23rd January 2000
From water-filled FDLs, heroic soldiers repulse LTTE waves
By Hiranthi Fernando
The Elephant Pass area under the Sri Lanka Army extends from Pallai in the north to Paranthan in the south.
It is a strategic point since it is the entrance to the Jaffna peninsula. Recently, Elephant Pass came under heavy terrorist attack. In the absence of authentic news, rumours abounded that Elephant Pass had fallen and a large number of troops had been killed. Visiting the area however, we found that most of the camps and Forward Defence Lines (FDL) remained intact and the Army was in control.
It was only in Paranthan that the terrorists had some success. The Army still dominates the area by holding the main road, beyond which is no man's land and then Kilinochchi held by the LTTE.
Explaining the situation, Elephant Pass Deputy Commander Udena Munasinghe said that at 2 a.m. on December 11, terrorists launched a major attack on the Eastern and Western sides to seal off Jaffna. "Their main aim was to capture Iyakachchi," Brig. Munasinghe said. 'The troops working under 54 division were able to overcome the onslaught and also inflict heavy casualties on the terrorists.
"Again on the night of the December 17, another major attack was launched on the southern Forward Defence Line. A large number of terrorists took part in this attack. Troops manning the southern FDL, were able to overcome the attack. At that time the weather was not very good. As a result we had to do some tactical changes. We had to leave certain areas. It does not mean that we are not dominating those areas. Still we are dominating those areas by other means," he said.
The present position, according to Brig. Munasinghe, is that 53 Division which was at Wanni has been inducted into the Elephant Pass area to work with the 54 Division. He said they intended carrying out some operations during the next few weeks. The Brigadier stressed that his troops had to undergo many difficulties in performing their duties.
"On December 30, at about 4 p.m., 81mm mortars were fired towards us," said Lance Corporal Aruna Kumara of the 54 Division, who was in an FDL on the western flank.
"We were making bunkers at the time. We immediately got into the trenches and watched, expecting an attack. A full-scale attack was launched around 5.20 p.m. They attacked using 81mm mortars, artillery, T55 tanks and machine guns. I saw the terrorists coming in three waves. As we hit the first line, they fell; a second wave came on and then the third.
"Behind us, we had our support troops with artillery and mortars. They launched an attack on the terrorists. Our commanding officers told us to hold on and not to retreat. We held on firmly to our positions. As the attack continued, we saw them falling. I myself fired about 40 bombs from an RPG.
"One mortar launched by them fell into a bunker and four of our men were killed. About ten suffered minor injuries. The attack was finally over around 10 p.m," the Lance Corporal said.
Captain Prasad Kumar of the same division saw the New Year in a trench.
"On December 31, around 5 p.m., they started attacking us with heavy weapons. The attack continued until after midnight. Support troops came and helped us. One of our men died and a few were wounded. There were heavy casualties among the LTTE. There were about 30 charred bodies just in front of our line," he said.
The soldiers in the camp were upset by the stories circulating in the south that they ran away. "Tell them in Colombo that we held our posts continuously despite the difficulties," they urged. '"We were told not to retreat and we held on. We fought in bunkers filled with water," he said.
The easternmost FDL is reached by boat across the lagoon from Thamilamadam. A row of bunkers built with logs and cadjan stretch across the lagoon. There are no army posts beyond this point.
Lance Corporal Gunasinghe, who was manning a bunker with two other soldiers, recalled how a chopper was shot down into the lagoon by the LTTE on Christmas Eve. "Six LTTE boats came across the lagoon and attacked us. '"The chopper came to support the troops at the FDL. It was shot down as it was firing on the boats. Six soldiers were wounded in the attack," he said.
"When we consider the recent attack on Elephant pass, we feel we have advanced," said Lance Corporal Balasuriya who has served nine years in the Army. "We have been successful in withstanding this attack while it has been damaging for the LTTE, because they lost a lot of men," he said.
