Tales of War and Heroic Action around Kokavil Tower

Shanika Sriyananda in Sunday Observer, 12 June 2020, where the title runs “Saved through blood, sweat and tears”

Her voice quivers when she reads out the certificate given by the Government in honour of her son’s bravery; she could not find words to express her feelings. Even after nearly 21 years, she still cries recalling how her ‘Saliya putha’ embraced her before leaving home for duty, proudly carrying his uniform.

The mother, who refused to believe that her son was no more for over two decades, is still reluctant to believe that her son is no more. “Sometimes, I feel my son will come home one day. He was so innocent and always wanted to be a soldier”, Indrani Aladeniya says. She owns Sri Lanka’s most prestigious award ‘Parama Veera Vibushana’ awarded for the bravery of her son, who was the first military officer to receive this award.

Her son, whose name is carved in the hearts and minds of all Sri Lankans as one of the bravest soldiers in this century, only left her the certificate, the award, a few pictures and his favourite uniform. They bring cherished memories of her son, who was just 27-years-old at the time of his demise.

When Saliya’s father was alive, they joined the Association for the Families of Sons Missing in Action as they could not believe their son was dead. “But after his death, it was very difficult for me to travel to Colombo for meetings. Until 2009 we didn’t believe that he was dead.

We thought he went missing and waited hopefully until he came home. We thought he would remain as a prisoner-of-war as his body remained missing. We didn’t offer dana to Bhikkhus and only had bodhi poojas to invoke blessings on him”, Indrani says.

On July 11, 1990, her son – Captain Upul Saliya Aladeniya – was recorded in Sri Lanka’s military history as one of the bravest soldiers as he sacrificed his life in a desperate attempt to save the 100-metre Kokavil Tower, which was erected in 1982, from LTTE terrorists.

ndrani is indeed one of the proudest mothers in Sri Lanka as her son fought the ruthless LTTE terrorists until he kissed the earth. “He wanted me to stitch an army uniform for him when he was small.

His father, who was a Captain of the Volunteer Force, could have easily enrolled him as an assistant superintendent in the estate sector, but my son urged us saying he wanted to become a soldier to fight the terrorists”, she says, recalling how he walked proudly wearing his father’s baggy Army uniforms in his childhood.

Saliya, the third in the Aladeniya family, studied at Trinity College, Kandy. He joined the Army in 1989 and trained at the Diyatalawa Army Training School. He served in his regiment in Nuwara Eliya, but was called to report for duty at the Kokavil camp in May 1990.

The 3rd Battalion of the Sinha Regiment was called to take over Mankulam. One of its companies with three officers were sent to Mankulam and two officers, including second Lieutenant Saliya and 60 soldiers were deployed to guard the Rupavahini relay station at Kokavil.

The LTTE attacked the Mankulam camp on June 5, but the soldiers were able to counter the attack and kill over 40 LTTE cadre. But they kept on attacking both places as they were strategically important locations.

The officer-in-charge of the Kokavil camp went on leave as a ceasefire was on from June 16, but the LTTE, which always dishonoured ceasefire agreements, had gradually surrounded Mankulam and Kokavil. The task of facing the LTTE to save the Kokavil camp had fallen on the hands of junior officer Saliya. Terrorists were carring out heavy attacks on the two camps and logistic support and sending additional troops were not possible as the terrorists had blocked all supply routes.

It was a battle that ran for nearly a month. The young officer was helpless as his soldiers were getting killed and were badly injured. Some were dying without simple medical treatment as medicine stocks had run almost empty. When the last stock of food ran dry, some soldiers started collapsing and with empty water barrels, surviving was hard.

All requests by Saliya for more food, water, ammunition and more soldiers were ignored as the LTTE’s heavy attacks made the Air Force turn their helicopters away. All food and water were dropped amidst heavy attacks but were wasted as they had landed in the wrong place.

While his men were dying in pain, hunger and thirst, the young officer, who was an innocent soul, according to some of his batchmates, would have cried. His calls to Vanni Headquarters for support were futile as all supply routes were blocked by the terrorists, who were advancing to capture the tower

Additional troops

On July 10, the LTTE launched the final attack to capture the camp. In the absence of additional troops, Saliya had to fight the LTTE with very little ammunition, and with 48 soldiers who were already feeble due to starvation and lack of water. He was also saddled with the task of saving nine injured soldiers. Three bodies remained at the camp.

