By Charles Sarvan –
A Long Watch by Commodore Ajith Boyagoda, as told to Sunila Galappatti (Hurst & Company, London, 2016)
So few know, and “those who know will be the last to tell”. (From a poem by Henry G. Lee, 1915-1945; US prisoner-of-war of the Japanese; died in captivity.)
People did not want to hear my story (Ajith Boyagoda)
Incarceration has proved productive because some individuals have refused to accept stone walls as a prison or iron bars as a cage (lines adapted from the poem, ‘To Althea from Prison’, by Richard Lovelace, 1617-1657) while Lord Byron in his poem, ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, celebrates the mind that cannot be chained. Nehru wrote Glimpses of World History while in prison; Mandela’s autobiography which Boyagoda read several times (perhaps A Long Watch is an echo of the title of Mandela’s book, A Long Walk to Freedom) was smuggled out of prison; the Kurdish leader Abdulla Öcalan, still in prison as I write (November 2016), published The Roots of Civilization, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi his Guantanamo Diary, reviewed by me in Colombo Telegraph, 28 February 2016. However, A Long Watch differs in that it is a post-prison memoir. The highest-ranking prisoner of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) Boyagoda, while being watched, watched. But “watch” is also appropriately nautical: on ships at sea, there’s someone on watch round the clock. (The watch on the ‘Titanic’ saw the iceberg too late.)
With disarming candour, Boyagoda writes that though he had been a sportsman at school, he had “neglected his studies”; employment was not easy to find, and when he joined the Navy in 1974, aged twenty, he “had no thought of dying for my country”. (Naively, he assumed it was just coincidence that all twelve recruited were, like him, Sinhalese Buddhists.) On 19 September 1994, his ship was attacked and sunk, one of the attack-boats consisting of female Black Sea-Tigers. Ironically, being captured also meant rescue from drowning (p. 71). After spending eight years as a prisoner-of-war, Boyagoda was exchanged for the Tiger’s Kennedy (nom de guerre), the one who “had led a group of nine cadres in infiltrating the Palaly air base in August 1994” (p. 190). He wryly observes that he had been a prisoner of one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world; people talk about the Tamil Tigers all the time; he lived with them for eight years and yet, most strangely, no one ever wanted to hear his account (xi). I will return to this aspect later.
On capture, his gold chain was taken but when he complained, it was returned (p. 78). There was no forced-labour imposed on the prisoners. “LTTE paramedics came to see us every day. Yes, every day, in every place we were held” (p. 128). Food parcels sent by their families were meticulously handed over, so much so that between “the ICRC and our families we had better treats than our captors” (p. 170). When a fellow prisoner, Hemapala, fell ill and died, the body was given a gun-salute before being handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (p. 153). It will be interesting to compare the treatment accorded to Tiger cadres captured by the government, male and female – that is, those who were not killed. One awaits testimony from that side.
But Boyagoda is not naïve. For example, their favourite jailer was a man called Newton, “gentle, soft spoken” (p. 170) who even entrusted his daughters, aged about three and six, to the care of the prisoners. Yet this same man was also “reputedly one of the best and most ruthless bomb experts the LTTE had”. The Tigers were disciplined (no alcohol or cigarettes) and harsh on their own. A cadre was of use until she or he died: even some without legs learnt to climb trees (p. 102). In an interview (see: thewire.in/author/sunila-galappatti/) Boyagoda exclaims, “imagine a reality in which the Tigers had won”! The prisoners were well-treated according to international laws and norms, but “I know mine is not the only story. I have heard screams coming from underground cells” (p. xi). This last statement reminds me of that chilling classic, Darkness at Noon.
On the other side, it was on the islet of Karainagar that he first saw “the mentality of a Sinhala army walking through a Tamil village. Whatever they saw, they destroyed” (p. 45). A picture-album doesn’t mean anything to a stranger but to those who own it, it is a treasure. Memories of generations are lost when a single album is destroyed (p. 46). Smuggling became not of weapons but of “whole families packed into small, perilous vessels, looking for any safe haven” (p. 22). Sometimes, in order to destroy evidence, the Navy “would pour petrol on to the boats and burn them, with the people on them”, and pass it off as a barbeque (p. 96). During the JVP uprising in the Sinhalese South, the armed forces were described as being murderous. Now, behaving in the same way in the North, they are seen as “heroic” (p. 50). So too with the work the ICRC then did in the South and, later, attempted to do in the North.
