“I was in the eighth ward where my wife was being treated when they started randomly firing into the hospital from behind. Some staff ran towards the x-ray and my wife and I followed. We were one of the first there and ran inside with the rest. Soon others started running in and the room filled up, the crowd pressed us against the wall. Then the attackers arrived in front of the room, dragging several people with them. They shoved everyone in, then threw grenades in and started shooting. People were screaming and falling over each other,” said another witness, who introduced himself as Sivagurunathan to journalists documenting the massacre, about the terrible experiences of those terrible days.
Civil War in Sri Lanka:
What actually happened in Sri Lanka then? What were the causes and what were the consequences? Who were the soldiers who opened fire on the hospital and why did they do it? For an explanation (but not a justification) it is necessary to go back even deeper in time.
Ethnic tension for decades
The island of Ceylon has been a colony of European maritime powers since the 16th century, it was successively controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British. It gained its independence only in 1948, and entered the second half of the 20th century accompanied by a colonial legacy. This consisted, among other things, in the fact that about 50 percent of the posts in the civil service were held by the Tamil minority, concentrated mainly in Jaffna, which had received a Western-style education thanks to the earlier presence of American and other missionaries on the peninsula.
However, the Tamil minority represented only about 23 percent of the island’s population in the 1950s. And the predominance of minority Tamils in state positions very quickly began to annoy the populist nationalist politicians representing the main ethnic group of the island, which were the Sinhalese.
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These politicians were elected mainly on promises to uplift the Sinhalese people, which of course did not mean an emphasis on education and general development of the Sinhalese majority, but rather an effort to make Sri Lanka a national Sinhalese state. Related to this was the introduction of discriminatory measures directed against the Tamil minority.
In 1956, the so-called Official Language Act, commonly referred to as the Sinhala Only Act (can be roughly translated as “by law Sinhala only”) was passed, which introduced Sinhala as the only official language in Ceylon instead of English, and Tamil in official communication completely ruled out.
But Tamil was still the first language of Ceylon’s three largest minority ethnic groups, namely the Indian Tamils, the Sri Lankan Tamils and finally the Moors, who are also distinguished from the other groups by the fact that they mainly follow Islam.
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The law was adopted very controversially from the beginning, both in Sri Lanka and in the international context. According to its supporters, it was an attempt by the majority Sri Lankan community to distance itself from the former colonial masters, according to opponents, it was an attempt by the linguistic majority to gain dominance over the minorities and oppress them. The law symbolized the Sinhalese’s determination to establish Sri Lanka as a Buddhist nation-state, and thus became the main motivation for the Tamils to demand their own nation-state, Tamil Eelam.
And it was this mutual ethnic tension that eventually resulted in a brutal civil war lasting 26 years in the 1980s.
Pogromy a boy
From about 1977, local pogroms of Tamils began to occur in Sri Lanka in places where they were a minority. The political party representing the Tamils, the Tamil National Alliance, was unable to prevent them. This led to the emergence of independently operating armed Tamil groups, which, on the other hand, began to behave almost terroristically not only towards the state administration bodies (it was mainly raids of police stations), but also towards Tamils willing to conduct a dialogue with the government – they began to liquidate these people.
The most powerful of these groups, using the name Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, launched an attack in July 1983 on a Four four bravo military patrol near the town of Thirunelveli, killing its commander and a dozen soldiers.
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The answer was the largest and most brutal pogrom against Tamils to date, which took place in the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, and which, according to various estimates, killed several hundred to several thousand Tamils (in Sri Lanka, this event went down in history as Black July).
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Then the situation became unmanageable. A devastating civil war broke out, in which neither side respected any rules. Militants from the ranks of the Tamil Tigers already in 1984 committed, for example, the internationally known massacre at the Dollar and Kent farms in 1984, during which they murdered 62 civilians, including children, and a year later they attacked the bus station in Anuradhapura with open fire, where they shot 146 civilians. The Sinhalese responded with no less brutality: when they ambushed a ferry carrying Tamils, they massacred them all.
The Indian Army enters
In 1987, the Sri Lankan government made an agreement with India and invited the Indian army to the country. Its units were supposed to serve as peace corps in places of contact between hostile parties.
