Corporal S. Kumarasinghe who survived the attack on the Sri Lankan blue helmets in Mali on  January 25 and is recovering at the Army Hospital in Colombo, talks to Asiri Fernando   Corporal S. Kumarasinghe keeps a matchbox-sized piece shrapnel in an empty jam jar in his bag. It was the shard that lodged in [...]


‘Mali needs us’


  • Corporal S. Kumarasinghe who survived the attack on the Sri Lankan blue helmets in Mali on 
  • January 25 and is recovering at the Army Hospital in Colombo, talks to Asiri Fernando


Corporal S. Kumarasinghe keeps a matchbox-sized piece shrapnel in an empty jam jar in his bag. It was the shard that lodged in his right knee when an explosion in the path of the armoured personnel carrier (APC) he was sitting on threw him off and left him unconscious in a dangerous area of the troubled East African nation of Mali.

His right leg was badly injured. Another piece of shrapnel punctured his right lung. “I hope I will be able to walk soon,” Kumarasinghe said, from his bed at the Army Hospital in Colombo where he is now being treated. Nearby, his brother-in-law examined the shard. Like Kumarasinghe, he had been in the First Field Engineers Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army before having to retire after losing a leg to an LTTE landmine.

Convoy of Sri Lankan blue helmets in Mali

By his bedside was Kumarasinghe’s brother, a Sri Lanka Navy instructor, with rice-and-curry cooked by his sisters. The father-of-two from Panwilathanna, Gampola, even managed a smile when asked about his future. “We have always managed,” he said. “We’ll manage somehow. The army will support me.”

It had been 6 a.m. on January 25, 2019. Corporal S Kumarasinghe was sitting on top of the lead APC of a convoy escorted by Sri Lankan peacekeepers near Douentza, Mopti. They were making the 585 km return journey to Gao in Mali.

The Sri Lankan blue helmets were part of the 1st combat convoy company (CCC) based in Gao, and one of two convoy protection groups of the UN mission in Mali known as MINUSMA. At present, 196 Sri Lankan troops make up the 1st CCC and are supported by officers stationed in key cities. The 2nd CCC has Egyptian troops.

Cpl. Kumarasinghe is 36 years old with 17 years of service with the Sri Lanka Army. As an experienced bomb disposal officer, he was tasked with scouting the route ahead for mines and improvised explosive devices (IED’s) which are common in Mali. The light at dawn made it difficult to spot unnatural disturbances–tell-tale signs of mines or IEDs–in the soil of the route ahead. The route they were taking was high-risk.

When the blast occurred, it threw him 10 to 15 feet from the APC. He briefly gained consciousness when combat medics were treating him on the way to a hospital in a helicopter. He was first treated in a UN facility, then a private one. He was repatriated to Colombo last week. He said he was sad to hear his colleagues, Captain H. W. D. Jayawickrama and Corporal Samathat Wijekumara, had been killed. They were posthumously promoted to the ranks of Major and Sergeant respectively.

“I didn’t want to leave Mali and return,” he said. “I am in-charge of a EOD (explosives ordnance disposal) team and we are needed to clear the route and secure the ‘harbours’ [a term used to describe the makeshift overnight camp sites the convoys use] but in my condition I’m not much use there now. The people in Mali need help. They are in a very sad state and we should assist them more.” The veteran sapper said the sight of senior army officers, including ones from his regiment, and his family members who had come to welcome him at Bandaranaike International Airport brought tears to his eyes. “There is no place like home,” he reflected.

Conditions in Mali were austere. “There are days the temperature rose above 40 degrees,” Kumarasinghe said. “We would bring water in buckets in to our billets [troop accommodation] and keep them under the air-conditioner before bathing.”

The Sri Lankan troops typically escort convoys made up of 70-100 vehicles. A 50-80m gap is maintained to prevent any two being damaged from one IED or mine. “Sometimes, the convoy is two to four kilometers long because of the number of vehicles,” he said. “A few months ago, we identified an IED with explosives weighing 35 kgs and managed to catch a terrorist with the remote controller near-by.” IED’s were the terrorist groups’ weapon of choice.

The 1st CCC is equipped with 18 wheeled APCs,18 trucks (on which the UN carries 20-foot containers filled with supplies) and two armoured ambulances. On average, they run two convoys a month, one each to Mopti in the South and to Tessalit, North, near the Algerian border. “Wearing nearly 14kg of body armour, weapons, ammunition and communication gear and travelling in rough terrain takes a toll on us,” Kumarasinghe admitted. “Even the wind is dry. The fine sand dust gets in everywhere. We have to clean all our equipment at night to make sure they are operational when needed.”

Each night, the vehicles needs to be serviced and damages repaired. Without paved roads, the frequent laying of mines, and sandstorms, the routes to these destinations from Gao change often. “A typical convoy runs between 9-11 days, depending on vehicle breakages, change in routes and weather,” he described. This leaves the peacekeepers barely 8-10 days rest a month. But rest is an expensive commodity, he says. The contingent works on servicing the vehicles which are in need of constant maintainance.

