SRI LANKA - APR 1995
April 30, 1995|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG, TIMES STAFF WRITER
NEW DELHI — In a sharp and sudden escalation of Sri Lanka's ethnic blood bath, Tamil separatists used surface-to-air missiles for the first time to shoot down two air force transport planes, killing 97 people, officials said Saturday. Simultaneously ‘Frogmen’ of the Sea Tigers attacked and destroyed the naval base SLNS Uttara at Kankasanturai, a few miles north west of Palai airbase, sinking two gun boats 'Sooraya' and 'Ranasuru'. The Sri Lankan Govt has refused to divulge the extent of destruction wrought by LTTE’s commando style raid at their Palali airbase.
The back-to-back air disasters on Friday in the rebel-controlled Jaffna peninsula were proof that government forces in the Indian Ocean island nation no longer have unchallenged mastery of the skies.
Sri Lankan military sources at first called the crash of the British-designed aircraft an accident. But Saturday, they confirmed widespread rumours that the plane had been hit by a missile. All 45 aboard were killed, including the air force northern zone commander, Wing Cmdr. Roger Weerasinghe, officials said. The second Avro was knocked down about four miles from Palali as it approached for a landing. This time, ground troops clearly saw the transport struck by a heat-seeking missile, Sri Lankan officials said. "Missile attack!" was the final message radioed by the pilot, Shirantha Goonetillke, after his aircraft was hit at 5,000 feet. A military communiqué said all 52 people on board were killed when the plane crashed about a mile from the base's defence perimeter.
In Nov 94, when, Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected President, ousting the United National Party which had been in power since 1977, the world at large saw an opportunity for peace in Srilanka. More so the Tamils, who were simply fighting for their right to be citizens of a country, in which they had been inhabitants for over three thousand years, and yet were being denied citizenship by the lack of expediency of the constitutional preamble which proclaimed that Sri Lanka was the ‘Republic of the Sinhalese’ and not the ‘People of Sri Lanka’. No matter who was the Sinhalese president, it is now clear that making a pact with the Tamils would be a political suicide in Sri Lanka. This became apparent when the President chose her three negotiators to bring peace in a war ravaged nation. She sent her architect, her banker and her clerk to negotiate peace with the LTTE. The only person she forgot to send was her cook !" The cease-fire obviously did not last for more than 100 days. While the negotiations for peace continued, the government was on a massive 3 billion USD upgrade programme of it’s armed forces. Hostilities broke out on the 19 April 1995 when the Deputy Defence Minister, Col. Anuradha Ratwatte ordered recommencement of the economic blockade to Jaffna, virtually bringing the city to starvation once again. The LTTE had no option but to call off cease fire and to recommence hostilities. Shooting down the two aircraft and raids on the naval and air bases were the immediate result of the Sri Lankan prevarication of the peace talks. In the neighbourhood, Prime Minster Narasimha Rao of the largest democracy in the world, is playing around with his own brand of cast based experiments, for his own political survival. He has no time or sympathy for the ‘Tamil Apocalypse’ next door.
The sun bore down relentlessly on the Bay Of Bengal and created a low pressure depression. Soon it gathered incredible energy to enlarge itself into a tropical cyclone. It rose majestically to forty five thousand feet and began to churn, gathering momentum with every minute, pushing up more moist winds into the upper atmosphere. Half way up the storm, the lower temperature caused ice to form. The air mass lifted the ice particles further up into colder and moist air and the particles grew till it became as large as a foot ball. It became so heavy that the air mass could no longer support it and it fell thousands of feet. But as it fell, it met with the upward surge of the air mass an hence was lifted back to where it came from, millions of ice balls went up and down in never ending cycles churning and heaving, unrelenting like a nuclear implosion. On the periphery of the storm wind speed picked up feeding more and more moisture into the cyclone making it more potent. Within two days it grew fully mature and began its customary march south west, towards Sri Lanka and the Indian peninsula. It brought with it the advance guards, dark ominous Cumulous clouds interspersed with the more dynamic and destructive Cumulonimbus, with lightning and thunder. The torrential rain lashed at the island of serendipity and the wind pushed up towering waves and threw them on to the pristine beaches at Kankesanturai, north of Jaffna, at the very northern tip of Sri Lanka. Even for the most adventurous of the birds, it was not the day to fly. A tropical cyclone was the most horrendous and hideous punishment that a non benevolent weather God could perpetuate against mankind. But for Kilo courier, 28 year old Flt Lt Johnny D’Silva, there was a job to do, even when it meant thumbing his nose at the weather god.
1615 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Johnny scratched his cheek, a nervous unconscious habit in the cockpit. Worsening weather was least of his problems. If he was not back in Colombo by six, he would have to deal with the wrath of the third secretary in the Danish consulate. The blue eyed 30 year old Daniela Jorgensen and he had been dating for the past three months and if he didn’t make it back for her birthday party, he could just imagine the fire and brimstone that those blue eyes were capable of spewing at him. He flipped the radar console to ‘wide angle’ search and saw the red patches that meant trouble sitting right on his flight path. But the patches were still out to sea, more than 20 miles from touchdown. He heaved a sigh, the routine courier service that he flew was beginning to bore him. But nevertheless he had a reputation to keep. Every Friday he flew the courier that linked Colombo with the strategic bases over northern Sri Lanka. Rain or shine, he did his job, precisely on time.
‘Palali approach, this is Two Zero’, he called up the GCA radar over his VHF radio. His voice conveyed the brittle tension that enveloped the cockpit. “We are on long finals”.
With his extended right hand he pushed the pitch levers forward and readjusted the twin throttles. There was nothing for him to see outside his cockpit and the windshield wipers smashed through the splattering of the rain drops with zealous enthusiasm. He focused all his attention on his instruments in front of him to capture the glide slope that would eventually lead him to the touchdown at the beginning of Palali runway 05.
“Two Zero Palali, continue approach on runway 05. I have you on my scope”, 28 year old Flt Lt Sam Ranatunga rattled from his dark and dingy GCA hut, the blue and greenish radarscope reflecting his sad and prematurely aged face. It was hot and stuffy inside the radar hut. He wished with all his heart that he could make the terrible weather go away.
