Posted on January 25th, 2020


The hostage rescue of April 2009   deserves special mention. It is unique. Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera observed that no country in the world has won a separatist war while rescuing 300,000 people. Sri Lanka army’s epic hostage rescue is a feat of heroism and dedication.  Army officers pointed out that the Tamil civilians owed their lives to the bravery of our soldiers.  But Tamil civilians have never acknowledged the efforts made by the army.  

Sri Lanka armed forces took the lead role in this emergency humanitarian effort’. This must be recognized. The civilians were able to escape because of the assistance offered by Security Forces.

The 58 division had meticulously planned the rescue operation which was carried out jointly with the elite army commandos and the Special Forces.  At Puthumathalan, the troops had infiltrated LTTE held positions along about one km long stretch and then fought their way out to clear a path for civilians to escape.  The   civilians had surrendered to the army by walking along the Mullivaikkal road.  The army had made special arrangements to receive them. The 58 Division set up about 40 points to welcome civilians.

The biggest escape came on 21 and 22 April 2009   when the LTTE embankments were opened up and the hostages came streaming out. Before the day was over, army had rescued around 80,000 civilians. By following morning 174,564 more had come in. Hundreds of LTTE cadres had also dropped their weapons and joined the large crowd fleeing across the lagoon.  ‘It was like hitting a ‘meevadaya’, the army said later.

On our television screens, we saw them running eagerly towards the armed forces. We also saw how the soldiers compassionately carried across the hostages who could not walk and helped others who could. 

All those who crossed over to Government controlled areas received immediate care and attention. The army looked after them. As they came in they were given a bottle of water, and immediate medical attention.

The civilians were   then taken to the shelters prepared for them. Reception centres had been established and detailed preparations had been made beforehand. Government schools and institutions in Vavuniya district with large buildings had been taken over.  One LTTEr had met her mother there. 

Gamini Keerawella observed that the government was able to absorb the initial shock of satisfactorily providing shelters, water, medical care, food supply as well as identification and registration of IDPs. This was a gigantic task, he said.  Around 300,000 civilians were rescued altogether.  This figure shows the magnitude of the operation and the logistic support necessary.

 On the whole,   said Gordon Weiss, the vast majority of people who escaped seem to have been received with relative restraint and care by the front-line Sri Lanka Army troops who quickly passed them up the line for tea, rice, and first aid. Thin, bedraggled women clutching children to their breasts and pleading in a foreign tongue, fell at their feet. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves through their mercy and care.”  

 It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children, and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire” said Gordon Weiss.

This hostage rescue was achieved at tremendous cost to the army.  The army went to the extent of taking losses in a bid to minimize loss of civilian life. Soldiers lost their lives, limbs and eyesight. Military authorities repeatedly stated that the operation was done at the sacrifice of soldiers who died in the process.

At Puthumathalan troops cleared a path for civilians to escape.  This was done at the sacrifice of armed forces who died in the process. Troops assigned to clear civilians rushing to the government held areas had also done so at the risk of their lives. The earth bund behind which the hostages were held was also breached at great sacrifice by the army. Many died in the process.

The navy found that civilians were fleeing the battle zone in fishing crafts as well, off the Mullaitivu coast, There was the danger that the LTTE would also come with them in suicide craft. But the navy at the risk of their lives helped transfer escaping civilians to government held areas.

‘We are being asked how we created a humane soldier’ said Army Commander Ratnayake. ’ It is not military training. It is our culture. In battle, you see the worst and best sides of a person. Our soldiers are well balanced. They can fight battles of high intensity and then turn to gently helping the elderly or feeble.’ He concluded ‘I do not think this is possible for the western soldier. Our soldiers are unique in that respect.’    (Continued)

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