‘Lest we forget...’ | Daily News

‘Lest we forget...’

Remembering the gallantry of our Forces as once again they risk their lives to protect ours

Part I

Once again, our Security Forces are along the line of danger, as terrorism like a many-headed monster has reared its sinister form, its malevolent talons crushing a decade of hard-won peace.

Across the country, young lads, no more than of undergraduate age, keep watch in the blazing heat or torrential rain as the nation still reels from the shockwaves of the April 21 terror attacks, the macabre events of that fateful Easter morn ever at the forefront of the collective mind, like a very bad dream of the night before.

That very day of the deadly serial blasts, three police officers were killed in an explosion during search operations in Dematagoda. They too, like other citizens, had parents, wives, children, siblings and friends – all mourning their loss, so suddenly, without a warning, without a last goodbye.

They too, like us, had hopes and dreams, and much to live for. Yet, they unhesitatingly faced death. Death not surrounded by loved ones, but a dastardly one in the theatre of terrorism.

Yes, once again our Security Forces are ready to lay down their lives, so that we could have ours. Often, we have taken them for granted, complained about checkpoints and roadblocks, not tarrying to ponder the simple but profound phrase ‘lay down one’s life’.

Giving it thought, it seems impossible to do, yet, it is just what 30,000 Sri Lankan men did during the three-decade war, in the most brutal of circumstances, fighting one of the world’s most feared terrorists, sacrificing a civilian lifestyle to protect the lives of thousands of citizens they do not know and never would, who also would most likely not know of, or soon forget, their selfless sacrifice.

As wartime Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke said, several families even gave more than one member to the Forces; sons followed their fathers or a younger brother, his elder.

Goonetilleke’s father Harry, was the distinguished fifth Air Force Commander, while he himself was its twelfth. His brother Group Captain Shirantha Goonetilleke died in action on the morning of April 29, 1995. Goonetilleke’s son Rehan, his uncle Shirantha’s death notwithstanding, enlisted a few years ago and is now a Flight Lieutenant.

Earlier this year, two Sri Lankan soldiers died in Mali, the first such casualties since 2009. One of them, Major Dinesh Jayawickrama was the eldest of three brothers who had served in the recent war back home. In fact, several other members of the Jayawickrama family had chosen to enlist in the Army, although they knew the deadly risk they chose with it.

Hasalaka Gamini is now a legendary hero, the first martyr to earn the nation’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross. There were many brave men like him, several of whom were decorated, earning the honours reserved for exceptional acts of bravery, honours such as the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya (equivalent to the Victoria Cross), Rana Wickrama Padakkama, Rana Sura Padakkama, and more.

This two-part series is a tribute to honour our gallant men, not just those mentioned here, but every soldier who laid down his life for the nation, every soldier who died in a trench, every soldier disabled in the conflict. This tribute is not only for medal winners or for those who lost life or limb, but for every soldier of the Security Forces who faced the war. For medals apart, each one of them dared to face the frontline for Sri Lanka and her people, which makes each one a war hero.

As one-time Army chief General Daya Ratnayake, who has seen action at the frontline said, the three-decade war against the LTTE was the most difficult domestic uprising since Independence, which took a massive toll on the nation and particularly, on its soldiers and their families.

A guerilla war which attracted international attention because the terrorists were one of the world’s most feared, and a war which therefore local and world leaders believed could not be won. Yet, the Security Forces proved them wrong, defeating the LTTE and setting an example to the world that terrorism could be defeated. And the heaviest toll was borne by the soldiers, General Ratnayake said.

There were both distinctive singular acts of bravery, and extraordinary, but little-known unprecedented collective acts of courage in major battles such as Mullaitivu, Elephant Pass, Mankulam and Kokavil.

So let us not forget the supreme sacrifice of our Forces, their daring exploits the stuff of books.

A decade after the war, the Army published a most moving tribute – Uttamacharaya – recording the exceptional bravery of 29 of its men posthumously decorated with the nation’s highest military medal – the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya (PWV), men who showed dauntless courage, choosing death over life for their country. We feature a few of them.

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Major G.S. Jayanath, PWV, RSP

Commando Regiment
Died: December 4, 1997
Mankulam

In May 1997, the Security Forces launched Operation Jayasikuru to regain control of the main supply route to the isolated Jaffna peninsula by linking up the towns of Kilinochchi and Vavuniya.

