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HUNDREDS KILLED IN POORLY DESIGNED NO-FIRE ZONE
May 10 2009
Colombo, Sri Lanka – Throughout the history of human conflict civilians have always gotten caught in the middle. Whether a result of deliberate targeting, use as human shields, or sheer accident, ordinary civilians generally account for the bulk of deaths in any major human conflict. Such is the case in Sri Lanka with the shelling of a no-fire
zone in a Tamil controlled territory that killed at least 378 people and injured 1200. Though both sides in the conflict are blaming each other, many fear that responsibility will not restore the dead or lead to better defined no-fire zones.
The ongoing conflict between Sri Lankan forces and The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has escalated in recent years but has shown no signs of victory for either side. As the details of the shelling start to come to light, and as international observers try
to sort out who actually launched the attack, many are wondering if the process of simply declaring certain territories as no-fire zones is enough to end civilian deaths and avoid mass tragedies.
“War in a lot of ways is like childhood games. Hide and seek, tag, those kinds of games have roots in conflict but unlike games you play as a kid, wars have guns and bombs. They also have a different set of rules and you aren’t able to just make them up as you go along. That tends to make things a little more treacherous,” said Scrape TV International Conflict
analyst Mario Martinez. “There’s going to be a lot of he said she said in this shelling as
there is throughout the history of this conflict but it’s unlikely that any real change will come as a result of those complaints. If it were that easy to declare no-fire zones than they would be declaring them left right and centre.”
No-fire zones are intended to prevent such civilian casualties by declaring certain areas out of bounds for armed conflict. In the majority of cases such zones are occupied by men, women, and children who are not armed and are not actively taking part in the fighting. Unlike out of bounds areas in more passive conflicts like sports, those areas are generally poorly defined.
"It’s very difficult to paint huge white lines around swaths of land. Aside from the massive cost involved in doping that, quite often you have rugged terrain and foliage
that interferes with the lines. Those lack of defined boundaries make it very difficult for opponents to clearly see where a zone begins and ends. Most trees look more or less the same and that lack of definition can result in accidents like this,” continued Martinez. “The U.S. tried large scale zoning in the Vietnam War by eliminating the foliage but of course invalidated those efforts by opening up free-fire zones and butchering civilians. It was an interesting effort but showed clearly that no-fire zones are extremely hard to create and maintain in any conflict.”
Adding to the confusion in Sri Lanka is the presence of a nearby soccer field which had clearly defined borders and the tendency for the Tamil forces to regularly declare their own forces as being in no-fire zones.
“One of the biggest issues with such a system is that anyone who doesn’t want to get shot at could simply declare their territory as being a no-fire zone. You could put all your equipment in those zones and the enemy would be helpless to do anything about it. You’d have no-fire zones all over
the country and that would make winning a conflict really quite easy,” continued Martinez. “You could just move wherever you wanted, declare that spot as no fire, and it’s yours. In theory you could create mobile no-fire zones and travel wherever you wanted without fear of being shot at. That kind of behaviour understandably frustrates the opponent and makes them a lot less likely to respect simple declarations of these zones because anyone can do it.”
Line painting equipment is reportedly very rare throughout Sri Lanka.