They shall grow not old… | Daily News

They shall grow not old…

34th STF Commemoration Day:

September 1, 1984, is a memorable day. I had just returned from England after completing a Small Arms Training programme.

Since it was a Sunday I attended the shooting practices at Police Training College Kalutara. Basically, every weekend, Police practical shooting team assembled at this location and Ravi Jayewardene, Advisor to the then President J R Jayewardene, too was a regular member. On this day SSP Zerney Wijesuriya told me that they have formed a new Unit called Special Task Force, Police Paramilitary Unit and requested me to join the same as OIC. The reason may be, because I was an all-round sportsman and a good marksman.

Even though I did not respond in the affirmative, as I took my position at the Firing Lane, next to Ravi Jayewardene, he told me “Nimal, I heard the good news, that you are joining the STF and we are very happy to have you!”

I did not confirm as I had to discuss the matter with my wife, because by then we were newly married and had an eight-month-old baby. When I got back home in the evening, I told my wife about the proposal and got her consent. But in less than one hour, I got a message, that four of the STF personnel had died following a land mine explosion in Jaffna and their bodies had been brought to Ratmalana. I had to go and bring their remains to Colombo. It was a shocking news at a terrible time. It was no easy task to get my wife’s consent as we were well aware of the risks involved with it. However after some time, my wife wholeheartedly extended her support throughout for which I am very grateful to her.

I joined the STF, underwent training conducted by the British Ex-SAS trainers and was posted to Batticaloa in charge of Kalawanchikudi base as base Commander. There were only two bases at that time in Batticaloa; the other one was in Kalladi where N K Ilangakoon was the Base Commander, ASP at that time later IGP.

Just two days later another shocking incident rocked the area. The jeep carrying OIC Wellaveli, IP Masamja and seven of his PCs had got caught in a landmine in Kalawanchikudi. Since they did not return on time we were asked to go in search of them. Alas, we witnessed the unbelievable. The bodies were shattered into pieces. We had never seen anything like that before. What an experience it was for a young Unit to face at a time they were entrusted with a new task!

Effective leadership

So that was the beginning of the STF. This highly trained young professional Unit was able to achieve difficult goals under the able leadership of Zerney Wijesuriya SSP Commandant, Lionel Karunasena ASP Deputy Commandant, ASP Sahabandu, Director Training ASP Ilangakoon, ASP Rohan Abeywardena, ASP Jayantha Gamage and many other young Inspectors. All who joined the STF were volunteers. Nobody was forced to join the Unit because at that time most of the Police officers were reluctant to work in the North and East.

Effective leadership at all levels has always been the power behind this Unit. The brilliant training, discipline, commitment and the unity finally proved that nothing was impossible.

STF dominated the Batticaloa Ampara sector without allowing any of the terrorist groups to have a hold. In 1984 there were many groups such as, TELO, PLOT, EPRLF, LTTE, ERROS etc. But the most effective group in the Batticaloa was the EPRLF. In 1985 during a confrontation between the EPRLF group and the STF, we managed to overrun them. After the ceasefire agreement in 1986 the LTTE started to strengthen their manpower under Prabhakaran’s cousin Kumarappa in Eralukulam, Kokkadicholai. Although Prabhakaran in his Eelam map had identified Batticaloa as their capital they never had a strong grip as we dominated the area. Credit should go to the troops as day in and day out they launched operations one after the other to destroy their hideouts and capture those areas. STF was mostly on the coastal belt of Batticaloa, Ampara sector. From Bakmitiyawa to Lahugala was the Army area. When the terrorists were attacking the Sinhala villages in those areas, gradually STF moved in and dislodged all their hideouts. We successfully captured all their bases namely Beiruit, 46 Base in Eralukulam, 48 Base in Kanjikudiaru.

Our concept was to “dominate the areas between us and the enemy.” In achieving it the price was heavy, 463 young officers had to sacrifice their lives and 712 were injured/disabled. We strongly believe that by dying for the country “no one is going to win any war.” If you are to be the winners at the end of the war you should live and then you are the winners.

