Pushpa Weerasekera, courtesy of Daily Mirror, 15 August 2018 , where the title reads“Celebrated war hero now sells fish”
The untold suffering and dedication of the war heroes, who were engaged in a thirty-year-armed-conflict, are indescribable. They were once treated as the saviours of this nation. However, this is the tragic story of a war hero, who waged war on behalf of territorial integrity and peace.
‘Theppili’ get cut systematically with the knife that moves with the instant batting of an eye-lid. First its the fins, later gills, scales, intestines and veins are removed before the tail is cut. These tasks take less than one minute for Sagara, who squats on the ground to cut and clean the fish. He says that it is simple for him to cut even ten thousand kgs. of Theppili per day, in this manner.
There are about ten or fifteen customers forming a queue, opposite K.B.Ratnayake Vidyalaya, awaiting their turn to buy fish from Sagara. All pieces of fish cut by him are put into a plastic basin. Priyanka is the one who puts the required amount of fish to a shopping bag. She is Sagara’s partner in life. She peeps into the nearby Tri-Shaw to check on her three-year-old child, who is asleep. There is a specialty about Sagara for us to pen this story.
We received the information that a war hero was selling fish. We came to know that Sagara, who was known as ‘Galewela long Sagara’ while serving in the Commando Unit of the Army, was selling fish to make a living. We knew that ‘Malu Sagara’, who is selling fish at the Matale junction, now is the same person who was once known as ‘ Galewela long Sagara’. We then went in search of his house in Kurundankulama. During an interview, Sagara put the wealth of experience in his possession to good use in recalling a heroic past.
Amurtha Hastha Navaratna Abeykone Mudiyanselage Sagara Nuwan Bandara is a native of Watagala in Galewela. He became popular among his colleagues in the army as ‘Initial Bandara’ because he had several initials before his name. He was also known as ‘Long Bandara’ alias’ Galewela Sagara’ due his extraordinary height and ability. He was known by several pseudonyms in the Army and at present he is known by many names like ‘Malu Sagara’ and ‘Malu Koma’ while at the Matale junction he is known as ‘Koma’.
Once a rebel youth
Sagara was educated at Budugehinna Maha Vidyalaya in Galewela up to grade ten. He was known to be an unruly person. He may have decided to join the Commando Force for that reason itself. He joined the 22nd Regular Force of the Sri Lanka Army (Gemunu Watch) on December 25, 2004. He received his basic training from Boossa Regiment school.
Later, he was trained as a commando at the Kudaoya Commando Training School and passed out in 2006. Although as many as 800 soldiers received training, only 138 passed out.This is because such a serious training is required to become a commando in the Army.
Sagara was known to be a very clever solider and was nicknamed by his colleagues as ‘Initial Bandara’, due to his lengthy name.
In the war front
The first experience of Long Bandara was the ‘Thoppigala’ operation. He recalled suffering a slight wound during that operation. Sagara belonged to a group of eight who was led by Sergent Pathirana. They waited in ambush in a village where ordinary Tamil people lived. Their group was forced to scatter all over the place and they also experienced a break in communication during one occasion. Seven soldiers returned, except Sergeant Pathirana. The beating of a drum was heard all over the village, but the soldiers, who were unaware of it, began to sleep.
Meanwhile, the soldier, who was on sentry duty, heard the noise of wires being cut. When the whole camp awoke, after receiving his information, they realised that the enemies had surrounded the camp. The first attack that Sagara faced was indescribable. The soldiers, who were asleep, awoke and began attacking the enemies. Sagara suffered a slight injury.
According to Sagara their first experience in taking on the enemy was a success.
A road in name of the Sergeant
“It transpired later that the LTTE had captured Sergeant Pathirana and obtained all the information regarding the Commando Soldiers by torturing him. Sergeant Pathirana had been dragged by his hands and legs using tractors. The beating of the drum was a warning to ordinary Tamil people to leave the villages in the event of a forthcoming attack.
Sagara was shocked by this tragedy and he lived in agony. However, he had written his colleague’s name in red using lacquer on a wooden plank. He hung the plank prominently on the wooden wall of a nearby bookshop. The wooden wall gave the directions to Thoppigala.
After Operation Liberation of Thoppigala, Sagara was engaged in operations in the Mannar area. Sagara recalled how the operation in Mannar was successful under the leadership of Sergeant Kumarasinghe. Sergeant Kumarasinghe was known as ‘Hichcha’.
As mentioned earlier a team is formed with a group of eight men. A troop is formed with three such groups. Irrespective of seniority, these groups were engaged in war to achieve big targets. There was healthy competition between these Commando groups. About 100 commandos were engaged in operations; the operation known as ‘Rice bowl’.
Celebrating with tattoos
“The commanding officer had asked what they wanted because the eight-man group, including Sagara, had attacked big targets by travelling about 30 – 40 km in the thick jungles. Sagara requested permission to celebrate the occasion with tattoos. The permission for tattoos was given. During the war such permission for tattoos was not given to army soldiers. Army Commander Sarath Fonseka came and boosted our morale. The high officers also encouraged us. We got maximum benefits and a deserving rest after the operation,” he said.
Disguised as Tiger rebels
“When the enemies infiltrated our forward defense line, we were deployed to repair the fences and clear them. Then we had to go forward about 20 to 25 metres.