“Johnny, your approach looks good, you are on the glide, seven miles from touchdown. 6 octa cover at 5000 feet, slight drizzle, the winds are gusting from the east, you will have a crosswind 20 to 30 knots. I have a Charlie Bravo out to sea and you could expect some wind shear on approach”, he said with good natured familiarity. He and Johnny were from the same batch that went to the Academy at China Bay in Trincomalee. They were old friends.
‘Roger thanks ‘Ratty’. Request advise base commander to meet us on landing. We have your friend ‘November Zulu Charlie’ on board’.
Sam did a double take. Everyone seemed to know about his problems with Wg Cdr Roger Weerasinghe, the ‘North Zone Commander’. Sam hated him with all his heart. Roger had practically terminated his career even before it began. He pressed the PTT and spoke hesitatingly. ‘Roger that Johnny, I will tell Bravo Charlie to meet you on landing. No other traffic, continue approach”.
The twin engine Avro bucked about in the turbulence created by the wind shear, and Johnny had to struggle to keep his wings level. ‘Since the winds are bloody gusty, we will do a flapless, OK ?’, he grumbled, looking at his co-pilot. ‘Put the gear down’, he ordered the co pilot. The aircraft pitched nose up as the landing gear went down. Johnny instinctively pushed forward on the controls to keep the aircraft’s nose down and pulled back the throttles to keep her descending along the glide path. The rest was going to be routine. At least that is what he thought as he broke through the cloud cover and saw the runway straight ahead about six miles ahead of him.
‘Ratty we are visual, gear down three green’, he called on the radio.
‘Roger Johnny, change over to tower, no other traffic, you are cleared to land from my end. You better call tower’. Sam blew out his breath through pursed lips. He was relieved. ‘See you on ground Johnny’, Sam said needlessly, removing his headset and pushing his chair back from the radar scope.
1615 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
28 year old ‘‘Oru Sevian’’ Tamil Selvam glanced at his cheap digital watch with stoic calm. He looked up turning his head from side to side, looking alternately north east at the gathering storm and the approach path south, south east. That the aircraft would come from south, south east, he was now not as sure as he was earlier that day. During several reconnaissances that he had done during the past ten days, he had seen the airplanes come and land from the south. The evening sea breeze was always from the north east. He knew that airplanes always land into wind. So he had positioned himself about a mile south of 05 dumbbell, near the junction of roads from Vallai, Kadduvan and Myliddy. Tactically it was a good choice. With thick forestation around him it offered plenty of cover and concealment. However the approaching storm was something that he had not foreseen, something that he had not vectored into his carefully nurtured plan. The wind was now blowing from the east, not from north east as he had envisaged. He was now not so sure whether the plane would still come from the south. ‘Che Che’, he reasoned with himself silently, ‘the pilot is not going to be stupid to go near the storm’.
In the forest around him the tall Casuarina trees were being bent like a bow by the wind. The wind shrieked thought the needle shaped leaves and there was a loud eerie banshee waling sound around him, punctuated by loud thunder claps. He swung his head repeatedly side to side, fully focussed on the far horizon above the tree line to the south. But the aircraft was nowhere to be seen. Despite his anxiety, his mind was crystal clear. His thoughts and actions in full control. He realised that he had made a tactical mistake sticking well within the tree line. From where he stood, ten degree azimuth of his vision was blocked by the trees. He decided to move into the clearing. With a shrug and a heave, he pushed the fore part of the shoulder fired missile backward, till it was slung vertically on his back, it’s snout and gas barrel touching the back of his head and the ejector tube trailing almost near his boots. With his left arm he grabbed the AK-47 from the ground where he had placed it leaning on a fallen log. Without looking at her, ‘Oru Sevian’ bunched his right fist and jabbed it up twice and waved his arm to his right, palms facing outwards. He knew that Vani would be keeping an eye on him, just as she had kept her dark and sad eyes fully focussed on him for two long years. She was riding point cover, she was his only insurance and she was the only insurance he wanted in this operation. Her job was to protect his flank, the one that faced the
1616 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Sam rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers and pressed the eye balls backwards into their sockets. He saw brilliant colours through his closed eyelids. Having been on GCA duty since dawn, he was close to exhaustion and had a roaring head ache. He grabbed the steel tumbler with water at his elbow, threw his head back, opened his mouth wide and poured the contents into his mouth. As his mouth filled, he gulped down the water without a pause, his large Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. ‘I have had enough’, he said to himself silently as he set the glass down. He felt claustrophobic in the dark and silent confines of the radar hut. He stood up and stretched. The pistol pouch on his belt had chaffed at his ribs all day. He now hooked his thumbs into his belt and wiggled it lower down, nearer to his crotch. ‘I have to get out or else I will suffocate’, he thought to himself grabbing the handle and pushing the thick blast proof steel doors of the radar hut open, just as the thunder clapped loudly overhead.
The wind and the noise hit him simultaneously.
The wind made a banshee howling noise and propelled debris and sand into his face. Sam staggered down the ladder shielding his face with his hands. He took deep breaths and the moist cool air was refreshing after the stale cigarette smoke filled air in the hut. He needed a drink badly, but he knew he would not touch that stuff ever again. That was his basic problem. His hands shook at the memory.
Five years earlier, in 1990, a few months after President Premadasa kicked out the IPKF, the Jaffna fort got surrounded by LTTE and Sam had been called upon one morning to go land outside the fort to bring out seven injured army and police personnel. His Bell 212 had come under immense small arms fire and Sam had to abort, with several bullet holes. Unfriendly JVP elements in the press picked up the story and brought undue pressure on Premadasa and Air Mshl Terrance Gunawardena, the then Air Chief. The press demanded that they act. It had become a national shame that the Jaffna fort was under siege by the LTTE. They did act, mounting Operation Eagle, after a very severe dressing down to Roger Weerasinghe who was then Sam’s CO. The Chief had personally selected another pilot from Sam’s sister squadron, Lasantha Waidyaratne to do the mission despite Rogers protest and request for a second chance. It was no consolation that Lasantha had managed the combat rescue mission only with two streams of Marchetti formations, each with two aircraft doing combat air patrol overhead with covering fire. In the bargain Roger got sidelined and he never forgave Sam for his loss of face. He made it a point to single out Sam on every occasion for ridicule. That made Sam very unhappy and to turn to alcohol to find his self confidence. Within months, Roger raised an unsuitability report and had him sent to a ground job, as a radar controller. Eventually Sam gave up drinking, and made himself a good radar controller, but Roger was not far and he continued to make Sam’s life miserable.
