Best Rocket Propelled Grenade Man we ever had

“The guy would take out bunkers with one shot” we were told. From the rest of the recollections you could practically see him taking aim, rock steady in the hell of jungle firefights. When we meet him, the calmness is still there. A fit man, on the way towards his late twenties. He is confidently independent with his white stick. Dark glasses and a beard do a good job of hiding the web of scars on his face.

The highlight of his life was being his unit’s RPG marksman. That ended as he matter-of-factly put it, somewhere near Paranthan. He was pushed backwards by a blast while running through a clearing. A distant helicopter in the Wanni sky was the last thing he saw before something struck his face and everything went black. “The doctors say there’s nothing that can be done” he adds without a change of tone. He insists he has adjusted to his new condition. Proven I suppose by producing two daughters after coming home permanently blind.

They all get by on his army pay for now. Yet he has his sights beyond survival on a pension. He wants both girls to make a living without “depending on a man”, a contact in the government or charity. It is a goal that calls for tuition classes to ensure high scholarship scores, leading to places in a “good Colombo school” and culminating in professional degrees (medicine ideally).

To make it happen he wants to start a small business. Sell snacks in town for a start. The main bus station and the two schools will ensure a steady market. Perhaps in the near distance, a shop. Further out, a willingness to be a blind Mudalali with more diversified concerns.

The investor among us is willing to put in an eye brow raising sum. There a terms and conditions of course. He is told to stay clear of anything that requires refrigeration (and the accompanying fuel costs for the generator). How to manage costs. Processes to avoid theft. A general discussion about investments, banking and loan options. His posture is of intense concentration, determined to absorb it all. The arc of the conversation gets ever wider. Yet it’s weighed down by a desire for specifics, concrete details, commitments that transform conversations over Thambili into actions.

There is no denying the commitment on his part. He wants to keep track of the accounts himself in Braille. Its surprises us all and smells of a familiar distrust of parasitic relatives. His Thambili serving wife seems more concerned about his Kassipu addicted “friends”. From the way she deftly chops the tops off, I don’t think they will have the courage to be a problem. “So many of the men here are passed out drunk by sunset because of that poison” she says. Almost as an explanation of the root of it all, she glances sideways at a fading election poster on a neighbour’s wall. There’s brief flare of contempt at the grinning pudgy face in the poster. Those of us who noticed that flicker get the message.

She’s been reading Sinhalen Business to him at night. It seems to have inspired them both with a spark of hope for making their future brighter. Her calm determined expression reminds me of another wife I’ve blogged about.

Eventually we pile into the van and bounce down the road. Out of a green Sri Lankan heartland, towards the A roads and Colombo’s madness.

In the back they are on the phones, voices raised due to the shaky signal. There’s a call about setting up a photocopy business in Kilinochchi. The guy in question was ex-LTTE. Recently released but still needs to get some documents cleared. Could you get your contacts in the army to take care of it? Meanwhile access to a distributor for a widow near Vavuniya with a new sewing machine is finalised. In Galle, somebody’s daughter will start accounting classes and the journey from a unfortunate past.

There are no organisations, titles, paperwork, grant writing, in this nameless activity. Just phone calls, and conversations among friends of several decades “someone I know wants to help this person in…”. A lot of weekends sacrificed for uncomfortable travel to see things for oneself. Money pulled out of hard earned personal savings. Disappointments shrugged off after lessons learnt. Wisdom acquired by surviving decades of this country’s history seems to keep cynicism at bay.

In the van’s rear view mirror, a blind rocket propelled grenade marksman is stroking the head of his baby daughter held by his wife. The white of his toothy smile is visible against sun blacked skin even from this distance. There is a final wave before the road (track of ruts) bends into the trees. I don’t know what writing all this was supposed to mean. The Voices can only take so much eavesdropping before they get insistent so here you are.

