NEW YORK – One of the worst atrocity crime stories of recent decades has barely registered in the world’s collective conscience. We remember and acknowledge the shame of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. We agonize about the failure to halt the atrocities being committed almost daily in Syria. But, at least until now, the world has paid almost no attention to war crimes and crimes against humanity comparable in their savagery to any of these: the killing fields of Sri Lanka in 2009.
Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians became trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the northeast of the country.
With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage that followed, as a result of indiscriminate army shelling, rebel gunfire, and denial of food and medical supplies.
The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan government’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What occurred in the cage, according to this narrative, was the long-overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection that had threatened the country’s very existence.