Posted on April 2nd, 2020


Part 15 of this series looks at the plight of the soldiers in the Sri Lanka Army during the Eelam wars. Soldiers had a miserable time in Eelam War II and III.

The Sri Lanka army had been trained in the British style, to fight using traditional maneuvers. Improvisations to suit the Sri Lankan environment were also included.  The Eelam wars, however, were different. LTTE did not respect the codes of war. They killed the soldiers when the soldiers were off duty. Soldiers died horrible deaths at their hands. LTTE mines were not regulation mines. They were designed to take the leg off above the knee so that a prosthetic could not be fitted.

But the LTTE was not the only group that killed soldiers. The JVP also killed soldiers. The second JVP Insurgency of   1987-1989 targeted the army. This is now forgotten.  It should not be forgotten. Our soldiers were killed on an almost daily basis by the JVP, said Kamal Gunaratne. JVP ridiculed the army.  ‘I don’t know any army in the world which was subject to this kind of humiliation. This was done with such brutality and viciousness’, he said.

JVP threatened the soldiers. Leave the force” they ordered. If not, a parent and family member will be killed”. They gave a deadline. The army ignored it until the first soldier was killed.JVP killed any soldier they managed to catch in an isolated home while on leave. Soldiers were killed in a brutal and inhuman manner. The family was not allowed to carry the coffin more than one foot above the ground.  The coffin was therefore taken on ropes.

JVP   also killed the parents of soldiers. There were reports of parents being killed everywhere. This instilled fear across the forces. In Moneragala, one old man was killed in an inhuman brutal way for sending his two sons to the army. One night a group of JVP came, took him out, kept his head on a stone and crushed it with another stone in front of his family, said Kamal Gunaratne. 

As a result, parents of soldiers also went into hiding. Some soldiers ran away from military service, others tried to find a solution for their parents.  Those who deserted were hunted down by the military police and arrested. It is clear that the JVP was trying to prevent the emergence of a strong government army.

The way soldiers were enrolled for Jaya Sikurui (1997-1999) must be placed on record, since it was dishonest, unfair and also bad for the war. Since no one wanted to join the army and die in battle, the government instead called for applicants for navy and air force and then sent them into the army. They all ended up as infantry soldiers for Jayasikuru. Some deserted.

The government carried out the same trick using the Police. The government said they were recruited into the police service and sent those recruits also to fight in Jaya Sikurui. They were given weapons they did not know how to use. 

The government also refused to release those who were entitled to leave after 12 years. Some ran away, others stayed and fought loyally.  The Sri Maha Bodhi battalion was sent to Mankulam, the very heart of Jaya Sikurui operation. Mankulam turned out to be a huge disaster.  

The army was at a disadvantage in the north.  The soldiers were not familiar with the north at all.   They did not know the terrain they were sent to fight on. Unlike the LTTE, the Sri Lanka army was fighting on unfamiliar territory.

The Wanni jungles, for instance, are cruel, full of poisonous snakes and thorny Eraminiya bushes, said Kamal Gunaratne, with deep feeling.    We spent countless sleepless nights in the jungle, near riverbeds or in catchment areas, without food or water, fighting off drones of mosquitoes and insects. Our feet were swollen and toes infected due to immersion in muddy waters, said Kamal Gunaratne. We had to endure leeches, insects, and bugs. Many fell till with malaria and hepatitis. 

Soldiers had to withstand the high temperature of the north while fighting nonstop battles, for days.  They were unused to the extreme heat of the north.  Soldiers were overworked, said Kamal Gunaratne. They had to dig trenches during the day and stay awake the whole night on duty, to protect the camp.

The soldiers did not know Tamil, while LTTE knew both Sinhala and Tamil.  At Mankulam they had a radio scanner to monitor conversations on LTTE radio network, with aid of a soldier who knew Tamil.

Soldiers had to carry into the battlefield, protective helmet, body armor, weapons, ammunition, medicine, food, and water, which put together weighed a lot. They had to carry all this while moving through minefields and also while fighting. Fighting in the Wanni jungle was back-breaking, carrying our heavy load of ration bombs and ammunitions while crawling, attacking chasing and lying in ambush for the enemy, said Kamal Gunaratne.  The soldiers had to be physically very fit.

The soldiers were not well looked after in Eelam War II and III. Soldiers could go home only once in 4 months or 6  sometimes not even that if transport was not available. In many battles, no one could go home on leave. They waited for letters.

They could not go home for funerals.  They understood and did not object, said Kamal Gunaratne. The sad news was not given to the soldier until they were about to emplane. Deaths were conveyed only when the soldier was going home. There were one or two suicides at least, in the Mankulam camp, each week (1990)  said Kamal Gunaratne.

Some of the neglect seems to have been deliberate. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and many facilities and benefits were reduced. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades, said Kamal Gunaratne. 

The army did not provide soldiers with individual protective headgear such as helmets and body armor.  Body armor protected the soldier’s chest from bullets. Soldiers had to fight without such protection. This lack of personal body armor caused many deaths.   The available body armour had to be shared.  When troops shifted from front to back they rotated the body armour. Soldiers had to wear the sweaty, dirty body armour already used by someone else.

Army purchases were done by tender procedure and there were delays. There was a long delay in the tenders for body armour and protective helmets. One tender for body amour took several years, due to rivalry among vendors. Some even filed cases to win these tenders. Soldiers died in the meantime.

Soldiers wore the same uniform for days on end. The government did not provide sufficient uniforms. Further, the uniforms provided by the government wore out fast   and the soldiers had to buy uniforms from shops.  The uniforms provided in 2005 and 2006 were of inferior quality material, where the green turned yellow on the first wash.

