IV. Attack at the Kathiravelli School

Throughout October and early November 2006, the LTTE and Sri Lankan military exchanged artillery fire in and around the Vaharai area about 80 kilometers north of Batticaloa town. Vaharai remained under LTTE control until mid-January 2007. On November 8, 2006, the fighting turned deadly for Tamil civilians trapped in the conflict zone.

At around 7:15 a.m. the LTTE fired artillery from the Kathiravelli area at Sri Lankan military targets. According to the Sri Lankan government, LTTE artillery and mortar fire hit Mahindapura village and the army camp there.58 One media report, citing defense ministry sources, said the LTTE fired 81mm mortars from the jungle at the army camps in Mahindapura, Serunuwara, and Kallar. The shelling lasted approximately 20 minutes, with sporadic shooting after. Two shells landed around 11:25 a.m.59

Around 11:35 a.m. the military fired back with artillery and multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs). According to the military, it used “mortar locating radar” to identify the LTTE gun positions two kilometers northwest of the Kathiravelli jungle area.“Two MBRL salvos and 130mm artillery guns of the security forces engaged the target,” the government said. “Security forces believe that the LTTE had relocated their gun positions closer to the civilian settlements which the security forces never expected.”60

The salvos landed in and around the Vigneshwara Vidyalayam school in Kathiravelli. Since August the school compound—about five acres—had housed internally displaced persons from Trincomalee district, many of whom had fled the fighting further north in Mutur. At least 2,000 people were in the camp at the time of the attack, living in the six school buildings and in tin and palm-leaf huts on the premises.61

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 12 witnesses to the attack. All said that the shells landed without warning and that, while the LTTE was frequently milling about the area, no LTTE fighters were located in or adjacent to the IDP camp at the time of the attack or directly before. The LTTE had sentries in the area of the camp, ostensibly to monitor the movement of displaced persons, they said, but the nearest LTTE military base was the Sinnakangai camp on the coast about two kilometers away. None of the interviewees had seen or heard outgoing shelling earlier that day.

“Before the shelling I heard nothing. It was sudden, we didn’t expect it,” a woman who lives next to the Kathiravelli school told Human Rights Watch.62

“We expected nothing,” another woman said. “Our children were playing and people were moving about.”63

“There were no [LTTE] cadre or terrorists there,” said a man whose son and daughter were wounded in the shelling. “I don’t know why the army attacked.”64

These and other witnesses explained what happened when the first shells hit. A woman whose house stands adjacent to the school told Human Rights Watch how her six-year-old son and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter were wounded when a shell landed inside their compound as they bathed in a well:

I heard the shelling and I ran to the well. I saw my son running and then my daughter. Both were wounded. My son was hit in the leg. My daughter was wounded on the head and chest. They were bleeding. My husband was washing clothes near the well and he did not get hit.65

The mother took her daughter to the nearby Vaharai hospital, where she died. The son went to the Batticaloa hospital, where doctors removed shrapnel from his leg.

Human Rights Watch spoke with the father of two girls, age one-and-a-half and six, who lost his wife in the attack. The family fled to the Vaharai area from Mutur, he said, and they had been staying in the Kathiravelli school for about six months:

My wife was bathing at the well near my hut. I heard one big boom and saw smoke. Smoke was everywhere and I ran out to look for my wife but I couldn’t find her through the smoke. Then I saw her lying near the well. My younger daughter was also wounded there. Blood was all around. I called her [my wife] but she didn’t speak.66

A mother of four children explained how her husband died in the attack. The family had come to the Vaharai area from Mutur in July 2006, she said. They stayed in a house about 500 meters from the school. The mother was seven-and-a-half months pregnant when the attack took place.

