by Capt. FRAB Musafer, 4th Rgt. SLA (Retd.)
(Continued from last week)
On my return I was ordered to take over Tissamaharama from Lt Wijesuriya and Lt Gemunu Wijeratne who were based in the comfort of the Tissa Rest House. During this time we were issued with a rationed quota of duty free local cigarettes , Kandos chocolates and beer, (not to be consumed but as a take home item) for the first and perhaps only time.
Operations were fairly routine based on informants. The daily mail received consisted of anonymous petitions blatantly incriminating persons with no involvement whatsoever in the insurgency. In addition I was called upon to look into land disputes, recovery of money lent, fraud, infidelity and a host of other problems people encountered and had no avenues of seeking redress in a hurry. Much to the dismay of my sergeant I tended to ignore most of them. One day the sergeant walked in with a wry smile on his face and asked me ” What are you going to do about this Sir?”.
The petition was addressed to the Army Captain threatening me with castration, to put it better language. It was signed bearing the name of a local strong man. We found this person and asked him to name the likely letter writer. He named a few, whom we picked up and took them to the camp. Having lined them all in front of a light machine gun on the banks of the Tissa Wewa, an ultimatum was given that the entire lot would be shot unless the person who sent the petition stepped forward.
After a few minutes one of them meekly owned up and said he did it, stating the named person was committing an injustice to them by extorting money and preventing them from selling and despatching their produce out of Tissa at favourable prices. The rest did not hesitate to support his claims. We warned the person concerned and asked him to refrain from carrying on this intimidation and threatened him that we would arrest him and send him to prison with the thrasthwadayas (insurgents),
Whilst at Tissa a suspected insurgent surrendered at the camp. He said that he was surrendering because the police had threatened to burn his father’s home and that it was the last thing he wanted. His father, he said, had mortgaged his properties and had got into debt to spend for his tertiary education at the Vidyodaya university. He had successfully graduated but could not find any employment to pay back or help his father sort out the debts incurred. In desperation he had applied for a labourers position at the salt pans and the interviewer had told him that he could not give him the job since he was more qualified than the interviewer.
He pleaded with him but to no avail. Looking back he said that he should have not presented himself as a graduate but again was not sure he would have got the job anyway as he had no political connections. The reason he was sympathetic to the cause was because there was no other avenues to pursue and there was no hope for the future. He asked me a question “What would you have done Sir in my circumstances”? I was in no position to answer him, he was more qualified than me albeit with an arts degree. To me it summed up the causes, an over supply of arts graduates, no jobs to placate them and undue hardships and frustrations of the youth in the rural areas. There were no job opportunities available in this region. It was an area that was totally neglected. He was a no hoper and driven to desperation.
Based at Tissa I was asked to escort three bus loads of suspected insurgents from the Tangalle prison to the Vidyodaya University which was converted as a temporary prison. Driving into Colombo at dusk I found a city under siege, with roads closed and barricaded and well lit with searchlights directed skywards. There were plenty of troops deployed and a dusk to dawn curfew imposed and military checkpoints established at key points. I was stopped at the Kirullapona bridge by no less a person than Brigadier Jayaweera and Major Ranjith Wanigasundera, a fellow regimental officer. Brig Jayaweera was shocked that my convoy of three jeeps was the only security for the three busloads of detainees. It never occurred to me that Colombo itself was also under threat. I proceeded to Vidyodaya University and handed over the detainees to the prison officials.
Next day I had to collect a staff car for Col Nugawela and also pick up Mr Trevor Moy, Managing Director of George Stuarts, who was Colonel Nugawela’s boss. On our way we had tea at the NOH at Galle and Mrs Brohier the manageress of the Hotel made some remarks about some North Korean involvement. The Sunday papers used to have a full page supplement on Kim ul Sung the north Korean leader. There had been rumours that there were some North Korean ships waiting offshore loaded with weapons to support the insurgents.
The North Koreans were expelled from Sri Lanka. The extent of their involvement was never made public and there was no evidence that arms had been supplied to the insurgents. Had they received arms the outcome may have been prolonged and different.
On arriving at Tissa around noon with Mr Trevor Moy I found that Lt Jayakumar a volunteer officer and a planter by profession who was holding the fort at Tissa was not in camp. Colonel Nugawela was looking for him and no one had a clue to his whereabouts. He had taken a jeep with an army driver and driven off and was missing from the previous night. However, much to our relief he turned up shortly looking tired and worried. He was not keen to go back to Hambantota to face the Coordinating officer and tell him of his ordeal at the Yala national park.
What was a drive through the park turned out to be a night to remember. His jeep had a flat tyre at the furthest end of the park and had no spare. He had no torch , no food or water and no idea where he was and made the decision to walk along the beach till light permitted. Continued his walk in the morning and eventually with the help of the park authorities repaired the flat tyre and made it back to the camp.
I was told another volunteer officer Lt Nilaweera nearly killed himself when his sterling sub machine gun went off as he attempted to free the weapon which had got stuck in the front seat of his jeep. the bullet whizzing past his ear.