The Tamil population initially perceived the Indian forces as their protectors as they came under the name of “Guardians of Peace”. However, Indian troops soon came into conflict with the implacable Tamil Tigers, who controlled the Jaffna Peninsula in particular. According to Tamil sources, the cause of the conflict was the murderous excesses of Indians against the civilian population, but violence was committed by all sides of the conflict for a long time.
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At that time, Jaffna University Hospital was for a long time in this province not only the largest, but rather the only medical facility that cared for and provided medical care to civilians in the civil war.
“She treated hundreds of thousands of victims of the war and served the entire population of Jaffna as a single savior,” says Quora.
The situation worsened in October 1987 when, in an attempt to defeat the Tigers, Indian forces launched a large-scale military action called “Operation Pawan” and began advancing large columns of Indian troops into Jaffna from two sides to clear the city of the Tigers.
Massacre at the hospital
The hospital massacre took place on October 21 and 22, 1987, and killed 60 to 70 patients and hospital staff.
Its beginning can probably be considered to be around 12:30 in the morning, when the first shot fired from the cannons under construction near the Jaffna fort hit the hospital ambulance building. Around half past two in the afternoon, another bullet hit the eighth ward, killing seven people.
At that time, the Indian soldiers also penetrated directly into the hospital, who unfortunately forgot their peace-making role and opened fire, also aimed at the patients (it must be added that armed men from the ranks of the Tamil Tigers were also present in the hospital).
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How exactly the massacre took place is not easy to reconstruct, as people in the hospital tried to take cover from the shooters and often only heard the gunfire. However, the testimony of eyewitnesses, mentioned in the introduction of the text, speaks of an apparent attack by Indian troops directed against civilians. Specifically in radiology, they said, the soldiers began firing indiscriminately into a room full of hiding people, including patients evacuated from the eighth ward, killing all but those who managed to fall to the floor before being hit by a bullet.
Several doctors were also killed, such as Dr. Sivapathasundaram, who, according to witnesses, walked out of the hospital accompanied by three nurses, all walking with their hands above their heads and shouting: “We surrender, we are only doctors and nurses.”
Nevertheless, they came under fire in which Sivapathasundaram was killed and the sisters injured. A doctor named Ganesharatnam, who was among those who called on the Tamil militants to leave the hospital, was also shot dead. After the end of the massacre, the bodies of the victims were taken to a pile and burned.
The events at the hospital are interpreted differently by both sides to this day. According to representatives of Tamil militants, but also some Western independent observers and human rights organizations, it was a massacre of civilians.
However, according to the Indian Army, its troops were shelled and civilians were reportedly killed in a crossfire between the troops and Tamil insurgents. None of the soldiers involved in the hospital action have been brought to justice by the Indian government.
Nevertheless, the massacre led the Sri Lankan public to call for the withdrawal of Indian troops, which the newly elected Indian Prime Minister Viswanath Pratap Singh listened to in 1990. The last Indian soldier left Sri Lanka on 24 May that year.
After the departure of the Indian troops, the fighting flared up again with new and unprecedented brutality. As early as June 1990, the Tamil Tigers captured over 600 Sri Lankan policemen and killed them all. The Sri Lankan government responded by embargoing the importation of food and medical supplies to Jaffna and began aerial bombardment of Tamil Tiger positions. In return, the separatists intensified attacks on the civilian population. The biggest massacre of the war took place in Palliyagodelle in October 1991, where the Tamil Tigers massacred 166 Muslims, including women and children. After this massacre, 33 countries put them on the list of terrorist organizations.
Remembering the victims of the massacre at the hospital:
The biggest battle of the civil war then took place in July 1991 in the Elephant Pass, separating Jaffna from the rest of the island. About two thousand soldiers on both sides died in this clash over the course of about a month.
Peace negotiations did not begin until more than 10 years later and repeatedly failed. The end of the war is considered to be the middle of 2009, when the Sri Lankan army broke through the last line of defense of the separatists, killed the commander of the Tamil Tigers and occupied the rest of the territory. According to various estimates, the Sri Lankan civil war claimed the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 people.