THE ‘LONG WATCH’ OF COMMODORE AJIT BOYAGODA
Posted on April 11th, 2018

KAMALIKA  PIERIS

Revised 4.9.18

A Long Watch, War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka” (pub 2016) by Commodore Ajit Boyagoda,  as told to Sunila Galappatti, deals with Boyagoda’s  eight-years in captivity, 1994-2002, in Jaffna, under the LTTE. This is a beautifully written book. The narrative tone is retained throughout, the Sinhala nuances are preserved, and the personal aspect is skillfully woven into the political events.

Commodore Ajit Boyagoda   was captured by the LTTE after his ship was sunk by the LTTE in 1994. Boyagoda had been on his final voyage, commanding Sagarawardene, one of the two 40 meter long Colombo Dockyard built OPVs in service at that time.  Boyagoda had not wanted to go. He has asked to retire.’ I had a middling sort of career without specialization and I wasn’t expecting major promotion’ and this seemed the best time, to retire and move elsewhere.  His request was denied and he was instead sent to command Sagarawardene. SLNS Sagarawardena was sunk by the LTTE  on the night of September 19, 1994, off Mannar, during an unofficial truce between the Kumaratunga administration and the LTTE.

After Sagarawardene was hit, Boyagoda was rescued by the LTTE, who spoke to him in Sinhala.  He had told them he was the commanding officer of the ship they had attacked. They seemed surprised. Soon after arrival on land, Boyagoda was met by Soosai, the leader of the Sea Tigers. Soosai had personally commanded the Sagarawardene attack. ‘He came and shook hands with me’, recalled Boyagoda. Boyagoda had then   said ‘I have heard you so many times over the net. I am glad to meet you.’ Soosai nodded and pointed to the jeep for Boyagoda to get in, and personally drove him away.

The author never explains why he was glad to meet the man who had ordered destruction of his vessel.” observed Shamindra Ferdinando. Soosai, and those around him, would have been certainly surprised by Boyagoda’s remark. How could a senior officer be happy to meet the man who had ordered his vessel sunk causing the death of the majority of his crew? Sagarawardene had been the largest vessel available to the Navy at that time”.

The sinking of Sagarawadene and capture of its commanding officer was a   great triumph for LTTE. They had carried out a successful attack and taken a ranking prisoner.  Boyagoda was the only Commanding Officer of a ship ever to be captured by Sea Tigers. The LTTE distributed flyers in commemoration. ‘ A stream of people came to see me’ including  Dinesh, secretary  to Karuna, said Boyagoda .

Boyagoda was proudly presented to the media. He was interviewed for television and for the Eelam newspaper. Boyagoda’s journey from Kilali to Jaffna was filmed for LTTE propaganda. Soosai was there for this film, in full camouflage uniform ‘looking impressive ‘ said Boyagoda . Soosai said his pistol  and T56 were ‘gifts from Premadasa.’

Boyagoda, together with a select group of   prisoners, which included  his Leading Supply Assistant Vijitha, were thereafter housed in various camps. They were chained around the ankles  and given very poor food. In one prison they were put into animal cages till the cells were ready.  In another 27 of them were locked into one room, because the LTTE had forgotten to bring the  padlocks for the cells  and had to use the padlock of the lorry they had come in. But they were not tortured and killed. That is because they were special. They were to be exchanged for LTTE prisoners held by the Sri Lanka  government. LTTE was  going to use Boyagoda  to bargain for a good  exchange.

Therefore, Boyagoda and the rest were registered as a prisoners by ICRC.  They were seen regularly by the ICRC and their progress monitored. There were letters from home. Boyagoda said that he had never been a ‘temple going man’ but his wife and mother-in-law sent books on Buddhist meditation and that had  helped him.

They received newspapers, and in one prison they played cricket in their chains. LTTE permitted them to cook their own food. ‘We began to live very well,  cooking with fine ICRC deliveries of milk, dhal, oil, noodles, canned fish, tea and  coffee,.’ They shared the biscuits and cigarettes they got with their guards. ICRC sent playing cards and Sinhala books. ICRC also gave them unexpected gifts, things they had not asked for such as a shirt, a  towel. ICRC had given them appointments diaries too.

