by Capt. FRAB Musafer,
4th Rgt. SLA (Retd.)
Tissamaharama was relatively peaceful with hardly any offensive insurgent activity. The police had regained their confidence and went about their normal duties. With operational commands being reorganized the gunners were deployed to Kurunegala. I was there for a few weeks before I had to leave to India for a Young Ofiicers’ gunnery course in India together with Lt Ballagalla. Incidentally we were the most senior officers on that course, the rest having just passed out of the Indian Military Academy.
Before I left Hambantota I dropped in to say goodbye to the GA, Mr Sonny Goonewardne, who thanked me for my services . He mentioned that a Sub Inspector Musafer was being posted to Hungama. He happened to be my cousin. Sadly on the day after my return from India, New Years day1972, I had to proceed to Middeniya to where he was transferred, to bring back his body which had been prepared for burial by the Muslim townsfolk.
Sharir, as he was known to us, had on the previous day had dinner with one of the older Rajapaksas and had appeared to be perfectly normal. His death has been shrouded in mystery as he was supposed to have committed suicide in the early hours of the morning having washed his face and turning a semi automatic weapon to his head. It was totally uncharacteristic of him as he was not the bravest of the brave. As to why he took his own life remains unanswered.
In summarizing the period of the operations in the Hambantota area it turned out to be a challenge under trying circumstances but a satisfying one nevertheless. The period from April 5 to about 10 was hectic being on my own and with no clear orders from above. There was some uncertainty but no panic.
There were no heroics or bravery to talk of. The platoon suffered no casualties (deaths). There were no police stations that were overrun, thanks to the bravery of the policemen. There were insurgents killed in these attacks but they were minimal. We were never fired upon and never had the opportunity to fire at the insurgents. It was a total anti-climax to the hype that prevailed.
This was a total contrast to the actions, risks and situations that my colleagues encountered in other areas. In some instances it was kill or be killed. It was surprising that the supposed hotbed and home of the insurgency had not showed the full face of its militant arm in this area. Was it due to the bungling of the date of the planned attack or the military presence in the area since mid March? If it was for the latter reason, it was mission accomplished.
The Town Council passed a resolution appreciating the Army for our services and the manner in which we conducted ourselves. The people of Hambantota had played their part in rejecting the JVP. An instance that comes to mind was during a gun amnesty, an old villager having walked for miles unable to afford his bus fare turned up at camp to surrender a very old unlicensed shot gun wrapped up in old newspapers. His voice trembling he said that he could not let the insurgents lay their hands on his gun. What a commitment! We were glad we had won the hearts and minds of Hambantota and its surroundings.
This was an insurgency that was very violent in other parts of the country and the death toll estimated was anyone’s guess, 5,000, 10,000? Sightings of dead bodies flowing down the rivers, charred and mutilated bodies in public places and bodies being set alight using tyres was widely circulated but never reported in the local press.
A strong press censorship was in place, under the emergency regulations. It is alleged that a large number of suspected insurgents were indiscriminately killed by the security forces. Locals suspected of collaborating with the security services were also killed by the JVP. There was this element of fear and self preservation that prevailed in areas where insurgent activity was dominant. False allegations and personal rivalries communicated to security personnel about bearded persons, local thugs and innocent youth had led to summary executions. Unfortunately it was evident that in such situations poor leadership and ” the beast in man” had overcome saner thinking and there had been blatant disregard for human life.
This was to be repeated in a more brutal way in the late 80’s as well. The casualties suffered by both sides in the 1971 insurgency was low in comparison to what happened in later years. I was not privy to the brutality that prevailed and was rampant in the late 1980’s having migrated to Australia in 1976 but believe it was estimated in the tens of thousands. It is said that ruthless waves of terror was unleashed by the government as well as the JVP.
The year 1971 was the first time the army encountered an armed insurrection and for a brief period of time the insurgents appeared to be successful but were thwarted by a resolute army, untrained and ill equipped to meet such situations but strong enough to counter- attack with the help of a determined government and cooperation of the international community. There were many incarcerated for long periods until pardoned who later transformed their lives.
The failure on the part of the insurgents was the lack of a proper leadership, a clear coordinated plan, poor communications, inadequate arms and ammunition and the absence of the promised support from those elements within the armed services and perhaps a foreign country and most importantly from the masses.
What happened in1971 was nothing compared to the protracted and brutal war of nearly 30 years where so many thousands died, both civilians and servicemen. These events changed the role of the army from a peace time and sometimes tainted as a ceremonial Army to a very dedicated, professional and well trained army exemplified by their actions in rescuing those fleeing the clutches of the LTTE in the final stages of the war .
It was their courage, dedication and commitment that triumphed to bring the war to an end. I would say this transformation was the same in the Navy and Air Force as well. As a former soldier I would like to pay tribute to all those service and police personnel who sacrificed their lives for a better tomorrow for all the people of Sri Lanka and express my regrets that so many innocent civilians also died in a conflict that took us nowhere and divided a nation. The country has gone through hell and changed so much for the worse in so many respects..