He was given orders to abandon the camp on July 10, but refused to do so as he could not leave his injured soldiers. “I will somehow fight with them until you send troops, and not allow terrorists to take the camp”, he told the senior officer at the Headquarters.

On the night of July 11, they were armed with even less ammunition and a few mortars could not resist the heavy attack anymore. He requested the able soldiers to leave. Vanni HQ got his last call. “Sir, terrorists are in the camp, please bomb it”. The men refused to run away and had chosen to fight with the enemy till their last breath. They undoubtedly proved they were true soldiers of Mother Lanka. A few minutes later they were engulfed in a huge ball of fire.

While the history of the Kokavil Tower was written in red, soldiers who engaged in the final battle recaptured it after 18 years; it was no easy task.

Among eight offensive divisions that surrounded the Vanni, the 57 Division led by Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias was the first offensive division which commenced its attacks in 2007 to liberate Vanni.

The LTTE’s survival, which was limited to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, had become a nightmare as over 50,000 soldiers had encircled a few thousand terrorists. The LTTE had started losing its fighting force, fire power and land domination daily.

While the 58 Division, which was advancing from the north of Kilinochchi, the Brigades of 57 – the 571 Brigade commanded by Col. G.V. Ravipriya advanced from the south west of Kilinochchi, the 572 Brigade led by Col. Senerat Bandara advanced from west Kilinochchi and the 574 Brigade commanded by Lt. Col. Senaka Wijesuriya from the south of Kilinochchi.

The LTTE, which had lost all tactics and strategies to prevent the military advance, kept much hope in their mine-laden tall earth bunds to prevent the soldiers entering their domain.

Lt.Col. Wijesuriya, who was the former 11 CLI Commanding Officer who commanded the troops to capture the earth bunds of Nachchikuda, was given a fresh task – capturing the Kokavil communication tower, a major LTTE stronghold along the A-9 highway. It was the first task of the newly formed 574 Brigade.

The 57 Division was engaged in heavy fighting in the north of Kokavil while Task Force 3 was fighting in the south of Kokavil, a key town on the A-9 road in the south of Kilinochchi. The orders were passed to the 10 CLI Commanding officer Lt. Col. Jagath Kodituwakku to capture Kokavil Tower. The four eight-man teams deployed for the task advanced southward of Kilinochchi.

The tower was in close proximity to the A-9 road. The team – 24 soldiers- advanced through the Thunukkai – Kokavil road and had merely four km to capture the tower. The LTTE desperately tried to protect the tower as it is a strategically important location for terrorists to attack the advancing troops.

“The terrorists were not ready to leave the location and they tried their best to stop us from the initial stages. When they knew it is difficult them to stop us they launched a gas attack”, Lt. Col. Wijesuriya said.

The accurate and timely intelligence network of the Army helped the soldiers to be prepared for the gas attack. It was the first time the LTTE had tried a gas attack on soldiers. Except for Capt. Bogoda and a few of his soldiers affected by shortness of breath, others faced the gas smog as they were armed with additional water cans and cloth soaked with water to be used in such an attack. The attack did not hinder the troops advancing to their target – the Kokavil tower.

According to Maj. Shantha Bandara, who was the Operations, Administration and Training Officer of the 10 CLI, the LTTE attacked the troops repeatedly to secure the tower. The troops fought with the terrorists for two days and recovered some bodies and weapons while advancing towards the tower.

On November 12, 2008, 10 CLI troops captured the Murukandi railway station, which was blasted by the LTTE in the mid ‘80s. Terrorists had blasted the Yal Devi train which left from Jaffna. Seven Tamils and 40 soldiers, who were returning to Colombo for their vacation, were killed when the blast damaged nine coaches out of 13 of the Yal Devi train. It was under the LTTE until the 10 CLI soldiers captured it.

“Only the cement platform of the station was there. The terrorists led a massive attack on troops as it was one Kilometre to the tower. The LTTE had built bunkers all around the location and attacked us repeatedly”, he said.

The environment was not favourable to continue the assault. The heavy rains brought immense difficulties to the soldiers, but they continued to advance to their target, which was then in close proximity.

The terrorists, who held control of the tower, used the location, which is a high ground, to attack troops as they could clearly view the entire location. Strong bunker lines were built around the location by the LTTE, while the soldiers were proceeding from the left of the tower. An additional team, comprising 25 to 30 soldiers, were deployed from the North to support the attacking teams, to prevent the LTTE fleeing and attacking the eight-man teams advancing directly towards the tower.

