Natural leader in war and peace
Lt. General Denzil Kobbekaduwa
"Brigadier is calling, Brigadier is calling..."
That was all we heard. Being in the Special Forces, we only get a few minutes' warning. We get ready at once and run to the Brigade Commander's office. He tells my immediate boss of a rich mill owner kidnapped by the terrorists for ransom. We, the Special Forces, had to rescue him.

Having conducted so many operations together, we knew the Brigade Commander well. His orders were explicit, and we had no doubts about the way he conducted operations. He had developed so much confidence in us that we used to take major risks. If 20 of us were surrounded by thousands of terrorists, we knew he would take appropriate action. If they were not his orders, my Commanding Officer would not have sent us on this high-risk operation.

Boarding two helicopters we landed in an area northwest of Vavuniya, in a place dominated by terrorists, and managed to rescue the mill owner, killing one terrorist and capturing a few T-56 rifles in the process.

This was just prior to the Vadamarachchi Operation, on a Sunday afternoon at the Vavuniya army camp. The Brigade Commander was Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa.

Others might have asked why a Tamil mill owner needed rescuing from Tamil terrorists by Sinhalese soldiers. But this was the lesson he instilled in us -no discriminaton. What better advice could we have in the present context?

Ten years ago, Lt. General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, made the supreme sacrifice for his country on August 8, 1992 at Araly Point in Kayts.

He was born on July 27, 1940 and brought up in Kandy. He was educated at Trinity College, joined the Army in 1960 and was commissioned to the Armoured Corps in 1962. I had the privilege of working under him for a brief period. He was diplomatic but determined, formidable but friendly, with a strong sense of public duty. He possessed a rare blend of qualities that enabled him to guide the Army during difficult times.

August 4, 1991 was Victory Day for the Sri Lanka Army, when the Elephant Pass Army Camp which had been surrounded by the LTTE and was under siege for a month, was rescued by us in a do-or-die operation. The second phase, entrusted to our battalion, was even more difficult. This required the expansion of the camp southwards and the capture of a village off Thadduwankody. Since there were no alternatives, we did this through a frontal assault on well dug-in enemy positions. With the LTTE resistance being high, we were unable to advance. Further, as the engineers were not able to repair the culvert on time, the armour was bogged down in mud. We lost several good men.

August 8, was the second day of the operation. Our battalion attacked at the crack of dawn, without armour, artillery or air support. One company streaked through an open patch and entered the village, killing 17 terrorists and capturing arms and ammunition. Sadly though, a few of our soldiers too were killed in action, with several being critically injured. General Kobbekaduwa, the man behind 'Balawegaya', visited our battalion. "Well done, congratulations, that was one of the best first light attacks I have seen," he declared, congratulating my Commanding Officer and myself. I did not think then that I would be weeping for this great soldier exactly one year later.

Racial discrimination was not in his vocabulary. Trigger-happy soldiers, whether in the south or the north, were never encouraged or even tolerated by him. He created apprehension in the minds of his enemies, superiors and politicians alike. Gen. Kobbekaduwa joined the Army at a time when many officers were the sons of famous fathers. With times changing, unemployment took the place of patriotism as a motive for becoming a soldier. Often it was those who could not find any other satisfactory source of income who enlisted in the forces. But in such a context the General had the required common touch. He knew the difficulties of the poor soldiers. He had the ability to make a patriotic fighting force of those who had joined the Army purely because they could not find a job.

He had a wonderful knack of cheering the men. He always considered human factors such as meals, leave and welfare, without forgetting that the best welfare you can provide to a soldier is training. He believed the morale of the soldier to be the greatest single factor to win the war. And he believed that to keep morale high, one needed primarily to look after the soldier's welfare.

When the war situation worsened in the country, many officers resigned after their 21-year stint, although they were still comparatively young.

But General Kobbekaduwa stayed with the Army because he wanted an end to this senseless war, and did not wish to leave the burden to the next generation.

His career could be remembered for a series of remarkable military achievements in high intensity operational areas.

Generous and hospitable, loyal and determined, Kobbekaduwa was a devout Buddhist while respecting all other religions alike.

General Kobbekaduwa knew most of his fellow officers by name and, whether in the battlefront or at Army Headquarters, he addressed them by their first name. Such was the simplicity of a man born to lead and to fight for his motherland. He guided, inspired and encouraged the soldiers to fight for a united Sri Lanka.

Always preferring to be in the thick of the fighting, boosting the morale of the men with words of encouragement to march on, rather than by belting out orders over the radio.

Officers and men alike preferred to take part in operations conducted by him, because he would plan and execute them meticulously.

Had he not taken over as Division Commander in July 1990 at a crucial time, Killinochchi and Jaffna Fort would surely have been overrun by the Tigers. He and General Wimalaratne planned and executed operations "Gajasinghe" and "Thrividabalaya" with such precision that they were resounding victories for the Army.

He was an excellent rugger player in his day, and probably the best referee we have ever had. Many have witnessed his performances in the rugger field, but very few have seen him playing soft ball cricket. After the arrival of the IPKF in July 1987, they took over much of the burden of military operations, and we had enough time to play cricket in the small ground in Vavuniya. After the toss, the two Captains would decide on their teams. The first choice for anyone was the Brigade Commander, not because he was the Coordinating Officer but because he was the best cricketer in Vavuniya Camp. Even in his absence, he would be selected first, with "Brigadier avoth apata", and then only would the rest of the side would be selected.

A natural leader in war and peace, he was a man of unostentatious dignity and outstanding integrity. For the record, I should note that I wrote an appreciation eight years back without mentioning my name. Now the regime has changed and so have the leaders. People who were scared by his popularity, or felt threatened by it, have passed on, and so one can write of one's experiences with him without fear or diffidence.

