Lest We Forget – A Tribute to the Heroes of Gemunu Watch
Posted on December 28th, 2015

By Brigadier Hiran N. Halangode [Retd] [Gemunu Watch] Courtesy Island

A personal account by the CO 1 GW of events in Batticaloa during the siege in 1990 and the courageous performance of duties by troops under his command, amidst unprecedented odds faced by them is recounted here for posterity.

I dedicate this article to all those valiant officers and men of the First Battalion the Gemunu Watch (1 GW) who served under my command from December 1, 1988 to January 31, 1991. They served with me loyally, with dedication and commitment in Hambantota, Moneragala, Ampara and Batticaloa [BCO] districts against all odds.

They all without exception strove hard: some made the supreme sacrifice and together even suffered humiliation at times to protect the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. This tribute is written without fear or favour, with malice to none and magnanimity to all, although the bitter truth might ruffle a few feathers.

With the departure of the IPKF at the end of March 1990, the LTTE gradually took control of the North-East, which had been vacated under the terms of the Indo SL Agreement 1987 or occupied these lands illegally. They positioned their cadres in vital areas that enabled them to exert pressure on the Police who maintained law and order and on the Army who were very thinly deployed in the Northeast to counter them. In the Eastern province just one Infantry Battalion each was deployed in each of the districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee.

In Batticaloa district, five Army detachments were established at Wellawadi, Kiran, Kalawanchikudy, Kalmunai and Kallady. Of these detachments, Kalmunai [in the Ampara district] and Kalawanchikudy detachments belonged to 6th Battalion Sri Lanka Light Infantry (6 SLLI), which was raised in late May 1990.

kobbakaduwa

Major General D. L. Kobbekaduwa and Troops celebrate the fall of Thoppigala

The Infantry Battalions were handicapped as they had to transfer one Rifle Company and composite platoons to the newly raised Infantry Battalions in late May 1990. The troops had to re-orientate themselves from a limited engagement environment in the South to an all out COIN [Counter Insurgency] Operations environment in the North and East.

However, 1 GW had already prepared themselves professionally and psychologically during their tenure of 10 months at Ampara. They saw the LTTE annihilate the TNA (Tamil National Army – ex-members of EPRLF/ENDLF) with the withdrawal of the IPKF. They had given refuge to about 20-30 TNA cadres who fled the LTTE attacks, into Ampara.

They were armed by the IPKF who wanted them to be their proxy, although not included in the infamous Indo – Lanka peace agreement. This is for the kind attention of the numerous Indian military experts and the more radical TNA politicians who speak about genocide.

1 GW was re-deployed in Batticaloa district on May 18, 1990. By then the situation was very tense in the Batticaloa district. The LTTE obstructed the movement of the security forces, provoked the Army and interfered with the Police in maintaining law and order. There were around 30-40 outposts with bunkers manned by 150-300 LTTE cadres in the BCO town and vicinity.

A large bunker covered the approach into the Batticaloa town under the clock tower across the lagoon facing the Police station. LTTE permission was required to visit most areas in town, where a concentration of more than 30 LTTE outposts had come up. They reserved the use of certain garages and service stations exclusively for themselves.

This situation was brought to the notice of the military higher command and the civilian bureaucracy negotiating peace with the LTTE at that time. But the Security Forces were explicitly told to co-operate with the LTTE to bring about a peaceful settlement to the conflict as the country couldn’t afford another battle with the LTTE.

The President and the civilian bureaucracy did not know the ground situation despite negotiating for peace with the LTTE, whilst the military higher command did not put across the difficulties faced by the security forces on the ground to the powers that be prior to the outbreak of hostilities, in order to continue in office.

On June 11, 1990, hostilities started in Batticaloa with the LTTE taking the Security Forces by complete surprise. The previous night a Sinhalese woman was caught by her husband when she was with a Muslim youth (an LTTE supporter) who was a tailor. The two males engaged in fisticuffs and both were brought to the BCO Police Station. The LTTE, who were looking for an opportunity to restart their campaign of violence, surrounded the Batticaloa Police Station and demanded the release of the Muslim youth.

