|The Muttur Massacre – a quest for the whole truth|
|Monday, 07 July 2008|
by: Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
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.’
What ACF means here by ‘an internally displaced persons camp’ is not clear. UTHR records several attempts by officials to persuade the ACF workers to move to shelters. The Methodist Church, into which the pastor, Fr Swarnaraj, had collected Tamils, continued a safe haven throughout. The Catholic Church was also safe, though a shell fell nearby, causing a couple of deaths. There is no record of ten civilians being killed in any single venue, so this particular ACF claim needs to be checked further – UTHR reports that a ‘shell fell on a tree near Arabic College at 9.30AM (4th) and after that no one wanted to stay there’, but this is no reason for the ACF staff having failed to move into the Christian shelters where other Tamils were from the 2nd on. Also, given that a shell fell near the close by hospital, it is clear that the compound was as much in danger from random shelling as anywhere else, whilst the precautions ACF took against such shelling seem ludicrous in the context of fierce fighting.
ACF claims that ‘During this period, ACF contacted the Army, Navy and Police forces to inform them of the presence of the aid workers in the town and provided them with the exact GPS location of the ACF base. The organisation hoped that the information would help protect their staff members from the possibility of accidental shelling’. Since much of the shelling taking place at this time was by the Tigers, one wonders whether similar precautions were taken to inform them as well to steer clear of the office, or whether this was thought unnecessary.
It is also strange that ACF should have assumed it necessary to suggest to forces in the heat of battle that they exercise particular care about an office in the middle of an inhabited area, close to a hospital, without assuming that – since the area consisted of inhabitants who would not have been sheltering Tigers – the forces would have avoided attacking the area in general. Conversely, the failure to go along with others to a sanctuary, or to attempt to leave the town along with for instance the ICRC, seems at best suspicious. The assumption that the workers were safer in their office than in a sanctuary where many others were present including religious authorities, and which was under the purview of government officials, is extraordinary.
What is more extraordinary, given the pleas of most of the poor workers themselves for prompt evacuation from where they were, is the insistence of ACF itself, whether Trincomalee or Colombo or Paris, that they did not move from the office. There is however a possible explanation contained in another section of the UTHR Report – ‘According to INGO sources, in Friday morning’s message from Mutur, the Trinco office of ACF was told that the LTTE had called on them and told them that they were pulling out of Mutur and could no longer guarantee their security.’ Such an explanation is however also worrying – if indeed ACF staff were the beneficiaries of such guarantees which were not extended to ordinary Tamil people who had sought shelter in the churches, the manner in which ACF functioned in a context in which the LTTE had launched an sudden attack on a predominantly Muslim town seems at the very least injudicious.
Continuing delays on the part of ACF
The previous discussion concerned the culpability of ACF in sending its workers into a dangerous situation, in keeping them there, and in forbidding them from taking shelter along with others who felt endangered. Its failure to investigate these lapses has been compounded by its unwillingness to answer questions about its conduct at the Commission of Inquiry.
But there are other anomalies too. ACF claims that it tried, on the 4th as well as the 5th, to arrange evacuation by land, but that they were stopped by the Sri Lankan army. On the 6th they claim that ‘the convoy was forced to turn back after a village mob blocked the road’. However the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies did manage to reach Muttur on that day, and discovered the bodies. CHA did not have workers in danger, but it nevertheless got to Muttur. ACF, which claims that ‘after fighting ended, deliberate attempts were made by the authorities to limit access to Muttur’, fails to note that CHA got into Muttur and were not stopped from going to the ACF office.
Incidentally, ACF claims that ‘A second attempt was made to take the ferry to Muttur as soon as the service was restored, however, shells fell in front of the boat as it attempted to dock and it too was forced to turn back’ placing this statement as though to suggest that this ‘second attempt’ of theirs was made on the 6th. More reliable reports indicate that the abortive ferry journey took place only on the 7th. That was the day on which ACF had already made its way to Muttur by land, following the CHA discovery. It is odd therefore that ACF should have mentioned this ferry effort as relevant to them and to the 6th, unless one realizes that here is an organization that in fact did nothing for a couple of days about the staff it had sent to their deaths, but now wants to claim that they made every effort to rescue them.
ACF also, in its determination to fling every allegation it can against the government, asserts that ‘An obstructive attitude was also adopted toward ACF when efforts were made to collect the victims’ bodies’. However, earlier in this self-justificatory narrative, it notes that ‘Collection of the bodies was organised from the ACF base in Trincomalee using a team that largely consisted of ACF staff members. Upon arriving in Muttur, they headed directly to the police station and informed officers there of their intentions to collect their colleagues’ bodies. Five policemen escorted them to the compound gate and warned them not to take pictures or to make phone calls. The policemen filmed the scene but did not help to collect the bodies, nor did they make any efforts to gather evidence. This was an early indication of the lack of interest, from government officers, in ascertaining the truth of what had occurred.’