Boyagoda  took a liking to the Tamil captors he mixed with. And they took a liking to him. ‘When Sri Lanka  cricket team won  its first world cup final, the guards cheered with us.’ George Master, was a  retired postmaster who had served in  Ratnapura and elsewhere in southern Sri Lanka . After 1983 riots he was displaced and  came to Vanni. He was fluent in English, Sinhala, and Tamil. He  used to talk with Boyagoda about his days in the south.George Master was now the official LTTE translator.

Mohan, one of Boyagoda’s guards  spoke to him in Sinhala. Mohan  had been in Wellawatte, went to Royal College, then went to Jaffna after 1983. The rest  of his family had gone to Switzerland, but he had joined the LTTE. His mother had  been greatly opposed to this.  The Boyagoda  group of prisoners  seem to have been provided with guards who had lived in the south.

One of his guards, Newton always hoped Boyagoda and the rest would go home. Boyagoda  looked after his two daughters when Newton had to bring them to work    and when Boyagoda  left for Colombo, Newton had given him a photo of the two children. It is still in his possession. Newton wanted a Tamil homeland. Boyagoda  agreed that  regional devolution was necessary.   ‘This gentle soft spoken man was reputedly one of the best and most ruthless bomb experts the LTTE had ever had’, announced Boyagoda .

Selvaratnam, head of the LTTE reconnaissance unit  and  military office, was a frequent visitor to Boyagoda . Selvaratnam belong to the second generation of LTTE cadres. He was from  an area between Trincomalee and Weli oya, He experienced   upheaval and displacement on account of his culture and ethnicity and this led straight to the movement, said Boyagoda.

Selvaratnam spoke  English. They had long discussions on Tamil politics. He gave out scraps of information. He said that  the only arms they had surrendered at the Ceasefire were arms they were going to decommission. Selva did not believe in peace talks, they were just a breather, giving LTTE time to prepare for another war. Selva  was sure that Eelam would have come by 2000.

Boyagoda did not see the war but he was able to see the LTTE reactions. When they bombed Central Back LTTE were jubilant, in ecstatic mood. It was one of the most successful and symbolically significant attacks the LTTE had ever made. When the Mullaitivu debacle took place, as usual our jailer looked happy and told us the story. The Tigers had completely destroyed the military camp at Mullaitivu, 1200 government troops were killed. When something good happened they were ready to talk, when there were reversals they were moody and monosyllabic, such as the Welioya incident where they were killed, said Boyagoda .

Boyagoda thought that it would have been hard for the LTTE to hold on to their cadres as the war continued. ‘They joined at 18 they were still there at 28 when they wanted other things, like a family. Struggle would not be the only thing and beside you have been in it for a long time. Many cadres escaped south and disappeared, ‘said Boyagoda.

Boyagoda and the other prisoners also had a glimpse of the other side of LTTE. LTTE had a network of prisons and Boyagoda was moved from one to the other.  One prison had been a regular house. They mixed these military houses with civilian houses for camouflage and protection.  In one of his prisons he found Sinhala names scratched on the walls.

Boyagoda had seen the torture chairs the LTTE locked them into before removing their fingernails. They saw other prisoners, who looked only half conscious, as if they had been tortured. I have heard screams from underground cells. . In one prison, we heard their cries, then the noise stopped, I think they were killed.

Boyagoda’s co prisoner, Sagarawardene’s Leading Supply Assistant, Vijitha hated the LTTE for capturing them. Vijitha had also swum towards the boat and was captured but he was not treated well, he was hit. ‘ Godata genella dekak anna’. Boyagoda ‘s gold chain was  taken when he was captured..  It was returned by the LTTE, LTTE knew the value of their prisoner and the need to maintain a clean image.

Boyagoda presents a negative picture of the Sri Lanka army. He says the LTTE attack in Karainagar in 1991 was ‘not bad’ but after that the army had looted wholesale. The looting was systematic. They knew the shrine room contained the family safe so they broke into that looking for gold jewelry.

I had heard that they looted gold this was the first time that I saw it with my own eyes.  Further, whatever they saw they destroyed. Wardrobes, opened, clothes pulled out photographs smashed. 90% of the houses had been forced open by the marching troops. Anyone returning to those homes, if young would have joined the LTTE.”

