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Sunday, October 9, 2011

13. Uncertainty

At the time of my joining the department the coastal belt stretching from Akkaraipattu via Pottuvil to Panama was one whole peaceful ethnic melting pot. It consisted of townships and villages of Muslim, Tamil and Sinhala communities mixing together and living in harmony. Though the flames of separatist terrorism were gradually being kindled in the north, the east was yet to feel its heat. We never felt uneasy as we got off the train at Batticaloa and made our way back to Okanda after leave.

The first tremors disturbing this tranquillity appeared soon after that fateful day in July 1983 when in Jaffna up in the north thirteen soldiers were blown-off by a terrorist mine. This led to the famous black July riots where Sinhala mobs went on the rampage against Tamils in many parts of the country.  The annual feast of the Okanda Hindu temple was on and we received first news of the great turmoil from police officers on duty there. But, not even the faintest thoughts crossed our minds that these troubles far away, however ugly, would soon reach us to this southernmost inhabited corner of Sri Lanka and engulf us equally.
About two weeks after the incidents, Swami Selwarajah, the Hindu priest of the temple returned from Colombo and told us in tears how there is no trace of his sister and her six children. He did not believe that they were alive. In vain, I tried to console him telling that they must have taken shelter in a refugee camp and that they surely will be traced soon. People living in the East hearing such stories and living so far away from Colombo had their minds badly tainted and imagined the worst. Even small acts of vandalism taking part on the other side of the country reached their ears passing from mouth to mouth and getting amplified in the process to become transformed to horrific tales of atrocities.

Around 1984 the activities of the separatist raised their ugly head in the East in the form of petty anti government protests instigated by them. Within a short period these got transformed to robbing and arson of government vehicles. Next came bank robberies, land mines and assassinations.
Soon the terrorists overpowered the capability of normal police to maintain law and order. This led to the formation of a commando regiment of the police called the Special Task Force (STF) and subduing terrorism in the East was entrusted to them. These specialised commandos who were extensively trained in anti terrorist activities soon curbed lawlessness in the large townships including Batticaloa. But the elimination of the movement of terrorists in jungle areas was a different kettle of fish.

Though terrorist activities were aimed at disrupting the government, at least initially, it turned the life of the general public upside down. They had to suffer immensely due to disruption to agriculture their main livelihood.  State services, trading, transportation etc., were paralysed directly affecting the day to day life and the economy of the area.  Although the Muslim community was neutral on the issue at the beginning they gradually started to get agitated and organised and the possibility of them becoming militant loomed. A head on clash between Tamils and Muslims that together form the bulk of the population in the area would have made the situation spin totally out of control. However, far sight remained with the Muslims and they were able to pull back from militancy at the very last moment for the betterment of all.

By January 1985 with disturbances in Pottuvil, the tentacles of terrorism reached the outer reaches of Yala East. Though the terrorists were held back in larger townships such as Batticaloa successfully the over stretched security resources could not rein on them in suburban areas like Pottuvil. The Police while carrying out their routine duties during daytime withdrew to fortified police stations at night. Terrorist literally ruled the night, plundering state property, engaging in arson and planting land mines, at will.
Their activities then got directed at the Sinhala community there. A Sinhala family running a bakery was killed, accused of passing information to the security forces. Fear spread among the Sinhala community that were for generations running a multitude of businesses and they started to leave the area. In February one of the two state banks in Pottuvil was looted by the terrorists and both the banks stopped their operations. We had to travel to Akkaraipattu about forty five kilometres away under police guard to bring our salaries.   

The unfolding situation in Pottuvil heightened the tension among the wildlife officers at Okanda. With its isolated position and assets consisting of vehicles and money, it could become an easy target. The shot guns we had for anti poaching duties would have been no match for the automatic weapons the enemy carried.
At that time, one of the most senior officers in the department was the Senior Ranger at Okanda who succeeded Mr. Alfred Perera. He was a committed officer who had served and faced the brunt of the troubles at Wilpattu National Park during the 1971 insurrection.  During that insurrection, he apparently had the habit of spending time seated on top of a wooden chest, with the intention of hiding inside it in case of an emergency.  ‘Just because of that…’ he recalled with a laugh, ‘I was nicknamed Pettiye Mahattaya’ (man of the box).
We were quite inquisitive about the vehicles reaching Okanda during the day and kept ourselves as alert as possible at night.  The anxiety made the sounds of the waves and that of the motorised fishing boats amplify and keep us mostly awake and only half asleep. Even the moonlight filtering through the canopy troubled the old ranger ‘Pettiye Mahattaya’ who mostly spent sleepless nights.

One afternoon during the second week after the bank robbery, some strange footprints were seen on the beach at Okanda. The ranger in charge sent a group of officers to survey the beach. A little later he walked to the well below the tank bund for his usual bath. He who normally never went alone called one of the range assistants to accompany him as I was away on leave. It was a delight to bathe at this small well made of a buried Hume pipe filled with cool clean spring water. As accustomed he sang parts of old melodies that came to his mind while showering.
On this day however he could not complete this soothing ritual due the sudden appearance of a group of men over the tank bund. Their rough appearance and the automatic weapons they carried was a pointer to who they were and of what would unfold next.
Rounding up the two and putting them in front the armed men proceeded to the office. Any resistance at this juncture was futile. They quickly took into custody the officers who by then were returning after having earlier been sent on inspection as well as those remaining in the office and quarters.
Everyone was locked up in a room and what was happening outside could only be deduced by the noise of things being smashed. Arms and ammunition, cash, office equipment and binoculars etc. were all collected. They then walked up to driver Norbet and asked ‘Where are the keys to the vehicle?’ indicating that this was a pre-planned raid after studying the situation. The loot was loaded into the vehicle and the terrorists disappeared in a hurry.

The vulnerably of Okanda was proven. There was no way of obtaining help in an emergency as there was no human settlement or a security camp nearby. The only link we had with the outside world, the radio communication equipment, too was removed.  Strangely though, in spite of the clearly demonstrated risk to life no one thought of abandoning this office which was the park headquarters that had been operational for over half a century, through their sheer dedication to work and affection for the park. The Senior Ranger who was by then about to retire stayed there until my return and got transferred to Colombo to spend the last days before his retirement,. It was a pity that this humble and dedicated officer had to go through the trauma of the events just at the very end of his career.

Though the raid seemed to have been well planned most of the looted items were recovered by the Special Task Force within a few weeks. I was called to identify the goods lying at the STF camp at Kallady near Batticaloa.  With police officers from Pottuvil I reached the Batticaloa police station and was introduced to a STF officer from the Kallady camp. Going to the camp with him I could identify most of the lost items.  Among them were the uniforms of the officers, firearms, binoculars, typewriters and a lot more.
After identification and listing of the items I was allowed in one of the vehicles of a STF patrol convoy. Seated among the heavily armed STF officers, travelling up to Kalmunai was a thrilling experience. They showed me places where the road was damaged by land mines blasted by terrorists. The end of the journey was a great relief as the thought of a landmine exploding or a bullet piercing never left my mind all the while.

A few days later, the office of the Lahugala National Park was ransacked. The terrorists entered the office at midnight and looted firearms and cash, harassing the Park Warden Mr. Liyanage who was not in good health, having heart disease and high blood pressure. Within a few months he passed away leaving behind the memory of an able wildlife officer with wide knowledge.

One morning, towards the end of March, a truck carrying a troop of army officers was moving towards Siyambalanduwa from Pottuvil. They spotted a person walking towards them suddenly stop and jump into the paddy field and run away. He was carrying a gunny bag. The truck came to a halt and one of the officers started chasing the person. He could have been caught easily as it was open flat ground. As the officer was nearing the person what he saw was a sub machine gun being aimed at him. The unarmed officer quickly lowered himself to the ground in the face of this unexpected threat and hoped for a rapid response from his colleagues in the truck. This they did by lining up and firing while moving forward. The enemy although hiding in the thick growth of paddy was instantly hit before he could raise his head. Then they rescued the officer and moved further on to finish off the terrorist and recover his firearm. The body was transferred to Pottuvil police station.
The wildlife staff at Okanda was called in to identify whether the dead man was one of those who raided their office but this turned out not to be the case. The corpse was lying with gun-shot wounds all over the body. He had given his life for the sake of making a separatist’s dream come true.

