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First Person: 'Mullaithivu, Kilinochchi are ghost towns'
Sheela Bhatt
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January 30, 2009

An unprecedented situation has emerged in the 26-year-old ethic war in Sri Lanka [Images].

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is supposed to be making its last stand against the Sri Lankan army. But, the situation has taken a surprising and tragic turn because while retreating the LTTE [Images] has taken along with it approximately some 1.5 lakh Tamil civilians. Their condition in the thick jungle areas is likely to be pitiable.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa is unwilling to back out after going so far. It's no mean political achievement that he has not only got grip over the Tamil Tigers but is able to curtail his political opponents. The army has been successful in capturing the LTTE headquarters in Kilinochchi and their naval base in Mulliathivu. Also the time factor favours the Sri Lankan army because in New Delhi [Images] the Congress-led government understands that the LTTE must be dismantled and its chief Prabhakaran must be tried for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi [Images].

In the ongoing military action against the LTTE, Singhalese nationalism has reached new heights in Sri Lanka. The majority community fully supports the army's actions. These cocktail of factors have made situation of those behind the front lines quite terrible. The Tamilians who are shifting since the last six months or so along with LTTE are at a real risk of facing tanks, guns and bombs of Sri Lankan army in the coming days. The situation will be grave for India as well if there are mass killings during the final assault on the LTTE.

The Tamil Tigers will blame the killings on the Sri Lankan army while the government has already alleged that the LTTE is using innocent Tamilians as human shields. The propaganda war is in full steam on both sides.

But what worries people concerned is that the deaths of Tamils civilians will be a historic tragedy that India and other powers won't be able to ignore. The 48-hour deadline for civilians to surrender will be over on Monday. If a large number of people hiding with Tamil Tigers don't surrender then what will happen next is hard to imagine.

On January 27, B Muralidhar Reddy, a distinguished journalist with The Hindu was taken to the war zone of Mullaithivu, along with other Sri Lankan journalists by the Sri Lankan defence ministry. The Colombo-based Reddy known for his professional dispatches shared his experiences and the current ground realities in a conversation with's Sheela Bhatt.

"Mullaithivu was under LTTE control since 1996. It's a coastal town from where LTTE managed its sea operations. It was also considered vital for LTTE's supplies. In the last two months when the Sri Lankan army reached Kilinochchi, the LTTE shifted its offices to Mullaithivu. The town was captured by the Sri Lankan army on January 25. Two days later we were taken from Colombo by an AN-32 cargo aircraft to Anuradhapuram. From there we were taken in two choppers and we landed 15 kms from Mullaithivu. From there we went into town in armoured tanks. Mullaithivu was a ghost town. It was completely deserted when Sri Lankan army entered it. There was not a single resident in the whole town. It was similar to when the Sri Lankan army captured Kilinochchi on January 2. 

It seems to me that it is a kind of political message the LTTE gave to the Sri Lankan army -- that you will get back only barren land.

In Kilinochchi, where we were also taken, we saw that entire town was empty. The government told us that everything was taken by the LTTE.

It was as if the town was erased from the map and barren lend was left behind for the army to recapture. The windows and doors of homes were taken away. Every property in the town was dismantled. It was an unforgettable sight. It's possible that the LTTE took away these things for make-shift shelters. It must have taken four to five weeks to dismantle the entire town. When they realised their fall is inevitable, they must have dismantled the town. 

In Mullaithivu, it seems that LTTE didn't get time to dismantle the town but it was kind of a frozen town. There were no men or women or children in the homes, shops or streets. The LTTE has said that it is not their policy to organise an exodus of unwilling people.

We entered Mullaithivu at 10.15 am and stayed till afternoon. The army men explained to us how they entered it, how they faced six ditches which were laid down to prevent their advance. It was very unusual for us to walk into town and not see any humans. Mullaitevu was little less eerie than Kilinochchi because the properties were intact. I saw a cycle repair shop where some used tyres were lying around. I saw some homes with fans and windows. We saw a temple of the martyrs without its roof. Here the LTTE brings the dead bodies of the Tamil Tigers. We saw a jewellery shop with all the jewelery boxes in the shop but they were empty. The Lankan government says that around one lakh Sri Lankan Tamils have been taken away forcibly by the LTTE. 

United Nations agencies have a given tentative figure of 2.5 lakh while pro-LTTE sources say that some four lakh people are with LTTE. They are in a little area behind Mulliatevu town. It's a mystery how are they able to live over there. It's a thick jungle and a small area around Vismadu and Puthukkudiruppu in north Sri Lanka.

It's very difficult to get an idea of their plight and survival. Since last September they are on move and shifting to various places. In September, the government asked all NGOs to leave the area held by the LTTE. Even the UN left. Except for the Red Cross nobody knows the real picture. Since the last ten days LTTE is not allowing them too as well as stopping food supplies. LTTE had refused to release 300 sick patients. The LTTE said that army in name of evacuation may attack. The LTTE knows that if civilians leave the area then there will be no hurdle for the army to fire at them so they are resisting any evacuation.

The army is in high sprits. Perhaps in a long, long time it has never had such success. Nobody knows if all these thousands of people have gone of their own or are hostages. The majority Sinhalese community is thrilled. The minorities are fearful and are completely silent watching the situation unhappily. The main opposition parties have also hailed the victory now.

Around 3,700 army men and 1500 LTTE men have died in Sri Lanka since this phase of the war started in 2006. We don't have reliable figures of civilian casualties.

The fact of the matter is that the LTTE is isolated in the entire world. It's banned in more countries than then al Qaeda. They have no friends left in the world.

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