It was here that I really saw the mentality of the Sinhala army walking through a Tamil village. I could not stop the looting but I stopped them taking it off the island of Karainagar.  He later tried to return the items to the owners.   He also feared other types of aggression if the women were separated from the men. He suggested that families should be kept together.

Boyagoda  presents a negative picture of the navy as well.. Some officers in the navy were smuggling gold, he was asked to get back some lost gold and take a cut, instead he looked up the roster found that a boat had gone out without sailing order, reported it and the officer was called  up and never promoted.

Boyagoda was openly sympathetic to the Tamils. He does not hide this. In 1977 at home in Kandy, he had rushed to save a Tamil mother and daughters in their town, the father and sons were working in Zimbabwe. When he was serving in Karainagar in the 1980s he took vegetables and medicine back to Karainagar residents when he returned from his leave in Colombo.

Boyagoda firmly supported the Tamil cause. ‘I never felt any animosity to the LTTE,’  he said in the book.  ‘After 1983 never  could I take issue with the idea of a Tamil homeland in the north, if Tamil people were not safe in the south and were safe in the north then that was their homeland. ‘I had accepted the causes of LTTE struggle, but not the means.’      Boyagoda  favored a federal solution, not Eelam.

But, best of all, he indirectly  helped   the LTTE navy. Soon after he was captured he was shown  an album with photographs of the ships belonging to the Sri Lanka navy. He had promptly identified Sagarawardene as the ship they had destroyed. ’I found, later,  that the LTTE knew more of the Sri Lanka Navy than I did. They had made a study of the Navy.’  They asked him about places he had not worked in for years and he found that their knowledge was more up to date. Boyagoda saw names of retired naval officers  in the books the LTTE had with them.

Selvaratnam brought four young cadres   to Boyagoda. He told Boyagoda ‘these are our students and we want them to learn about the Sri Lanka  Navy. Tell them everything you know.’ The four consisted of the boy Oppilan and three girls. They were teenagers not experienced interrogators. They wanted to ask about the Sri Lanka navy. They  came to see him every morning. ‘I answered their questions.’

We would sit together in the hall around the table. They    gave me the seat at the head. Oppilan brought a questionnaire with him and he would work through the questions one by one.. Oppilan would ask me questions and I would answer. Mohan acted as translator. It was all done very politely . All the questions asked were general not operational.  But they wanted to know about the layout of Trincomalee. ‘They brought me a map and they would ask me about the places on it one by one’

Boyagoda says that the information the LTTE got from him was neither exact nor extensive. It would have been impossible to base an attack on what he said. I did not need to lie, said Boyagoda . The answers he gave were all in ‘Janes fighting ships.’ . Since he had not served in HQ he  did not know any secrets. ‘I only knew how things has been in the places I had been posted to’.

Boyagoda said he did occasionally hold back, such as when they asked about the naval armaments department which he had served in the 1980s. ‘I gave vague answers. Sometime I gave out-of-date information, I did not refuse to answer questions, but I was not eager to give information about my own force’.

‘These four   also asked for my help in translating a standard manual of seamanship. This I was willing to do, I read the English manual,  and explained to Mohan in Sinhala and Mohan then translated from Sinhala  to Tamil.

The LTTE naturally had high hopes of  Boyagoda . A person called  Sangeethan came to see him, and said they could arrange for him to return to his family immediately. In exchange he was to provide shelter for LTTE cadres gathering intelligence in the south. Boyagoda  had to house  them and find plausible cover for them. They would cover all costs and Boyagoda would be paid as well. Sangeethan said there were lots of people in the south helping them. Boyagoda  should not miss this opportunity of going home.

Boyagoda greatly to his credit  refused, but  did so  diplomatically, he was still a prisoner. Sangeethan made a second offer, to work covertly for the LTTE when the ICRC brought his wife to visit. His  wife had also been approached separately when she came to see him. They both  said NO. The LTTE remained hopeful. When the whole family was reunited briefly, later on, the LTTE had gene all out to please. They  prepared the best food, with  jumbo prawns, crab. The family was taken on outings to see LTTE graveyards and  Mullaitivu.