According to some soldiers, on December 11 and 12, the LTTE also launched two major attacks from Pooneryn, across Ariyalai and Thanankilappu, attempting to establish another line to Chavakachcheri and Navatkuli.
They were beaten fully and the Army held on not allowing the LTTE to get a foothold in Thennamarachchi area.
Judging by the accounts given by the soldiers who manned the FDLs, during these major attacks, the Army seems to have performed very creditably despite the difficult conditions. Some of the bunkers from where they had to defend their posts were half full of water. According to figures available, the Army has lost about a hundred men while the LTTE have named 500 of their dead. Army officers expect this figure to be higher.
A major problem encountered by the soldiers in the area is the difficulties they have in going home on leave. There are soldiers who have not been home for four months. Shortage of transport is one reason for this. Lack of sufficient manpower also makes it difficult to release these men.
The lack of good drinking water is another common problem they have. The water in the area is brackish and undrinkable.
Drinking water has to be transported by bowser from Iyakachchi and stored in plastic tanks. However, soldiers say they have storage problems due to a shortage of these tanks.
The commanding officers in these operational areas are aware of the difficulties of their men. They hope that with more recruitment, the problems of manpower shortage could be resolved so that the men could go home more often.
As regards the other logistical problems, they are trying to ease the conditions of the men under their command to the best of their ability.
On the spot report by Nilika de Silva
In the midst of skeletal remnants of shelled buildings, life appeared to be bustling with commercial and day-to-day activities being carried out as in any other main city.
In other parts of the peninsula, the empty roads were only frequented by soldiers. Flying aboard a Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter, we saw vast areas of cultivation — potatoes, onions, beetroots, in addition to the usual paddy. We were on a two-day government-conducted tour of Jaffna.
In spite of a night curfew from 9.30 p.m. to 4.30 a.m, the Jaffna town during the day is a hive of activity.
With a seemingly comfortable co-existence between the military and civilian segments, it appeared the town is gradually getting back to normal on the surface, but underneath looms the uncertainity.
The checkpoints scattered all over the town showed the very disciplined conduct of the people, who slowed down their cycles and went past in single file. Whatever the situation may be elsewhere in the peninsula, in Jaffna town a rapport between service personnel and civilians is evident.
The plight of the civilians was evident as they tried to seek solace from whatever available.
Large crowds had gathered outside the PLOTE office, and drawing closer we realised what the commotion was all about. They are there to get free exercise books being distributed to school children. Women were seen with coupons, jostling each other vying for the limited books.
"The books have finished, and they say we can't get," said ten-year-old Kumar who had come with his mother.
Another sign that life was mixed in the Jaffna peninsula is that religious activities take place irrespective of the security situation. A Hindu kovil procession with a decorated 'Ther' drawn by people paraded the town while crowds lined up to watch.
Going about the town in the afternoon we saw school children making their way home. Poverty was very much in evidence, as many of them wore no shoes.
Although we were unable to witness the situation in the rural areas, schools in the Jaffna town appeared to be functioning well, and teachers and students alike were seen cycling to and from the school.
"Attendance in school is 90 percent," Vayavilan Madhya Maha Vidyalam Principal M. Nadarajah. Though Thursday was a Poya holiday, the children were in school preparing for the sports meet on Saturday.
Children were painting see-saws — like students in any other part of the country. Everything appeared fine in the town of Jaffna, I thought for a moment.
However, a board stating 'Troops ahead drive slow; maximum speed 5 kmh' brought me back to the reality that there is more than what meets the eye.
A common sight on the roads was tractors filled with troops. They are going to the checkpoints to relieve those on duty.
In some parts of the town the walls were plastered with posters of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, while blue streamers blowing in the breeze recalled the bygone elections.
"To our knowledge everything is normal," said Jaffna's Government Agent K. Shanmuganathan. But many civilians do not share his view.
"My house was shelled, and I have been living away for a long time. I have not been paid any compensation," said Mr. Pushpanathan.
The GA said that essential food items were in adequate stock upto April and they are sold at reasonable prices.