Sam now walked deftly to the leeward side of the GCA hut, mainly to shield himself from the wind and the flotsams that were being hurled at him, to stop it going into his mouth and ears. Once behind the GCA hut, Sam took out his Malboro packet and lit a cigarette using his Zippo lighter. The Zippo had belonged to his grandfather, an old Spitfire pilot, who had flown and fought the Japs with RIAF during the Chindit war in Burma. He fondled the Zippo affectionately, flipping it mindlessly while he turned to watch Johnny on long finals. Even from that distance he could see the Avro bucking in the wind, crabbing sideways, in a shallow flapless approach.
1616 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
26 year old Vani saw Tamil Selvam’s silent hand signals and instantly knew what he wanted her to do. She moved with him, keeping her distance, holding the AK47 in a crouched position. The gun was slung across her chest, ready for action, index finger in the trigger guard, one round in the chamber and 30 more in the banana clip. There were six more clips in the pouches of her webbing, besides several hand grenades. She stopped often, sometimes going down on one knee and whirling around to check the rear quarter for ambush or attack. She also had one eye on Tamil Selvam. He was her life, there was no meaning to her life if he was not in her vision, alive and happy. Her ‘raison d’etre’ was to keep him alive and happy. The sound of thunder bothered her. It reminded her of the day that her life changed forever. In a fleeting moment of self recrimination three previous years flashed before her eyes.
In Apr 92, on a similar day when there was torrential rain, a very different Tamil Selvam had come back to Jaffna to marry her. He was tall, handsome and aristocratic. He had graduated from Ranipet Engineering College at Vellore as an electrical engineer and had been working for three years in his uncle’s thriving electrical motor factory at Coimbatore. He had waited patiently till Vani herself graduated, a promise that he had made to Vani’s father. Though she had been made to apply turmeric paste all over body as part of the engagement ceremony, which turned her skin embarrassingly yellow, she had agreed to go and watch a late night Rajnikant film with Tamil Selvam. They had been childhood friends and were to soon be man and wife. While they were returning home late at night, laughing and joking about life’s adventures that they were going to encounter in marriage, JVP goons waylaid them. She was repeatedly raped in an alley while the suave and passive Tamil Selvam received a severe beating. While parting, not satisfied with the beating, the JVP activists emptied a bottle of sulphuric acid on Tamil Selvam’s face. By the time the general hospital in Jaffna, harassed by war, finished with him, he had lost one ear and his face had become hideous. The wounds healed, but Tamil Selvam seethed from the psychological scars. As soon as he physically recovered, he joined the LTTE. Afterwards, there was only one ‘raison d’etre’ for him. ‘Eelam’, homeland for the Tamils, where he could raise his children away from the predations of the Sinhalese. Tamil Selvam was a brilliant engineer, a rational thinking man, and hence proved to be of immense value to LTTE for manufacturing explosives, sourcing weapons and to keep them in working order. He rose in the ranks, and Vani went with him. Though they never married, they were never separate even for a minute. Tamil Selvam earned himself a nom de guerre, whispered behind his back with much awe, ‘‘Oru Sevian’’, ‘the man with only one ear’. He was a loner and hence allowed to have his own ways. With his hideous appearance, ‘‘Oru Sevian’’ was compulsively a solitary man, he operated away from main stream LTTE on his own, with just Vani for company. He had come across the six shoulder fired anti aircraft ‘Stinger’ missiles in one of LTTE’s safe houses. They had been procured by LTTE several years earlier from Darra Adam Khel, in the administered territory of Pakistan near Peshawar. With a little help from the ISI, they had been shipped from Karachi to Singapore and then to Jaffna through the secretive gun running conduits of LTTE. On arrival the missiles were found to be completely useless, no one in LTTE knew how to make them work. Hence, they had been shelved. It was just the kind of thing that ‘Oru Sevian’ had considered an engineering challenge. He had over 24 months stripped down the missiles, cannibalised and rebuilt two missiles out of the six. Some of the electronics he had to repair, using run of the mill electronic components. However, his greatest challenge was to fill the miniature Argon gas cylinders using a gas booster, and to reconstruct the Indium Antimonide (InSb) power pack that cooled the thermal seeker head. For this he got some advice and assistance from an old college mate from REC who had joined the Indian army and was in-charge of repairing similar Soviet made Igla and Strella missiles at ‘Dharamshala’ in the Himalayas . When he had repaired and assembled the two missiles, he repeatedly tested them and practised engaging flying targets with them. But he held on to them waiting for the right opportunity, something that will make the right impact. It was then the time of truce, the ‘Talaivar’ were engaged with peace talks with the newly elected woman President.
o weeks earlier, around 11-14 Apr the army once again cut off supply of fuel and essential commodities to Jaffna. Tamil Selvam had confided to Vani that the newly elected President Chandrika Kumaratunga was most insincere about the ongoing peace talks. That the brief peace was nothing but a lull before the storm, that a bloody final war was inventible. The LTTE had to flex their muscles. It was necessary for them to demonstrate that their will to fight for ‘Eelam’ had not been dulled by the peace talks. It was time for him to put to use the Stinger missiles. He had told Vani that he had put a plan before Pottu Amman, but he only briefed her about the bare essentials just before they positioned themselves at the ambush. It was how they worked, with simple trust bonded by love and mutual admiration. Operational details were not part of their gossip, lest they inadvertently jeopardised each other.