The long awaited prisoner exchange took place on Sept 28, 2002. ‘13 LTTE cadres were exchanged for 7 of us.’  Shamindra Ferdinando recalls   I was among those journalists, taken by the Army to Omanthai, to cover the exchange of prisoners of the conflict. The LTTE turned the event to a major propaganda project. The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had to sit between two terrorist leaders in uniforms carrying arms.

Boyagoda recalls it differently. He was happy to see that the two  sides were represented by the top officials. ’It was an incredible and hopeful gesture, this gathering of important people from both sides of the conflict.’ Selvaratnam and Suda Master had   come to speak to the  Boyagoda  family  and to shake hands with Boyagoda .

Boyagoda  was swapped for Kennedy, (Jesumy Fernando), whom the LTTE most wanted back. Kennedy  had led a successful commando raid, on Palaly airbase, in early August 1994.. Prabhakaran made several attempts to secure Kennedy’s release, over the years, and finally succeeded in Sept 2002. Boyagoda had  said Hello to Kennedy as the exchange proceeded.

Having lived with the LTTE for eight years, Boyagoda had been so sorry to leave his guards, particularly Newton, who had been in charge of them for some time. “It was a heart-breaking departure, if you can believe that. We had been living with all of these cadres for so long that there was a kind of brotherly understanding between us. We were taking leave of a family we would probably never see again. .

However, he was wrong there. He met them all a few years  later. The private company he was working for asked Boyagoda to take Tsunami supplies to the LTTE. (Dates not  given)  When he went there, ‘everyone greeted me’. Suda Master and Daya Master were there. ‘George Uncle,’ he was told was at home, his wife had died. Boyagoda went to see him. George  was very pleased to see him, the two had chatted for one hour. The children who had come from abroad were summoned and  introduced to Boyagoda.

The  firm sent him on a second relief programme to Elephant Pass to hand over some fishing boats. There he met Newton, who had travelled from Mullaitivu to Kilinochchi ,over an hour by motor bike to see him. ‘We talked and drank tea together.’ Newton was then in his 30s, Boyagoda was in his  50s.

Boyagoda had met  Pulidevan, a high ranking LTTE officer, at ICRC meetings in Jaffna. He was surprised, after his release to Colombo,  to see Pulidevan in the queue to pay a Dialogue bill. He said ‘Ah captain how.’ He  too had come to pay his bill  It was such a surprise to see him moving freely about in Colombo. He had a phone with satellite communication as there were no mobile towers in Vanni.

Oppilan, had found Boyagoda on Face book and had called him, Oppilan was now Murali and living in Canada. Oppilan  told Boyagoda that when he was in LTTE intelligence he was also simultaneously working for RAW who had blackmailed him in to service. Then he had worked with the Sri Lanka intelligence in return for passage out to Canada.

Boyagoda  found  the Sri Lanka Navy was ‘now a huge professional force’.  He returned to work but found he had no real place in it. ‘Nobody asked about the 8 years I had spent in captivity. Not even in a chatty curious way. They all thought he had sold out to the LTTE. I never got over this mistrust.’

The Navy was clearly not interested in what Boyagoda had to say. The navy would have had reports on Boyagoda from the ICRC and the prisoners who had left before Boyagoda. The navy had its own intelligence and was aware, that the LTTE was not the fearsome organization it was made out to be.

In his absence  the navy had found Boyagoda  guilty of willful negligence for  ‘anchoring my ship in one place and putting the vessel and it men in danger.’ Boyagoda wished to clear his name. On his return, Boyagoda asked for an inquiry. An inquiry was held, and Boyagoda was able to show that he had reason for keeping his ship anchored in one place for so long. His witnesses were the ships Communicator and two additional officers who had been on board. These men, fortunately had escaped the attack. In addition, the ships logbook  had  also survived the attack. Boyagoda was exonerated of all charges and no new charges were brought against him. He was given the promotion he asked for but was asked to retire.

 

One Response to “THE ‘LONG WATCH’ OF COMMODORE AJIT BOYAGODA”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    VERY INTERESTING ARTICLE AJIT. ARE YOU THE SAME AJIT THAT LIVED IN WATAPULUWA, KANDY ? I REMEMBER A BOYAGODA LIVING ON THE ROAD FROM THE BO-TREE UP. I DO HOPE YOU ARE LIVING A LIFE OF PEACE. SUSANTHA.

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