22 April, 2024


The Man Unburied: War Through The Pulse Of A Field Soldier

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

The man unburied

Not many soldiers have written about their experience about the 30-year-long disastrous war in Sri Lanka. One exception was General Kamal Gunaratna who has penned a couple of books on the war giving his personal experience in not only how it was done but also how strategies were designed to reach a decisive conclusion. The excuse given by many soldiers is that it is traumatic to relive in those fearful experiences which are best to be left forgotten forever, especially after its risk is no more. Hence, there is a mental as well as physical barrier to make up the mind to recount the same. But this barrier has now been effectively broken by another field soldier, Brigadier Ranjan Wijedasa, who has penned his experiences as an autobiography in Sinhala.

The title of the book, Mihidan Novu Minisa, or The Man Unburied, tells us the full story. This should be followed by other soldiers with experience to create a rich war literature on an era which is being forgotten fast by many. I recall General Kamal Gunaratna inviting all soldiers to follow Wijedasa when he addressed the a
udience at the book launch the other day.

Losing a limb

Why this unusual title to the book? Wijedasa whose left arm from the shoulder blades has been robbed by gruesome war has explained it in the preface as follows: “On many occasions when I pass by the Colombo cemetery, I get the chilling memory that some parts of my body have been buried under that undisturbed earth. This is a good example to demonstrate the impermanence of life. When we realise that this body which we care for by cleaning, adorning, and loving should one day be buried in this earth, we do not get the feeling that we should cause pain to some other person. Hence, when I pass this cemetery, my good right hand spontaneously starts rubbing my lifeless prosthetic arm” (Translation mine).

The general feeling among many is that soldiers, armed to the teeth, are heartless species ever ready to pull the triggers. Yet soldiers are also people with hearts, as observed by Wijedasa. He has told us in black and white that anybody who feels that life is impermanent should think twice before choosing to inflict pain on another. This is a message which we all should take seriously because it has come from a man who has suffered from enormous pain himself.

Futility of repenting over past losses

Wijedasa’s life as a soldier as well as a human being has been guided by one principle. That is, not to repent over the spilt milk in the past. Instead, one should cultivate the habit of keeping on trying until one reaches one’s goal. One should not be a burden to the mother earth which holds his weight without any complaint. He has reminded us of the Chinese saying that a successful man should have accomplished three tasks: fathering a son, writing a book, and planting a tree. Wijedasa has accomplished all these tasks. Hence, he is contented about what and who he is today. He invites all those who are not happy about their past to read his autobiography. I also share this view with him.

According to him, the best way to succeed in life is to use the disasters which a person would have in his life as points of learning for a better future. In this sense, one’s stupidity is one’s best teacher. This reminds us of the common saying that there are no disasters but new opportunities for action. For a soldier of tenacity of purpose and tough determination, it is certainly true.

Equanimity at the highest level

I do not claim that Wijedasa’s life is unique and there are no others who have been to the traumatic experiences which he had gone through. But there is a uniqueness, because Wijedasa has looked at them with a total equanimous, impartial, and blame-free mind. There had been many who had done him good as well as bad things. An ordinary person might love the first category, while hating the latter. But Wijedasa stands above them. He treats both categories with the same sympathy and empathy. However, he has been a soldier of principles. He has on numerous occasions fought with his superiors whenever his boys have been ill-treated. Sometimes, he has done this at the risk of disciplinary action being taken against him. But he has not repented about the stand he has taken.

Human side of soldiers

Wijedasa has talked about the poor facilities afforded to soldiers: “There is a proverb that ‘Prisoners are also human beings’. But it seems that there is a tendency to forget that soldiers are also human beings. It is important to keep them happy and motivate them properly to get the best out of them. That is because they are fully exhausted after doing an invaluable service to the nation. There are many methods to improve their courage. Among them, the most important are providing them with an adequate and nutritious diet, clean and pure water facilities, comfortable accommodation, facilities for sports and entertainment that will make their life in camps happy and enjoyable. This should have been the top priority of the high command in the army.