By December 1997, the offensive had reached Mankulam. G.S. Jayanath was a Captain in the Army’s elite Commando Regiment of the 53 Division.

On December 4, he led his Second Commando Regiment to destroy an identified artillery position in Mankulam. Upon arriving at their target, they discovered that the artillery position was in fact a decoy, and immediately came under direct and artillery fire from the enemy units which had been waiting in ambush. Jayanath and most of his men were injured.

Nevertheless, he pressed forward with a small group, facing the assault and allowing the rest of his men to escape. Jayanath’s group was soon pinned down and he radioed for reinforcements.

However, the reinforcements failed to reach the group, and Jayanath was ordered to attempt to break through the terrorist positions. By this time, his group had taken heavy casualties and attempting to break out in that situation would have meant leaving behind the wounded, and Jayanath refused the order.

He informed his commanding officer that he would not leave as long as even one of his men were alive, and that they would hold out against enemy assault as long as possible and would not surrender. Jayanath kept fighting until he was shot in the head and killed.

Jayanath was the first commando to be honoured with the PWV.

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Capt. Saliya Upul Aladeniya PWV

Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment
Died: July 11, 1990
Kokavil

One little-publicised July 1990 battle was at the isolated Kokavil Army camp, where a small group of soldiers showed unprecedented collective courage and sacrifice when besieged by about 500 terrorists.

A detachment with some 100 soldiers had been set up at Kokavil, between Mankulam and Elephant Pass, to guard the communications tower which linked the North and the South.

The LTTE attacked the Mankulam and Kokavil camps and after a temporary ceasefire, intensified their attack on Kokavil. They blockaded the camp for 14 days with the toll in the camp increasing every day, while arms, ammunition, rations and medicines were dwindling. SLAF helicopters had to drop reinforcements from high above the camp to avoid the gunfire, but much of it fell outside of the camp’s perimeter and was lost.

With the situation worsening every day, the final assault on the blockaded camp came on July 10, by which time the terrorist group around the camp had increased to about 500, while only 30 soldiers were alive, half of them seriously wounded. Throughout the day, the terrorists attacked the camp where 26-year-old Lieutenant Saliya Upul Aladeniya was the commanding officer. While the soldiers returned fire, by night the condition in the beleaguered camp was bleak. With the soldiers heavily outnumbered and surrounded by the enemy, with no food, ammunition or medicine, defeat was almost certain, even to their superiors at headquarters.

By July 11, there were 30 to 40 bodies of terrorists around the camp. Lieutenant Aladeniya informed headquarters that seven of his men had been killed and 11 injured.

Aladeniya then received orders for all soldiers to abandon the camp and flee into the jungles. He was however determined that he would not abandon his severely wounded men who would not be able to leave the camp, as they could not be moved. He was prepared to even die rather than flee leaving his men behind, and told his superior over radio, “Don’t worry, Sir, I will fight till I die.”

Although he asked his able soldiers to flee, they too refused to abandon the camp and their colleagues, and were determined to even face death, which was looming, rather than flee. This selfless sacrifice, by not just one, but a group of soldiers, was unprecedented, and perhaps will be a unique act of collective bravery ever recorded in the world.

Aladeniya then forced the only civilian waiter to flee with an Army escort and, even at that eleventh hour with death staring him in the face, also remembered to send the camp mascot with them.

There was no doubt they would be killed or captured by the terrorists and the camp overrun by the enemy, which he just did not want. So he was determined that the SLAF fighter aircraft bomb the camp when the terrorists infiltrated.

But the SLAF hesitated, as they could not kill their friends. But when the Air Force pilots saw that the enemy had infiltrated the camp, they had no option but to do so.

By July 11 evening, communication with the camp was lost, and by night, the Kokavil camp was overrun. However, the SLAF was able to inflict a heavy toll among the terrorists – about 100 were killed.

Saliya Aladeniya and his soldiers died in the attack against the Kokavil outpost, in a matchless act of collective bravery that the world has ever known. For his courageous leadership in the face of death, Aladeniya was posthumously awarded the PWV.