Post War Sri Lanka – sampling the discussion

Discussion of post war Sri Lanka these days is careening all over the place as it should. The hardest task will be for the government to map out policies and processes into post war reconciliation/reconstruction modes. The hard work is I hope going on quietly. At some point the Sri Lankan Diaspora (note lack of ethnic specifics) will at some-point provide some sort of hard currency support. Right now it seems everyone is squinting at patterns pointing to the future. In such situations it is always easier (and comprehendible) to focus on specific issues. Out of random I found two articles outside the blogosphere that seem interesting that blances the hopes and the challenges.

One is the task of taking care of wounded and disabled soldiers – along with the death benefits to the next of kin. Along side government funded efforts have always been private initiatives such as donating artificial to war veterans. Post war rehabilitation efforts needs to be much broader given the deaths and the injuries during the last months of the war. The Economist has an interesting overview on the issue

On a more optimistic note are the prospects for tourism. Specially in the East coast. For most of my life, talk of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka has always been about dealing with bad times. Now the popular words seem to be “potential” and “vast”.’s article on tourism prospects in  post war Sri Lanka seems to capture this mood. 

A nice change from the time when the word “potential” was more frequently used when bemoaning Sri Lanka.

Documentary: Special Task Force Sri Lanka on you tube

Documentary about Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force (STF) is available on Youtube – many thanks to Lankika who kindly posted the links in a comment. The documentary is part of a series called “Chris Ryan’s Elite World Cops” aired on the Bravo channel. This episode of the documentary follows ex SAS member Chris Ryan interviewing and training with the Sri Lankan STF.

The episode is chopped up into 5 segments (due to the limits of the permitted running time on you tube). On my creaky Sri Lankan broadband link the segment I watched took a while to load. Managed to watch all of part 2.

The degree of access granted to the cameras is quite impressive. The discussion seems quite detailed in terms of layman terms But I doubt if there drills and techniques reveal any secrets. The Sri Lankan blogopshere’s reluctant defence correspondent will most likely know better.

The Bravo channel’s motto is “Bravo – Entertaining Men Since 1985” catering to

“male viewers with a target demographic of 18-35. It is a gritty channel, offering comedy, drama and real-life”

Essentially not your NGO “peacenik” audience😉

I have no idea about the copyright issues of this stuff being posted on online.

Anyway here are the links. Hope the six pack is nearby😉

  • Part 1 – mainly introductory stuff that is only useful if you don’t know where Sri Lanka is
  • Part 2 – Jungle patrol stuff plus short interview with STF officer/trainer
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 5

Paranthan/Nevil war zone Google Earth view

Google Earth image below shows part the open terrain around Nevil in Northern Sri Lanka. As the world celebrates Christmas lots of humans from a volunteer army are fighting a crumbling terrorist death cult in the torrential rain soaked terrain shown below. The Defencewire blog has a post covering the details. For those looking for a bigger (military) picture, The Lone Ranger blog has posts on the strategic context of the fighting. Not that the human killing and dying in the mud down there will be doing much reading right now.

To most of the world its just another irrelevant little war in a third world hole. Perhaps there might be time to spare a futile thought for all the lives lost due to the stupidity of politicians long ago. The only people really worried about the end of the war are the politicians and the arms dealers. But lets not get all worked up and cynical and negative. Specially these days when most minds are firmly fixed on high spirits (20% proof and above) .

Open terrain around Nevil in Northern Sri Lanka -Google Earth image

Soldiers’ stories

“Their bodies were stacked and burnt like fire wood”. It was about first JVP Insurrection in 1971. The old solider had said it in quiet matter-a-fact Sinhala, looking at something invisible and far away. The words and the moment are among the fragments I can remember. The details of the story, like most childhood memories, have been swallowed by the encroaching fog of time. Whenever I see a young solider on sentry duty on a Colombo Street, the veteran’s story occasionally wafts through my mind. His expression of resigned acceptance and hopeless disgust springs into clear focus. It is a universally recognisable face if you watch lots of documentaries. I’m just no good at painting it with words.

