Sri Lanka's ghosts haunt the summit it's about to host

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

Putumattalan beach, where the last stand in the war against the Tamil Tigers took place Credit: ITV News

You won't find this beach in any glossy tourist brochure on Sri Lanka. It's not the image of paradise the island's government wants to sell you.

Hell more like it. Or at least it was four years ago, and it's still littered with the debris of the mass exodus and killing that took place here.

The Putumattalan beach and nearby lagoon is a haunting place; part of a slice of sandy coastline that stretches for dozens of miles; a beach where the Tamil Tiger rebel army made its last stand against the national army of Sri Lanka and was defeated, ending Asia's longest running war.

But alongside the rebels who perished under withering fire were thousands of civilians.

They had been encouraged to believe that the beach and lagoon areas were "safe zones". The army established a "no fire zone" and called its operation there "a humanitarian mission".

The UN believes up to 40,000 people were killed in and around this safe area in the final months of the war in 2009.

Civilians were killed by the army, or shot trying to flee by Tamil rebels who used them as human shields, or died of hunger or thirst, or of injuries no-one could treat.

Photograph albums are among the debris that remains on Putumattalan beach. Credit: ITV News

And their belongings are still scattered all over the beach today.

There are photograph albums, the images of their happy lives now obliterated by the sun, as their real lives were by war.

Empty suitcases lie everywhere, as if their final desperate effort to flee drove them to discard everything they had left. There are toys, children's changing mats, shoes, blouses and dresses.

There are toys, children's changing mats, shoes, blouses and dresses that remain as a reminder of the events in 2009. Credit: ITV News

Some of it sits in deep holes in the sand. Some of those were dug by frightened people seeking cover from the gunfire. Some of them were gouged out by artillery and mortar rounds exploding on the beach.

I walked there with two former Tamil rebels, both of whom had survived the final battle on the coast, both of who have terrible injuries and worse memories.

Tayakiy hides a beautiful smile beneath her dark hair. She might grace a tourist brochure herself. But don't be fooled. She was a hardened fighter who almost lost her life, lost her husband, also a fighter, and now lives with a crippling leg injury.

Her companion was also badly injured, one lower arm gone, one leg horribly mangled. They remember a one-sided battle that crushed the Tamil Tigers out of existence.

Tayakiy was a fighter during the war and lost her husband, who was captured by the army. Credit: ITV News

She says the army captured her husband, then shot him and told her he died of a heart attack. She weeps at the memory.

But what makes this beach doubly memorable is that its ghosts are now haunting the government of Sri Lanka and a summit of more than 50 world leaders.

The meeting this week of the Commonwealth Heads of Government is dominated by the simple fact that it's taking place in Sri Lanka.

An organisation dedicated to the rule of law, human rights and democratic accountability is allowing a president suspected of war crimes by the UN and human rights groups to lead its summit and chair its body for two years.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Credit: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Leaders like David Cameron will arrive and shake the hand of a man many groups and governments worldwide believe has blood on his hands; responsible for up to 40,000 deaths of civilians as well as fighters in the final months of Asia's longest war.

Two leaders, from Canada and India, are boycotting the summit.

Sri Lanka's government says it is investigating what its own army did on the beaches of the north. But so far no-one has been charged.

Injured civilians are seen in a make-shift hospital following the stand off on Putumattalan beach. Credit: REUTERS/Mercy Mission to Vanni/Handout

The president is the commander in chief of the army and immune from prosecution. Besides, many Sri Lankans see him as a hero for ending the Tamil Tiger campaign.

But the inconvenient truths of the deadly end to the war will echo at the Commonwealth summit.

David Cameron will tell Sri Lanka's president and army commander that the missing and the dead should be accounted for and that a country that hosts an organisation dedicated to upholding human rights must abide by them itself.

Sri Lanka's president won't like being lectured. He is triumphant at his coup in attracting 50 world leaders here. It seems a hollow and unjust triumph, seen from the barren beaches of the war's end.