When convoys make camp at nightfall, the trucks and UN civilian vehicles are grouped together, with the armoured vehicles making perimeter. A night watch is placed around the encampment. “We are issued night vision goggles and we take turns keeping watch into the vast desert,” Kumarasinghe said. “Only the wind in the night brings us some comfort from the heat.” But some days, the temperature drops below 10 degrees and it’s cold. While peacekeepers are entitled for 20 plus days of leave, many had opted not to take it as they had to pay for the expensive flights.

Attacks by JNIM

Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an-Qaeda affiliated group in Mali has claimed responsibility for the attack on the convoy. It is one of the many terrorist groups operating in the country. On January 10, JNIM overan a Chadian forward base, killing more than 25 people including 10 Chadian Peacekeepers.

In mid February, two JNIM team launched a coordinated suicide car bomb attack on a UN position near the capital – Bamako, but failed when Spanish peacekeepers prevented them entering the compound.

According to the UN, 196 peacekeepers have been killed in the line of duty in Mali up-to date.

Document says request  for more peacekeeping troops was sent on May 3, 2018

The threat landscape in Mali has changed significantly since 2016, a senior military officer told the Sunday Times, requesting anonymity. The Sri Lankan contingent, originally numbering 200, was deemed inadequate early last year. They were due to rotate out of Mali in late December 2018. However, delays in the vetting process that clears Sri Lankan personnel for peacekeeping duties meant this didn’t happen.

A controversial statement by the President in Parliament blaming the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) for the deaths of the two peacekeepers drew a criticism from many politicians, including the Speaker. The HRCSL rejected the accusations. “We consider the fact that HRCSL is the only national institution selected to undertake the vetting process amongst all countries that supply troops for peacekeeping missions as a triumph for Sri Lanka,” a statement said. “Therefore, we strongly consider that it is our duty to undertake the vetting process with integrity and professionalism.”

After standard operating procedures (SOPs) were agreed upon by all parties, the UN Department of Peace Operations notified them that vetting could resume (after an interruption) from December 20 2018. The Commission started vetting from that day. “Therefore, we strongly disagree that the vetting process suffered setbacks due to any delays or carelessness on the part of the Council,” the HRCSL statement said.

“The military forwarded a set of SOPs two weeks after a round-table discussion in May 2018, which also included UN officials from Geneva,” the senior military source said. “But the HRCSL took up to late December to get back on them. If they are short-staffed or lack resources to carry out vetting on time, they should ask for help without keeping troops in a hostile environment.” When carried out by the relevant UN Department, the vetting had not taken this long, he said.

The HRCSL defended the vetting process, “This was the governments policy, we took up the challenge in good faith,” an official said. “But this process was dropped on our laps with little time and there wasn’t much support from the UN. We have always encouraged taking part in peacekeeping.” There is no doubt that HRCSL is a much-needed instrument and it’s a testament to their hard work and credibility that they were cleared to carry out the process in-house.

The Sunday Times, however, has seen a request dated May 3, 2018, sent to the Ministry of Defence by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN requesting an increase in the troop numbers in Mali. The document is marked “Urgent”. “Taking into consideration the levels of threat/risk the DPKO has increased the strength of the CCC to 243,” the document states. Requested are more EOD personnel, engineers for search duties and an additional platoon for Force Protection duties.

“The UN further informed that the increased number of 43 contingent members are to be nominated from the already cleared list of 432 by the UN for HR via OHCHR Geneva,” it states, referring to a pool 432 Sri Lankan troops already cleared by the UN for deployment. An email dated May 2, 2018, from the Planning Officer of MINUSMA at DPKO in Geneva to the Sri Lankan military reaffirms the required increase in troop levels and states, “The increase of troop strength from original 200 to 243 troops for the MINUSMA CCC has to be selected out of the original 432 troops HR screened for deployment.”

Sunday Times understands that the HRCSL has been made aware of the urgency of the troop increase and the need to rotate out the existing contingent, who were expecting to return home in the first week of January 2019. A new contingent of 243 peacekeepers are trained and awaiting clearence since November 2018. Why the HRCSL needs nearly three months (since 24th December 2018) to re evaluate 234 troops already vetted by the UN is a question raised by the military.

Further, nine ‘Unibuffel MK II’ Mine Protected Vehicles which offer better protection against IEDs were refurbished as an urgent operational requirement for peacekeeping duties but are standing ready in a warehouse in Colombo, as they were to be shipped to Mali with equipment during the contingent rotation.

The 1st CCC had run more than 18 long range convoys, carrying over 3000 tons of vital material for the people of Mali and to sustain the UN mission. If Sri Lanka is going to deploy her troops for peacekeeping duties in hostile areas, the boots on the ground need to be fully supported and given the rest they need. While bureaucrats in Colombo proceed with clearing those who have already been screened, our troops are carrying forth our flag in Mali – shorthanded, fatigued and under ever-increasing threats.


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