Journalism when terrorism reigned in Sri Lanka | Page 2 | Daily News

Journalism when terrorism reigned in Sri Lanka

I have been part of the Daily News team for the past ten years. However, being a news editor (last 2 plus years) has spoiled the discovery thrills I earlier had as a reporter.

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view” the guy from the 'Bamba' flats Buddy Guneratne told me while editing my first news feature based on a trip to the then war ravaged east in 2006.

As a rookie reporter, then, I kept Buddy’s inspiring words close to my heart and tried to follow his advice as much as possible, when both the newspaper and my conscience allowed it.

Journalism, provided me with valuable insights into how the world turns, how power works and how the powerful tick, political power games, social issues and how disputes arise and play out.

Starting with checking vegetable prices at the Manning Market in Pettah on my first day at the ‘Daily News’, I have gone on to cover almost all areas in the news section, affairs of the President, Prime Minister, Courts, Parliament, economy, political and foreign affairs, the war etc.

As Samangie Wettimuny, our features editor has asked me to concentrate a bit more about my experiences related to war reporting for this article, I thought I will start with that subject.

Memories of War

Although I have spent a considerable time in the war front, the most suited person to write about the war for the Daily News left us forever a few months back. The late Ranil Wijeyapala, our former defense correspondent spent months at a stretch at the war front in the company of the likes of our photo journalist Rukmal Gamage. If Ranil was alive today he would no doubt have written a comprehensive article about the war for this centenary supplement.

It was my former Editor Bandula Jayasekera who sent me on my first mission to the war front in May 2006, just one month after I joined this great newspaper. I was asked to go to Trincomalee where tensions had mounted with a series of conflicts following the construction of a Buddha statue in the midst of the town.

One of my first sightings when I approached the conflict-ridden area was a scared looking boy (close to 10 years) clutching the gate of a School and looking forlornly at the oncoming vehicles. However, the gate and a small fence was the only thing which was standing in that School premises as all other buildings had been erased to the ground, a result of the ongoing battle. War reporting has changed my thinking and perception of life. I have seen firsthand how war adds on human misery, the bravery some people show when faced against extreme odds, supreme sacrifices, and others who seek petty mileage at the expense of people’s anguish.

When it comes to the military and the media the question here arises, who needs whom? Military wants to win the war and the media wants to tell the story. Does the media need the military or does the military need the media?

Answer to this question is not that simple. Disputes and clashes are inevitable. Both the media and the military have been at the receiving end due to such disputes during the war. However, on my part, I found out during the conflict that the military handled the media matters quite satisfactorily. I cannot remember the military barring us unnecessarily from going places in the two provinces where the battle was raging those days. As a national newspaper, we have tried to cover the war while respecting our boundaries and responsibilities. On the question of military vs media, the military, too will benefit immensely due to the media as it plays a pivotal role in shaping public perception during a period of war. During the three-decade war against LTTE terror, the media it must be said played a pivotal role in galvanizing support for the military effort.

Suffering of Innocents in War

The sufferings of people during the war period were immense. Some of these which I witnessed remain as lasting memories. I still vividly remember my visit to the strategically important Vakarai soon after the military regained the area from the LTTE in early 2007. My first sighting after crossing the make shift bridge built by the Army across the lagoon, as the original one was completely destroyed by the fleeing tigers was a group of small girls waving for our vehicle to stop. They were hiding something in their slightly inverted frocks. When we went close, they took out what they were hiding - small prawns which they had caught from the lagoon using their frocks. They were trying to sell it to us. Tears sprang to my eyes, the oldest among the group may have been 7 years old.