Our top priority was the human life - whether it is our men, civilians or the terrorists. Because we believe that whatever they were demanding for, violence is not the answer. That was the message we were trying to give and I believe that all STF personnel are committed to achieve this goal. We did our duty by the nation, at no stage anyone back peddled or looked back, once a task is given to them.

There were days that they had not seen or spoken to their families for months. But they always waited for their turn as a team to get their due duty off. In retrospect, I feel very proud. I started as an Inspector and ended my career as a DIG who successfully led the STF to liberate the East. I could achieve all this purely because of the support and commitment of my officers.

The unity among us was unbelievable and we are sad to note that in 1994 when the new Government came into power a volunteer Colonel took over the Defence Ministry. People like us who did yeoman service to the nation were removed as a result.

The STF had to go through a difficult time and for the first time in the history in 1995 a STF contingent was attacked at Pulukunawa camp .That is the only time the terrorist came close to a camp and it is significant that out of the 463 officers who sacrificed their lives, 300 were killed during this period. We got back to the STF in 2002 and rectified the error and liberated the East.

VIP security

The concept of the LTTE was to dilute the Sinhala leadership, first Prabhakaran got rid of the strong Tamil leadership like Sri Sabharatnam, Eliyathambi Ratnasabhapathi, Uma Maheshwaran, Pathmanaba etc. and became the sole leader. Then he wanted strong Sinhala leadership to be diluted, which we understood very correctly, and we undertook the challenge with commitment to protect leaders of our country. We were determined that we will not allow a terrorist group to destroy our Sinhala leadership. We were bound to do that and committed to protect them. There again, Ravi Jayewardene is the great person who pioneered this programme and got specialized training from Israel and made STF VIP equal to any other VIP unit anywhere in the world.

They were highly disciplined, committed and brilliant marksmen who could draw and fire within a second and hit the targets 10 out of 10 times. More than anything their commitment and determination to protect the leaders of our country were certainly commendable. I was in charge of the STF VIP Security Unit of President J R Jayewardene after the Parliament bomb blast. Sumith Silva was the Director of PSD. On retirement, President Jayewardene made a comment “The security unit led by SP Nimal Lewke is a highly professional, disciplined unit which handled all my security assignments and it is an example to the other security units in the country. Today STF security unit have set a unique record by providing security to the present President, Prime Minister, former President and many other leaders. That has proved that how professional they have been and no security unit in this country has ever achieved that unbiased, professional recognition. I also wish to mention with gratitude some of the top VIP protectors who had to sacrifice their lives not because of their mistakes or decisions.

They were victims of circumstances, as the VIP were not prepared to listen to the security advice and walked into terrorist traps. Late SP Sarath Mahinda and late SP Upali Silva were brilliant marksmen.

There were many other important tasks that STF had handled over the years. Planning out security, key installations like Parliament, BIA, Oil Refinery etc. providing security for international conferences, visiting head of states and other dignitaries etc. and assisting the Police on many occasions to maintain law and order at difficult times. The success story of STF is the real commitment of the men, discipline and the training.

I recall the advice given to me by one of my Instructors Ex-SAS officer Mr. Jordi during training,

I quote, “I have been watching you closely, you have a very good future, I want to give you one advice, do not ever take shortcuts in this game. There are no shortcuts, stick to the basics, I draw my British Army pension, you will also draw your pension one fine day, if you adhere to my instructions." I not only adhered to his instructions, I got that message across to the men every time we launched operations.

At a time STF Commemorating the 34th year, I thought I put this into print as a mark of respect for the committed, dedicated, disciplined and the sacrifices they made including their own lives to defend motherland at her darkest hour. We who are left will never forget them, those bullets have gone deep into our hearts and the bleeding will be there forever.

“They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
Not the years contemn
At the going down of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember them”

 


 

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