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20th June 1999

This is his life

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They sacrifice their todays for the nation's tomorrow. These soldiers deserve a better deal

The battlefields of Wanni have acquired the dubious reputation of being the killing fields of Sri Lanka in the 17 year long separatist war.

Here, in the past four years, more than 4500 soldiers and over 3,000 Tiger guerrillas have died in attacks and counter attacks. The worst was during "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) when troops fought for 18 long months to establish a land based Main Supply Route (MSR) to link Jaffna to rest of Sri Lanka along the A-9 (Kandy-Jaffna) highway.

When the Government announced on December 4, last year, that the operation was being called off, troops had arrived at Mankulam, some 48 kilometres from Vavuniya. A further 24 kilometres remained for a link up with Kilinochchi. But a fierce attack on the defences there in September, last year, was to cause disaster and force troops to withdraw to Paranthan thus widening the gap a further four kilometres. Now a 28 kilometre area is the corridor that offers Tiger guerrillas a contiguous land area to dominate, from the west to the east coast.

Supplies smuggled from Tamil Nadu across the Palk Straits and landed at the Sea Tiger Base in Nachikuda (in the west coast) are taken overland to Tiger bases in Mullaitivu and adjoining areas. Similarly, guerrilla cadres tasked for various assignments in the Jaffna peninsula move across from hideouts in the Nedunkerni jungles and bases in Mullaitivu to Pooneryn in the west. From a staging area there, Tiger cadres infiltrate the peninsula via secret routes across the Jaffna lagoon. Similarly guerrillas in the north east travel to bases in the west before arriving in the City and suburbs. This was how a ten member team of Sea Tiger cadres came to surveil and attack the Navy base at Kalpitiya (Situation Report- May 2, 1999).

If that does not underscore the importance of the 28 kilometre corridor to the LTTE, there is more. It is the terrain they want to deny to the security forces and thus prevent the setting up of an MSR. That would only bifurcate the area the Tiger guerrillas now dominate.

In order to prevent an incursion by troops, guerrillas regularly pound their positions in Mankulam and Paranthan with artillery and mortars. They want to keep the troops pinned down to their present positions.

In the past eight months, the frequency of attacks on the Paranthan defences, the southern-most of the Elephant Pass defence complex, have seen a marked increase. Whilst this went on, Tiger guerrillas were making frequent incursions into defences in the Elephant Pass sector. That was both to reconnoitre and to place Claymore mines and improvised explosive devices. There was convincing evidence that the LTTE was making plans for an attack on Elephant Pass defences including Paranthan which remains the first line of defence from the Wanni end.

Senior military officials acknowledge that Elephant Pass is the "most difficult battle station in Sri Lanka" (See Situation Report on Page 11). In this "most difficult battle station", the hardest and most vulnerable are the Paranthan defences. The vast expanse of sandy territory, with sparse bushy vegetation, tells the story of grit and determination of the soldiers - the real heroes of this war.

We prepare from near an abandoned Fuel Station at the Paranthan junction. The walls of the building riddled with bullet marks of varying sizes stand testimony to the bitter gun battles that have been fought in the area. Some of the concrete portico have been ripped off and the steel re-inforcements jut out.

Cameraman Alfred Silva and I are helped by troops to don Body Armour. The journey is in a chosen Double Cab. The dull paint on it makes it obscure and blend with the landscape. LTTE spotters are unlikely to notice the advance of the vehicle from their observation posts. Or so we believe. The journey lasting some twenty minutes is uneventful and we arrive at the frontlines.

A walk that begins unravels the story of soldiers in the battle field. And this one, in a most difficult area. There are no billets, no bunk beds or living rooms. They live in make shift huts built with whatever pieces of canvas, rusty galvanised sheets or pieces of asbestos- all picked from here and there. The picture on this page shows just one of the many. Inside, gaping holes in the corrugated sheets brings in the rays of the Sun. The blue sky is clearly visible. There was one wedged between bunkers. The roof was just three unwoven branches of a coconut tree. It could not be photographed for obvious reasons.

It is here that the soldiers "off duty" spent their time. Their beds were either a collection of Palmyrah logs with cardboard and a bedsheet on top or just polythene on the ground. Their travel bags were placed on logs and their clothes hung on long poles or sticks. With the dry season on, there is no threat of heavy rainfall. There have, however, been a few showers when they take cover (with their clothes) in a bunker. That is not only during rains. That happens when artillery and mortars rain too. With the first volley, those "off duty" manning the defences would have to rush for cover in the bunkers. During morning, ablution means having to take turns walking to a well with an old paint tin to bring water.

Lunch in the open terrain is made unpleasant by the wind that sweeps a fine, dusty sand. That gets into the food. When the monsoons arrive, it's the water that pours through the roof to flood their improvised living areas and their plates of rice. It also floods the bunkers.