When the Police informed them that the youth was admitted to the Batticaloa hospital, the LTTE insisted that the youth was not in the hospital and pressed their demand for his release. Later, the LTTE abducted this youth from the hospital. They then disarmed the policemen on guard, took over the Police Station with its armoury, communications, gold and money which had been kept for safe custody.

I was the Commanding Officer of 1 GW and the Coordinating Officer of the Batticaloa district, located at the Kallady Camp (approximately 2 kms away from the Batticaloa Police Station). I had been in Ampara immediately before taking up duties in Batticaloa. The Police did not inform me about the developing situation. The owner of “L H Bakery”, one of my school friends informed me by telephone at 0620 hrs, on June 11, 1990, that all the Sinhalese in the town were ordered by the LTTE to vacate within five minutes.

Since I was unaware of the prevailing situation prior to this message, I had already dispatched two of my platoons (two officers and sixty soldiers) to Ampara for their AWTC (Annual Weapon Training Classification) firing at 4.00 am that day.

At around 7.30 am, I was told a vehicle sent out from Kalawanchikudy Army camp (6 SLLI troops) had been ambushed at Kalmunai and all ten soldiers in the vehicle had been killed. Kalawanchikudy Army Camp, (to whom these soldiers belonged), had only 48 troops excluding the three officers. There was no way of moving out to Kalmunai to recover the dead of the patrol as the main road was blocked by the LTTE.

The LTTE had taken up a position by then around the Kalawanchikudy Camp and the Police Station opposite it. Having surrounded the camp and the Police Station they demanded their surrender, and also announced that they will not be harmed and will be handed over to the Sri Lankan Government at the Batticaloa airfield. Ten Sinhalese policemen escaped the deadly fate of the other policemen by jumping into to the adjoining Army Camp with their weapons and ammunition.

Captain Sarath Embowa of the 6 SLLI was the Officer Commanding the Kalawanchikudy Camp. He decided to fight the terrorists.

The LTTE who were in touch with the SLAF Batticaloa (Air Force) base informed them that if the Police surrendered without resistance, they would hand them over to the Government. The Police, who were not prepared mentally and physically, and had no confidence to fight a ruthless guerrilla organization without military (air and artillery) support, agreed to surrender to the LTTE. By this time the LTTE had surrounded most of the 13 Police Stations in Batticaloa and Ampara Districts and had captured the Policemen who surrendered with their weapons without a fight.

All of them were taken to selected locations close by, asked to dig their own graves and brutally murdered in cold blood. The tragic fate of 677 Sinhalese and Muslim policemen who surrendered should be a constant and unforgettable reminder to all concerned of the LTTE atrocities committed in this conflict. Why don’t the many local and international Human Rights activists care to investigate this cold blooded tragedy?

At 3.30 pm on June 11, Army Commander Lt. Gen. H. Wanasinghe, the Inspector General of Police, a senior officer from the Air Force and Director Operations of the Army, Brig. Vijaya Wimalaratne (late GW) arrived at Batticaloa Air Force base by air. The Senior Superintendent of Police, an ASP (living within Kallady camp) and I were heli-lifted from Kallady camp to join them for an urgent conference.

When I reached the SLAF base the policemen, their families and the Sinhala civilians had all gathered at the airport premises and were awaiting evacuation to Colombo. Getting through this crowd of emotionally devastated, highly charged, tensed and angry personnel was a trying task because the Tamil SSP was their target. He followed immediately behind me. Fortunately no untoward incident took place.

We had our meeting and returned to Kallady camp. The possibilities of reinforcing the Police stations were discussed. At that moment there was no way of reinforcing the police stations as the Army too were very thin on ground. The army camps too were in great danger due to them being under strength and, deployed far apart lacking mutual support. No artillery was available in Batticaloa district and the only available Bell 212 helicopter was not fitted with guns. (To fit the guns it would have taken between one to two hours).

An extremely dangerous situation existed. Our lack of preparation and abject appeasement of the LTTE could have led to the total loss of the East. On returning to camp from the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) base at Batticaloa around 6.00 pm on June 11, 1990, the LTTE contacted me at Kallady and told me to inform Kiran (Kumburumulla) camp to surrender in five minutes and if it was disregarded, they were going to launch an all out attack on the camp. The LTTE had started their attack on Kiran and Wellawadi at 4.30 pm. In order to buy more time and avoid being found fault with for starting the war, I said that I would inform them of instructions after contacting the President.