Here the charge is a different one, and in making it ACF indicates that they were taken to the site on the very day they managed to get to Muttur, after CHA had found the bodies. There is also no suggestion, even though they had been told on the 6th of the tragedy, that they took any doctor or other such specialist with them. Who the rest of the team were, ie those who were not ‘ACF staff members’ is not indicated.
Insinuations and allegations regarding tampering with evidence
ACF makes a concerted attempt in its document to suggest that the government tampered with evidence. They go so far indeed as to claim that ‘The authorities clearly had intended to leave the bodies exposed, then to eventually destroy them’, ignoring the fact that the authorities allowed the ACF team to take away the bodies the very day they arrived on the scene.
ACF also ‘casts serious doubts on the authenticity and integrity of the items submitted to the Magistrate’, namely ’32 empty cartridges and 11 ammunitions’. This assertion is based on the fact that its team did not notice these during their visit, and that early pictures do not show these items. They seem not to take into account the police claim that on their second visit they looked more carefully and found items buried in the ground.
They also question the findings of the experts who looked at the exhumed bodies. About the exhumations themselves they claim that ‘The AG representative was initially opposed to the idea of exhuming the bodies. However, he later allowed three exhumations, then eleven’ and only later note the difficulties caused by ‘the difficulty for the police to identify with certainty some of the victims’ graves, the absence of family representative and in one case, the lack of family consent’ (at which stage in their document they claim that only two and then nine bodies were exhumed, a small anomaly perhaps, but typical).
Whilst the authorities obviously had no problems about allowing the ACF team possession of the bodies to take them to Trincomalee on August 7th, ACF itself tries to sow mistrust in its every phrase. Thus they claim that ‘anecdotal evidence suggested that two different calibre projectiles were retrieved from the bodies ; six 7.62mm calibre bullets (commonly used in Sri Lanka with T-56 weapons) and one 5.56 mm calibre bullet (used with M-16 weapons). These are sensitive findings because potential witnesses had previously stated that government Special Forces bearing M-16 automatic rifles were in Muttur at the height of the battle’.
What is meant by the term ‘anecdotal evidence’ is not clear, but in any case ACF should have noted that the assertion that a 5.56 calibre bullet was retrieved was not anecdotal, but to be found in the report of the Australian forensic expert Dr Malcolm Dodd. Much was made of this report, including by the ICJ which accused government officials of tampering with evidence, and reproduced the allegation about government forces using 5.56 bullets, ignoring the fact that these are used by others too.
The government analyst, a ballistics expert who had identified all the bullets as 7.62, stood by his opinion, and explained why one bullet, that looked very different in the photographs from the rest, was part of a 7.62 bullet and not a different sort as initially assumed by Dr Dodd. Dr Dodd accepted this explanation, and strongly refuted what ICJ had tried to pin on him, namely the claim that the evidence had been tampered with. However ICJ, as well as ACF, now insinuate that the photograph could be of a different item from that initially examined, ignoring the fact that the photograph Dr Dodd worked with does suggest a difference for which however the ballistics expert provided an explanation which Dr Dodd accepted without hesitation. In short, after much weight being placed on the Australian’s expertise, when he retracted, with a full explanation for his reasons for thinking otherwise, he is presented as either a villain or a fool.
ACF’s perspective on the proceedings is apparent from its assertion that ‘examples of the inefficiency and failures of the Sri Lankan judicial system are common place’. This assertion however came after it had found itself embarrassed by cross-examination at the Commission of Inquiry, which led to a precipitate withdrawal. The current diatribe seems designed to excuse its avoidance of questioning about its own unsavoury role. Though it may seem generous of the Paris office to engage in this rearguard action to protect its underlings in Trincomalee or Colombo, the meanness of attacking every Sri Lankan institution to achieve this end cannot be excused.
Abuse of the SLMM
In order to strengthen its case, ACF has had constant recourse to the intervention of the then Head of the Scandinavian Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, Gen Henricsson. In this document it merely asserts that ‘Concerned groups such as SLMM, failed to thoroughly investigate the killings as their monitors were refused access to the site’, while failing to note that the SLMM without such investigation issued an ex cathedra statement finding Sri Lankan forces guilty. Following this, ACF had allowed Gen Henricsson to make such damning allegations, to be quoted internationally, at what was supposed to be a commemoration of the incident in Paris. This intervention of Gen Henricsson was in contravention of his contract, and his employers have been asked to take disciplinary action against him, though they say that he is now not in contact with them.
It should be noted that the Sri Lankan Ambassador in France had made clear to ACF that Gen Henricsson was prejudiced, and was not a suitable invitee to their events. This was after he was scheduled to speak at the first commemoration at which she herself was present. He failed to turn up then however, so after she had made her point she was astonished to find him allowed to make derogatory statements about Sri Lanka and its forces the following month. ACF providing him with this platform suggests the partiality of their approach.
This partiality is the more strange in that it was by then abundantly clear that his ruling was seriously flawed. He got the time of the killings hopelessly wrong, the only witness he cites by name was an LTTE military leader, and his principal evidence for attributing the deed to Sri Lankan forces was that they had not allowed him into Muttur at a time when they allowed journalists in.
