7.6 The final phase: the ‘Number Game’
By the end 2008, the stage was set for the worst scenario. The media was barred. The aid workers were ordered to leave the conflict zone. Predicting the impending tragedy, Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development, told Radio Australia on the 9th September: “We had a critical food and water shortage for many people, we're talking here about currently tens of thousands of children who are starving. According to UN estimates, 40 per cent of all children in this area are currently malnourished and don't have access to any prospect of food. That will deteriorate dramatically over the coming weeks in the absence of humanitarian workers. Clean water is not available in many areas and medicine has been deprived from these communities by the Sri Lankan government, in fact by not allowing medicines through to hospitals and clinics in the area. So this situation is likely to become a bloodbath in the next several weeks. Apart from the direct military conflict we would expect that many, many people will die or be in extreme circumstances if humanitarian workers are not able to access this area.” (http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/programguide/ stories/200809/ 2359170.htm)
But there were deliberate attempts to downplay the magnitude of the impending blood bath. The GoSL kept on insisting that there are no more than 70,000 civilians remaining inside the conflict areas. As it was highlighted in a statement released by the Amnesty International on 19th of November 2008, there were at least 300,000 civilians remaining inside the conflict zone (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/sri-lankan-government-must-act-now-protect-300000-displaced-20081119). On 28th of January 2009, in one of their press communiqués, Médecins Sans Frontières confirmed that “an estimated 250,000 people trapped in heavy fighting in the Vanni.” (http://doctorswithoutborders .org/ news/article.cfm?id=3372&cat=field-news). These numbers were confirmed by the Human Rights Watch who issued a statement titled “SRI LANKA: Urgent Action Needed to Prevent Civilian Deaths” on the same day.
But the Sri Lankan government kept on playing with the numbers by making contradictory statements about the remaining civilians inside the conflict zone. According to two reports published by both BBC and France 24 on the 2nd of February 2009, the government admitted that there are about 120,000 civilians trapped in the area. But a report published on the 15th of February in ”The Island” newspaper which quoted the Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management said that there are only 65,000 civilians left in the battle area. It didn’t stop there. Again on the 27th of February the state owned “Daily News” quoted the Defence Secretary saying that there are still around 88,000 civilians left to be “liberated.” After two weeks, when the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes visited the country, he was told that there are about 70,000 people remaining in Vanni. But on the 13th of March, while having a telephone discussion with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the humanitarian situation, President Rajapaksa was quoted saying that only 50,000 civilians are left to be “rescued”.
Eventually, during last days of the war, more than 200,000 people who survived the brutal onslaught crossed over to the government controlled areas. Contradicting everything that was said by the responsible leaders of the state, including the President and the Defence officials, by the end of the war the Defence Ministry website published a detailed report on the “rescued Civilians”. It revealed that from 20th of April to 16th of May, 145,674 civilians were “rescued” from the battle zone. (http://www.defence.lk/hm/hm.asp)
The deflated numbers are part of the government strategy to limit the required food and medical supplies to the conflict zone. The strategy had a drastic effect on the conditions of the people who remained inside the Tiger controlled areas. Frequent reports on starvation deaths and severe malnutrition among the children were a direct result of this deliberate policy. As it was highlighted even in the recent US State Department report that was submitted to the US congress, “69% of children were malnourished” and “vaccine coverage was below 50%.” The report further says “an HRW source in the Vanni reported that the only functioning hospital in Mullaittivu, the Mattalan hospital, was closing due to drug shortages.”
“March – An organization’s local source reported that the quantity of food items arriving in the NFZ was totally insufficient. Medicines allowed to be brought by ships did not meet the rising medical needs of the people. Antibiotic drugs and syrups, vaccines, IV fluids, analgesics, and surgical items were in acute shortage.”
“May 6 – An organization’s sources expressed their belief that the GSL was deliberately preventing delivery of medicine to the NFZ and reported that ?over the last week, at least 20 people have died due to starvation and lack of medication”. (Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka)