Hudson River and Vanni: the Common Factor

To write about the differences between the Hudson River in New York City and the Vanni region in Sri Lanka is easy. If at all, the difficulty would be to decide when to stop. A good starting point in listing their contrasting features is their geographical location. The Hudson River which flows from north to south through eastern New York State, widens where it empties itself into the Atlantic Ocean and separates Manhattan Island from New Jersey. It is one of the most developed spots in the world and familiar to so many around the globe. On the other hand, the Vanni region in Sri Lanka is in one of the least developed areas in a poor country. Most of it is thick jungle. If not for the ongoing war, it would have been unknown to many outside Sri Lanka. The only factor common to both appears to be the recent emergence of new heroes from both – Hudson River from an air disaster caused by a flock of birds, and Vanni - a destructive war initiated by a group of rebel terrorists.

There were two reasons that prompted me to write an article under such an unusual title. Ever since I was myself involved in a plane crash, I have developed a special interest in air disasters. The second reason is that I very much want to extend and expand my own humble tribute to Sri Lanka’s heroic armed forces that I had already paid, but all too briefly through a previous newspaper article.

Flight 1549

So soon after writing an article on how I myself survived a plane crash thirty years ago, I simply could not help but think of the plight of those 155 passengers and crew on board Flight 1549 that took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City for Charlotte, North Carolina on January 15th, 2009. The main hero in this incident obviously is the pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who guided the plane safely over the George Washington Bridge and into the Hudson River for such a smooth emergency landing in water. But there were other heroes too. Among them, the first responders from the NY Fire Department, US Coast Guard, volunteers and last but by no means the least, the passengers and crew who were trapped inside. Each played their respective roles to perfection. The net result was that so many precious lives were saved.

Having gone through a similar experience before, I think I am qualified to say that it takes a lot to be disciplined when you know that death is close at hand. It is remarkable how few people with inborn leadership qualities rise to the occasion even in the face of disaster. Some passengers in Flight 1549 did just that, much similar to what a few of my fellow passengers did in shepherding us to safety in Hyderabad decades ago. With water in the Hudson River at such frigid temperatures seeping into the cabin every second, a stampede could have spelt disaster. Selfishness has to be pushed to the background when you agree without a whimper under such circumstances, to let children and women to be evacuated first. Even a victim in a disaster can do heroic deeds with death staring in his or her face.

While Captain Sullenberger in the US is being hailed as a hero and is now a celebrity of sorts, Captain Joseph who piloted the Indian Airlines plane that fateful day in December 1978 is long forgotten. He too saved many lives including mine, by doing a belly landing on rocky uneven terrain in a field adjacent to the Begumpet Airport. I guess the publicity the two hero pilots received depended largely on where the accident occurred. Like the Vanni in Sri Lanka, Hyderabad too is not in the same class as Manhattan!

The North East War

Although I have not been adversely affected personally by the war unlike those who live in the north and east, and the numerous others who have lost immediate family members in the battlefield or elsewhere, I have lived through it in Sri Lanka for the most part. As a resident in Colombo at the time, I vividly remember the day the Central Bank was bombed, and the horrors of other major bomb explosions in Maradana, Pettah, JOC Headquarters, Dehiwela train etc. It is only during the last decade or so that I have been away from the scene of such repeated tragedies, but yet making it a point to follow closely, what has been going on in my homeland from 10,000 miles away. Thanks to the excellent Defence Ministry website that provides daily updates, and wide coverage of war news provided by Sri Lanka newspapers (that I read online as a daily ritual), I have been able to keep track of the spectacular recent successes of our security forces in the war zone.

Our Heroes

Compared to the Hudson River plane crash where it was easy to enumerate the heroes, it is virtually impossible to name every hero or even groups of heroes in the war in Sri Lanka. Yet, at a time when we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel, it is imperative that we take note of whoever has made this turn around possible.

Instead of naming individuals, a fair statement to make is that the war effort received new direction right from the top and the highest in the land in recent years. All ranks in the security forces responded readily by fighting with renewed vigour. Starting from political and military leadership, credit should be dispersed right down to the foot soldier.

The status of soldiers and their family members in society has skyrocketed. I doubt very much whether the morale of our troops has ever been so high. The recent appearance on local television of the wife of a high ranking officer who died during the last Elephant Pass debacle and what she had to say, brought into focus how recent events have helped in reviving memories of forgotten war heroes. Those dead and gone deserve equal praise as we dole out kudos to those presently in service.

Just when the forces were gaining the upper hand during the tenure of late General Ranjan Wijeratne as Deputy Defence Minister, he was assassinated. Another hero’s life was cut short and a highly motivated political leader eliminated. The following extract from the website of General Ranjan Wijeratne Foundation highlights war heroism at its best.