Vani shook her head and forced herself to return to the task she had to do.
1617 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
In the clearing, but standing well back under the trees, ‘‘Oru Sevian’’ laid his AK 47 on the ground and hefted the missile back on his shoulders. He could now see and hear the distant aircraft steadily approaching him above the tree line. Calmly he switched on the power and gave it ten seconds to warm up the electronics. He flexed his right index finger outside the trigger guard but squeezed the hand grip firmly. He pressed the barrel tightly against his shoulder, supporting the power pack with his left hand. He swung his upper torso left and right to get fluidity into his body and help with his aim. The green light next to his cheek glowed and he could hear soft purring of the gyroscope within the missile. The scope started to glow. He knew that within the thermal imaging sights the escaping argon had cooled the charge coupled devices in the seeker head to around minus 178 deg C, enabling it to seek heat with a minimum resolvable temperature of around two degrees. He flipped the sight to wide angle to help him acquire the target with greater ease. The screen through the sight was greenish and he could easily see something glowing. He moved the missile till the glowing object was cantered on the crosshairs of the scope. Timing was important he told himself. ‘Take a deep breath, relax, let the tension go from the gut muscle’, he told himself. He flicked the view back to narrow field of view.
‘Oru Sevian’ heard the unsynchronized drone of the propeller as the plane came closer and closer. Just to make sure that he had locked on to the target, he switched from ‘white hot’ to ‘black hot’. Momentarily the screen went blank with hundreds of black and white spots. ‘Oru Sevian’ hesitated for a second, knowing that the changeover took a second. When the screen came on, it was white and not green, and he could see the outline of the aircraft wings, the round fuselage, all in a ‘head on’ profile, like a black and white photograph. He began to squeeze the trigger. The missile started to howl, a banshee shriek, indicating that it was fully locked on. He squeezed the trigger gently, all the way back. The missile left the barrel with a long banshee ‘Whhhoooooosh’, like the sound that comes from an empty liquor bottle when a lighted match is put into it.
For a few seconds, ‘Oru Sevian’ continued to stand where he was, with the empty missile tube clutched to his shoulder. Then he threw down the useless tube and groped for his AK 47. He could see the missile arcing it’s way at around 350 mtrs/sec leaving a contrail behind it, racing for the oncoming aircraft.
1618 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Vani first heard and then saw the missile leave it’s tube and streak at supersonic speed towards the oncoming airplane. Her retina clicked the images at a thousand frames per second and transmitted it to her brain. Though it happened in a few seconds, she could afterwards recollect those moments in slow motion. The contrail that first travelled at an angle of around 10 deg to the horizon, pulled up rapidly as it approached the aircraft. It rose majestically in an elliptical arc to hit the aircraft from underneath. The aircraft disintegrated instantly. Large sections of wing and fuselage broke away and tumbled towards the earth. But Vani’s eyes did not follow the debris earthwards. He eyes remained focussed on an empty space in the sky, where the aircraft had been a second earlier. For a few seconds, there was a huge fire ball in the sky. It was doused immediately and it was replaced with a large cloud of white and grey smoke. The winds carried away the smoke a few seconds later and the sky reverted to it’s imperfect cloudy status. The sounds were carried away by the wind in the opposite direction. It was a silent spectacle.
As he stood in the leeward side of the GCA hut, smoking his cigarette with some difficulty, Sam too saw the contrail leaping towards Johnny. He watched the silent spectacle without immediate comprehension. One moment there was the airplane, he could see it approach very clearly. Next came the fire ball and the quickly disappearing dirty grey cloud. Afterwards, nothing, the approach path stretched empty as far as the eye could see. Because his brain took time to register, Sam continued to stand irrationally for few more seconds drawing on his cigarette. And when realisation dawned on him, he was uncertain of what to do. He flipped the cigarette away using his thumb as a fulcrum and ran back into the GCA hut. The door would not open due to wind pressure, he heaved on it with all his strength and forced his entry.
‘Aircraft down, aircraft down’, he screamed at the two airmen on duty with him. The airmen in sky blue overalls sat there unmoving, without comprehension. Sam ran to his radar console in panic and hit the red button with his fist. A loud siren started to wail outside the GCA hut but he could hear only the muted wailing. He twirled the radio frequency till the digital indicator read 123.5, the tower frequency.
‘Johnny, .........’, he screamed, jamming his headset back on his head. ‘ Johnny, can you hear me ?’
There was loud static from the empty sky around him.
‘Two Zero, this is Palali Approach, can you hear me ?’. Silence baulked at him. He called again and again.
‘Tower GCA, two zero has crashed, inform Base Commander immediately’, he finally called to the airmen on duty in the control tower, manning the aerodrome control frequency.
He saw his own dishevelled face reflected on the radar scope. Absentminded and preoccupied with the catastrophe, he flipped the scan and simultaneously switched off the moving target indicator filter. The storm now filled the scope, fuzzy white dots filling his screen. He saw that the storm, though growing in size, was veering northwest, towards the Indian main land. He switched off the scope and got up. He had to do something. Sam went to the corner of the GCA hut where there was a mud pot with cold water. He poured himself a glass, tilted his head and poured the water into his open mouth. He had to do something, he ought to go and meet the base commander Maj Fazly Lafir. This was not something that he could handle on his own. He went to the massive sound proof door of the GCA hut and vented his anger and frustration on the door. By the time he got it open, the war had started. He could hear the distinct thumping of the 120 mm mortar shells as it systematically fell around the air field.
1618 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
By the time Vani took control over herself, ‘‘Oru Sevian’’ was already striding back into the jungle. He was holding the AK 47 in his right hand, firmly against his chest, the barrel pointing upwards in the classic fighting position. With his left hand he was holding the straps of the spent missile tube and dragging it behind him as he strode purposefully. Vani turned and ran back, keeping pace with him, still keeping her point cover. Shortly, they came back to the thick forestation and brush where they had spent the previous eleven hours. ‘Oru Sevian’ heaved on the straps and flipped the spent missile into the thick thorny brush. Without looking at her, he waved side to side, his open palm facing downwards, signalling Vani that she could stand down. She ran forward to meet him.
