The Rediff Special/ Ramesh Menon

The army fights back!

E-Mail this special feature to a friend The lilting melody of Auld Lang Syne, the farewell tune played by the Sri Lankan army band on March 24 as the IPKF set sail for India still lingered in my mind. Mental pictures of the Indian army packing off and leaving Sri Lanka after a disastrous mission was fresh. The streets of Trincomalee were energised with LTTE activity almost startling the life out of the locals.

Actually, they did not know how to react. There was an underlying sense of fear that blood will be spilled on the streets again and the stench of rotten flesh will once again hang in the air. It was clear that sooner or later the Tigers would strike. Tension hung in the air. It stayed that way for a few weeks while Sri Lankan politicians were at their wits end on how to whip up a solution. In a way, both the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE had held hands with the government to force the IPKF to leave hoping that the LTTE would relax and agree to a reasonable political solution.

The peace talks initiated by the LTTE when the IPKF was in control was a clever ruse. It was basically to get the Sri Lankan government to give marching orders to the IPKF. President Ranasinghe Premadasa fell into the booby trap thinking that the road to peace was certain if he gave in to the demand. But it did not need a political scientist to predict what would have happened. The day the IPKF moved out, the Tigers moved in to take control. Sandbag bunkers were replaced by concrete ones. Mines were laid at sensitive points. A drive was launched to recruit boys between 10 and 15 years. Dry rations and ammunition were stockpiled.

The Tigers were just too organised. Their agreement with the government stipulated that the army and the police had to take their permission before moving out. The soldiers were seething with anger. Even 12-year-old recruits in bathroom slippers with machine guns slung on their shoulders were questioning army officers on the streets. Premadasa had ordered that the LTTE should not be antagonised. A group of policemen returning from a football match on May 13, 1990, in eastern Sri Lanka were thrashed by LTTE cadres as they had not taken their permission to leave the police station and go out and play. There were numerous such instances. Sri Lankan soldiers were made to kneel and crawl on the streets as punishment for various "offences".

The locals were clearly uncomfortable. They knew they would have to flee again as war clouds hovered. It all came to a head just ten weeks after the IPKF left. That was the time they needed to reorganise themselves, draw up strategies and replenish supplies. The excuse the LTTE was waiting for came on July 10, 1990, when a Muslim villager was thrashed by a fellow villager who suspected him of having an affair with his wife. The Muslim complained that the police did not care to register his complaint. That was it.

It seemed so farcical when the LTTE stormed police stations in Batticaloa and Amparai districts taking them over and holding 600 policemen captive. The idea was to provoke the government. But Premadasa, who was aiming to be crowned in glory for working out a peace plan, wanted to call for a cease-fire. But there was no stopping the rampaging Tigers. The then justice minister, A C S Hameed, flew in a helicopter to Jaffna to talk sense to the LTTE leaders and call for a cease-fire. They heard him out but did not talk. As he was about to depart for Colombo, the Tigers shot at two of his bodyguards. Tiger chief Vellupillai Pirabhakaran's message was clear.

Emboldened by a weak government, the cadres stepped up their attacks on army camps in Kiran, Vellavalai and Kalawanchikuddi. As things started going out of hand, the army was getting demoralised. Premadasa asked the army to strike back. The sudden turnaround boosted the army morale sky-high. The army struck with the entire panoply of armaments available to it including armed US-made Bell helicopters and medium artillery. He also got the dreaded Israeli-trained Special Task Force commandos to move into the eastern province. Naval gunboats were mobilised to patrol the shallow seas to intercept LTTE cadres taking their wounded to India.

The army had been fired into a new aggressive posture. For the army, it was a fight to the finish. The Tigers had not anticipated this. They thought that once the IPKF left, the Sri Lankan army which lacked both the firepower and training to fight a guerrilla war, would wilt. That did not happen as Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne completely backed the army. Army commanders remembered what a senior Indian commander had told them before he left. He had said that ultimately the army would have to fight back if it had to survive and prevent the country from breaking up.

Earlier, the LTTE strategy would be to lay siege around army and police camps, cut off approaches, fire at helicopters to prevent them from dropping supplies and wait for the psychological collapse of the jawans. It did work. But now, with the new army offensive, it was not so easy. One example of the army's new fighting spirit was the battle at Kiran, an army camp near Batticaloa. On June 12, 1990, the camp's 50-man detachment was attacked at night by around 300 LTTE fighters. For nearly a week, they fought a pitched battle every night and kept army reinforcements at bay.

But, on June 19, the army men put their heads together and decided to launch a frontal attack. What followed was a brutal massacre of the LTTE. It was difficult to walk around the camp as the stench of decomposed bodies of the LTTE cadres still hung in the air. There were mounds of loose soil around the camp where they were hurriedly buried. Walking around the camp was a strict no-no as it was heavily mined by the LTTE. The army commander in charge gave me lunch and asked me to leave with a guide on a restricted path saying jocularly: "You came all the way to write a story. If you get blown up, the story gets blown up too."

But before I left, the led to me a huge room where hundreds of rifles were strewn around hiding the rough stark floor. "Pick them up and check where they have come from," he chided. Before I could react after seeing they were Indian made guns, he roared: "These are all Indian guns captured from the LTTE. Most of them were given after they got trained in India. The remaining ones were given by the IPKF to various splinter Tamil groups to fight the LTTE." He smiled throwing up his hands. I said nothing. After the IPKF left, LTTE cadres had hunted down these splinter groups like TELO, EPRLF and PLOTE. Many got eliminated. Others fled leaving the arms behind. The LTTE was only too glad to add them to their arsenal.

