Posted on August 21st, 2014

Dr. Tilak Fernando


James Emerson Tennent once described “Ceylon” as “an Island in the world that has attracted the attention of authors in so many distant ages and from so many different countries”.

While I was a student in the UK, I made my first trip home after living in London for some years to experience the marvel of my motherland, as I had not travelled far and wide before embarking on studies abroad.

In the bygone past, travelling was confined only to a few privileged sections of the society, even within the country; mostly villagers did travel only during the Sinhala and Tamil New year season visiting relatives to keep up with the old traditions.

First revolution

A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then. The JVP mayhem in 1970s had brought devastating effects to the country with the loss of many young lives. This was followed by a Tamil youth rebellion from the North and the East, which transformed into The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), whose main objective was to dissect the sovereign island. North and the East of the country became ‘out of bounds’ to the Sinhala folks overnight. The Tamil fanatics from the LTTE hounded the few Sinhala families who lived and worked in those areas, along with the Muslims and Sinhala folk in the East, when the terrorist war ‘radicalised’ over a period of thirty long years.

BRAVERYThe circumstances that prevailed during terrorism made Sinhala people believe that they would never be able to visit Jaffna and some parts of the East again for a considerable period of time until and unless the zealotry and extremism was eliminated completely.

In a capacious contrast, Tamil community in general, whether in Jaffna, east or anywhere in the country, enjoyed freedom of travel from north to south and east to west, with the bonus of having the choice of settling down and engaging in micro and macro economies on every urban area and town, the majority forming ‘ghettos’ in Colombo conurbation.

The LTTE advanced their terrorist activities ostensibly by progressing to such lengths of inventing the lethal ‘suicide belt’; they developed maritime warfare with Sea Tigers, attempted aerial attacks with ‘home-made’ lighter aircraft and engaged in suicide bombing, massacres, robberies, ethnic cleansing, military battles and assassinations of civilians including infants, the old and the sick, political leaders and military officials unpredictably.

On May 14, 1985, the LTTE delimited the bus-depot at Anuradhapura and slaughtered many civilians, then moved into the Sri Maha Bodhi expanse and gunned down nuns, monks and worshipping pilgrims within the sacred premises and massacred altogether 146 Sinhalese men, women, children on a single day.

Subsequent to this extreme incident, I visited Sri Lanka on holiday from the UK and travelled to Anuradhapura where my two brothers ‘MR’ & ‘MG’ were based. Their official capacity afforded me the opportunity of visiting many places, which I had never seen before.

‘MG’ being a Civil Engineer attached to the National Housing and ‘MR’ as the Regional Director of Territorial Civil Engineering Organisation (later Director – Highways) had exclusive access to many areas in the Province. I thoroughly enjoyed being taken around to show many ancient ruins of historical importance, in the city of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, in the capacity of a ‘tourist’!

Brave sentry

‘MG’ one evening came out with a captivating story of a Sri Lankan villager who had bravely confronted a Tamil Tiger terrorist during the Anuradhapura massacre and how he had managed to escape death! Later he ushered me to R. K. Herath at the ‘Uda Maluwa’ where this brave and innocent villager was seated dedicatedly and guarding the shrine room continuously despite such horrific experiences in the past.

Startling story

Listening to his gruesome experience made my hair stand on end! This innocent man had sensed something strange was taking place at first, but got very much alarmed when he heard the sounds of gunfire inside the sacred compound. The LTTE terrorists had by then gone berserk and were spraying bullets from automatic rifles indiscriminately killing the young, old and the clergy in saffron robes without any mercy.

In a mighty rush, excitement and fear of death to his own life, Herath had tried to close the main door of the shrine room, but had only managed to secure only one half of the entrance when a LTTE terrorist in combat uniform burst into the sacred shrine room, pushed him to a side forcibly and taken the aim at the Buddha sculpture to destroy the statuette.

Brave suppliant

Herath said he could not possibly stomach what was going to happen. In a split second decision he had jumped forward, risking his own life and bravely hung on to the barrel of the machine gun while pulling it away from the terrorist’s target and at the same time yelling: “Ane Mahattayo, Buduhamuduruwantanam vedi thiayanna epa” (please sir, I beg of you not to shoot at the Buddha statue).

Herath had been jubilant momentarily that he managed to divert the direction of the gun as soon as the terrorist started spraying bullets from the machine gun, but within seconds this courageous man had realised he had been shot through the thigh muscle of his leg!

Apparently several bullets from the terrorist’s machine gun had penetrated through his thigh muscle causing profuse bleeding! Miraculously he escaped death as the terrorist had escaped after the frenzy. Subsequently, Herath had been rushed to the Anuradhapura hospital by some rescuers and the doctors at the hospital had managed to remove several bullets from his thigh muscle.

When I came face to face with Herath, he had fully recovered and continued to perform his dedicated up keep duties at the shrine room at Uda Maluwa. By then, the authorities had taken preventative steps of shielding the Buddha statue with a bulletproof glass pane.

He stretched out his left leg with difficulty to show me the seven-inch long scar of the bullet wounds, results of his brave act of facing a coldblooded LTTE terrorist. Although his life had been saved, this seven-inch long mutilation of the bullet wound on his thigh muscle held testimony to this unsung hero’s daring act.

My attempt to photograph his wounded thigh area to show to the world at large the gravity of what he had suffered became a problematic performance as Herath was not very flexible to move about and could only sit at a certain angle due to gunshot wounds, yet he continued his steadfast and faithful service of guarding the Buddha statue and the shrine room at the Sri Maha Bodhi, Uda Maluwa, in Anuradhapura until I left Sri Lanka.

To me, R.K. Herath appeared as the most fragrant flower at the Uda Maluwa shrine area, out of hundreds of other conspicuous flowers in display in front of the tranquil Buddha statue.

Situation change

Dr. Noel Nadesan, a Tamil expatriate domiciled in Australia, who edited the Tamil community newspaper, UTHAYAM, for 14 years had once confessed thus: “My experiences in dealing with the Tamil community, both in Australia and in Sri Lanka, make me feel sad about the callous way in which the media is exploiting the suffering of our Tamil people for self-serving ends”.

Change of wind

In 2014, however, when he visited Sri Lanka he published an enthralling article in the Colombo Telegraph website on March 21, 2014 under the caption ‘Winds change in Jaffna’ which read in part as follows:

“Thirty years of terror and violence perpetrated by LTTE were brought to an end by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Whether we like him or not, we have to concede to this hard fact. The ending of a war is a defining moment, which opens up new possibilities. This is not a small achievement. Ending a war proved to be as difficult as waging a war. The frustrated Tamil Diaspora who financed Prabhakaran’s futile war decided to pursue the war through other means. They went on the warpath from abroad. They decided to fight from the safe shores”.

“I have visited Jaffna 13 times in the last five years. But nothing signified the change better than the international symbol I saw in Jaffna when I visited the place last, in January 2014. For the first time ever I saw one of the best international symbols in the heart of Jaffna. It was the face of the bearded Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was a giant leap for Jaffna to abandon the traditional “porichci koli” and go for KFC. This, to me is the ultimate symbol of Jaffna breaking away from the feudal past and arriving at last in the 21st century”.

“We travelled from north to south and east to west. There is a palpable change that you can feel and see. Just not the roads but the attitude and the new spirit that is visible in the faces”. (depicts a clear picture of the Anuradhapura massacre).

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