A young officer introduced me to a group of soldiers who had just finished their chores and were taking a short break. "You can speak to them on your own. We have nothing to hide" he says as he moves away from us.

A friendly and frank exchange ensued. What surprised me most was the fact that none of the soldiers raised issue about their lifestyles. There were no complaints about how they lived or how they ate and drank.

That is not to say they did not want to speak out. They did and the difficulties began to unfurl. Their major problem was the non availability of an ambulance to take the wounded.

"When one of us are injured, we are taken in the trailer of a tractor to the helipad. That near 45 minute journey is most uncomfortable" said Sunil. There were other hazards too. Whilst the tractor was away taking a wounded, if another is injured, they would have to await its return. "In the night, it can turn out to be a nightmare, when the tractor moves cautiously to prevent any ambush by guerrilla infiltrators," he adds.

"Is it too much for us to ask for an ambulance or two to this area when we have put our own lives at stake and undergo these hardships for the country," asks Shantha. Other voices join in a chorus and each tries to say something. Shantha's voice comes over them. He continues. "Sometimes, a delay in going by a tractor to the helipad can mean instant death," he says. "Why don't you report on this matter and help us to obtain at least one ambulance. That is a service you can do for us," he adds. "That is the biggest service (lokuma sevaya) you can do for us," says Ajit.

I have, for obvious reasons, concealed the identities of the soldiers concerned. However, I did ask senior officials for their reactions to the issues raised. They admit transporting casualties is a problem not only in the battlefront in Paranthan but also in other areas in Elephant Pass. "This is a matter beyond us though we have tried hard. The problem persists in many other battle areas too," he said.

Major General Sarath Munasinghe, GOC of the 54 Division was told of another complaint by soldiers that they recently ate eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He reached out to the phone and spoke to an officer who dealt with supplies. Within seconds the reasons became clear. There had been a slight interruption in supplies during the Vesak season. He ordered that such delays should be brought to his attention in future.

There were other problems too. One was the ordeal of going on leave. Very often when they travelled from the battlefront to Movements Control in Palaly, they could not find a seat in a Sri Lanka Air Force flight to Anuradhapura or Ratmalana. Some stayed for days in transit camps (in Palaly) and returned to Paranthan. Thereafter, they would go again to try their luck. One soldier said it took him two weeks to ultimately leave by a flight. Family functions like weddings, funerals and even pilgrimages are missed for they cannot arrive at their destinations on the dates their presence is required. On the part of the SLAF, shortage of aircraft has become the major constraint. SLAF officials say the problem would ease considerably when they take delivery of two Hercules C-130 aircraft early next year.

For those who are flown from Palaly to Anuradhapura for a bus journey there onwards, there were problems too. The buses that ply from Anuradhapura to Ratmalana are fully overloaded. At least 20 to 30 passengers are forced to stand for the duration of the entire journey, the soldiers say.

Other problems include delays in sending out or receiving letters. It would take a minimum of at least two weeks before a letter reaches them or their next of kin receive what is written by them. Adding to this problem is the non availability of telephones to call home.

There was also the odd case of what a mix up of communications could do. A soldier from Hasalaka complained that his family was being harassed because he had been listed as a deserter. A Samurdhi animator had complained to the Police. Recently his brother was arrested by the Police who demanded the soldier's presence.

In many camps including Elephant Pass, innovations by soldiers have improved life. Some have become experts in building small sized bakeries capable of producing 30 to 40 loaves of bread every day. The facility is also used to make the popular "Maalu Paan" or buns stuffed with vegetables or tinned fish.

If a week-end is what City workers would anxiously wait for, the soldiers in the battlefront would also look forward to a few days every month with great relief. Those are the days before, during and immediately after Poya. That brings in joyous relief for them. The reason: the moonlight affords greater visibility ahead of the defence lines. Hence any enemy advance could be spotted.

How much these days are sought after by the soldiers can be seen from the poetic qualities in some of them. The Palmyrah logs that are walls in the bunkers are pasted with poems that praise the moon. One was so well done. As the first few lines begin to emerge, I got the feeling that the soldier had dedicated that work to his girl friend. Not after we came to the last line. It was all about the virtues of the Moon.

A great mass of the public back the soldier in the battlefront for their role in the ongoing separatist war. Yet many are unaware of the environment in which they fight and the conditions under which they live. The axiom when the going gets tough, the tough gets going, is what they symbolise in the battlefront. There is more than a little those who speak of the soldier's heroism and morale could do to give them a better quality of life. They are sacrificing their today for the nation's tomorrow.

One is reminded of the famous words of General Norman Schwarzkopf who led the coalition forces in the Gulf War. He told interviewer Barbara Walters in a TV interview on CBS :

"It doesn't take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle."

Here are those men who have gone into battle. They deserve a much better deal.

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