‘I watched a little baby die today. Absolutely horrific…This is happening over and over and over…It is shelling with impunity and merciless disregard for the civilians who simply cannot escape… No-one here can understand how the international community can let this happen.’
This was the foreign correspondent Marie Colvin’s last report, from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, heard just hours before her death last week. But the chilling description could also apply to the scenes she witnessed in Sri Lanka during her time covering the bloodiest episodes of the conflict there.
There are striking similarities between the two conflicts. The Syrian regime seems to be following the ‘Sri Lankan option’ of dealing with internal conflict: ‘unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues’ attempting to block all media reporting, cutting off civilians from the outside world and then shelling them remorselessly as the international community looks on – or looks away.
‘I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling.
Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash…
Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.’
Bearing witness meant that she was one of a few journalists who gained access to the northern Tamil area of the country in 2001, to investigate reports that the government was blocking food and medical supplies to half a million civilians. At this point, journalists had been banned from the Tamil area for six years.
Here Colvin was shelled by government troops, came close to death and lost her eye. She had screamed out that she was a journalist but to no avail:
‘I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.’
From then on her distinctive eyepatch became familiar in war zones around the world.
Sri Lanka’s crisis in 2009 became known as the ‘War Without Witness’, as the government tried numerous tactics to intimidate journalists and block press coverage of what was going in the conflict zone. This press repression continues today, as journalists are regularly threatened and disappeared.
But Marie Colvin was one journalist who did try to bear witness and communicate what was happening in Sri Lanka, especially what was happening to civilians. Her legacy in Sri Lanka is apparent from the actions of people who she interviewed and worked with- “She was so moved after she received dozens of letters from Tamils asking if they could donate her their eye.”
She is in the company of a small but committed group who have tried to push past the lies and propaganda peddled by the Sri Lankan government. This group includes professional journalists – Sri Lankan and foreign – but also brave civilians and citizen journalists such as those who recorded some of the footage in Channel 4’s ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ documentary as they ran for their lives.
They too do so at great risk, the Black January campaign last month, organised by an alliance of media organizations, has highlighted the fact that three years after the end of the civil war, journalists are still operating in fear. Several, such as Prageeth Ekneligoda, Lalith Kumara Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganandan are missing and presumed dead.
Regimes like those in Syria and Sri Lanka will try their best to silence these voices and to make it as difficult as possible for the violent realities to reach the outside world. As Colvin continued in her 2010 speech:
‘Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price…It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.
…Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us [journalists] out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories.’
Sri Lanka is also an illustration that the story doesn’t end after the guns fall silent. Despite the continuing dangers for journalists, there is still a pressing need to expose the dire human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and to keep up the pressure on the international community to properly investigate war crimes that took place during the 2009 conflict.