‘Kanna, Ini Enne Saiyyaren ?’. ‘What do we do now ?, she asked , repeating the question in English.
‘Oru Sevian’ did not speak. He simply smiled. When he had come back to Jaffna to marry her, back in Apr 92, he had difficulty in communicating with her. In her growing years and at Jaffna university, she had picked up a Sinhala affliction to her Tamil and she could not immediately comprehend his colloquial Tamil from the Indian mainland. So they had spoken to each other in mixed English and Tamil. It was this strange concocted language that had afterwards forged, bonded and nurtured their love. ‘Kadavooole, how we have changed’, he murmured silently pulling her hand to make her sit down on to the reed mat next to him. He glanced at his watch.
‘In another forty seconds, the war will start again’, he said quietly, his voice reverberating with sadness. ‘Thirty, twenty, ten, five, four........”, he counted off he seconds.
There was a loud whistling noise above their head and a 120 mm mortar landed with a hollow thud about half a mile behind where they were sitting, somewhere around the airport complex near the middle of the runway. It was followed immediately by several more whistling sounds and thuds as more and more mortars landed on the airfield.
‘Anbu has started his war’, he said, his smile stretching his acid burnt face, making it look like a hideous growl. ‘He is attacking the police barracks at the northern end, approaching from Idaikkadu Vidyalayam’. He looked around him, to satisfy himself that they were well concealed. ‘Nothing to worry now, Anbu has fifty five Tigers with him, with heavy artillery and it will take around an hour for them to sort out Palali’.
‘Vango, come, lie down with me’, he said patting the large thick reed mat that he spread on the ground. ‘We have an hour to kill before we shoot another plane’.
1645 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
As he ran north, along the taxi way, towards the central eastern part of the air field, where the command and control bunkers were situated, the mortars burst all around Sam in resounding thumps. The shock waves and blast threw him to the ground several times. He picked himself up and ran on, panting and puffing with the exertion. He could see billowing smoke from the maintenance hangers and hear small arms fire from the northern end, near the police barracks. The bark of AK 47 automatic fire was distinct, interspaced with the thuds from the mortars and the RPGs. There was no returning fire, the high frequency purring of the short range Uzzi rifles that the sentries used. Palali airbase was caught completely by surprise that Friday evening, just before a long weekend during which most of the soldiering was done at home, away from the base. There was no war foretold, the new govt was after all talking peace with LTTE. Sam found a completely harassed and bewildered Maj Fazly at the command bunker. He was on the phone screaming for help from Vavunya base about 90 miles to the south. Sam took several steps back and joined the onlookers.
‘Send reinforcements immediately’, Fazly beseeched Vavunya. ‘Airlift the buggers immediately’, he commanded into the phone, slamming it back into the cradle with unnecessary violence.
‘Give me a sit rep’, he barked at a young Captain at his elbow, walking to a very large one inch relief map of the area pinned to the wall. The map was covered with a thick transparent talc sheet. On it the airfield perimeter defence system was drawn with coloured china graph pencil, coloured pins and markers adorning the deployment positions.
‘The attack seems to be from Idaikkadu School’, the Capt intoned, drawing an imaginary east to west line with his fore finger, at the top of the map. ‘They have breached the perimeter defence and seems to be targeting the police barracks and the hangars’, he said jabbing the pins and circles at the northern perimeter.
‘What is to the south ?’, Fazly asked strapping on his bullet proof vest and side arm.
‘Currently no firing reported in the south Sir’, answered the Capt, his excitement choking his voice to a croak.
‘Stay here, contact me on the walkie talkie, I am going out to take a look’, Fazly commanded the young Capt. ‘Get on the Crank’, he said nodding to the field telephone, ‘Call up all the posts in the south, tell them to hold just the sentries there and send everyone else to the northern perimeter, on the double, as fast as they can’. He turned to the rest of the personnel milling about, ‘The rest of you come with me’. In the bunker they could hear the distinct thumps of the 120 mm mortars falling overhead.
Sam stepped forward and saluted. He felt silly saluting Fazly, about two years his junior, but Fazly held a higher rank. Though from the sister service, Fazly was technically his superior.
‘Sir, the Avro courier, Johnny was shot down by a missile’, Sam said without any preamble.
‘What shit Ratty, who has got a missile to shoot aircraft ?’, Fazly asked with incredulous stupidity that comes with total surprise. ‘The ATC told me that the aircraft was struck by lightning, we got a storm out there, you know ?’.
‘I saw it Sir, I saw the contrail before the aircraft was hit’, Sam tried to be rational.
‘Ahhhhh, you can now see missiles on the GCA scope, can you ?’, Fazly raised an eyebrow. ‘Go easy on the bottle Ratty’, Fazly added unnecessarily, walking out of the bunker.
‘I have not had a drink for six months Sir, I was standing outside the GCA hut’, Sam mumbled behind Fazly’s back.
Afterwards, Sam tried calling Roger Weerasinghe at North Zone. He then remembered his stupidity, Roger was with Johnny when he went down. At the air force op centre in NZ HQ, Sam got the same kind of response as from Fazly. No one in the air force believed him either.
In disgust, he walked out of the bunker. There was an old rickety one ton ambulance parked outside the bunker. ‘I am not going to walk back to the bloody GCA’, Sam mumbled under his breath, opening the vehicle door.
Sam had to keep dodging the mortars as it fell around him and created bomb craters on the tarmac and the taxiway. The ambulance shuddered and groaned when he put his foot down on the accelerator. Despite all his efforts, he could not shift he gears beyond the second and the best that he could get out of it was around 15 mph. The steering was unresponsive, the rack and pinion worn out from long misuse. When he reached back at the GCA hut, he saw that it had taken a direct hit from a mortar and was on fire. The doors were jammed and his two airmen dead inside. There was nothing he could do. Sam absentmindedly returned to the ambulance and suddenly a thought occurred to him. ‘I must go and find Johnny’, he mumbled under his breath. He started the ambulance once again and drove it along the taxi way, past the 05 dumbbell, past the sentry at the perimeter and headed south on the un-metalled bumpy road to Vellai. At the tri-junction he turned left towards Kadduvan, hoping to see the crash site along the road. It took him around twenty minutes to slowly bump his way, about eight miles to the cement factory, without seeing anything unusual on the road side. He laboriously turned the vehicle around and returned the way he came.
1650 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
‘Oru Sevian’ was dozing, but Vani heard the rickety vehicle go by at some distance from where they were hiding. She gently shook ‘Oru Sevian’.
Like all professional soldiers who seep lightly, ‘Oru Sevian’ awoke instantly with a clear head and clear mind. He sat up in a jerk, with minimum effort and motion, superbly fit and agile.
‘Kanna, there is a vehicle going by, I think it may be the ambush party’, she whispered to him.
‘No, there cannot be an ambush party, they will be busy fighting with Anbu’, he paused. ‘This must be some other idiot’, he said pondering over it.
He looked at his watch. ’30 minutes over, minimum twenty more to go’, he told Vani
‘What is the theory of probability ?’, the voice of his ‘Statistics’ professor at REC resonated in his damaged and blocked left ear. After JVP beating, when he had recovered fully, his right ear had become oversensitive; it could hear all external sound stimulus with accentuated clarity. He also discovered that his bad left ear could hear his thoughts, snatches of conversations from the past. Sometimes it frightened him. ‘It is the thing I say’, the professor from the past now lectured him through his bad ear, ‘it is the thing that makes irrational things into the rational’.
‘In all probability, the bastards would have called for help from Vavunya and another aircraft should be here with reinforcement in another twenty to twenty five minutes’, he told Vani gently, with conviction.
‘I think we should go and find out what the vehicle is doing, going south, when the attack is in the North’, Vani persisted, looking worried and tired.
‘She had not slept for over 24 hrs’, ‘Oru Sevian’ reasoned silently.
Over the years ‘Oru Sevian’ had learnt to recognise and acknowledge Vani’s intelligence, her logic, intuition and survival instincts. All these had come very handy in keeping them safely out of trouble in the preceding years. The only time that Vani’s instincts had failed him was their very first night together in 93, and that was simply because she was overwhelmed by a sense of wellbeing, their impeding marriage. She was then a simple girl, not the deadly guerrilla combatant that she became.
He got up from the reed mat, without any support from his hands, simply jacking himself up from his knees. He went around the brush and parted the thorny braches till he could get at the straps of the second Stinger that he had hidden there when they had arrived early morning.
The previous night, they had wrapped the shoulder fired missiles and their AK47s into the large thick ubiquitous reed mat, tied it tightly into a bundle with plastic ropes, and then piled themselves on top of a late night bus from Jaffna to Kankanesanturai. Past the Palam Pillayar Kovil, at Kuppilan junction, the bus was stopped by two jackal like local Tamil policemen with five feet long bamboo sticks, looking for smugglers and new settlers. Since both ‘Oru Sevian’ and Vani were not in their standard camouflage fatigues, or carried arms, the policemen initially mistook them for the new settlers sent by Colombo and tried to extract a bribe for letting them go on. They even poked about in the bundle with their long sticks, trying to intimidate ‘Oru Sevian’. ‘Oru Sevian’ sat silent, cross legged and immobile on top of the bus and stared the policemen in the eye. The bus conductor did many winks at the policemen and whispered to them under his breath. The policemen got the message finally, that they were LTTE. The policemen disappeared instantly, LTTE had that kind of effect on all policemen. Once left alone, without any further trouble, they had travelled as far as the junction at Tellipalai. After that, they got off the bus, turned right and walked along the road to the air port, till the tri junction, hand in hand with the mat bundle on Oru Sevian’s head, just the way the refugees would do all over the Jaffna peninsula. They had planned to go off the road, and hide in the jungle, if they had encountered any traffic. But in the wee hours of the morning, well before sunrise they had encountered no traffic or other people. The road was deserted. At the Tri Junction, they had finally gone off the road, into the jungle and to their present ambush location.
He now picked up the missile and slung it on his left shoulder, just as before, snout and gas barrel touching the back of his head and the ejector tube trailing almost near his boots. He picked up the AK 47 in his right hand and signalled to Vani. ‘Let us go and take a look around’, he told her sympathetically. Vani stepped away, into their combat positions and they headed back towards the road junction.
1705 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
As he approached the road junction, the ambulance started back firing, jerking forward and backward. There engine coughed several times. Sam frantically pumped the accelerator hoping that it was simply dirt in the carburettor and that it would flush itself out if he pumped the accelerator. Instead, because of repeated pumping, he flooded the carburettor and the engine stalled. The ambulance stopped in the middle of the road.
For a minute or two Sam sat right there in the vehicle holding the steering tightly. He felt disgusted. Here was a country that was fighting a war and the best that the country could give him was a clapped out ambulance. The high humidity and the heat from the engine made the vehicle cabin unbearable and Sam started to sweat copiously. He opened the door and stepped out. The storm had receded taking the wind with it. For want of anything else to do, he took out his cigarette and Zippo. With languor that comes with lack of comprehension of a dangerous situation, Sam climbed up on the bonnet, sat down and lit his cigarette. The fighting at the airfield seemed distant, he could still hear dull thuds and faint automatic fire. But they seemed so distant that it seemed surreal.
1706 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
‘Oru Sevian’ stood back about five hundred yards away, well concealed by the foliage, watching the ambulance. He mused that in guerrilla warfare this was a ‘Russian Roulette’, a standoff. The enemy had the upper hand, his men were concealed in ambush and the man was offering himself as a bait, he was daring him to play his hand. The guerrilla counter measure was to remain frozen in time and space, till the enemy called the bluff himself. Oru Sevian flexed his right index finger in the trigger guard of his AK47. With his thumb he flicked the latch and put the rifle on semi automatic, where he could control the rate of fire by simply see sawing the trigger. He waited, taking deep breaths to calm his nerves, rock steady and motionless. When the time came, he could spring into action within a fraction of a second.
