunami relief efforts with Sri Lanka stopping United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan from visiting disaster areas controlled by its rebel foes.... A day after saying he was shocked by what he saw in Indonesia, Mr Annan visited Hambantota, a popular tourist resort in south-eastern Sri Lanka, which has been largely ruined. But Mr Annan was prevented from visiting the island's hard-hit north and east where he had been invited by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels, whose bloody two-decade war for autonomy has killed more than 64,000 people and is on hold thanks to a three-year cease-fire.
"I am here on a humanitarian mission. I would like to visit all the areas, but as you know I am here as a guest of the Government and they set the itinerary," Mr Annan told Reuters. UN officials said they had been striving to convince the Government, but to no avail. A government official cited security concerns among others.
"[Mr Annan] hasn't gone to Ireland and met with the IRA, he hasn't gone to Spain and met with Basque [rebels]," a government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "There doesn't seem to have been a precedent." (http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200501/ s1278837.htm)
The government’s decision to stop UN General Secretary from visiting the affected areas under the Tiger administration was not only an act that fuelled the mistrust that already existed. But it was also a clear betrayal of their own words. A week before the government prevented the UN officials from meeting the Tamil civilians who lost their kith and kin, President Kumaranatunge said in her New Year message: “The mighty forces of Mother Nature has humbled all of us in the country… What significance then should be accorded to the little quarrels and the petty conflicts that little groups of people within our nation manage to generate for a little bit of land or a little bit more of power. I would say none at all.. It belongs to all of us, each one of us, in the same way with the same privilege to use it with care. The tsunami has devastated our land with relentless indifference to regions, provinces, ethnicities and religions and all other man made frontiers. We have been left in the same devastation in the West, in the South, in the East and in the North.. It is no doubt the most tragic and the most massive disaster that Sri Lanka has known in its history.” (http://www.dailynews.lk/2005/01/01/new01.html)
But “little quarrels and the petit conflicts” still seemed dominating the day.