Crackers in the distance. They are celebrating the capture of elephant pass (Alimankada in Sinhala) I explained. “My husband must be there” she said with an uncertain mix of pride and worry. Which unit? I asked. Her answer surprised me. My expression prompted her to elaborate in a quiet matter a fact Sinhala. The tone and inflection reminiscent of other conversations long ago. It’s not the kind of story that you read in the English language Sri Lankan blogosphere. The specifics of course have been blurred in the name of privacy.
She hasn’t heard from her husband in a while. Standard when major operations underway she assured me. The last she heard from him, his unit had roughed it through monsoon floods and was still going strong. She calls a number given to army families. The army connects her to her husband’s unit. If he’s around they get him on the line. Whenever he gets a chance, mostly at night, around eight, he calls her. Each solider has a ration of minutes on the phone. She says the line is clearer than any “normal” phone line. Often she can hear the firing in the background.
Her husband has been in the army most of his adult life. He is now a sergeant of a combat platoon. He was born and raised in the rural eastern province. He and his extended family had to flee when the LTTE began “clearing” the Sinhalese in the area.
She never spoke about his reasons for enlisting — just that he started out in a technical non combatant role. His fluent Tamil made him an “asset” during the early days of fighting. The long hard killing years of the 1990s gave him a lot of combat experience. Something the current army won’t “waste” on sentry duty in Colombo’s streets. Anybody with combat experience is preferred at the front over kids brimming with patriotic fervour she said.
He has seen a lot of changes in the army — mainly for the better since the debacles of the late 1990s. Most importantly the food and ammo gets through consistently to forward units. Discipline is ruthlessly tighter. Corruption (at least for the lower to mid ranks) is treated as sabotage. Disobeying an order to attack during an operation (meheyuma) earns you a trip to Colombo “in chains” with a charge of aiding the LTTE terrorists. I was told a few stories to underscore these points.
There is plenty of grim stuff — this is a war after all. Evacuating the wounded during advances is a deadly process. Rough terrain worsened by war and weather makes the going too much for some. He has seen his share of young men dying of their wounds “just like that”. He says that he feels sad for the kids trapped in the LTTE. The bodies of dead fighters he says are of people who have led “hard miserable lives”. If history had been different they would have been relatives of his friends and neighbours.
Both of them have no illusions of glory after victory. His family farm was a site of an LTTE camp. It is now overgrown and they don’t know when they will get back to fix it up. All her husband wants she says is live without having to bother about the language s or the religion of the people around them. “We are all humans”.
They are both pragmatic not to expect much – either from history or from the government. Her letters to get entitlements have gone unanswered. The government is quite happy to fund a flying white elephant of a “budget airline” yet relies on public donations to build houses for soldiers. Their focus is on getting their kids educated. The eldest will be the first in both families to get a professional qualification. His combat pay and her earnings as a roving housekeeper have covered the costs of the exams. The middle child is in a vocational school. The youngest still doing the rounds to tuition classes. They hope that the children will find work in the private sector — not “rot” away for a pittance in a government job.
The sergeant is a handful of months from a heavily postponed retirement. He has hopes for a hard currency job as a private military contractor in Iraq but wants to win this war first — to be there with his men when it “ends”. She wants him closer home, in a job that doesn’t involve dodging death and injury. He has sort after technical skills and speaks basic English. Enough for a decent non combat job — even within Sri Lanka.
She does housekeeping at my parents’ place once a week and at other places during the rest of the time. Her quiet efficient reliability is sort after and well paid for. I have seen her upright posture humming about the house a few times. Yet I only got the chance to hear her story when her husband’s division took Elephant Pass and crackers celebrating the event went off in the distance. She skilfully and rapidly ironed her way through a stack of my father’s shirts as she spoke.
The recapture of Elephant Pass has receded into history — two weeks and counting . She still hasn’t heard from him. Most likely they are now hurrying to Mullativu. No news some times is good news. I’m not alone in hoping that he and others in his situation are OK. That they will come home soon, hopefully to opportunities for better lives. It has been a long war.