To be impartial in a highly polarized and emotional situation is to invite execration from both sides. During successive riots, it was always a case of Sinhalese mobs attacking Tamils, and not of Tamil mobs attacking hapless Sinhalese civilians. (The emphasis here is on “mobs”.) Logically, if Tamils were not safe in Sinhalese areas, then their only safety lay in separation. Separation as the only answer was forced upon Tamils by their repeated experience, and then they are reproached with wishing to divide the Island. Ajith Boyagoda supports some form of devolution.
The tragedy, as Boyagoda sees it, is that the conflict is between brothers. When Sri Lanka won the cricket World Cup, Tamil Tiger cadres joined their Sinhalese prisoners in cheering. (To my recollection, the word “terrorist” is used only once by the narrator.) After the war, he meets up with a few former Tamil Tigers, among them one “George Uncle” who had just lost his wife. On seeing and recognizing him,
“George Uncle’s eyes filled with tears and he called to his children who had come for the funeral from Australia and Canada… He told his children who I was and how, even after being his prisoner, I had come to see him. I laughed and said, ‘this is the way in Sinhala culture – we don’t hold grudges’. I know he had a lot of affection for the South from his years as a post-master” (p. 221).
To the ancient Greeks, tragedy was the remorseless unfolding of what the gods had ordained, but tragedy now is also when there’s a sense of “unnecessariness” and consequent waste: as Shakespeare’s Othello exclaimed in a very different context, But yet the pity of it, O the pity of it (Act 4, Scene 1). The abstraction, “History”, cannot be blamed: events in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in the world, could and should have been handled differently. But neither side, thinks Boyagoda, had the political maturity to reach a settlement (p. 191). The government in the South lacked leaders with will and courage (p. 184). For their part, the LTTE was intransigent in its demands, unwilling to make concessions in order to achieve a compromise.
One reason the Tigers lost is that the war lasted too long, comments Boyagoda. (So it was, for example, with Hannibal’s surprise attack on Rome having brought, in a bold and brilliant feat, elephants over the Alps in winter. But Roman Fabius Maximus saw that time was not on the side of his enemy, and took advantage of it. The rest, as they say, is history.) Given the overwhelming disparity in numbers; given international support; given that the Tigers did not possess one helicopter or jet fighter; given they were surrounded on mountain-less land, the longer the war lasted, the greater the attrition and the more certain their defeat.
Truth isn’t single and simple but, rather, multiple and complex. Boyagoda does not claim to tell the truth: he merely bears witness to his experience, modestly and honestly, conscious that there are other experiences; other truths. “I know the Tigers were capable of great brutality. There are many who can testify to this and many who did not survive” (p. 205). What he offers is but a tessera which, together with other tesserae, future generations will put together to form and ‘read’ the resulting mosaic. There is, he sadly notes, the suspicion that he had “sold out” (p. 201) to the LTTE. A Long Watch will not help dispel that cloud: quite the contrary. Had he falsified his treatment in captivity, painted the Tigers as unmitigated devils, he would have done his career great good. Truly, courage takes many different forms. When people asked him about his eight years of imprisonment by the Tigers, they already knew the answers they wanted to hear. The truth, as Boyagoda experienced and saw it, was irrelevant (p. 205). They wanted to hear a story that “reinforced their prejudices” (ibid). His nuanced version was to them falsity and, worse, traitorous: contrast the reception accorded to Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s Road to Nandikadal, also published this year. (According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper of 16 November 2016, Oxford Dictionaries have named ‘post-truth’ as the international word of this year. The term relates to or denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Why 2016? When, I wonder, was it ever different?)
The word “relate” comes from the Latin meaning “to bring back”. Ajith Boyagoda has related some of his recollections, and Sunila Galappatti has done excellently well in “bringing back” in English what was “brought back” in Sinhala. The memoir is honest and brave; modest, dignified and restrained: in the words of Michael Ondaatje, it’s the “best book yet on the war in Sri Lanka”. However, published abroad, few Sri Lankans will read it. Apart from cost, most of us want our opinions confirmed – not challenged and troubled – and the most effective way to “sink” a book is to ignore it. I hope, very much, that Commodore Boyagoda will publish a Sinhala translation in Sri Lanka. That would be a very valuable, and much needed, contribution.
In war, there are no winners but only losers, reflects Ajith Boyagoda sadly (p. 218). His is a truly Buddhist perspective: wise and compassionate.
Once again with thanks to my wife for her strictures.