Still Counting the Dead

Published: December 6, 2012

Frances Harrison, who was a BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka from 2000-2004, reflects on the horrors experienced by Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority during the final, brutal months of the war, and comments on the UN’s recent inquiry report.

For decades, Sri Lanka was the setting for civil war between the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government. Then, in the first few months of 2009, the war reached a bloody climax, ending with the death of tens of thousands of civilians. Through a strict media blackout, the Sri Lankan government ensured that the world was unaware of their suffering. Following the war, Frances Harrison, who was the resident BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka from 2000-2004, interviewed survivors, whose horrific stories she recounts in her new book, Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.

How would you place the Sri Lankan war in the context of modern history?

It’s a war that’s been going on for decades. Actually, the root causes of it started way before I was even born. But I focus very consciously on one particular little slice of it, which I really place in the context of the post-9/11 world in which we live, because I think those are the attitudes in terms of the “war on terror” that really influence the reporting of the war, and attitudes of the international community to it.

And that’s, of course, what we saw in the UN inquiry report last month. The executive summary that was dropped – but widely leaked – put it very nicely in that context and talked about how UN senior officials told governments what they wanted to hear – namely, that the Tigers were the baddies, because they were the ones that were proscribed as a terrorist group.

Looking at what happened in 2009, you have to ask: How can you have a war so costly in terms of human lives, and yet not really reported and not really registering on people’s radars? It’s a really interesting question in the world of satellite phones, social media, and forensic science.

I think one answer is the mindsets that were created by 9/11.

Looking at the way the UN behaved in the last phase of the war, would you say it was a question of a deliberate policy of obscuring the truth, rather than of negligence?

The UN is a large organization. Some of the people in the UN – mostly in the lower ranking levels, the middle guys – were incredibly brave, actually. They risked their careers, and their lives, sometimes, to help people. But there were two or three very senior officials who didn’t reveal information, and I think they made really, really questionable judgment calls, and it had an appalling impact.

The report quotes another UN official who raises the question of whether they were complicit, and I think lawyers will have to look at that in the future and ask whether that was indeed the case. I think it’s clear that they suppressed information. It may have been an ideological outlook on life, it may have been what they felt they were expected to do, or what member states wanted to hear, or it may have been lack of comprehension. It’s really hard to impute a motive to them – but the effect of it was appalling.

The UN seems to be in this situation relatively often, where it fails to respond to some sort of humanitarian disaster, normally associated with war, and then there are all these mea culpas afterwards. As a reporter, do you find that frustrating?

Well, “never again” – and then it happens again. A lot of people have pointed out that the language of this report is similar to previous ones, and that the report itself says that lessons weren’t learned from Rwanda that should have been. And now they’re talking about using this report to learn lessons for Syria, which, at one level, is fine, because people are dying in Syria every day, and everybody wants that to stop. If they can use this report to galvanize more action about Syria, fine.

But actually, what I think many Sri Lankan Tamils feel is that this is not over for them. And to use this report for some other country only, whilst they might have sympathy for those people, is quite aggravating for them.

The UN has really failed to act, even now, on Sri Lanka. Having a report is one thing, but it doesn’t really end there – it’s not like that’s done and dusted for people who live in that country, or for people abroad. We’re talking about a grave failure, but there’s no apology to those people, and there’s no putting the record straight in the sense of setting up a commission of inquiry to look into war crimes, which is what Ban Ki-moon’s own advisers suggested he should do.

What role did foreign governments play?

I think, broadly speaking, a lot of them turned a blind eye. It was the same sort of mindset: They wanted the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] gone, out of the equation. They saw them as troublesome, as problematic for any kind of peace solution in Sri Lanka, and thought they had sort of had their chance to talk peace and bungled it. I think many western countries had that approach.

Obviously, proscription of the LTTE as a terrorist group was a key turning point. It unbalanced the whole relationship with the government, and made it very difficult to talk about anything other than a military solution. Many governments were quite happy to have the LTTE out of the equation, but I don’t think they realized the war was going to be quite as brutal as it turned out to be, and that so many people would die. I’m sure they wouldn’t have signed off on it if they’d known that. It got completely out of hand, in a way. You can see that if you read all the WikiLeaks cables through the months: A note of desperation sets in towards April/May 2009.

Now, we’re three and a half years on, and we see a government in Colombo that has no (so-called) terrorist threat to worry about, but isn’t sharing power with Tamils, isn’t doing the slightest thing to make concessions to them or to put things right, denies absolutely everything that happened, is increasingly eroding the rule of law, and is oppressing its own people as well as minorities.