1707 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Vani stood concealed to the right and fifty yards further back where she could see both Oru Sevian as well as the man sitting on the vehicle. She moved her head from side, watching both men, waiting for something to happen. Her right index finger was in the trigger guard, the rifle on semi automatic fire. She would, if Oru Sevian gave her the hand signal, spring into action within a fraction of a second.
1708 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Time stood still. The storm had disappeared and there was now a cool sea breeze. The forest around them became less and less noisy. As the tension mounted, the scene took on more malfeasance. Sam threw away his cigarette and lit another one. Oru Sevian noticed that the tarpaulin at the back of the truck, with the red cross marking, was torn in several places. Through the holes he could see that there was nobody at the back of the truck. There was no one else in the cabin of the truck, he observed. He glanced back towards the direction from which the truck had come, there was no cover or concealment for a thousand yards and hence there was no ambush likely from that end. He too could hear the distant thuds and automatic fire at the airfield. ‘So what is this SAF officer sitting here and doing nothing ?’, he asked silently. No matter how hard he thought, how many situations he played in his mind, he could not find a logical answer. Very slowly he flexed his wrist and glanced downward at his watch. It was now 1708. He knew he was running out of time. Slowly he started to inch his way back, signalling Vani with his left hand, silent hand signals. He had to find another location to launch his missile. As he fell back, Vani backtracked slowly, keeping pace with him.
1709 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
With his good ear, Oru Sevian picked up the asynchronous droning of propellers, an aircraft coming from the south. He could not see it yet, but it seemed to him that the aircraft was flying very high. It was not making an approach to land, it was going to over fly Palali. Vani too heard the noise but did not look up for the aircraft. She was happy that Oru Sevian had heard and was reacting to it. She alternated her focus on the two men, waiting for either of them to react. Suddenly she saw the man on the truck get off the bonnet, walk ten paces forward and turn around, away from her. She saw him shading his eyes from the setting sun and looking up totally unmindful of the surroundings and the deadly threat that he faced.
1710 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Sam looked up at the sky uncomprehendingly. It was obvious that Vavunya had sent reinforcements. But Instead of making an approach to land at Palali expeditiously, the stupid aircraft was going to over fly, high above Palali, as if it were going somewhere else. He scratched his head. ‘What would I do if I were the pilot’, he asked silently. And then the answer came to him quite naturally. ‘I would of course para drop the bastards’, he mused. ‘The airfield was under attack, there were probably bomb craters on the runway. It would not make sense trying to land the aircraft in the middle of an insurgent attack’, he said to himself. ‘The bugger is going to circle overhead, at five or six thousand feet, above the range of small arms fire, he will then para drop the commandos’, he concluded silently.
1711 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Oru Sevian knew that he had to have a clear field of fire. The trees and foliage were obstructions. From where he stood, he could only see the approach. This aircraft was flying high, not coming from the same direction as the previous one. He had to find a larger clearing. In his haste, he forgot to communicate his rationale to Vani. He presumed that she would follow blindly whatever that he did. He turned around and started running towards the clearing that he had used previously. He had just few minutes before the aircraft would be overhead. He was finding it difficult to run holding both the missile and the AK47. So he stopped, put the AK 47 on the ground and flipped the missile from his left shoulder to the right, the missile now pointing forward. He stepped out in haste, taking long strides leaving the AK47 behind.
1712 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Vani saw ‘Oru Sevian’ turn and run without giving her any hand signals. She assessed that the man near the vehicle was unaware of them and hence, did not pose any immediate threat. She could not comprehend why her mate was running away from her. She was thoroughly confused. Initially she walked backwards keeping the Sri Lankan in her sights. When she glanced back she saw that the distance between her and her mate was increasing. She started to run backwards. She kept swinging her head forward and backward to keep both men in sight. Hence, she did not see the dead branch lying right across her path and ran into it at full tilt. She fell backwards.
‘Kanna, Kadavooolee’, she called out involuntarily.
Out of the foliage around Vani a large flock of green parakeets took off suddenly with a loud cacophony that was audible within two hundred yards radius. The stock of her AK 47 twisted and as she fell, it smashed her hip bone. The back of her head hit a large stone that lay half buried in sand. The shock of the fall, excruciating pain in her head and hip and the tension blacked her out momentarily.
Oru Sevian heard the cacophony and turned around. He saw Vani falling and then lying still on the ground. For a few seconds, he hesitated, looking skywards and back at Vani. He made a choice. He started running back towards Vani.
Sam heard the cacophony and turned to look for the disturbance. He saw a woman tumbling backwards. He did not notice that she had an AK 47 in her hands. He ran forward without thinking, a gentleman in pursuit of a woman in distress.
1713 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Oru Sevian saw the Sri Lankan lurch forward and knew that Vani was now in extreme danger. He kept running blindly towards Vani, with no rational thought other than to save her from the danger.
Sam reached the woman and went down on one knee to check. He heard foot falls to his right and looked up. An apparition sprinted towards him and stopped ten feet away. He was pointing a shoulder fired missile at him. In panic Oru Sevian stood erect, with the missile on his shoulder pointing at Sam. His mind and his pulse were racing. He waved the missile sideways, simultaneously moving his head and pointing with his chin. ‘Move’, he barked, ‘Get away from her’. Sam began to tremble. He was caught totally unawares. Slowly he put his hands behind his head and side stepped ten paces from the woman. Turning to the man with the missile he asked in a shaky voice, ‘Who are you ?.’ He felt very stupid. He knew who they were, they were his only enemy in the whole world.