The war has been especially harsh on children and women. I have seen elder children trying to teach younger ones at School as there were no teachers in some war ravaged areas. When I visited some eastern areas soon after they were liberated from the LTTE, a strange sight greeted me. There were rows of foreign liquor bottles placed on wooden tables in front of some makeshift houses with mostly women sitting behind them. As soon as a vehicle approached, they tried to stop them in a bid to sell their liquor. These they said had been gifted by some NGO’s working in the area. Fortunately for them, there were no excise officers in those areas during the time to stop them engaging in their business. I still vividly remember going to cover the first cabinet of ministers meeting at former LTTE administrative capital at Kilinochchi on July 14, 2010. Following the meeting of the ministers, a meeting was held for the public in the area under the patronage of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The meeting was held at the Kilinochchi ground and seating arrangements were in place for the large gathering of public. The former Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne was one of the first to arrive at the meeting and he went to each and every row of seated people to greet them. However, the people who had been under the LTTE clutches for the past 30 years did not recognize the person who was greeting them with a broad smile and a warm handshake. A handful of people who had recognized him were trying to tell the others that it was the Prime Minister of the country, but they were a very small minority and did not have much impact. This brought me the realization to what extent the LTTE had controlled the public and kept them in the dark while under their control.

The war coverage of ours was not confined to the North and East and it was very much alive in Colombo as well. The Capital was under constant attack by terrorists and especially suicide bombers. This writer was in close proximity when a female suicide bomber blew herself up at the Fort railway station on February 3, 2008 where several baseball players from the D. S. Senanayake College, Colombo were among the victims. The following is a part of a news feature this writer wrote for the next day's paper under the headline;

“Abominable terror that snatched young lives in their prime”

Date: February 3, 2008

Location: Colombo Fort Railway Station

Time: 2.10 p.m

The highly active Fort Railway station is somewhat deserted with an extended weekend holiday in the offing. It is unnaturally calm in this normally busy transport hub. On this lazy Sunday afternoon, gun totting security personnel at every entry/exit point remind the travelers of the troubled times they are going through.

Security has been beefed up and troops are on red alert, with Sri Lanka at the doorstep of another landmark in its annals, in the form of their 60th independence anniversary which is to be flagged off with a grand celebration in a few hours.

Sixty years since the struggle by our forefathers to gain freedom from the clutches of colonial rulers, another struggle is being waged, this time to free the nation from the clutches of terrorism.

In this backdrop the Fort Railway station and the general area resembles a mini fortress with armed guards at every nook and corner. The time is 2.05 p.m, the train from Kandy arrives at the station and among the crowd are seven young baseball players and their coach from D. S. Senanayake college in Colombo, returning after a club match in Kandy.

There are heavy bags on their backs and menacing looking baseball bats in their hands. The young men in the prime of their lives move to the exit point, at the corner of the number three platform, laughing and joking with each other.

They either did not see or did not take any notice of, a young woman who had a deadly secret: a suicide jacket strapped to her waist. In their eyes, she could have been just another passenger waiting to disembark. But she had no plan of ever going home.

The big clock overhead turns to 2.10, and stops its tick, tick as crows are the first ones to take flight in unison with the sound of the deadly blast, sending its shock waves on unsuspecting, innocent bystanders.

The clock which stopped at 2.10 p.m would be repaired in the near future and its hands would weave back and forth once again. But those young hearts which stopped ticking at 2.10 p.m on February 3, 2008, would never tick again. The life journey they began with so much hope and dreams is shattered so cruelly, on the concrete floor of a railway station to appease the blood lust of terrorists.

Heroic sacrifices

Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. I am sure that our men and women in their uniforms do not have such a question to raise in their lives.

Thousands of the nation’s sons and daughters have served honourably, wearing our nation’s military uniforms. Of those, many have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives, and have been wounded for life in combat, in defence of freedom. From the former Defence Minister RanjanWijeratne, General Denzil Kobbekaduwa to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and numerous other leaders of our nation have made untold sacrifices for the freedom of the nation. Their service and sacrifice should be never forgotten by the media.

The Daily News - Next Stage

When I look around Daily News I see three kinds of people — those who hate their work, and complain bitterly, those who just tolerate their work and see it as a paycheck and aren’t looking for more, and finally, those who love their work, and relish it. I hope the third category keeps growing at a time when the Daily News completes 100 years and looks forward to scoring another century.


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