"The Mother of all Battles" as it was called by the LTTE leader Prabhakaran, was raging with the enemy battling to overrun the strategic Elephant Pass Army Camp. During the night of 14th July 1991, an armour plated bulldozer of the LTTE entered the camp compound and was about to destroy the defences of the 6th Bn Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment. The heroic effort of a single rifleman took the attacking enemy completely by surprise. Amidst a hail of enemy gun fire rifleman Gamini Kularatne ran his final race in life, scaled the tank and flung a grenade into it. Rifleman Kularatne was killed in this action, but his heroic action immobilized the monstrous vehicle and saved his comrades and the camp. He was awarded the ‘PWV posthumously.

Besides our "Hasalaka Weeraya" Gamini Kularatne, there are many others who have paid the supreme sacrifice so that others may live. Since it is impossible to refer to them all, I shall mention a few whom I was privileged to know personally. Major General Vijaya Wimalaratne whom I knew as a 10 year old neighbourhood kid during our childhood at Manning Town in the fifties, was assassinated in a land-mine explosion at Araly Point. Another terrorist victim Brigadier Lucky Wijeratne was the brother of a lady doctor friend of mine. Their father who was a famous ayurvedic physician in Galle had treated me when I was a toddler! Major General Parami Kulatunga who was assassinated on his way to work, was the spouse of one of my work colleagues in Sri Lanka. Though not immediate family members, I have also lost relatives in this protracted war. Late Sidantha (D.S.) Wickramasinghe of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) was a cousin of mine who played rugby for the SLAF and Royal College and was also a public schools athlete. Referring to the destruction of two Avro aircrafts in April, 1995, TDSA Dissanayake in his book: "War or Peace in Sri Lanka" wrote:

"The following day Saturday April 29th, shortly after first light, another Avro took off from the Ratmalana AFB on a routine Ratmalana – Anuradhapura – Palaly flight. As the aircraft was making its descent to Palaly, Wing Commander Shirantha Goonatilake, an experienced pilot and the son of Air Vice Marshall Harry Goonatilake who had commanded the SLAF from 1976 to 1980, radioed the tower that his Avro was being attacked by a missile. Within a minute, the Wing Commander radioed that two missiles were making a beeline towards his Avro. Then there was a huge fireball in the sky and all 52 on board were killed.

Ironically, on board the second Avro was Wing Commander D.S. Wickramasinghe from the Engineering Branch of the SLAF. He was proceeding to Palaly AFB to investigate the crash of the previous day. Also on board were three journalists who were covering that tragedy for their respective newspapers"

Unanimity in Hailing Heroes

Having said all that, it is a matter for regret that unlike in the Hudson River plane crash when the media and all US citizens were unanimous in showering praise on the heroes,

there is no such unanimity when it comes to our own war heroes who have given new hope that Sri Lanka would henceforth be a better place to live in, than in the past. Fortunately, the misguided few with selfish interests who still prefer to undermine the war effort are only an insignificant minority.

Fact and Fiction

Digressing a bit, I must say that being an avid reader, it was not long ago that I read Nihal de Silva’s "The Road from Elephant Pass". Not infrequently, I get down to reading a good book for the second time. When I first read the book a few years ago, I enjoyed it very much. But I was not familiar with the names of some villages, towns and other landmarks mentioned by the author. Having followed progress of the war on a daily basis, I now know a little more about the places mentioned. That’s what makes a re-read even more interesting.

The author Nihal who himself was a victim of terrorism, met with his tragic death in the Wilpattu Wildlife Park. Ironically, his story is also set mainly in the Wilpattu jungles through which a young army officer had to accompany an informant on their treacherous journey from Elephant Pass to Colombo to meet the Director of Military Intelligence at Army Headquarters. Captain Vasantha who eventually develops a relationship with his female charge Kamala, in the course of conversation, talks about how the war could be won and terrorism defeated, if only the fighting forces had good leadership and political backing. Nihal had been almost prophetic even when writing fiction. We now know how the above factors have helped in making the turn around in the real situation.

Old War and the New

The quarter century old war that has ravaged our country all these years seems to be finally ending. But it is not over yet. As expressed in many quarters, a military victory should be followed by a war of a different sort – to win the hearts and minds of minorities, especially the Tamils. There will be many obstacles especially when it comes to meaningful implementation of a genuine devolution package and proper power sharing. But unlike those that prolonged and prevented an early end to the old war, these obstacles can be overcome through discussion and dialogue. It is heartening to note that this new war has begun even while the old war is in its concluding stages. It is only when this new war has been won that total victory over terrorism can be achieved and declared. The day that happens, though far removed from the posh surroundings of the Hudson River and Manhattan, little Sri Lanka will hit the headlines in world media as a country that has achieved the rare distinction of eradicating terrorism from the country.

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