This was verified by trader K. Yogalingam, who said that dhal was priced at Rs. 30 while samba rice costs Rs. 35.
The transport situation had been tackled deftly by the people of Jaffna. Bicylcles, the ultimate solution to traffic congestion problems, are the dominant mode of transport on roads in Jaffna where only a few private buses operate.
These buses were in a dilapidated condition, and overcrowding was seen as in the case of private buses in other parts of the country.
A few three wheelers were seen parked in the middle of the town, but obviously they were a last resort which people seldom turned to.
"Our rates are very fair," said three-wheel driver R. Wijerathnam who earns about Rs. 300 a day.
The most pressing problem in Jaffna town appears to be unemployment. Frustration is apparent in the youth who search for jobs.
However authorities said moves were underway to solve this problem. The appointing of Samurdhi animators is also on the cards.
"I've been trying to find a job for a long time, but had no luck," said 23-year-old Shanthan. It is very frustrating.
Many youth were seen working tailoring shops, suggesting there is plenty of job opportunities inthis sector. Communication centres and call boxes were plentiful in Jaffna town, many of whose residents live in Colombo or abroad.
The shopping plaza was also very attractive, offering imported Shalwar Kameez and other items of clothing at very nominal rates.
However, the cost of living was clearly very high making it hard to understand how these people made ends meet.
Pavement salesman, M. Yogarajan, a father of four said he earns about Rs. 300 a day, but finds it very difficult to make ends meet due to the high cost of living.
Another serious problem, is the fishermen not being free to make the most of the fishing opportunities that the lagoon and the sea around the peninsula afford.
"There is restriction for fishing. Fishermen can't get about earning their livelihood. They are living with immense difficulty," R. Pillai, a resident, said, adding, "They are in a very sorry way."
But the Army officials explained that this was a problem which they were addressing but there was very little they could do due to the security situation.
Only Teppams — small home-made boats — were being allowed on the waters during restricted hours. Motor boats were not allowed. The boats were being allowed to go a distance of 2 km in the sea off Nagar kovil, Chempiampattu and Pallai and also nets were cast on the Kilali lagoon.
Meanwhile, a pen light battery costs about Rs. 100, while other expensive items include tea which is priced around Rs. 250 a kilo and petrol at Rs. 95 a litre.
A medium sized eating house in the heart of Jaffna Town is Ricoh. The owner's son P. Senthuran who was helping out with serving the customers said that business was not as good as it used to be before the war broke out. This is because a lot of people have left.
Justifying the pricing of a bottle of soft drink at Rs. 35, he said had to sell them at a higher price because he got them down from Colombo in ships.
On the liesure side they have just one local TV channel - Rupavahini - to watch, However, reception of several Indian TV channels occured in these areas. English newspapers which reach the peninsula are limited to Lake House papers.
But this was Jaffna town. How life would be in areas further away from the town is not known.
With the recent shell attacks around the peninsula still a certain amount of uncertainty hangs over the population in Jaffna as the local political administration is yet to go into full gear.
The killing of local council members at regular intervals by the LTTE is among the main reasons for the slowing down of the political administration.
Volatile political scene
By Dilrukshi Handunnetti, Our Lobby Correspondent
The uncertainties may be frustrating to the populace, especially the political kind. And the Sri Lankan political fabric by now could be most likened to a volcano with frequent eruptions- and the political lava is symbolic of our body politics which takes with its tide many things of value to doom and destruction.
In the meantime, our legislature, the hallowed precincts fast losing its previous glory, has become a veritable minefield. And there springs eternal surprises of the political kind.
Not unusually, with the political agenda taking precedence, the legislative functions are becoming insignificant. At a time when political manoeuvring and back-stage trading are in full force, the legislators themselves are concerned with more politicking- general polls, referenda, cross-over bills all being on the cards.
And suddenly, the issue is the beautiful but rarely displayed thing, soi- disant conscience of a legislator. It is the hot topic of the day- while some UNP rebel MPs fate hangs in the balance for going against the party whip and joining the government's band- wagon in the name of 'conscience' and now, about to pay the heavy political price of losing their Parliament seats.