Further, they should be given leave facilities to enable them to see their loved ones. If it is not possible for any reason, an efficient machinery for them to communicate with them either by telephone or by mail should be established. In the Punareen camp, none of these facilities had been provided to them, let alone the senior officers. Hence, it is not unnatural that many soldiers may choose to desert the camp” (Translation mine).

Aborn soldier

Wijedasa has been born to be a soldier. His father had served the army as a commissioned officer. Then followed his elder brother who also joined the army after the school. Wijedasa who had been a school cadet had developed the mentality to be a soldier after seeing both the father and the elder brother in military uniforms. The young mind always develops desire and curiosity for things that are around him. This is true for Wijedasa too. So, he joined the army as a cadet and was trained in the army’s prestigious training camp at Diyathalawa. One of the instructors at the training camp was his elder brother who did not show any mercy to him. When it came to task accomplishments, or punishments for failures, there was not any brotherly sympathy for him.

At that time, Wijedasa was angry at his brother. But in hindsight now, he praises his elder brother for making the tough man he is today, a requirement for a good soldier. This is what he says about his brother: “My brother was the officer charged with the task of examining our uniforms. He examined me more thoroughly than others. I was subject to his hawkish eye examination from head to feet. That examination was so thorough that he was able to find some defect in my uniform every day. I was asked to announce those defects in my uniform aloud. Then, I had to spend the whole of my lunch time in accomplishing the punishment tasks which he imposed on me in performing various drills in the ground” (Translation mine).

His brother knew very well if Wijedasa was to succeed as a soldier in the future, he should develop the needed discipline in him. There was no compromise for that need. Says Wijedasa: “As a trainee soldier, I could learn an important lesson for my future life. That was, a soldier should follow military rules and disciplinary requirements without exception. In that respect, there was no place for personal friendships or relationships. That was how the two brothers who had come to this world by sharing the same womb and who had played together as kids became two unknown people when it came to observing discipline in the army.”

Father’s advice

But does this mean that a soldier is pure objective without emotions or sentimental values. No, according to the life story presented to us by Wijedasa. Calling love is the medicine for exhaustion, he was yearning to see his lover while under training at Diyathalawa. On the passing-out day, he was highly thrilled to see his father adorning him with a star on the uniform. The warning given to him by his father after performing his duty was also an expression of fatherly love: “Don’t smear excreta on this star by robbing money from the army.”

Whenever someone died in the war zone, he was deeply aggrieved. He had loved his war tanks so deeply that when one was destroyed by an enemy landmine, he was subject to heavy pain of mind for days as if a family member had died. Wijedasa has put to words his deep sorrow, pain of mind and grief over these losses as follows: “In the war, soldiers, tanks, and planes that we lost had given us protection and support until they lost life. Hence, when these inanimate things had to sacrifice themselves, it was natural for us to feel that we had lost one of our war-mates” (Translation mine).

In another instance, he has clarified this feeling more elaboratively: “A war tank may be a heap of iron and steel for you. But we treated a tank as a mate made of blood and flesh who recognises our heart beats properly” (Translation mine). The amazing attribute of this soldier was that he was a good lover, husband, and father. These are not objective treatments, but emotionally guided sentiments. Hence, the saying that within every tough soldier, there is a gentleman living unseen has been proven by Wijedasa.

Using Sinhala proverbs expertly

When I read Wijedasa’s autobiography, I felt like reading Dharmasena Thera’s Saddharma Ratnavaliya. That was because he had used Sinhala proverbs so expertly that his message is driven to our hearts very cogently. Some of the examples are the following: “Don’t ask whether cotton wool remain intact in a house where iron has been burnt”, “From a bed of flowers, it is the most beautiful flower that is plucked”, “It was like a man facing threats of three deaths savouring a honey comb”, “The arm was lost not by cutting jackfruits but for fighting for the country”, “The night is longer for the man who cannot sleep”, “It is only the disrobed who know the tricks of the robed” (Translation mine)

A soldier turned academic

Wijedasa is a soldier who has lost a part of his body due to the war. Yet the war could not suppress his mental power. With one arm and a set of dentures fixed to his jaws in his re-shaped face, he began his work back at the army. He has shown that once a soldier is always a soldier. Still in his military uniforms, he has begun to serve the nation as an academic. He is a trainer, lecturer, and an instructor at the newly formed National Defence College. He enjoys his new work as he had enjoyed his past tough soldier’s life. But as I mentioned earlier, there is a lover, father, and husband living within him.