The reasons for the killing, the responsibility for the deaths
Most recently UTHR has published a report in which it states that a Muslim homeguard was the main killer, along with two Sinhalese policemen. The report also claims that several navy commandos were present at the time of the killing, the late afternoon of the 4th of August, but were not active in the murders. ACF has made much of this report, and requested that the persons named be investigated.
Whilst UTHR reports are generally issued in good faith, it is noteworthy that this one contradicts a previous report in which UTHR asserted that the killings took place on the morning of the 5th, and that ‘a combination of one or more of the Special Forces, paramilitary elements, and armed elements under the security forces’ umbrella’ were responsible.
In its earlier reports, UTHR drew attention to the role of ACF in forcing its workers to go to Muttur and in keeping them there against their will. It also drew attention to the nugatory compensation paid to the families of these workers. ACF however ignored these reports, and seems totally happy with the pitiful amounts it paid the workers, amounting to a fraction of what it paid its expatriate staff each month. In the interests of transparency it would be useful if ACF indicated how much it paid the Sri Lankans who suffered, and also how much it has expended since in its campaign of vilification against the Sri Lankan government.
UTHR also mentions what it believes to have been the reason for the killing, namely the feeling of the Muslim homeguard that the ACF workers were somehow culpable with regard to the deaths of his brother, who had died quite near the ACF office when he had been shot in cold blood by a Tamil disguised as a Muslim. In fact there were widespread suspicions in Muttur at the time that the ACF staff, or at least one or two of them, were acting on behalf of the LTTE, and were being used to supply information about the situation in the town so as to assist the LTTE in its assaults. Certainly the claim of ACF that ‘the stranded staff members told ACF that it would not be possible for them to leave the office due to the constant heavy shelling’ is scarcely creditable since UTHR records some of them moving freely about the area during the period of hostilities.
In such a context it is incumbent on ACF to explain who made the decision to send the staff to Muttur, and who kept them there. UN guidelines are very clear about the need for expatriate staff to be responsible in such situations of conflict, and indeed to safeguard their local staff by accompanying them in such dangerous situations. UTHR pointed out that, with a recent change of expatriate staff, the titular head was not in a position to make decisions. He must then have been influenced by local staff. In the interests of those who were compelled to go to Muttur against their will, the people who were responsible for the decision should be identified.
Though this is no justification for the killing, the alleged response of the homeguard must be seen in the context of a raging battle in which Muttur Muslims in particular felt themselves under threat from the racist policies of the LTTE, which had earlier engaged in ethnic cleansing of Muslims from another Province. In such a context, of burgeoning hostility, it was at best unwise of ACF to have just one Muslim amongst the 17 staff members it sent to Muttur. Even if they had full confidence in the integrity of their staff, it is well known that staff can come under pressure to fulfil terrorist demands. A healthy mix of staff from different communities is the best safeguard against communal feelings or pressures, but ACF has sedulously avoided such an approach. Certainly this is not the only instance in which ACF staff have come under suspicion, for instance for being in possession of inappropriate information, as happened recently in Colombo. Though the explanation provided then was accepted, the recurrence of unusual behaviour – as ‘helping the Muslims during the crisis by distributing potable water and relief during the siege and also helping with sanitation in camps’, according to UTHR – could, while it might seem admirable kindness in the context of the dangers of time and place, have readily been interpreted as suspicious by someone who suffered a sibling’s loss due to clandestine killers.
Was ACF in Paris aware of all these ramifications? I suppose we will never know now. It is true, as ACF alleges, that the inquiry has taken a long time, though no longer than many such complex cases, as - to cite a French example - that of the military instructor who killed several young cadets. One consequence of the delay is that proper inquiry could not be made of the manner in which ACF had made decisions and, when the opportunity finally came, ACF promptly fled. But, if they are innocent, and feel their decision making or decision influencing staff were totally innocent, there is no reason for them not to publicize the results of their internal inquiry into what happened.
The breach of UN guidelines was egregious in this case, and it is a pity that some UN officials, who make sanctimonious pronouncements with reference to this case, do not take on someone of their own size and provenance. Surely they have an obligation, given their commitment to humanitarian workers, and in particular vulnerable local workers, to inquire into how ACF could have so carelessly sent Sri Lankan workers into danger; could have failed to get them into appropriate shelter when the danger was too obvious even for them to ignore; could have got to the scene long after a national NGO with no direct link to the murdered personnel; could have paid only trivial amounts as compensation; and could have engaged in a highly professional campaign against the Sri Lankan government whilst avoiding the Inquiry that is now taking place.
None of this takes away from the obligation of the Sri Lankan government to investigate the case fully, to take notice of all evidence brought to its attention, and to charge those responsible for the killings. The latest reports of the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry suggest that evidence is not being suppressed. The government must show that, though justice takes a long time, it will be done. Similarly, ACF must also do justice to the victims, many innocent young people forced to go into danger on the insistence of a few, by investigating and making clear what happened, who made culpable decisions and why. And it should compensate the families of the victims adequately, treating them on a par with international staff, not as mere Sri Lankans.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
Web Link : The Island
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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