I then contacted my Brigade Commander in Ampara, who responded evasively. I then contacted the 2 Division Commander Major General J. R. S. De Silva at Anuradhapura. He insisted that the Army should fight to the last man and the last round and that the entire country was depending on our performance in Batticaloa. I requested him for immediate assistance to evacuate the camps at Wellawadi and Kalmunai since they had only depleted platoons in each of them.

Meanwhile, all the four camps in the Batticaloa district and Kalmunai Camp in the Ampara district were under prolonged and severe attack. Wellawadi camp was established to provide protection to the Sinhala fishing community (about 200 fishermen, women and children) who had been living there for generations. 2/Lt RMCC Ranaweera GW (who left the Army the next year in 1991) and 22 men fought for more than 36 hours supported by two 81mm Mortars (from Kiran detachment) against more than 300-400 LTTE cadres throughout the night with 90 rounds of ammunition (first line scale).

The troops were able to protect the fisher families and evacuate them by sea with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy, in a gunboat commanded by Cdr Thisara Samarasinghe [Admiral and ex Navy Commander] on June 12, 1990. It must be mentioned that there was not a single civilian conflict related casualty in the entire evacuation at Wellawadi except for a mother and a child who drowned while boarding the naval craft.

The troops were provided ammunition from Kallady, which was delivered by helicopter, before they withdrew in a Navy gunboat. This took them to Trincomalee and safety. They suffered only one minor injury to a soldier due to LTTE fire, during the entire 36 hour crisis.

The situation at Kalmunai too was similar; the platoon under 2/Lt KASH Karunatillake SLLI was under tremendous pressure as intense fire was brought down on them by the LTTE. However on June 13, 1990 the Navy under the command of Cdr. Daya Dharmapriya [retired Rear Admiral] in his gunboat and support vessels, evacuated them after an agonizing battle whilst being supported by artillery fire from the Malwatte Army camp. However, the SLLI suffered several casualties as the evacuation was done whilst in contact with the LTTE.

The LTTE unleashed salvos of mortar, small arms and 84 mm rocket launcher fire at the Kiran Camp. The Officer Commanding the camp, Captain Sumith Perera GW and his second in command Lieutenant Chinthaka Munasinghe GW (both officers were killed in action in subsequent operations conducted against the LTTE in Jaffna in 1995 and Mannar in 1991, respectively) with their men valiantly held the camp against all odds. The only surviving officer was 2/Lt Suminda Jayasundera GW (now a retired Lt. Col. domiciled in Australia) who was a Young Officer (YO) with less than one year’s service with the Battalion at the time.

The LTTE even used chlorine gas against the troops in Kiran on June 13, 1990. It must also be mentioned that Pte Dharmasiri K.A., the radio operator of ‘A’ Company 1 GW maintained communication with Battalion Headquarters (HQ) at Kallady and rear HQ at Diyatalawa throughout the entire period during day and night.

When the antenna was damaged due to intense mortar fire, he fixed it at night by climbing a Palmyra tree. On the night of June 11, the Air Force helicopter fitted with machine guns became airborne to provide close air support. It should be noted here that the services provided by Flying Officer Thilana Kaluarachchi. (This officer was later killed when a missile hit the MI 24 he was flying in over Kokilai Lagoon in 1997).

He relentlessly and gallantly flew the entire night and continued every night until the detachment was relieved. He gave much needed air support, which kept the LTTE at bay and was a tremendous morale booster to the besieged troops. The ground to air communications was closely coordinated through Cpl. Gamini GW of 1 GW stationed at the SLAF base at BCO, during this period.

On June 16, 1990, during the battle, a cease-fire was requested by the LTTE through the Bishop of Batticaloa for both sides could attend to their respective casualties. However, the LTTE leaders refused to disarm and stay put in the SLAF base in Batticaloa, but wanted to accompany the Bishop to Kiran with me or my representative. I refused to their terms which were clearly to take us hostage and over-power the detachment by holding us at gunpoint.