The following day Colonel Nugawela dropped in at Tissa and enquired if Mr Moy has had breakfast, I replied “Yes, Sir.” The next question was what did he have to which I replied “toast, fried eggs and sauteed liver with onions in butter.” He blew a fuse and repeated “liver liver?” (this was the menu suggested by the rest house manager) but before I could say anything else Mr Moy butted in and said “Derrick I quite enjoyed it, in fact I haven’t eaten it for such a long time.” His intervention and diplomacy saved the day for me. I was totally unaware that liver which was expensive and deemed nutritious to the locals was offal and a cheap food to most westerners.
During the five hour drive from Colombo I was engaged in a long conversation which covered many topics and I found that Mr Moy was very knowledgable of Ceylon and a very amiable individual. I was told he loved Ceylon so much that his last wish was that his ashes be scattered over the tea estates he managed during his planting days.
Whilst at Tissa I was asked to relieve my batchmate from Pakistan. Lt Gamini Angamanna, who was stationed at Wellawaya to enable him to participate in a counter insurgency operation in Moneragala being undertaken by the Gemunu watch troops under Col Bull Weeratunga. Gamini was shocked to see me drive in my trusted army jeep windscreen down and no canopy, the truck was no better. He admonished me for not adequately protecting myself.
His vehicles were boarded with sawn satin timber logs giving some protection from shot gun fire. The troops in this area had been subjected to ambushes and had been under fire, whereas I had never been subjected to any enemy fire and was oblivious to any danger. Looking back I think I was foolhardy and naïve but extremely lucky to have operated in an area where the insurgency had lost its momentum or for that matter not got off the ground.. On the other hand I wonder if the presence of the Army since mid March had a detrimental effect on the planning process of the JVP in the Hambantota area.
Sri Lankan hospitality despite being poor.
On information provided to coordinating headquarters I was ordered to take a platoon of volunteer troops in search of a suspected insurgent hideout. With no maps and only the informant as our guide we took off at the crack of dawn. It was not long after we realized we were lost. The platoon sergeant suspected we were being led into a trap and suggested that we should bump off the informant. I took no notice of his request. We eventually located the hideout that had been abandoned leaving traces of food and packaging materials. which may have been used to protect the weapons if any.
Heading back to camp we lost our way once more. The volunteer soldiers were not the fittest and were finding it hard to keep up in this elephant infested jungle. We had no clue where we were headed for but continued to trudge in one direction till we hit a cart track that eventually led to a hut. We asked the occupant how we could go to Kataragama to which he replied he did not know but said he could show the way to Wellawaya. As we were parched and exhausted we asked him for some water. He produced two Kala Gediyas of water and said that he will get us some more as there were around twenty of us. Before he left he cut a few papaws and served us apologizing that this was all he had. He said it wont be long but he took over an hour to get back. Something which I will remember all my life is the hospitality of this one man who virtually had nothing and was struggling to make a living by planting chillies in an elephant infested jungle. He was surviving on the government subsidized free rice ration and a miris sambol. The true extent of poverty is never identified by our ruling elite.
Hospitality is synonymous with Sri Lanka but in my mind nothing epitomizes this unselfish act of a very poor man with such a big heart thinking nothing about himself. Sri Lanka is blessed with such good men.
Having rested and with him as the guide we set off towards Wellawaya, crossed the Menik Ganga where we saw crocodiles lazing on the banks. Soon after we found a typical tractor track which took us back to civilization. We came across a house where a wedding was being celebrated with the bridal car parked nearby. With the consent of the wedding party we commandeered the Morris station wagon to enable a few of us to get back to camp and bring transport back to pick up the rest. We did not forget our good Samaritan to whom we sent some of our dry rations and also cash to reimburse the cost of petrol. The soldiers were not only grateful but had realized the hardships he was enduring to make a living.
Rural poverty- bartering
There was also another incident in 1972 during mopping up operations in the jungles off Kantalai that stays vivid in my memory of the hardships and poverty which people in the villages endure. Here whilst on a patrol we came across a little girl no more than six to seven years walking alone on a track in an elephant infested area. She was on an errand to get some panadols for her mother in exchange for the little bit of rice she carried in a paper bag. The rice incidentally was the free or subsidized issue given by the government, which establishments like the World Bank and IMF wanted stopped. This was the first time we had encountered bartering and was moved by the plight of this little girl.
This has served me as a reminder that there are so many needy people out there struggling to survive in these areas and wonder what their plight is today. A myth prevails that villagers can make do to survive and will not starve. They are simple and hard working but neglected and a forgotten lot by the city dwellers. The politicians who are entrusted to improve their lot and provided with gas guzzling SUV’s sadly fail to do so. They, the rural poor too have their dreams and aspirations to improve their lot.
Sri Lanka’s was no comparison to the poverty in India. On an overnight train journey to Assam to follow a course in counter insurgency and jungle warfare I witnessed a pathetic sight. A little boy with oversize shorts and his fly open picked up the paper wrapping of the sandwiches we had eaten and licked it just for the taste of it. What a cruel world!