Travelling towards the north, I could see deserted villages on the way where Tamil houses were set on fire by the advancing Sri Lankan army. Often, one would see a half burnt body in rigor mortis. The taxi driver had heard of mines, but he drove on. He had never seen war and had never driven to Jaffna.

At that time, the LTTE was finding it difficult to face the army's artillery fire. After a barrage of artillery firing, army columns would move in to take over well-fortified Tiger camps. The LTTE camp at Wakaneri which had deep trenches around it, was deserted. The camp decorated with typical Tiger stripes painted on the walls was now turned into an army camp and jubilant jawans were celebrating. The huge insignia of the Tigers that proudly announced the LTTE camp, was repositioned upside down. Pointing to it, Lieutenant K C Dharmasena said: "The Tigers are on the run. This will hereafter be an army camp."

The army was drawing plans for aerial strafing and artillery fire. They were working with a new surge of energy. Till now, they had been playing second fiddle to the IPKF and then suffering humiliation at the hands of the LTTE. Now, they were at last calling the shots. Pointed out Brigadier A M U Seneviratne: "The Sri Lankan brass has a point to prove and Jaffna will be their crucial test."

In 1987, there were just around 12,000 men in the Sri Lankan army. But, by 1990, it had grown into a potent fighting force increasing its strength to over 50,000. But it was clear that if the LTTE continued as a guerrilla army, it would bleed the army. Back in Colombo, there was a feeling of sombre realism about the challenge the Indian army had faced to safeguard Sri Lanka's territorial integrity.

After getting rid of the IPKF, peace with the LTTE was expected to be Premadasa's political coup de grace. There was an ostensible feeling of patriotism sweeping the country. Posters praising the army were up in remote non-Tamil villages of central and southern Sri Lanka. Volunteers were moving in to work for the wounded. Army camps were flooded with gifts from even poor villagers -- cigarettes, old clothes, tender coconuts, cooked food and chocolates. Lieutenant Nalin Jayasinghe was overwhelmed. He never felt so important and wanted.

Newspapers carried daily appeals for contributions to the national defence fund. School student Gokula Rodrigo, who had kept aside Rs 511 to buy a necklace, gave it to the war fund. As the army made significant gains, there was a sigh of relief in the countryside. The Tigers had alienated the Tamil Muslims and they were actively helping the army in whatever way they could.

But for the Tamilians, it was sheer hell. The army was targeting them and the local Sinhalese were driving them out of their houses, looting their shops and setting them on fire. In Trincomalee, as many as 18 refugee camps had sprung up with over 9,000 families.

As one column of fresh refugees were coming down the road, we stopped the taxi to take pictures. We had just clicked a few when a motorcyclist braked to a halt. He asked for our identities. We introduced ourselves as Indian journalists. He flashed his wallet which had a painted skull on it. "Get out," he screamed, "before you also become like this." He said he was a Sinhala and was mobilising the locals to get rid of Tamils. We did not confront him but politely told him that we had a job to do and would continue reporting the war. He screamed some obscenities and sped off.

Minutes later, we heard sirens behind. Police patrol jeeps pulled up and stopped our taxi. Before we knew what was happening, we were pulled out of the taxi. We were bundled into the jeep and taken to a police station. Our passports were taken away and we were told we were under arrest. The lone policeman threw our passports into one of his table drawers saying we would pay very heavily for photographing fleeing Tamil refugees. I protested saying that we were foreign journalists and he could not stop us. He looked at us mockingly saying that we would know what he could do after sunset. "Have you seen charred bodies with tyres around it? No one will know you are a foreign journalist. We know what to do with bodies."

For over two hours which seemed like two days, we sat in the police station. When an officer walked in, we protested again saying that we were going to complain to the defence minister as we had been illegally detained and not allowed to cover the war. Just two days before, the defence minister had stated that foreign journalists must come in and cover the war to let the world know what was happening in Sri Lanka. The officer took a look at our I-cards and passports and apologised. The taxi driver was shaking in the car as the police had taken down his number and called him a dog for taking Indian journalists around.

The most remarkable fallout of the war in those weeks was that the IPKF which was hated, was seen in a new light. The Sri Lankan army which had actually collaborated with the LTTE to fight the IPKF in the later stages, now realised that it was actually the Indian army which had done the dirty work for them. Moderate Tamils also realised that their woes had now increased as the LTTE action had made them targets and refugees. The Sinhalese also realised that the IPKF had been given an unceremonious boot when they had actually laid down over a thousand lives fighting their country's war.

What rung in my ears when I flew back to India was an aged Tamilian in Trincomalee who was eloquently anti-IPKF: "India has a moral responsibility. It cannot allow us to die at the hands of the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan army".

At Colombo, the taxi driver asked for Rs 23,000. I was aghast. I asked him why he wanted so much. The driver said that his career had come to an end, he would never drive a taxi again, he would never take journalists on a trip and he would sell the car that day itself as the police had taken his number and said they would teach him a lesson. Did he complain even once, he asked pointedly as we drove through streets which were on fire on both sides, where gunshots were flying around and where mines were going off. I paid.

Part III: 'The LTTE will wet their pants when they see my army…'

Part I: Wounded Journey


India's Vietnam

A homeland denied

The Rediff Specials

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