The LTTE stooped to such cunning low levels and proved their perfidy, deceit and treachery throughout the conflict. They continued to bombard the troops psychologically by making announcements through a loud hailer asking the troops repeatedly to give up and surrender without fighting a losing battle. Troops returned fire and fought steadfastly and resolutely, to deny the LTTE any opportunity to break into the camp.

Troops in all camps lived on liquids, raw papaws, Palmyra fruits and the odd animal that strayed during the siege. They were collected during the night or when there was a lull in the fighting. Since the well, which supplied fresh water to the Kiran camp was exposed to LTTE fire, troops tunneled into it at night to get drinking water for their survival. Troops in Kiran survived for seven nights in trenches, clad only in one uniform throughout the regular attacks by the LTTE.

The alertness of the sentry at night enabled him to wipe out an entire group of nine LTTE guerrillas crawling into the camp by cutting the perimeter wire fence. Only one soldier was killed in action throughout the eight days of fighting. However, one officer and 60 soldiers of the 3×79 personnel in the camp suffered injuries and evacuated when reinforcements arrived.

The BBC correspondent refused to believe our casualties, as the surrounding area of the camp was littered with dead and decomposed LTTE bodies (over 100) due to the continuous fighting of almost seven days.

A rescue operation was finally launched under the command of GOC 1 Division Major General Denzil L. Kobbekaduwa. Before the rescue, he spoke to me over the radio on June 15, 1990. The voice of the GOC was a great morale-booster to me as we were all desperate about our survival. Until then the response from the military higher command was negative at best and very little encouragement was given to continue fighting.

The reinforcement operations were launched from the North of Batticaloa to relieve the Kiran Camp. 3 Brigade Group was commanded by Brigadier A. M. U. Seneviratne [retired Major General and Chief of Staff]. Fourth Battalion the Gemunu Watch and the Fifth Battalion the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment had to fight their way and reached Batticaloa by June 19. Similarly, 1 Brigade Group commanded by Brigadier A. K. Jayawardhana [retired Major General and a one time Secretary of Defence] with First Sinha Regiment and First Special Forces Regiment fought their way from Ampara across country through Wellaveli to relieve Kalwanchikudy detachment in the South of Batticaloa. Both Brigade groups reached their objectives on June 18 despite heavy resistance from the LTTE.

The success of the 1 GW troops in the defence of their camps in the Batticaloa district was due to their courage, regimental espirit de corps, comradeship, belief in their leadership and their steely determination to survive amidst the death and wounding of their colleagues, along with the ensuing confusion and chaos of battle.

The effort taken to send the remains (cremated at night with the help of Palmyra branches amidst LTTE small arms fire) of the dead soldier [Sergeant Karunadasa E.A.D.] at Kiran to his next-of-kin was appreciated by his parents and was a great morale booster to the rest of the troops.

It must be reminded that soldiers fight for their survival first, then for their comrades, Regiment, the Army and the country, in that order of priority. Let the courageous stand taken by all those valiant and gallant men of Gemunu in BCO in June 1990 in general, and especially Kiran in particular, be a defining and bold moment and tradition for all those who have served, continue to serve and are to serve in the Gemunu Watch to follow. This tradition must be upheld with pride.

The Sri Lankan Armed Forces defeated the ruthless LTTE terrorists on May 19, 2009 and restored Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and sovereignty after more than 27 years of bitter fighting. May we continue to maintain the hard won peace and democracy whilst remembering all those who sacrificed their today for our tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT

It is 25 years since the series of unfortunate events took place. As I pen these few lines as a tribute to all those gallant warriors of our country, I also pay my humble respects to all those fallen heroes in this terrible conflict.

However if we are to benefit from the experience, it is important that the lessons learnt are not forgotten or swept under the carpet. I request the President that action be initiated and a study made of our past, before embarking on the future national security policy which should be based on these and similar experiences.

Firstly, ensure we have a granite stone marker as a grim reminder, at the locations in Kiran, Wellawadi, Kallady, Kalwanchikudy and Kalmunai to honor those who sacrificed their lives for our motherland and for future generations so that their efforts would not be in vain.

We must make similar markers at all such locations so that history will not be erased by unpatriotic elements for their own convenience and hidden agendas.