10 years ago, the guns boomed and the bugles sounded the mournful melody of the Last Post. A sea of humanity gathered in and around the cemetery, while millions of Sri Lankans who were glued to their TVs bowed their heads in intense grief. The nation was bidding farewell to Lanka's bravest soldier.

Lt Col (Rtd) Rohan Wijesinha ,W W V, R S P
Law College, Colombo.

A refreshingly different person
Lt. Col. Upul De Lanerolle
Three years ago on the fateful day of July 31, destiny snapped my beloved malli away from the world. Days have painfully and gradually dragged along but the acute pain we experienced three years ago has not yet diminished.

This may be due to the reason that he was such a rare human being, a refreshingly different person, full of vibrancy and enthusiasm, impulsive, brave, courageous and so very lovable.

He did have a quick temper and lacked patience but his loving heart was one of gold. What was outstandingly different in his character was that he believed in helping anyone whom he cared for by not mere words but with instantdeeds and actions. He offered unconditional assistance without a trace of hesitation or reluctance.

Anywhere he was present, the place shone and rang with merriment and I know his loss can never be filled.

When my husband Rohan visited Hatton National Bank, Jaffna recently, malli's friends gathered around him showing him warm hospitality with open arms, warm care and concern. This was ample testimony as to the way they loved malli. It was their way of paying tribute to this wonderful man, whom they had all loved. His sterling qualities were an asset to anyone whose lives he had touched.

To our family, his loss is too heavy to endure... the sparkle of our lives has been quenched and all we are left with are fragments of golden memories, which we fondly cherish as long as we live.
- Manisha Namal Seneviratne
(Sugar akka)

He brought sunshine into our lives
Kolitha Ratnayaka
Uncle Kolitha breezed into my life in the gentle manner that characterized him. In the same way, he suddenly breezed out, like a whiff of wind on July 1.

My meeting with Kolitha Ratnayaka was purely accidental. I had met him briefly, whenever I visited his Flower Road residence to meet his children, but never shared much conversation. When I started compiling an article on the Sinharaja rain forest, his son suggested that I speak to his father. Uncle Kolitha turned out to be a source of inspiration and a repository of knowledge with a keen insight into issues environmental and social.

And soon, my reasons for visiting his house changed, and I began spending more time with this charming, gentle being. At the end of each visit, I felt rewarded and enriched by his quiet wisdom and liberal viewpoints.

Every week, he would give me a critical account on my week's work, and suggest various topics I could write on. During the short period that we knew each other, we managed to do some salient work, edit a few books on various aspects of gardening - and I was awed by his knowledge on aspects of farming - a subject close to his heart.

A born naturalist fine-tuned to nature, he was the kind of person who enjoyed identifying bird calls, looking into a nest or appreciating the hues of a flower. Politics, environment, gardening were topics that appealed to him. But what brought happiness to this pious gentleman mostly, was serving the cause of the Dhamma and, at the village level, helping the poor.

A strong advocator of serving one's country, he often reminded me that it was selfish to criticize the system from the outside, whereas the brave would get involved, and attempt to introduce reforms, for the betterment of all. When his second son entered politics, it was the same theory he applied - to attempt to reform something than being a critical non-participant.

Uncle Kolitha certainly enjoyed his retirement. He often said it gave him time for indulgences - such as reading books, spending time in quiet prayer or visiting temples.

He brought much sunlight into the lives of others, nurtured others with his warm and caring ways. Without hyperbole, he was the epitome of human kindness.

Often when he telephoned, I would mistake his son's voice for his - and this entertained him tremendously. He would chuckle for long, before he corrected me. Sometimes we would discuss books, and suddenly he would spring from his chair to listen to a birdcall intently, and would be delighted if he could identify the sound without difficulty.

He was much disturbed by the contents of the Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's book titled "Defending India". Perturbed, he invited me to help write a book in reply - "Defending Sri Lanka". Sadly, we never got around to doing it.

When the Somawathi Chaitya was restored to its former glory to coincide with the Poson Poya, his entire family was to visit Polonnaruwa. It was he who had the rare merit and privilege of offering the chuda manikya to the historical temple. When I asked him why he opted not to visit the place, strangely, he said that single day tours were not for him anymore. "I have grown old though nobody notices," he chuckled.

Uncle Kolitha was a virtuous Buddhist, silently serving his motherland. He simply lived by the Buddha's word. When politically motivated thugs during the last general election, attacked his son's supporters, he sagely added that such behaviour was always short-lived.

Just three weeks prior to his demise, he released a book titled "Fruit Farming". Having requested a review, he said that he would prefer if I helped him to compile some articles on places of Buddhist worship. "With the passage of time, many things are forgotten. So let's record whatever possible," he said.

The last time he called me, he suggested that I go on one of my 'regular jaunts' and visit the gem pit from where he got his first 'chuda manikya'. I made an appointment to visit the owner of the gem pit the following week. "It would make a wonderful human interest story," uncle said. But the day before my visit, he silently departed from this world.

It saddens me to think that this is one story I would write, but one he would never read. He would never read my review of his book. Half the joy of many things we planned has fled with his demise. The last of his tangible gifts was a book on world religions. That was just a fortnight before he died. When I met him for the last time, I was rushing back to work. How I regret the loss of an opportunity to have one last chat!

Uncle Kolitha enriched the lives of so many, and certainly did mine. The Chinese often say that a little bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives you the roses. Similarly, wherever he went, I am certain that his fragrance pervaded, and now that he is gone, would continue to linger!
May he attain Nibbana!
Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Back to Top
 Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.