So, having effectively supported, or turned a blind eye to, a government that did that, and then to see that it’s not a much better Sri Lanka as a result, is embarrassing. And I think we’re seeing more pressure, more anxiety, more embarrassment, and more impatience internationally.

Was it really impossible for the average person to know what was going on at the time?

I think, broadly speaking, people knew that something quite nasty was happening, but not necessarily the scale of it. I didn’t really know how intense the suffering was, and I lived there. I knew the people, I knew the area, and I talked to one of the Tigers throughout the war. I came away and watched it long distance, and I was aware that it was horrible. But when I actually sat down to interview people, I was very surprised by how dreadful it was. It was a lot worse than I had anticipated.

What was the most surprising thing to you?

I remember talking to some of my journalist friends who were going to Colombo when the war ended. It shocked me that the government was basically going to detain everybody who was a survivor in the internment camp, when there were clearly abuses going on.

When I started to do the interviews, I thought the story would be about the last five or six months of the war. What I didn’t bank on was that the period in the refugee camps, the escape from those camps, and people’s experiences afterwards, would be quite so dramatic.

In 2009, war in Gaza was getting a ton of the world’s attention – as it is again now. How do you explain which stories the public, the media, and foreign governments, for that matter, attach themselves to?

Gaza gets more attention because rebels for the whole Middle East represent rebels for the Muslim world, because of what’s at stake strategically, and because it’s just better known. But obviously it’s upsetting that in Gaza there were maybe 1,500 people killed in the Israeli incursion in January 2009, and shortly afterwards there were thousands and thousands of people being killed in Sri Lanka, but Gaza got all the attention.

It’s very frustrating that human life isn’t treated equally in different places, but Sri Lanka, I think, is really complicated. It’s really small, and it’s not as strategically important – except possibly for India and China. On top of that, the terrorism label deterred people from really understanding what happened.

I think it’s amazing that you can have an atrocity that is probably one of the worst in recent decades in terms of the scale of death, and have such little reporting on it. We’re talking about four or five months, perhaps, of the worst killing. The UN panel report says 40,000 people were killed, the latest report says possibly 70,000, and I think it’s even possible (though I find it very difficult to accept) that it could be more than that. There are lots of indications that well more than 100,000 people are missing from the population database, though there are obviously questions about how accurate that is.

People flooded into safe zones, and then were basically sitting ducks. Can you talk a bit about that?

There’s a lot about the story that, when I really dug into it, I found very difficult to conceive, to accept, and to understand. Even now, if you ask me to explain why a government would deliberately shell a hospital, I can’t really tell you, because the motivation is so bizarre.

But yes, the government unit actually declared three no-fire zones. The first one was around Jan. 20. They dropped leaflets and made announcements on the radio telling civilians they should go to a specific area. That area was right on the frontline. At that point, they could have declared it on the coast, where people could have been picked up by a ship or would have been further away from the fighting, but they didn’t. And those no-fire zones were deliberately and indiscriminately shelled with large numbers of people in them.

The UN witnessed that, and if you read the inquiry, at the back, there are all the radio reports they sent in at the time with the time codes, like, “0400 hours: Those three shells came and outside of our bunker dead bodies are all around us.”

This is the first time that evidence has come out in public. The big question is, if it had been made public earlier, what might the impact have been? At least people wouldn’t have been able to say, “We didn’t know.”

It’s very hard to conceive that this kind of thing could be possible, and that’s probably what makes it easy to ignore it or deny it.

What could the outside world have done in Sri Lanka?

They could have put a lot of pressure on the government to hold back, and to have some kind of cease-fire where they could have tried to evacuate people. I don’t think there was enough pressure on the government. They got the message that they could really get away with it.

How would you classify the peace?

It’s a very uneasy peace in the sense that one side is the victor – it’s victors’ justice, it’s triumphalism. There’s an increased militarization in these conflict areas, with the army as one ethnic group. There’s no way Tamils can organize culturally or politically. It’s quite an assault on their identity now. Tamils can’t even mourn. They can’t get together and mourn the dead, which is the most basic thing after a war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

The army has actually increased in size. It’s involved in business in the northeast, and it’s controlling life. In a way, it’s very much an occupation now. I don’t think that’s sustainable, and I don’t think that’s healthy for the future.


Frances Harrison was the resident BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka from 2000-2004, and is the author of the recent book, Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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