By the beginning of April, terrorist activities in Pottuvil area were intensifying day by day. The army camp at Komari only a few kilo metres from Pottuvil was attacked. Nevertheless, and in spite of the mounting insecurity, the staff at Okanda had every intention of remaining for the protection of the park and property. Vacation of Okanda would invariably pave the way for destruction of all the government property and wildlife resources in the park. Notwithstanding the risk, Mr. Shirley Perera, Assistant Director of the Eastern Region, too visited Okanda frequently and gave encouragement to the staff.
The fear and tension among the staff was growing to the extent that passing each day was becoming a struggle. Every movement, the tiniest noise drew the attention of the staff. A temporary camp was erected in the nearby jungle as spending the night in the quarters was not thought safe enough. Sinhala New Year, normally a time of peace and celebrations was spent in this subdued and tense environment. Only that night did all the officers get together to celebrate and forget their tense state for a brief moment. But with the dawn of the next day the gravity of their predicament returned. 

One afternoon during the first week of May, Mr. Shirley Perera came to Okanda, met the officers and went to the Tummulla circuit bungalow to spend the night, hoping to return back to Ampara the following morning.
Though the officers at Okanda spent the night in the temporary camp, Range Assistant Gunaratna preferred not to go there. Despite the risk he preferred his familiar quarters. He got up early next morning and a strange noise from the direction of the office caught his attention. Peeping from the quarters he saw a gang of armed men trying to break open the front door of the office. Not thinking twice to figure out who the strangers were he took to flight wearing his night sarong, instinctively pole-vaulting across the short parapet wall of the quarters and the barbed wire fence behind. As he related later, he travelled the sixteen kilometre distance up to Panama on foot and borrowing a shirt from someone reached the Police station at Pottuvil. While his entry was duly lodged all the police could tell him was to go back to check what had happened afterwards and report back!. 

Back in Okanda the wildlife officers who woke up in the morning and walked back to the office one by one, were rounded up by the terrorists, unable to offer any resistance. Succumbing to their will was the safest strategy. They thereafter ransacked the property or what was left of it after the first raid a few weeks before. Their next aim was to capture Mr. Shirley Perera who was by now returning from the Tunmulla bungalow.
They proceeded up to Kuluwana with a couple of wildlife officers and ambushed and captured unsuspecting Mr. Perera. No doubt, the terrorist were pleased with the smooth progress so far and that is when they began to relax and loose focus. Instead of heading back they journeyed up to Kumana village deeper inside along with the captives and partook some refreshments that they obtained from the only boutique there.  Their intention was to return to Okanda later and take a break at the circuit bungalow there and thereafter to vanish with Mr. Perera as a captive.

The reason for the success achieved by the STF in suppressing terrorism was the intense jungle combat training they underwent. By then there was a STF training camp located not too far away from the Kumana village. Officers in the camp used to come to the village occasionally.  It was a sheer coincidence that on that particular day such a visit took place just after the terrorist group had left with their captives.
On hearing of the incident they promptly called in additional support from the camp. It did not take the STF long to reach Okanda and cordon off the bungalow where the terrorists were taking shelter with Mr. Shirley Perera and others captives. 
The storming and the rescue had to be planned so as not to endanger the lives of the captives who were held in the upstairs of the bungalow. No sooner the first round was fired, the terrorist who was on watch screamed ‘Police commando....‘ aloud.  Within a split second the group jumped off the bungalow knocking over some of the captives in the process and vanished into the jungle behind. One of them who was in the shower was spotted jumping off with foam still dripping from his body. Mr. Perera and the rest while being stunned were rescued without any harm. Later on a cordon and search operation was carried out in Panama to filter out any terrorists taking shelter there but this did not lead to any arrests.  The group had truly dispersed by then.

This repeated terrorist attack completely demoralised the wildlife staff and depleted their courage. All the officers had vacated Okanda when I returned from duty at the head office. Protection of Okanda office and the staff quarters and, general park supervision was brought under Kumana staff. But Kumana being even further away inside the jungle and being sixteen kilometres distant, there was very little supervision that could be done from there, especially with the limited staff and resources available at a small ranger station like it. Thus, the doors opened for the plundering of this pristine national park.