The present political reality it seems is that a second phase of the Jayewardene regime is about to unfold. What with an amendment to the Constitution allowing one-way traffic cross- overs from opposition to government and polls which are submerged in a spate of violence.
If Jayewardene in his innate wisdom never saw the UNP out of power and hence the meddling with the supreme instrument- the country's Constitution at (political) will, it is also realistic to believe that history made a habit of repeating itself. So if the SLFP dominated PA is determined to rip the UNP structure apart by revalidating a draconian UNP piece of legislation once again by way of vengeance for all the heartache of the UNP's former efforts to de-franchise its leader Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and disunite and keep the SLFP divided forever, today it is the PA's opportunity to rub old salt on fresh UNP wounds. So it's cross-over time once again, and like before, a one-way street so that democracy itself can take a rest.
In such a volatile political backdrop with a fractured UNP side trying to glue itself together, the legislative sessions are merely perfunctory. Yet on Wednesday when the Protection on the Rights of the Elders' Bill was presented without much fanfare just after V. Putrasigamani was sworn-in as a UNP member of Parliament replacing veteran S. Thondaman, there was one man who played his cards right to keep his dividing and disgruntled flock together.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the trouble-plagued UNP and Opposition Leader must have been a very disturbed man with the 'cross-over con- science' becoming THE issue. And true to style, he dropped a well-timed bomb in the Parliament melee- knowing fully well that his overtures to assist in a political process would sweep all else under the carpet and have greater impact. Such is the clout wielded by an opposition leader with 85 votes in hand.
And he knew it. Hence, a debate seeking to promote the welfare of an aging population and recommending special programmes for their welfare and social security was immediately turned into a decisive moment of prudent and futuristic politics, Wickremesinghe shrewdly chose to say that welfare programmes required lots of money, and hence possible only if the war was over and the monies could be spent on matters other than the war. Calculated to say the least, none knew as to why a fifty -year old (still touted as young) UNP leader was keen to join in a debate on elders, which was totally lacklustre from the beginning. And Wickremesinghe delivered the best political googly of the week.
A man under fire with enormous pressure from the party ranks to perform as a vibrant opposition, with his political ground somewhat shaky, the UNP leader sounded magnanimous as he pledged support to the government in its political process- the quest for peace.
"We shall not hinder, nor stand in the way of a new Constitution due to our reservations. Yet, it has to be fully discussed in this House and acceptable to all peoples," he said.
Sounding ready and willing to brush aside the many snide and defamatory remarks on him just a month ago during a zealous presidential campaign where he was vilified and identified with the LTTE, he noted that the President first offered the olive branch and in quick succession had a change of heart and grew militant.
Opting not to harp on the SLFP's days in opposition where most of the moves were opposed including the efforts to devolve power, Ranil Wickremesinghe recalled how the UNP had always supported positive measures by governments, specially so, when dealing with national issues, the Bribery Commission Act and the Lium Fox initiative being two examples.
He lit the flame of political hope for a negotiated political solution to the conflict as he said :"We in our party put national interest before narrow party politics and realize that all possibilities of reaching consensus should be pursued- and this despite the divisions and differences".
As the House suddenly went quiet with the enormity of the offer gradually sinking in, the UNP leader censured the President for blaming the non-introduction of a new constitution on the UNP- which in her opinion held the singular key to peace. He reiterating the UNP's stance lodged opposition to a Union of Regions. The UNP only stood for an indivisible, united Sri Lanka. Besides, there were many reservations about the package.
But he didn't brush aside the government's package as a rotten bag of eggs and agreed that a rapid consensus was required to salvage the country from the clutches of war. "We will not obstruct legislation for narrow political reasons. Specially when faced with a problem like the North East conflict. If the government was reluctant to include the opposition in the political process, other parties will have to bring amendments and alternative proposals to the new constitution which would once again have to be amended many a time," he noted.
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