Last night, Channel 4 in the UK aired a chilling program on the final days of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, and thankfully, they have made it available for viewing worldwide for the next few days.
"Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" is disturbing. It is revolting. It is horrific. It is also without question one of the best pieces of television journalism on conflict I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a fair bit over the years.
What shines through in the piece is how much time and effort the Channel 4 team have put into this. They have been working on this story for more the two years, and it shows: finding witnesses willing to talk and verifying their accounts, and obtaining video evidence -- including "trophy videos" taking by Sri Lankan soldiers. None of that is easy, quick or cheap. For those, like me, who often lament the scaling back of quality foreign news operations in recent years, this is a reminder that there are still people out there doing fantastic work.
The other thing that makes this documentary so good is that the Channel 4 journalists keep themselves out of the story. Neither Jon Snow nor anyone else working on the piece inserts their own take on things or distracts from the real issues with me-me journalism. The story thus speaks for itself.
And a brutal tale it is, too. As the civil war drew to a close in 2009, hundreds of thousands of civilians were corralled into "no-fire zones", where the army shelled them and rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) shot them if they tried to escape. Government forces targeted artillery fire on hospitals and food collection points. There is evidence of organised sexual violence and mass executions. Up to 40,000 civilians were killed in those final months.
While the Sri Lankan government continues to deny any wrongdoing whatsoever, the evidence keeps piling up. The UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts in April 2011, "found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."
Channel 4 has brilliantly captured this story in all its horror. I strongly recommend you brace yourself and watch it while you still can.