1714 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Both Sam and Oru Sevian heard the aircraft approaching. In his confusion Sam did not perceive the impending catastrophe. Oru Sevian knew that his time was running out, he had to distract the Sri Lankan. “What is your name ?’, he asked. From the corner of his eyes he saw Vani stir and slowly sit up behind the Sri Lankan. She reached for her AK 47 groggily. Still pointing the missile at the Sri Lankan Oru Sevian pressed the power button and started the firing sequence. ‘What is your name, what are you doing here ?’, Oru Sevian quizzed Sam with purposeful scorn. The missile started to come alive on his shoulder. ‘Oru Sevian’ felt the vibration against his cheeks. He squeezed the trigger partially. The green light glowed and he could hear soft purring of the gyroscope within the missile. The sighting scope started to glow. But when Oru Sevian peered momentarily through the scope, there was no glowing target. It was just green and blank. Nothing was happening. The missile did not howl. There was no lock on. Realisation dawned on Oru Sevian that a human being did not produce enough heat and temperature differential for the missile to lock on to him.
1715 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
‘You cannot kill a man with a shoulder fired missile’, Sam found courage to say aloud. As quickly as it came, Sam’s panic subsided, his trembling stopped. He put his hands down, palms open and touching the seams of his trousers. ‘Keep that silly thing down’, he said with half a smile. ‘I have fired this thing you know’, he said conversationally. ‘I know that there is no missile lock against people’, he said deliberately unbuttoning his holster and taking out his 7.65 mm Mauser with ten soft nosed bullets in the magazine. He did not cock the pistol or insert a round in the chamber. He held the pistol against his leg, muzzle pointing down. Sam did not want to panic this man, he did not want to provoke him. If possible he wanted to make him surrender. “I am a pilot, I have never killed a man, ever’, the strange thought came to him.
1716 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
The aircraft came high overhead. It was now clearly visible from where they stood.
‘Oru Sevian’, lifted the nose of the missile and pointed it at the aircraft. There was an immediate shrieking noise from the missile, indicating a ‘lock on’. Sam did not see Vani rising to her feet ten yards to his left, he was now totally focussed on Oru Sevian and his hideous face. It brought shock waves to his mind, some of it sympathetic. ‘These are the terrible tragedies of war’, his mind reasoned, “I too have such scars in my heart’, Sam cried silently.
‘Drop the weapon’, Sam commanded loudly, lifting his pistol, cocking it with his left hand in one quick practised motion. He stood pointing his pistol at Oru Sevian.
Oru Sevian stood with the missile pointing at the aircraft, it’s shrieking even audible to Sam.
‘Drop your weapon’, Vani commanded, jabbing Sam with the muzzle of her AK 47.
The three of them were back in the ‘Russian Roulette’, the standoff, the win or lose situation. Someone had to make a move.
1717 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
Oru Sevian’s mind was spinning in high revolution. The situation was perfectly clear to him. In a few seconds the aeroplane would go behind the trees. His missile lock would be lost. He had to act now, or never.
‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot’, Vani extorted. She started to sob uncontrollably, a woman’s premonition warning her of the catastrophe that was going to befall all of them.
The aircraft was now almost going out of sight. Without bothering to aim, just pointing the missile at the general direction, Oru Sevian squeezed the trigger all the way. The missile took off from the tube with it’s characteristic wail. The missile was already locked on, it did not need accurate aim, it knew where to go, like a blood hound that had sniffed and would follow unerringly.
Sam was in a state of shock. He did not realise that that the missile had already left it’s tube and was now shrieking towards the aircraft, fully loaded with god knows how many men, commandos from Vavunya.
The missile sped, near vertical, unerringly towards it’s target.
‘I have never killed a man’, Sam mumbled even as he squeezed his own trigger, twice in quick succession.
Fired at close quarter, the soft nosed bullets entered Oru sevian’s chest close to each other and exited from the back leaving a single large gaping hole.
For a few seconds time stood still, no one moved.
1718 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
There was a loud bang in the sky, the proximity switch exploded the missile very close to the starboard engine. The explosion completely severed the wing from the fuselage. The shock waves separated the tail section. The aircraft flipped on it’s back and started to tumble. As it fell, spinning out of control, the ‘g’ forces tore away the other wing and broke away the cockpit section. The wing tanks disintegrated spilling tons of kerosene spray in the sky. The spray ignited and there was a secondary explosion, all within the span of a few seconds. A grey black cloud marked the spot prior to missile impact.
Oru Sevian heard the explosion of the missile, he heard the report of Sam’s pistol shots. Then the massive shock hit him, numbing his body and mind. He died instantaneously, painlessly. His body was flung backwards. Even in death he clung on to the empty missile tube.
Vani heard the aircraft exploding overhead, but she did not look up. She saw Sam pointing the pistol at her love and life. “No no, please don’t do it’, she prayed and cried aloud. She saw Sam’s elbow flex and knew that he had squeezed his trigger. In horror she saw the bullets hit Tamil Selvam and his body being flung backwards. Without hesitation, but with great sadness, she squeezed her own trigger. She had been taught to squeeze and relax, squeeze and relax, so that only four shots were fired at a time, she had been taught to conserve fire. The AK47 spat four bullets at a time, just few feet away from Sam’s back. The cyclic fire, four rounds at a time, when repeated again and again from close quarters, practically dismembered Sam. His torso jerked forward, till his head touched his ankle and then the whole body pitched forward in a summersault.
Vani threw the rifle to the ground and collapsed next to it. Tears welled up from the depths of her heart. She sat there holding her head, oblivious to the war around her. Her personal sorrow overwhelmed her.
1719 – 1830 hrs, Friday - 28 Apr 1995
After destroying Palai base, and setting most of what was left on fire with phosphorous grenades, Anbu withdrew his Tigers, as silently as they had come, retreating the same way that they came. They had not lost any men.
Few miles to the south west of Palai airbase, the Sea Tigers attacked and destroyed the naval base SLNS Uttara at Kankasanturai. They attached magnetic mines and sank two gun boats 'Sooraya' and 'Ranasuru' that were tied up at the wharf sheltered from the storm. As the sun set and darkness fell on the island, the Sea Tigers withdrew, sailing their modified tug boats north, into the darkness. They buried four of their dead colleagues at sea.
The ensuing darkness that night, brought with it the ‘Tamil Apocalypse’, to the very proverbial island of serendipity. The devil was unleashed and all hell broke loose.
(all characters in this story are about as fictional as the events that took place in Sri Lanka)