When you analyze the reasons for this brutal conflict to take 30 years or more, we must note that a few individuals by lack of knowledge or arrogance of power or both, made serious mistakes that have gone unpunished. The late President Premadasa gave arms, ammunition, equipment and money to the LTTE in the name of peace and to counter the IPKF arming the TNA, and as a result, had to sacrifice his own life.

However, the more serious impact was on us and he is not here anymore to take the blame. He was not advised by his two top most military advisors, the Secretary Defence and the GOC Joint Operations Command who happened to be both 4 star Generals.

We also had similar Service Commanders who said we could never defeat the LTTE but who now spend their retirement as 4 star Generals. There were others who made big money from this conflict. Then there were those who sat in Colombo and earned promotions for their political affiliations. A few more who betrayed our forces by providing vital information to the LTTE for money and other lucrative perks continue to enjoy the freedom we and many other warriors fought for, by placing our lives on the line.

There were the two political Generals, one who professed that terror should be met with terror, resulting in a few officers and men who followed those illegal orders being put behind bars for their illegal deeds in Embilipitiya. Those who stood up to him were sent on compulsory retirement without their pensions. The other used soldiers for his personal security at the election campaign in Udathalawinna.

Unfortunately those soldiers who provided protection are still in prison for carrying out illegal orders without being visited by anybody other than their next-of-kin. We now have local and international human rights activists who talk about the Geneva Convention, the Law of War, Rules of Engagement, and Rules for Behaviour in Action.

The 677 policemen asked to surrender by the then government must be turning in their graves since it had taken 25 years now without an inquiry, not even a marker at their shallow graves they were forced to dig, before being killed in cold blood. Don’t they have human rights?

The casualty state is horrendous. From 1981 to the end of the conflict in May 2009, the Army lost 23,403 Killed in Action [KIA] and Missing in Action [MIA] which is 85% of the total 27,613 KIA/MIA in the conflict. The Navy lost 1,163 or 4.2% of the total KIA/MIA, the Air Force lost 426 which is 1.5% of the total KIA/MIA, and the Police lost 2,621 personnel which is 9.5% of the total KIA/MIA.

The Police lost 677 alone in BCO in 1990 after surrendering to the ruthless LTTE terrorists which is almost 26% of their total KIA/MIA. The Infantry comprising the Sri Lanka Light Infantry, Sinha Regiment, Gemunu Watch, Gajaba Regiment and the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment had lost a total number of 18,461 KIA or MIA which is 79% of the total Army fatalities. When the total KIA/MIA of the Commandos, Special Forces and Sri Lanka National Guard is included, it rises by 10% to 89% of total Army KIA/MIA. This is the reality of the conflict and of those gallant troops who have suffered the most in this brutal conflict.

It is similar with the permanently disabled, the Wounded In Action [WIA], the many silent warriors suffering with PTSD [Post Trauma Stress Disorder], the many war widows, children without their fathers and mothers who were KIA and the pain of mind of the parents, family members and loved ones. The list is endless.

Therefore, it is important that we remember the gallant war heroes who sacrificed their lives for our tomorrow and respect with gratitude all those who have served, are serving and are to serve in the Armed Forces of our country. This is my humble tribute to all these honourable countrymen and women, for your silent but patriotic endeavours in the defence of our beloved motherland.

May you be blessed and protected by the gods and the devas to eternity. Words cannot replace or express your greatest sacrifice of protecting our motherland from the scourge of terrorism

I firstly pay tribute to the late General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, the most charismatic battle-field commander we had because he always understood the heartbeat of the soldier and put his life on the line to safeguard their interests before his own comfort at all times. The late Maj. Gen. Vijay Wimalaratne, my guru as an officer cadet and OC [Officer Commanding] Bravo company as a subaltern, who in my opinion was the most brilliant field commander we had because he knew the terrain we fought on, his adversary’s modus operandi, and above all knew and understood his men, always leading from the front.

His creation, the Gajaba Regiment will always bear testimony to his great qualities of inspired leadership and dedicated service to the Corps, Army and Country. We must also remember with eternal gratitude all those numerous war heroes who sacrificed their lives in the defence of our motherland during the past 67 years of our independence.

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