Literary Review

Caught by the tiger

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka; Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, as told to Sunila Galappatti, HarperCollins, Rs. 350. Photo: Special Arrangement

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka; Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, as told to Sunila Galappatti, HarperCollins, Rs. 350. Photo: Special Arrangement

When Ranil Wickramasinghe, the then leader of opposition in Sri Lanka, raised the issue of 22 Sri Lankan soldiers being held captive by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the mid-1990s in Parliament, President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared that she was not aware of such a group. For Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, the senior-most officer among the captives, who had written a letter to the opposition leader through Red Cross, requesting him to raise the issue with the government, the President’s response shattered all hopes of his and his colleagues’ freedom. Still, he’s not keen to pass judgements on the government’s decision. “Military forces are designed precisely to make every soldier replaceable… The Sri Lankan government was sending a signal that they did not want to do business with the LTTE in any way,” Boyagoda writes in his prisoner memoir.

This sense of restraint and the eagerness to always look at the bigger picture marks the tone and tenor of the book, which reconstructs the years Boyagoda spent in captivity under the LTTE. There is no rhetoric, no calls for revenge and no attempt, directly or indirectly, to defend bigotry in a country that won a brutal war a few years ago.

Like many others, Boyagoda was also drawn to the navy by its “glamour” but soon dedicated himself to serve the country. He rose through the ranks quickly, travelled around the world and fought in the civil war at home before the ship he commanded, Sagarawardene, was hit and sunk by the Tigers in 1994. Abandoned by the government, he spent eight years in LTTE prisons. He and the other prisoners were moved around the Tiger-controlled areas, as the war progressed. There was no communication with the outside world. News came in either through Red Cross members or from their jailers. Finally, the prisoners, already surviving on limited rations, had to start a hunger strike to draw the government’s attention to their plight.

Boyagoda offers both sides of the story. He talks of how he survived in the LTTE camps, how he was tried and acquitted of war crimes in an LTTE court, and how the Tigers tried to use him to gather intelligence. He also talks about how he was received with suspicion by some Sinhalese sections when he was released. He shares deep anguish about the ethnic division of the country and the suffering of the Tamil people. “I made a decision when I was released from captivity that I wasn’t going to help make things worse… I wanted no further part in creating a cause for war,” he writes.

It doesn’t mean that Boyagoda is mum on critical views on the LTTE. He says the LTTE cadres were frustrated after 30 years of fighting. If the Tigers wanted to achieve something they should have done that within 10 years. He sees the fighters as prisoners as well — prisoners of the war. But Boyagoda offers a broader picture. Take, for instance, the battle for Karainagar in 1991. Boyagoda was in the frontlines of the battle, which finally broke the LTTE’s siege of the island. But he doesn’t mince words while describing what the Sri Lankan army did after the victory. “I really saw the mentality of a Sinhala army walking through a Tamil village. Whatever they saw, they destroyed.”

Such high-handedness, in Boyagoda’s views, helped the LTTE find more recruits. He gives another example. Selvaratnam was one of the early handlers of the captives. Boyagoda developed a friendly relationship with Selvaratnam, who even spoke to him about LTTE tactics. In Boyagoda’s view, Selvaratnam is a victim of the conditions that prevailed in Sri Lanka. “He had experienced upheaval and displacement on account of his culture and ethnicity. That had led him straight to the movement”, writes Boyagoda.

It’s this narrative, cutting across the rivalry in a country that has a long history of ethnic tensions and violence, that captures the reader’s attention. Otherwise, A Long Watch is not an explosive book. It doesn’t reveal anything the world doesn’t know already. It doesn’t indict anybody. There are no graphic details of violence and torture. But it’s an engaging book on one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in South Asia. Engaging not only for its thrilling description about war, captivity and freedom, but also for its moral courage in imagining the possible future of a reconciled republic.

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Printable version | May 16, 2022 12:05:01 am |