Subsequently, Okanda staff was assigned to Yala (Ruhunu) National Park headquarters at Palatupana. While I was at Palatupana I had the opportunity of visiting Okanda several times by traversing through Block II of Yala, crossing the Menik and Kumbukkan Oya rivers. Though only a few months had lapsed since vacating the park it had become a poacher’s paradise. Buildings at Okanda were ransacked and there were signs of poacher activity all over. Illicit gemming was rampant along both banks of Kumbukkan Oya river, downstream up to Kumana.
After about a year although an attempt was made to re-establish the Okanda office the spirit and energy among the staff was naturally lacking to make it a success. A temporary camp was set up, upstream, at Kebilitta but it too had to be abandoned after the staff while on a patrol near Menik river were fired upon. On the brighter side, during our short stay at Kebilitta a large number of illicit gem miners on the banks of the river were apprehended and produced at the courts. Later on, the staff quarters at Kumana in which all the remaining official documents and equipment from Okanda were stored was burnt down by the terrorists. All the other park office buildings, staff quarters and circuit bungalows too were demolished by them. Only the ruined walls and foundations of the infrastructure of a once flourishing national park where animals roamed in plenty and where many a nature lover enjoyed the peace and beauty remained.

The last attempt to redeem Yala East was made in 1989, four years after it was deserted. By then Mr. Shirley Perera was transferred to the Southern Region while Mr. M.M.D. Perera was the Assistant Director of the Eastern Region. Nearing retirement with long years of experience as a wildlife officer, he was one of the most efficient officers in the department. Though he had realised the risk of travelling into an un-cleared area he wanted to fulfil his duties as the senior most wildlife officer in the region. The government was embarking on a peace initiative with the terrorists and it was assumed that the situation would be somewhat safe.
On that fateful morning Mr. M.M.D. Perera arrived at Lahugala from Ampara with his driver Dingiri Banda. There, the Park Warden Lahugala Mr. K.T.P. Perera, Arul, who by then was promoted to a wildlife ranger and, a couple of others joined them. They arrived at Okanda via Pottuvil and Panama and met a group of terrorist who were now operating openly because the peace talks were on. Discussions took place in a cordial manner and the terrorists in fact offered tea to the group.  Little did they know that it will be their last cup of tea. They turned back to head home and got up to Uda-Helawa where they were sprayed with a barrage of bullets by another group of terrorists. The injured officers were then shot at point blank range. Mr. M.M.D. Perera, Mr. K.T.P. Perera, Arul and Dingiri Banda died on the spot whereas the others while being terribly injured survived by virtue of the dead falling over and covering them. The last attempt thus to re-establish Yala East ended in sheer tragedy that will live forever in our minds.
Though nearly one and a half decades have lapsed since the desertion of Okanda no favourable change of circumstances has taken place. According to occasional reports received poachers, illicit timber fellers and gem miners continue having a heyday raping nature and the environment there.

Terrorism whose flames are spanning the north and the east and whose heat is felt elsewhere didn’t only destroy innocent lives and property. The mutual symbiosis and trust which existed among the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim races for centuries too were twisted and badly tainted by it. Last but not least, it destroyed nature’s creations of beauty - the life and ways of animals who can never bite back and that of flora that bring us humans the very breath of fresh air that sustains us.

Wildlife is not a resource whose value can be underestimated, be considered second to human existence or be taken for granted. Being an integral part of the eco system that very much includes man and having strong bonds between each other, wildlife resources do not belong to a single nation or a race. Existence of us humans totally depends on the equilibrium of this natural system. Though we establish political boundaries drawing lines on the ground, disaster will be around the corner for us if we refuse to accept and acknowledge this fact and adjust our actions accordingly, even at this very last juncture.

“As I lay imprisoned as once Dutugemunu did
I think of those endless places that have no bounds
Places that this country is so blessed with like none other

Those sylvan streams like Kumbukkan Oya,
With Kumbuk trees lining to infinity, and living their dream

Villages like Kumana that flowed with milk and honey
Baduludena, that Shangri-la

Then I ponder – how can I fly again
And realise that it is a futile dream

Then I have a thought that came in a flash
Can I become a droplet of water in Kumbukkan Oya?

I will no longer be bound by man’s greed
Greed that imprisons us slowly but sure

While I sooth the mighty and silvery Kumbuk trees
That in turn gives me the shade, the sponge roots that gently cleanses me

I will float with freedom to dream
I will see those wonders again in full steam

I realise how blessed a simple droplet of Kumbukkan water is
That it is not bounded by man’s greed”

                         - Lalith Seneviratne