I first heard the stories as a pre-teen hanging around my father’s workplace after school. Virtually all the company drivers were ex army men. Years later I pieced together that they were trained as drivers in the latter part of their army careers. One off them graduated to the role of VIP driver hauling dignitaries for the 5th non aligned summit in 1976. They had all served in together in the Ceylon Light Infantry (now called the Sri Lanka Light Infantry) — though not in the same unit. They always referred to their regiment “CLI” the same way an Oxford grad might the name of their College to signal their pedigree.

CLI training seems to have given them temperament for work that meant lots of sitting around deep in news papers with occasional glances at a watch. Or snooze whenever the opportunity arose. Yet they always turned up on time. Alert with vehicle cleaned and tanked up to go. At the end of long trips they safely guided the van load of snoring passengers along the tiring unlit third world roads back to Colombo.

The company trusted them with an unusual level authority and freedom. Their estimates of travel times to often obscure places were accepted without question by the English speaking telephone users behind desks in air conditioned rooms.

My father trusted they’re driving enough to take me on his outstation work trips during school holidays — so I could “see the country”. From my usual seat between the driver and my father I watched the ragged dust fringed Sri Lankan roads unroll before the windscreen of many vans. Kataragama, Anuradapura, Maho, Nuwara Elieya, Polonaruwa, Yala, Kurunagala, and Hanbantota. Obscure places all around Kandy. We went deep into the winding roads of tea, coconut, and rubber estates. Visited hopeful new towns in dry zone Mahawali schemes.

Overnight stays meant rest houses or circuit bungalows with pink or blue walls, creaky fans and mosquito nets. Where my father insisted everyone, executive and driver a like eat at the same table. For some this took some time to get used to. Along with the family trips, these journeys cemented my familiarity with the world of Sri Lanka’s rest houses.

An inevitable part of these travels were the hours sitting in the van judiciously parked in these shade, doors open to invite the breeze. While my farther went through his mind numbingly incomprehensible meetings and inspections of what ever factory/farm/installation we came to see. I was entrusted in the care of the driver who was generally nonplussed about baby sitting the “Mahathaya’s baba” (literarily: the “boss’s” kid). I was well armed with a stash of Sinhala children’s novels and Biggles books so I suppose I wasn’t a handful.

In between silent readings of our respective books and newspapers the stories trickled out. Mostly odd anecdotes of army life in the late 60s, early 70s when getting into the CLI (let alone the army) was an achievement. Many years later, these stories made Carl Muller’s Spit and Polish seem familiar. Though the stories I heard were more about bumbling Sergeants and the dullness of late night peace time sentry duty than the wild antics in Muller’s novel.

Grimmer accounts of the 1971 JVP uprising were not a major feature. Something about severed heads left by road sides and pathetic home made grenades built out of condensed milk cans would occasionally slip in. I was too young at the time to grasp the significance of the imagery. Specifically how human bodies might burn. Or how it might smell. I never asked what it was like to be shot at. I suppose it must have been similar to what Biggles felt when the windscreen disintegrated in a hale of German bullets — you yelled “oh gosh” and pulled an Immelmann turn.

I listened without pronouncing judgement and the stories kept coming. I doubt if they told me these stories to spook an ignorant child. Telling the stories seemed make them more relaxed. They never mentioned these stories when there were other adults around. I guess I must have been a tolerable audience. Years later, when I was “abroad” my father use to pass on their regards over the phone. Or casually mention that driver X or Y recalled one of our journeys. Most of which I could barely remember. They have long since left the company and moved on to I think better things with grown up children of their own.

I wonder what horrors the stories veterans on both sides of the Eelam wars carry in them. Chances are you won’t be reading them in books. They will trickle out unexpected in casual conversation. A veritable gold mine for someone with a first world publisher and a knack for spinning novels from “oral” histories.