This is how Wijedasa has explained that side of his life: “I got my second birth after my wife ‘Ruchie’ joined my life. She never let me bear the burden of family life. She was a strong force behind my engaged life. My loving two children too supported my busy military life sacrificing most of the things they would have got. Whenever I got the opportunity, I turned myself into the role of the loving husband. It was my fortune that I got the opportunity to play both these roles successfully” (Translation mine).

A book for posterity

As General Kamal Gunaratna said it at the book launch ceremony, Wijedasa had done a great service to posterity by sharing his war experiences with them. It is easy and pleasant reading. The reader does not get bored after he starts reading it. The language and presentation style will compel him to finish it at a stretch. That was how I read the book. I am sure that others also who are set to read his autobiography will do the same.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 12

    While the accounts of anecdotes and insights of the wounded soldier are to be appreciated, what amazes me is how this former deputy governor of the central bank and a man with a doctorate (a real one, I assume) can give credit to, or report positively, about a vile sycophantic acolyte of the utterly destructive gotta and company, Kamal Gunaratne. To any rational Sri Lankan who has no political affiliation, Kamal Gunarathne must necessarily come through as exactly how I have described him above. Yet, the author obviously thinks otherwise. Is he now leaning towards dirty politics?

    • 15

      LP, there is no place for rights and wrongs. . Whereas religion and race makes Doctor to idolize KG (who him self is a vile sycophant ) . Though he warned of impending bankruptcy, I’m sure doctor like those Vyathgama intellectuals voted for Gotha / Mahinda.

      • 10

        WAW , any thoughts on rumors that, a consumer advocacy group is threatening to follow the recent court verdict and file case against Rajapaksa Mafia, claiming monetary compensation. Like this soldier, will victims too have the freedom to remember their
        dead ones or the opportunity to share / express , theirnear death experiences throughout the war???

    • 12

      Seems not a whimper about the war crimes and state terrorism committed by the SL security forces. I’d never believe that this field soldier, Brigadier Ranjan Wijedasa, wasn’t at least a witness to any of that.

    • 8

      Is he leaning towards dirty politics?
      I am sure the author is leaning towards dirty politics but the author has failed to analyse that the political leaders and religious leaders have done enough to create the enviornment to stop the war happening considering the fact thousands of people were killed in the war, thousands of people lost their body parts, thousands of people lost their bread winners etc. Still he talks on improving economy by rulers without analysing the causes and factors that brought the economic crisis.

      • 11

        Is he leaning towards dirty / racist/ religious politics??? Are you surprised??? I’m not. Even among people I know , including family members, close friends, colleagues.many turned out to be the same. After initial disappointment, now I do not expect any Lankan to be free of such politics. Former EC who appeared to be a straight talking turns out to be of same kind.

        • 10

          People in denial and willing to turn a blind eye…… Laksiri, WAW , Dr. Janapriya ……. the list is endless.

          • 6

            COPF, reveal 30,000 personnel deserted security forces since 2021. More than 70 legally discharged personnel have applied to enlist in Ukrainian military. Recently few were reported dead in a Russian attack. Will they also join Hamas / Israel military ???? Many of the deserters are involved in recent crime, peddling drugs, hired killing / murders, kidnap for ransom …….