Boots should be given free to soldiers but due to delays in procurements, the soldiers had to buy them at exorbitant prices from shops. Shops sold everything a soldier needed. A pair of boots cost Rs. 2000, a combat kit was Rs.2500. So the little bit of money the soldier had vanished, commented Kamal Gunaratne.

The soldiers were given a packet of dry rations when sent on jungle operations.  The government then changed this to tinned foods.  The tins were very heavy,  so they decided to provide pre-cooked ration packs.  Tenders were called in 1993. Instead of awarding the tender to the person recommended by the TEC, the authorities gave it to a rejected tenderer, on orders from the top. These rations packs were rotten and uneatable.  They were swollen with poisonous gases.

The army depended totally on Air Force for supplies. All supplies had to be airlifted. Fresh provisions like meat and vegetables were airlifted from Colombo to Palaly. At Mankulam, the smaller Y12 aircraft came over Mankulam daily and dropped our gunny bags of ration. About 60% went into enemy hands. These flights were risky, but the helicopter pilots did it.  I commend the bravery of the pilots who kept flying in, said Kamal Gunaratne.  When planes were unable to carry out this task, due to LTTE fire, helicopters took over.  At Elephant Pass all supplies were by helicopter.

There was a shortage of food, especially when the airdrops failed. At Mankulam in 1990, there was a shortage of food and the food was of poor quality. The dhal curry had hardly any dhal, it was so dilute. Coconut was a luxury. Each got one spoonful of sambol. Boiled gram was the staple, said Kamal Gunaratne. 

In Jaffna in 1994, instead of the usual rice and four curries, there were only two curries. Meals were cooked at Mandativu and transported across Jaffna lagoon. The dispatch was carried out by the Special Forces under Major Fazly Laphir. The SF formed a human corridor across the lagoon to send the food. They would stand neck-deep in water. They had no cover at all. They were sitting ducks for LTTE. There were casualties.  

At Mullaitivu in 1996, there was a constant shortage of food as they had to rely on the Air force or Navy. Food was only rice, dhal, soya or sprats. Kamal Gunaratne started to grow vegetables in the camp. He managed to feed 850 soldiers with their own produce.

Transport was a major issue.  LTTE   acquired surface to air missiles and air travel from Palaly ended. Soldiers were transported for battle by boat or by helicopter. This was not easy.

The effort of landing a helicopter at Mankulam was a massive exercise. The first two SIA Marchetti would attack the LTTE positions around the camp, then came Bell helicopters firing guns. While they were attacking the camp also would fire. When all the terrorist positions were fully engaged, a transport helicopter would creep through the jungle on the other side, avoiding high tension lines and a pylon of 33,000 volts and with greatest difficulty land for 2-3 minutes and take off immediately.

The soldiers traveled to and from the battlefront, by air or sea. The experience was made very unpleasant for them. When they traveled by helicopter they had to face the abuse of the door gunners standing near the doors of the helicopter. But there were others who valued us and treated us well. When they traveled in cargo ships between KKS and Trincomalee, there was a lack of toilet facilities,  and the soldiers had to use polythene bags.

Transporting soldiers going home on leave, was a great responsibility. It regularly ran into various problems and arguments. The risk involved was huge. The lives of thousands of troops were at stake. It was not an easy task, observed Kamal Gunaratne.

The transport of soldiers From Palaly to Trincomalee by the navy was, therefore, a huge, arduous task. The army was vulnerable throughout the journey. In 2006, LTTE attacked  Pearl Cruiser which was transporting 710 troops. The attack failed.  Kamal Gunaratne said we should be grateful to the two naval ratings who sacrificed their lives that day.

Soldiers had many difficulties when they reported to Palaly or Ratmalana air force bases to go home. Due to hardships, they preferred not to go home rather than suffer the hazard of the journey. We had to send them compulsorily on leave despite reluctance, said Kamal Gunaratne.

There were transit camps for soldiers going or coming from leave in Anuradhapura and Ratmalana.  They had to spend about 5 days there. Conditions were appalling. They were overcrowded and spilling over.  A camp for 300-500 had 1300 to 1500 sometimes.  This showed poor planning and indifference on the part of the government, said Kamal Gunaratne.

 The facilities for sleeping were very unsatisfactory. The mattresses were infested with bugs. Then they ran out of beds and gave mats. The money was there for a foldable foam mattress, but they decided to buy mats since the cost was less. So those who at least had a camp bed at home had a mat here, observed Kamal Gunaratne. There were officers in army HQ who were responsible for these facilities but they were not concerned. Toilet facilities were another problem.  Soldiers had to wait in long queues to use the toilets.    Houses nearby started to provide these facilities but at a price.

 When numbers were too high to control in the transit camp, the OIC would give additional casual leave and ask the soldier to go home. What could a penniless soldier do when suddenly given 5 days leave, asked Kamal Gunaratne  Some did not come back.

Soldiers were treated badly outside the battle zone as well. Anuradhapura hospital was overflowing with wounded officers and soldiers. The majority were very young. They had lost their sight, limbs, and various parts of their bodies said Kamal Gunaratne. There was one nurse there, who was always creating issues about the patients who were soldiers. The commanding officer, who was also a medical officer, took her side and would discharge the patient and sent him to another hospital, without considering their level of injury. This matter should have been examined at the time. It appears to be part of the general plan to weaken the army.

Infantrymen had a brief stay in HQ as Extra Regimental Employment (ERE).  They were not commended for their work in the war zone. Instead ‘we were shouted at and abused for not knowing administration duties’ said Kamal Gunaratne. The Women’s Corp at Headquarters seemed unaware of the war unless they had a relative there. (Continued)

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