I heard a blast, many blasts. My husband was in the camp to get food. I went there and I saw the dead bodies and the wounded. I waited one hour and then I went in. I heard 15 or 16 blasts in the camp. I saw my husband’s dead body in the camp. There was a room where they gave out rations and he was behind that. I was screaming and crying. I didn’t take him to the hospital because I saw he was already dead. His body was in pieces but I recognized part of his face.67

A young girl wounded in the Kathiravelli school attack on November 8, 2006. © 2007 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Villagers and survivors of the attack took the wounded to the health clinic in Kathiravelli and then to the small hospital in Vaharai. Meanwhile, the military prevented the ICRC and SLMM from accessing the school site until about 4 p.m. Finally, an ICRC convoy of six ambulances, a bus, a truck, and three cars reached Vaharai hospital and transferred 69 serious cases to Valaichchenai hospital.68

On November 10 and 11 Human Rights Watch visited the Batticaloa hospital, which received other wounded persons. Shrapnel wounds to the stomach, lower back, and arms and legs were predominant among the women. “Many people were cooking and were hit by shrapnel,” a wounded woman said.69

In total, 62 people died. According to hospital records obtained by Human Rights Watch, 47 people, ranging in age from one to 74 years old, suffered injuries. Twenty-three of these victims were under 18. Twenty-one were women and 26 were men.

Three of these five children died in the Kathiravelli school attack: Gunanathan Suveeka, age 8 (first from left), Gunanathan Rajkumar, 6 (third from left) and Gunanathan Sarojinidari, 8 (fifth from left).  © 2006 private

While describing the loss of civilian lives as “a tragedy,” the Sri Lankan government sought to justify its attack as lawful under the laws of armed conflict. In a statement on November 9, the Ministry of Defence said that army units had responded to two early morning artillery attacks from LTTE forces only after confirming the location of the LTTE weapons through the “mortar locating radar” and “observation points.”70 Government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said the government regretted the incident but the “[a]ctions by the defense authorities were inevitable.”71

Rambukwella said the government would open an investigation. Human Rights Watch asked the government who is conducting the investigation and when will findings be announced, but the government said it could not answer these questions because the answers contained “security sensitive information.”72

More pointedly, the government claimed that the LTTE had used camp residents as “human shields” to deter government forces from responding to LTTE attacks. “The Tigers had been planning this situation since the beginning of this month by detaining the innocent civilians in those areas by force to be used as a human shield when the time arises,” a Defence Ministry statement right after the incident said.73 Human Rights Watch asked the Sri Lankan government how it had determined that the LTTE used human shields. The government replied,

Thousands of innocent civilians who came into government controlled areas complained that they were treated inhumanely by the LTTE and used as a human shield. Various international and local independent organizations too confirmed this fact. This information was supported by government sources.74

The 12 witnesses who spoke with Human Rights Watch provided no support for the government’s claim. None of the people at or around the Kathiravelli camp that day reported any LTTE artillery fire that morning. The nearest LTTE military base was about two kilometers away, three people said. Six others explained how the LTTE had blocked them from leaving the Vaharai area along the roads, including one incident in which LTTE fighters shot and wounded a displaced person (see above). But none of them said the LTTE had used anyone as a “human shield,” that is, purposefully using civilians to render an LTTE fighter immune from attack.75

Similarly, Human Rights Watch spoke with three international organizations with direct knowledge of the Vaharai area and the Kathirivelli incident, and none of them had any direct knowledge, or had heard credible reports, of the LTTE using civilians as “human shields.”

In addition, the location of the displaced persons camp was known to the government and should have been known to local army commanders. The camp had opened on August 8 and received regular supplies from the ICRC and the Italian Red Cross. Aerial observers would have spotted the numerous tin and palm-leaf huts on the school grounds.

As alleged evidence of LTTE military activity in the school, the government pointed to the many bunkers on the school grounds. Displaced persons who spent time in the camp readily admitted to Human Rights Watch that they had dug bunkers. The purpose was to protect their families from government shelling, they said—a common practice in Sri Lanka’s militarily contested areas. “We built a bunker for ourselves in the camp for our protection,” said the man who lost his wife.

“In the daytime, the LTTE didn’t carry weapons, so I don’t know who was LTTE,” said a man who was in the school during the attack. “In the school after the bombing I saw no weapons, no bunkers or artillery.” He continued, “When the LTTE has heavy weapons they don’t show them because they’re afraid someone will inform.”76

The woman who lost her husband said that about 15 LTTE fighters stayed in some huts about 600 meters from the school. “They had rifles but no heavy guns,” she said.77 This matches other reports that the LTTE had sentries around the camp.

The Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, which entered Vaharai on the afternoon of November 8, confirmed the witness accounts. “Our monitors saw there were no military installations in the camp area, so we would certainly like some answers from the military regarding the nature and reasons of this attack,” SLMM spokeswoman Helen Olafsdottir said.78

Even if the LTTE had exercised control over the IDP camp, that would not have affected the camp’s fundamentally civilian nature that prohibited attacks against it. Having guards around the camp and even abducting children and young adults from the camp for use as LTTE fighters—as some displaced persons reported to Sri Lankan human rights activists—would not have transformed the Kathiravelli camp from a protected civilian object into a legitimate military target.

The laws of armed conflict, applicable in Sri Lanka’s civil war, require military forces to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians. Civilians and civilian objects may never be targeted for attack. Attacking forces must take all feasible measures to ensure that a target is in fact a military objective.79

In addition, the presence of LTTE forces in the vicinity of the Kathiravelli camp does not in itself make the shelling lawful. Military forces must use methods of attack and weapons that can discriminate between combatants and civilians. Anticipated civilian loss in an attack cannot be disproportionate to the expected military advantage. Thus, the military gain of attacking any LTTE forces near the Kathiravelli camp would have had to be measured against the anticipated civilian harm.

Given the mobility of most LTTE artillery and the permanent and long-term nature of the Kathiriveli IDP camp, whose location was known to the government, the Sri Lankan military failed to take adequate measures to distinguish between combatants and civilians, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries.

Although there is no evidence of human shielding by the LTTE, the armed group did violate its obligations under international law by blocking the flight of many families trying to escape the area. (See Chapter III, “Internal Displacement”.)

58 “Civilians at the Mercy of the Tigers,” Government of Sri Lanka press release, November 9, 2006, (accessed May 7, 2007). Human Rights Watch asked the government at what time the LTTE attacked SLA positions on November 8; where; and the resultant casualties. The government declined to provide the requested information due to “security sensitive information.” Sri Lankan government response to Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2007.

59 D.B.S. Jeyaraj, “Massacre of Innocent Civilians at Kathiraweli,” Transcurrents, November 11, 2006, (accessed May 6, 2007). According to this article, five soldiers and a civilian employee were wounded and one soldier died.

60 “Civilians at the Mercy of the Tigers,” Government of Sri Lanka press release. Human Rights Watch asked the government what type of weapons the army fired into the Kathiravelli area; at what time; and by means of what targeting method. The government declined to provide the requested information due to “security sensitive information.” Sri Lankan government response to Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2007.

61 According to displaced persons present at the time of the attack, as well as a school employee, the compound had a rectangular shape. Inside stood a large assembly hall and five school buildings.

62 Human Rights Watch interview with Vaharai resident, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

63 Human Rights Watch interview with Mutur resident, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

64 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced person, Batticaloa, November 11, 2006.

65 Human Rights Watch interview with Vaharai resident, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

66 Human Rights Watch interview with Mutur resident, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

67 Human Rights Watch interview with Mutur resident, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

68 “Sri Lanka: ICRC Deplores Attacks on Civilians,” ICRC press release, November 9, 2006, (accessed May 7, 2007).

69 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced person, Batticaloa, November 11, 2006.

70 “Civilians at the Mercy of the Tigers,” Government of Sri Lanka press release.

71 “Sri Lankan Government ‘Regrets’ Civilian Massacre,” Agence France-Presse, November 9, 2006.

72 Sri Lankan government response to Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2007.

73 “Refugee Camp Bombing Kills 65 in Sri Lanka,” Agence France-Presse, November 8, 2006.

74 Sri Lankan government response to Human Rights Watch, July 12, 2007.

75 The practice of human shielding is specifically outlawed by international humanitarian law. Article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states, “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”

76 Human Rights Watch interview with displaced person, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

77 Human Rights Watch interview with Mutur resident, Valaichchenai, February 26, 2007.

78 Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi, “Sri Lanka Says Sinks Rebel Boats as Thousands Flee,” Reuters, November 8, 2006, and “Anger of Lanka Civilian Deaths,” BBC, November 9, 2006, (accessed May 3, 2007).

79 The war in Sri Lanka is governed by international humanitarian treaty law and customary law applicable during non-international armed conflicts. Sri Lanka is a state party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. While it is not party to the Protocol Additional of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) or the Protocol Additional of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), most of their provisions are considered reflective of customary international law. An authoritative study of customary international humanitarian law is the ICRC’s two-volume Customary International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).