  • 7

    1971’s standardization picked the prodigies needed to be educated and brought to the stage to wreck Langkang and run it on its rim. In addition to Dr. WAW, there are two more Sinhala Intellectuals manufactured in the path of Mahanama, who the one above Buddha in the talks of enlightenment by sleeping with wild lions, created are worth to mention before passing. One sat in the Air-conditioned room and employed the uni professors to write the Law Exam and received the highest grade in Law College, even above Felix R. Dias Bandaranayake. Another one sent a $300M Super Sat to space and now wears 900 sovereigns to his pet’s dick and line it on the catwalk. Calling these Modayas is an insult to that language. Here we see one other intellectual had managed to get into CB. One time he was writing fairy tales for a granddaughter, Ashini, in the need of fulfilling the Chinese writer’s maxim to become a man by, “Fathering a child, planting a tree and writing a book”. So, he made Ashini’s fairy tales into a book. Now he wants to be a macho man, it seems, before his life ends. So, he produced this Small Contribution to the massive war literature about to inundate the fateful Langkang academic space. Great!

  • 2

    Here is part of Ramayana, which tries to inspire, even those who feel & condemn them as small by their own standards, to offer great contributions for the exquisitely holy courses. “Rama was standing on the other side of the sea shore and wondering how to take such a massive army across from that side to this side. Noticing the worry of Ram, Sukrivan came forward and bowed to him and told. ‘Lord! That is my problem, you should not assume my job to you. Leave it to me and feel at ease.’ Then he ordered the Vanara Army to hull, break, dig the mountains nearby and bring all needed material to fill the sea and pave the path for His Lord to cross the sea. By this breathtaking bridge making activity of the Vanara army, the entire earth experienced never-ceasing earthquakes and thunder. A squirrel which was sleeping in its tree hole was shaken by these activities and came to the sea shore and investigated what all those hullabaloos were. Somebody told the ignorant squirrel ‘Our Lord wants to cross the sea and redeem his wife, Shashat Lakhsmi Devi, from the monster, imprisoned her’.

  • 3

    Disappointed by ignorance, the squirrel swore to himself ‘what a sinner this bad soul, missed the opportunity to serve to My Lord’ and jumped into the sea. Wet thoroughly his hairy body. Came to the shore and rolled in the dirt and went back to the sea and washed it off. The squirrel kept repeating until Ram noticed it. Ram called on his assistants to check if the squirrel was okay because its behavior looked funny. They explained to him that it was how the squirrel was doing its contribution for its lord to cross the sea. Ram made them bring the squirrel to him and caressed it on its back with his three fingers and told ‘that is enough; you rest now; you have contributed much more of them than the whole Vanara army had done’. The squirrel felt proud of him.

  • 6

    When the country was getting freedom, the American dollar was estimated at Rs 2.50. Now the managed dollar, after all imports are tightly controlled and foreign loan payments stopped, dollar selling at Rs 350. This is how the father of the nation, the Catholic Buddhist Don Stepen fought hard and obtained Soulbury Constitution’s Langkang’s standard of life is growing along the growing world. The Central Bank assistant governor could not feel satisfied with his share of contribution to the Economic Crime and brought the country bankrupt through corruption and war. The war fought, as per the assistant governor, $400B Chinese LC credits, until China blacklisted People’s Bank for not remitting LC debts for the poop exports. Now the Assistant Governor is out there to create flood of war literature and participate on the War Crime/Genocide directly. Education under standardization is one thing, assimilating obtained knowledge from it and feeling the true energy out of it is another thing. Otherwise, why would a failed Central Bank assistant governor would struggle to write literature on a genocide war victory and try to get status for him with Hitler King, Kamala Gunaratnam, Savage Indra and the 42, other listed war criminals? Did the high school student Ashini anywhere, anytime have written an opinion on the old man’s war mongering indulgence in his last days, like this?

  • 10

    If every Tamil Soldier/civilian starts writing his experience during the war and publish the same, he/she will be taken to custody and done with without mercy.

    • 10

      No doubt about it, KV.

      Nonetheless, each must put down on paper his/her experiences from then to ongoing present, and hopefully one day we will have the liberty to compile all of it to enable a comprehensive picture of SL history.

      Some have submitted to foreign agencies their accounts for specific purposes. A few abroad have published their accounts. But vast of our individual eye-witness accounts remain unrecorded.

    • 0

      By whom?
      I think there are vastly different parties that would take offence.

  • 11

    I remember that Kamal Gunaratne was the director of a private school where he showed his army tactics. Some parents said that if Kamal had conducted like this here how would he have conducted himself on the battlefield?

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