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Lieutenant K.W.T. Nissanka PWV, CR

Gajaba Regiment
Died: November 11, 1991
Pooneryn

Second Lieutenant Nissanka of the Gajaba Regiment was platoon commander and his platoon was assigned to the Pooneryn camp. Due to its strategic location, Pooneryn was under constant attack by the LTTE. On November 11, 1991, at about 1.30 am, the LTTE unleashed a sudden and major offensive on the camp in order to capture it.

The brunt of this attack fell on the lines Nissanka’s platoon was defending. The first wave was successfully repulsed, after which a second more powerful attack soon followed. Although suffering serious injury to his right leg, Nissanka moved from bunker to bunker, encouraging his men, paying no heed to the risk to his own life.

He called for reinforcements from the battalion headquarters, but they couldn’t be sent as the headquarters itself was under attack. By around 5.00 am, although badly wounded and in great pain, he continued to command his men.

Then with the enemy advancing towards his position, Nissanka ordered the surviving members of his platoon to withdraw with those wounded. After giving the order, he removed the pins on two grenades and ran towards the enemy; the grenades exploded, killing him and the attacking terrorists instantly.

His sacrifice allowed the remainder of his platoon to withdraw to safety with the wounded.

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Lieutenant Colonel Lalith Jayasinghe PWV, WWV, RWP

Special Forces Regiment (previously of the Gemunu Watch)
Died: November 26, 2008
Oddusudan

In November 2008, the Army wished to target terrorist leaders attending the LTTE’s heroes’ day commemoration.

Major Lalith Jayasinghe, Officer Commanding of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol of the Army’s elite Special Forces (SF), together with a small team, stealthily entered the enemy ground in Oddusudan.

It was the time of the northeast monsoon, and it took six days for the six-member unit to reach the Mankulam – Oddusudan road where they launched their assault. On account of the adverse weather, Jayasinghe fell ill with fever and developed an infection on his feet, for he had been wearing wet boots for over six days.

While he was resting, his troops launched an attack close by on the terrorist event, killing some of the LTTE leaders. The terrorists retaliated with a severe counter-attack, and over 50 terrorists encircled the seven commandos. Jayasinghe resumed fighting with his men and was shot in the right leg while they were moving away to a safe place. He nevertheless ordered his men to move back while he crawled very close to the enemy, despite his illness and injury. While assaulting the enemy with heavy gunfire, he was shot in the head and killed.

At the time of his death which was just a few months before the end of the war, his wife was pregnant.

His wife and young daughter, who has unfortunately never known her distinguished father, are familiar figures at any Army Ranavirucommemoration.

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Major K. Ajith Gamage PWV, RWP, RSP

Special Forces Regiment (previously of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment)
Died: April 20, 2009
Pudumathalan

Captain Ajith Gamage was a member of the elite Special Forces Regiment. Just a month before the war ended, when civilians were held hostage by the LTTE, Gamage volunteered to command a contingent of SF soldiers tasked with liberating the civilian population during the Wanni Humanitarian Operations.

Gamage’s Team C had to break into the security bund erected by the LTTE to rescue the trapped civilians. The bare land of the Pudumathalan area made their task difficult and also obstructed their observation at night. After three days of observation, Gamage and his men were ready to break into the LTTE security bund.

At midnight on April 19, Gamage and his small team began their mammoth mission to save civilians by attacking the LTTE security bunker. The terrorists also returned fire, but the soldiers were able to capture the first bund, with four terrorists killed. Before sunrise, the soldiers had captured a considerable area of the bund.

The next morning, the fighting intensified. Gamage knew he could not save the civilians if he stayed at the bund; so, he and his men crossed over amid heavy attack from the terrorists.

He realized that although the civilians desperately wanted to cross over to the Army-controlled area, the terrorists were blocking them.

Although some were injured, he and his soldiers valiantly moved forward, crossing over enemy ditches and the lagoon, attacking the enemy bunker line until they succeeded in capturing the defence line of the LTTE.

The weary civilians gratefully joined the soldiers. Gamage quickly sent them to the Army’s No Fire Zone.

The terrorists then took advantage of the fact that most of the soldiers were injured and, hiding behind civilians in small teams, they attacked the soldiers, who found it difficult to distinguish terrorist from civilian.

Gamage ordered his team to return fire and bravely went forward with a few men to rescue more civilians. However, he was shot in the head and killed.

(Sources: Uttamacharaya, SL Army website, Wikipedia)

To be contd… 


 

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