In 1965 when as an officer cadet, travelling by train to Diyatalawa a fellow passenger who was a surveyor based in Diyatalawa got into conversation with me and said that the Army was a waste of time and money. I replied that the Army was for the Internal security of the country and we had to train and be prepared for situations such as civil disturbances. Later events proved how wrong he was and ill-equipped the Army was.
I never imagined that our armed forces would have expanded so much but it was brought about by necessity at so much cost that eventually helped the country to get rid of one of the most dangerous and ruthless terrorist outfits in the world. Whilst we take pride in this achievement we should not forget the misery and hardships it brought about to our once peaceful and harmonious nation.
There was only one regiment of artillery with 12 artillery pieces of which only four were battleworthy, Today we have 12 regiments with an array of weapons ranging from multiple barrel rocket launchers, field guns and howitzers capable of firing at ranges of well over 15 kilometres.
Likewise every other arm of the Army has expanded. We now have tanks , armoured personnel carriers, commandos, paratroopers, special forces and more, whilst the Navy has offshore patrol vessels that ventured over hundreds of kilometres into international waters to destroy the LTTE supply ships; fast gunboats, fast missile vessels. fast attack craft, naval elite forces and a whole lot more. The Air Force is equipped with a range of fighter jets and strike aircraft, helicopter gunships and transport planes and more. The war also brought out the ingenuity of both sides of the conflict to improvise and build military, air and naval capacity to suit and counter each others strengths and weaknesses.
Never in my wildest dreams did I envisage that the country would be armed to this extent at such an enormous cost. Would we have acquired so much military hardware if we had no war? Perhaps not. It is now a question of maintaining all that we acquired.
In the 60s and 70s whilst on overseas courses we were subjected to the butt end of jokes as to the strength of our 8,000-strong army led by one major general then. But today we have so many major generals and one Lieut General as the commander and a force of around 200,000 plus personnel. It is an enormous cost that the country has to bear for generations to come and can ill afford.
The horrors of war and conflict
It was sad that so many thousands of lives were lost in all three conflicts and many innocent civilians caught in the middle paid the price for no fault of theirs. Their misery and sufferings continue and the scars of war will take a long time to heal. A culture of violence and corruption has eroded the moral fabric of society to the lowest depths. The human and economic cost was enormous and its ill effects thrust upon a nation .
Ask a front line soldier of the untold stories of courage, bravery, valour, cowardice, fear, hardships and the horrors of war endured by both sides of the conflict. The experiences of seeing their comrades dying beside them, killed or maimed. The sight and stench of mutilated, disfigured and rotting corpses of friend and foe in the battlefield, the carnage left by the heavy ground fighting often supported by aerial bombardment, land mines, tank and relentless artillery fire, paint a gruesome picture .
The sounds of ferocious automatic and machine gun fire that still ring in their ears will be hard to forget. These are shared experiences of those who have survived the war and hopefully realize the folly and futility of war and preach the gospel of peace and not revel and glorify war ever again.
“War is a dying business ” was a poster depicting a soldier leaping over a row of coffins draped with the US flag that I saw when the Sri Lanka Defence Services rugby team visited a US Marine living quarters in India when the Vietnam war was still raging. It was clear the sentiment of this poster was Anti-War. It is ironic that it is the soldier that detests war most and longs for peace. May this wish be the same for all Sri Lankans.
The leaders of our country together with the politicians and all the people at home and abroad must ensure that we learn from our mistakes and pursue and endeavour on a path that will deliver greater economic benefits to all the people in the island with the same commitment, zeal and tenacity with which the war was supported and fought by both sides.
Whilst the atrocities committed by both sides are hard to forget it is now a time to forgive and rebuild. Could not the billions of dollars raised and spent on this conflict have been better spent to achieve this end? There is so much poverty and hardship in the island that still needs to be addressed.
There are no winners in war This was exemplified when the Nigerian forces defeated the Biafran forces in a bitter three year civil war where more than a million people died, many from starvation. The victorious General Yakuza Gowan declared that there are ” No Victors and No Vanquished”. There were no medals awarded to commemorate the victory but only a hand of peace extended to bring about Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction which was most gracious and appropriate.
The reconciliation process in Nigeria was a shining light to the rest of the world way back in 1970. Sri Lanka could have followed that example but sadly opted for triumphalism instead. A golden opportunity of statesmanship to reconcile and rebuild the country was lost. The country’s leadership has since lacked the courage to make amends for its folly since the war ended 14 years ago.
“Oh, when will we ever learn”?
Capt F.R.A.B.Musafer 4th Regt SLA (Retd)
Ranks of the officers and other ranks mentioned were as serving ranks as of 1971.Many of the names mentioned have since passed away.