Glancing Back at Madagal of July 1983
By Shiam Vidurupola
Daybreak in Madagal, Jaffna was always a breath-taking sight, as if all the colours of a paint box was mixed and splashed against the sky. On the 23rd day of July, the sea was calm, encouraging the lazy waves concealing the coral beds to lap the shores. The year was 1983 and the troops of ‘Charlie’ Company, 1st battalion the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI) had just taken over duties in the peninsula. They were busy training under the shades of Palmyra trees. The day looked usual, not a hint of the terrible events which were to unfold later that day.
Approaching dusk turned the sea restless and the crimson sky was rapidly turning dark. The whole camp paused for the bugle call of the Last Post, which incidentally drives all the dogs in the neighbourhood into an eerie howl. Beyond the canine howls the descending darkness was dominated by the chirps of stridulating crickets. Later that night twelve soldiers from my platoon and two soldier drivers were preparing with me for a night mobile patrol. Two vehicles, a Jeep and a twelve-ton truck were allocated; this was the minimum requirement for a night patrol in accordance with fresh orders,due to the increasing threat from separatist rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The company Sergeant Major checked every man and his equipment down to the last detail, such as coffee flasks to last the long night ahead. Enthusiasm was evident, as soldiers prefer activity beyond the confinement of camps. Around 9.45 pm just after the final radio clearance for departure, the Company Commander rushed up to my vehicle and directed me to ‘stand down’ to work with him on documentation and the patrol was reluctantly handed over to my close comrade in arms - Vas, who was an officer very dear to me. Vas was a sound officer with whom I had trained, worked, wined, dined and laughed so much, and my soldiers knew of our comradery and shared trust, as they set out along the Madagal – Keermalai road.
Later into the night around 11.30 pm, the patrol suddenly went off radio contact. Immediately all stations adapted emergency protocols to contact the patrol and failing to receive a response, the SLLI battalion headquarters in Palaly dispatched search and tracking patrols. No soldier, monitoring communications in the Jaffna peninsula that night, shall ever forget the shocking news that followed, when the searchers reported that the patrol had been ambushed. The lifeless bodies of 13 soldiers lay strewn at Thinnavely on the main highway along the Jaffna – Palaly road.
It was subsequently reported that the patrol, while returning from Gurunagar, had been ambushed, passing through the village of Thinnaveli. The LTTE had blasted a culvert targeting the leading Jeep, which in turn obstructed the truck following behind. An ambush had been sprung from both sides of the road from positions fortified by parapet walls. Strategically disconnected power lines placed the whole area in darkness except of course for the street lights, which exposed the soldiers. Surely beyond the walls it was a ‘black July’ night, from where gunfire and hand grenades rained onto the soldiers. Charging or fighting into the ambush was not an option. The officer and three soldiers in the Jeep had fought back and killed the LTTE leader of the ambush and others. Eventually, trapped in the ambush the soldiers were helpless, and the nation had to bid good bye to 13 good men who had taken an oath to her security and sovereignty.
It was later revealed that during the onslaught two soldiers, corporal P and private Shad managed to scale the parapet wall and merge into the darkness. Though bleeding profusely from gunshot injuries they managed to make their way to the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) bus depot at Kondavil to call in emergency reinforcements and assistance.
Back at the base in Madagal emotions were high as the reports came in. Losing my fellow comrades and friends was one of my most traumatic experiences. Coping with emotions of complete despair, grief and strange guilt, I remember asking myself, why Vas? It should have been me. It was a sleepless night for everyone, through which I have learned to cope. In the many years of experience to follow were the witnessing and accepting the devastating realities of war and its miseries. Coping with the loss of a brother officer and men of whom I had spent most of my time was stressful enough. Then again, asking myself how I would face their families and the heart rending tales they related, were extremely harrowing and tormenting experiences that linger within me to this day. Memory also drags me back to my first day in SLLI when my Company Commander Maj (kalu) Asoka J, told me ‘if you ever lose a man, you and the State shall look after his family forever’; military gospel from a (very respected) company commander to a subaltern between whom the age gap would be around fifteen years, in those days.
Strange occurrences of that day lingered in my mind; it was my patrol with my men but Vas was nominated at the last moment. Vas had bought an alarm clock just for the Jaffna deployment, which stopped ticking exactly at 11.45 pm, around the time radio contact with the patrol was lost. Private A mentioned in a concerned voice that it would be his last patrol, but failed to explain why. Sergeant T and the two soldier drivers were ‘attachments’ from other Companies for this deployment, and otherwise would have not lost their lives. Lance Corporal P, a brilliant boxer and four others in the patrol had completed five years of regular service and had opted to leave the army for marriage, new ventures etc. but agreed to deploy on one final venture with their colleagues of the platoon. Privates W and R, had joined the platoon fresh out of recruit training. Lance Corporal P was not the driver on duty that day, but virtually fought himself into the patrol to be with his colleagues. Such decisions and occurrences remain an unexplained mystery, to this day.
That July night was pivotal in changing the history of the country. It was the first time a large number of servicemen were killed in action in a single incident. As the news of the deaths spread, countrywide communal riots broke out. Events which followed instigated by multiple factors and actors snapped the strained cords which had sustained earlier conflicts between the Sinhala and Tamils communities, also affecting other communities. The years that followed were full of agony dominated by hurt and mistrust. The subsequent violence and its implications would be interpreted by generations to come, in different ways.
I drove down from Jaffna to Colombo on 26 July to visit the two surviving soldiers receiving treatment in the military hospital. The drive was bizarre as roads were deserted due to curfew. People were left helpless without public transport. Leaving Jaffna town, I noticed an elderly Tamil gentleman with a small brown 'Ford' suitcase stranded on the roadside and offered him a lift to Colombo. Somewhat taken aback at first, he later agreed and sat between me and the driver. Talking to him along an eight-hour drive I came to know that he was Dr X, the senior surgeon at a private nursing home in Colombo where he had been practising for over two decades. Shockingly, his family too was seriously affected by the communal violence with his house set on fire in Wellawatta. Our conversation was dominated by his contributions to generations in obstetrics and gynaecology, helping new life to see the light of the world. I was the listener as my profession did not interest him, and his wealth of experience was truly fascinating.
As we neared Colombo, the smoke from burnt properties was evident and frankly it was utterly shameful. In parting, we exchanged contact details and on seeing my name he stood for a brief moment and said "I remember this unique surname, I was the doctor in charge during your birth.” Here we were standing on a deserted roadside with smoke rising with the smell of destruction from arson. Dumbfounding was the fact that by sheer coincidence a Sinhala Soldier had met the Tamil Doctor who had brought him into the world. I felt privileged and honoured to bring him safely to his family, as on that day both of us had lost so much but had found a unique connection and a sense of common identity in that moment. It was also the least I could do for a man dedicated to a noble profession.
The conflict which escalated that day, took a twenty-six-year toll on the character of the nation and its people. The war maybe over, but it still seems to be lingering amongst and within the communities. To date, working as part of humanitarian emergency responses in complex conflicts in multiple countries, I continue to witness human interest pitting man against man attributing to protracted conflicts and misery.
Then again, I can take my mind back thirty-seven years to Madagal; walk to the beach front and gaze at the sea, staring at the ocean beyond, watching waves lap over the beach shore, its white froth coaxing trying to comfort the golden sand. But then from nowhere, I am interrupted by a bugle call of the Last Post, reminding of fallen men and women, for whom the grieving of those left behind, will never end.