“We were being checked at the enemy points. When we go for operations we carry food and water which was sufficient for 2–3 days. We go for an operation dressed in a uniform similar to those worn by the LTTE and fitting sandal soles to the boots. Then the eight of us spread out. We have protected others and achieved our targets. A journalist once asked, “While you are in an operation, don’t the soldiers attack? My reply was, why not? When we go off the lines, we inform our units about the directions and the places where we wish to go. We remove these rebel uniforms when we return to the camps. There were occasions when we were sandwiched between the LTTE and the soldiers” he said.
An eight-hour recce in a toilet pit
“When I set foot in Wellimulliwaikkal first, I did not know the area. I was the one who went first from our group. We reached this area towards nightfall. The houses were like shanties. Although we tried to proceed without being noticed by the people, I fell into a pit. It was a toilet pit dug by the people temporarily. I remained in the pit with the weapons for eight hours until dawn. My duty was to obtain the information by going forward.
“It was after our recce that the civilians in their hundreds and thousands surrendered to the army. All our high-ups knew about that operation. I managed to came back after the operation which made me filthy”, recalled Sagara.
He remembers with pride not sustaining any injury after that incident. He said that a firm foundation was laid for him to lead his life meaningfully due to these experiences. He said with a touch of pride that it wasn’t a difficult task to cut fish to earn a living.
Publicity through photos
“It is using these types of stories that artistes and film directors portray the heroics of security forces. The result of these efforts is either a great film or a tele-drama. Despite the little attention given to the war by film makers newspaper journalists did not forget our heroic soldiers. With the televisions giving air time and newspapers decorating their pages with the news about the heroics of soldiers, it did not take so long for Sagara to become a prominent personality. Banners and cut-outs began to mushroom all over the country containing his photographs.
Sagara’s friends saw his photos being displayed all over the country. The photographs that prominently show that war was won features Sagara.
When Sagara’s photograph became famous and highlighted in the media, local and foreign journalists began to focus their attention on this handsome youth. At a time, when the leaders in the war front were given prominence, stories were written about this unique character too. His photograph was published in the front page of the magazines as well. His photo was used in the ticket books of 60th Centenary Celebration of the Army and also in the posters of the Commando Force.
Leaving the Army
When the popularity of Sagara began to rise after the war victory, he had to face certain issues that compelled him to leave the Army. The photographs, that were published in a foreign magazine, were taken with the advice of the high officers of the Army. However, when those photos began to become continuously popular, he was ignored by the Army. He was transferred to the Head Quarters. He was sent for shows. He did not take leave for six months. A high officer of the army was a friend of his. Some media men invited him for meals. They started associating with his family members and their problems aggravated. They decided to send him home as a result. In the meantime, the problems within the Army began to escalate and he was compelled to desert his place of employment.
It is an accepted fact that the soldiers engaged in action have to face unimaginable experiences. Such soldiers may not be suitable for office work as well. Sometimes, Sagara may have been in such a position. He had evaded the Army, but his unruly behaviour was not on the wane. He was involved in an incident with the Galewela Police. It was a civil incident. As a result, he was arrested by the Army and was forced to spent six months in the ‘cell’. He had spent some time in ‘ Gal palliya’ and some media men had attempted to get him released from this place. However, he was released due to the efforts of high-ranked officers. But he lost his rank as a result of being punished. Arrangements had been made to rehabilitate him, but he was fed up with Army, a place which he had not served even for eight years.
After leaving the Army he went in search of jobs, armed with his photographs. Being a married man, he did not feel the burden because his wife, Priyanka, worked in the Army Hospital in Anuradhapura. He had met her when he was admitted to the hospital with severe injuries. Priyanka could not identify him as a soldier because he had his hair dyed and wore tattoos. At that time he was in civvies. He had explained to the journalist how she became his wife despite her protests. With the passage of time, he started selling fish with the little money he had in order to survive. Today he is a wholesale fish trader. He is engaged in the sale of fish from the river. He sells them wholesale to shops, markets and hawkers. He cuts the fish using a box of ice, pair of scales and a knife by the side of the road. Priyanka, who stopped working four years ago, assists him.
He engages in his trade mostly on Sundays and is seen near K.B.Ratnayake Vidyalaya. He spoke in agony because he had to face difficulties due to some Government officers.
He said, “I remember the service we rendered on behalf of the war. We went on for months giving our commitment. We were good as long as the war raged. After the war, we are ignored as coconut refuse,” he complains.
It’s no surprise that these types of thoughts occupy his mind. A gigantic banner, covered with dust, is displayed at his home. I requested him to keep it clean. His quick reply was filled with uncontrollable emotions.
“For what purpose should I keep it clean? How many places did I go in search of jobs? I was not offered a job even considering my service. Now we live with the grace of the Gods, by selling fish. We get some money when fish is available. On the other days we live by selling the furniture in our house,” says Sagara. His thoughts are diverse. This man, who speaks with pride when recalling the times with his Army colleagues, also speaks with great frustration. He spoke about the injustice caused to him and his friends after the war. But, the truth about all this is not known. But one thing is certain. Nine years have passed after the rebels were crushed in the war. It seems that the practice of appreciating the services of war heroes has gone with the wind. It is a mistake committed by us with regard to heroes like Sagara. It pricks our conscience when we think about the peace that we enjoy today.
Courtesy : Sunday Lankadeepa