When Tamil Tigers cheered for Sri Lanka with Civil War's top prisoner

By Ajith Boyagoda   @DailyO_ |
 2016-08-06 11:10:18

[Book extract] Even the LTTE made an exception for cricket.

One day we were told we had a visitor. We were taken outside and assembled in a circle under a tree. Here, Karikalan came to speak to us. He was then a leader in the LTTE political wing. He said perhaps we could assist in securing our own release. He suggested that we write to the Leader of the Opposition, and ask him to press the government to send a representative to negotiate for the release of their prisoners. I can’t remember the exact conversation but this was the gist of it.

If we could get the ball rolling, they were prepared to negotiate with the government, he said. They would be willing to exchange the twenty-two of us for three LTTE cadres in government custody. He asked if we would write, to see if we could get the process started. We were willing. We had not seen any moves to negotiate our release. We could only imagine being released if there was a peace settlement. We agreed to write letters.

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka; HarperCollinsPublishers India; Rs 350

These were sent to the then Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, through the ICRC. The matter was subsequently raised in Parliament.

The response from the President was apparently that she didn’t know such a group was being held. The defence secretary is said to have said that the government considered prisoners as dead soldiers. The book seller Vijitha Yapa, however, contacted the ICRC and through them sent me complimentary subscriptions to Newsweek and National Geographic.

I suppose it should not have been a great surprise that the government response was indifferent, even callous. Military forces are designed precisely to make every soldier replaceable.

Go and ask a decommissioned soldier, anywhere in the world, how he is being looked after now.

Look at statistics for criminal activities being committed by former or serving soldiers. Ask a prisoner what it’s like to be told his government doesn’t plan to do anything for his release. The Sri Lankan government was sending a signal that they did not want to do business with the LTTE in any way.

Eventually the three LTTE cadres in government custody were released by the courts, since they could not legally be held any longer.

It was while we were at Periyamadu the Mullaitivu debacle took place. As usual our jailers looked happy and told us the story. The Tigers had cornered and completely destroyed the government’s military camp at Mullaitivu, capturing the town. Around 1200 government troops were killed.

As ever, when something good happened for their side, the Tigers were ever ready to talk. When they sustained losses they would be moody and monosyllabic.

There was one of those times at Periyamadu, too. The LTTE had planned to attack the Welioya camp but the Army received early information of their plans. The Army lured the attackers into the camp and then came down on them with all their force—I think two or three hundred female cadres were killed.

In bad times for the LTTE our treatment worsened. They needed a way to show their displeasure and their resources also got squeezed. Food would be late and poor. There was extra security and our jailers were unhappy and short with us.

Sometimes we would not learn what had given rise to such a change until we got to our next ICRC visit and read the newspapers from months before.

But in general, the guards were now a friendlier part of our lives. And we ourselves were becoming a group. I had a new responsibility, of leading the group, as the eldest and a senior officer.

I felt I’d almost taken on a job. I now had work. It kept my mind occupied. Occasionally, it was aggravating but I think it was good for me overall. That was a significant change that took place for me around this time.

I mean, I still did not have regular contact with the whole group, except at ICRC visits. But sometimes in this place we could listen to the chatting from neighbouring cells. If no one was around to stop us, we talked across cells.

By this point I think the guards trusted us. But they would still routinely inspect our cells. It was apparently to guard against arson. I think, more than that, it was to remind us we were prisoners.

There were some familiar cadres. Kapilan was in charge but he rarely visited. We felt more of an abandoned group by now—a long way from Selvaratnam’s daily visits. Some of our guards were young boys, I imagine not even eighteen yet. They had some confidence in us and we in them. But there was always an armed guard at our door.

You could never completely forget you were a prisoner. Mudalvannan seemed to be a fixture of our lives and then at some point he disappeared. I wondered if he had finally earned his release.

You seem surprised that the LTTE had such an extensive network of prisons. I think these were mostly for their own traitors—cadres who were in trouble with the movement, paramilitaries from rival groups, disobedient civilians.

In the extreme corner of our block was a big man in a cell of his own, who had to me the look of a movement leader. I had asked who he was but I don’t think anyone ever told me. To this day I think he was a leader imprisoned on some suspicion. Then, one day, he was no longer there.

Another thing that happened while we were at Periyamadu was that Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup. We knew Sri Lanka had made it to the final because the guards had come to tell us. They were excited too. Even the LTTE made an exception for cricket.

They would not call it the Sri Lankan team— they never used the new name of the country—but they supported it. They were big fans of Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga. It was a source of great pride to them that a Tamil player, Muttiah Muralitharan, should be one of the new stars of the team.

On the day of the final, the guards on duty made a point of frequently coming to our cell doors. By doing this, they could allow us also to catch the commentary on the pocket radios they carried.

They’d come and update us on the score. You ask me if I remember any moments from the match? Not really; we didn’t hear enough for that. But it was still one of our most exciting days in captivity. Sri Lanka had never been in a World Cup final before. Most of us were cricketers ourselves. When Sri Lanka won, the guards cheered with us.

But mostly days just passed. That’s how it was. Then, one day they would come and say—get ready, come out, get into a truck. They’d drive you away. Then you’d know you’d left.

- As told to Sunila Galappatti

(Reprinted with HarperCollinsPublishers India's permission)

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