With much international attention focused on Gaza, a humanitarian crisis is simultaneously unfolding in another place where journalists are not permitted to go, where the two sides both persist with military solutions, and where even UN buildings are not safe from bombings. In northeastern Sri Lanka, where the government is reaching the terminus of a furious offensive against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (L.T.T.E.), civilians are suffering in the midst of the onslaught, and human rights groups have found evidence of abuse by both government and rebel forces. Last weekend, a group of Sri Lankan aid workers, prohibited from leaving the war zone by L.T.T.E. guerillas, took shelter near UN personnel, in an area the government guaranteed as a “no-fire zone.” Then this happened:
A shell landed near the compound on Saturday evening, and then another early Sunday morning, killing 9 civilians and wounding more than 20, according to a memo sent by United Nations officials in Sri Lanka to their headquarters in New York.
“Our team on the ground was certain the shell came from the Sri Lanka military, but apparently in response to an L.T.T.E. shell,” the memo read. “All around them was the carnage from casualties from people who may have thought they would be safer being near the U.N. Sadly they were wrong that night.”
This disregard for the responsibility of civilian protection is as unconscionable as Israel’s bombing of UN schools and the UN headquarters in Gaza. And as tragic as the loss of further civilian life is, perhaps even more unfortunately portentous for the cause of protection is the willingness of another military to ignore the neutrality of UN blue and jeopardize the lives of those who thought they had found temporary safe shelter.