Difficult task

Entering the location was a difficult task as the land was heavily mined and the LTTE who were on high ground attacked the soldiers using heavy weapons.

The four eight-man teams led by Second Lts. Udayanga and Ratnayake and Sgts Thilakasiri and Weerasuriya commenced their mission on November 15 at 5.45 am under the directions of the 574 Brigade Commander Lt. Col. Wijesuriya.

After five and half hours of heavy fighting, the soldiers of the 10 CLI, who advanced three kilometres from Murukandi via the A-9 road in the south of Kilinochchi captured the Kokavil tower before 11 a.m. on November 15. They recovered a large number of bodies and weapons from the location.

“We knew the LTTE would attack us as the location was important for them. With the limited time, we strengthened our defence by building bunkers around the location and also identified anti-personnel mine fields. At 4.30 p.m. the LTTE attacked us to re-capture the location and there was heavy fighting.

Two soldiers – Corporal K.V.S. Kahawevithana and Lance Corporal K.H.R. Silva _ sacrificed their lives in the attack. Over 11 soldiers got injured”, he said.

“The troops took full control of the A-9 road from Murukandi in the south of Kilinochchi to Mankulam junction. Earlier we could not capture the strategic A-9 highway as they were holding. Kokavil Tower and the junction. This was a strategic point for the LTTE and the fall of Kokavil was a major drawback for them”, he said.

The 48-kilometre stretch of the A-9 Road (Jaffna-Kandy Road) which runs through Kilinochchi came under the control of the Army. The Army took control of the A-9 road upto Kokavil after 10 years since it fell to the LTTE in 1998. During the ‘Jayasikuru’ operation, the troops captured a stretch of the A-9 road upto Omanthai, but soldiers could not advance further.

Capturing the A-9 road had facilitated the Army to transport all items by road and it helped during the rainy season to keep the momentum of the battle. The A-9 Road from Therumurikkandy to Kokavil came under the control of the 574 Brigade.

Parallel to the capture of Kokavil, the troops captured the A-9 to facilitate capturing the LTTE’s ‘dream’ capital of the Eelam state – Kilinochchi.

The victory of recapturing Kokavil after 18 years is also a tribute to Lt. Udayanga, who led his eight-man teams to capture the tower and sacrificed his life after entering the No Fire Zone through the LTTE’s huge earth bund at Ampalavanpokkanai in Puthumathalan in the final days of the last battle and Lt Ranatunge who lost his limb to an anti-personnel mine during the final operation.

Today, the much talked about Kokavil Tower stands tall among transmission towers in South Asia on a terrain soaked with blood shed by brave soldiers who struggled to save it from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Another chapter would be added to the story of this tower to tell the world how the expertise of Sri Lankan soldiers helped build the giant transmission tower. Today, hundreds of soldiers assisted the Sri Lanka Signal Corps and Lankan engineers to construct the 174-metre high tower at a cost of nearly Rs. 350 million funded by the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC). It was previously built by Japanese engineers.

The commissioning of the new multi-purpose tower enables people in the North to receive information transmissions directly from the South with the innovations provided through the latest digital technology and Digital Video Broadcasting T2 technology.

The day the leader, who committed himself to end the ruthless LTTE terrorism, paid floral tributes to the memorial, built in honour of Capt Aladeniya and other soldiers who sacrificed their lives to save the Kokavil tower in 1990, Indrani could not hide her tears and feelings any more. She cried when President Mahinda Rajapaksa thanked her for giving birth to a heroic son for the country.

The new tower …. and the old

Hatred and anger

“I never thought I would be able to step into the land where my son breathed his last. I read about this place and also how he fought to save the camp.I must thank the President for liberating the country from terrorists. He is the only leader who did this and we Sri Lankans should be eternally grateful to him”, she says.

This tower, which was used by the LTTE to propagate hatred and anger among two friendly ethnic groups to draw them apart, will soon transmit the stories of peace, love and courage to promote reconciliation among them; for Northerner’s to feel that their relatives are not only in the North, but in the South as well. The LTTE painted a devilish picture about the Sinhalese and Sinhala soldiers in the minds of Tamils for over three decades.

This tower will serve as a basis for mutual understanding and friendship since all of you would have uninterrupted access to your TV and radio channels in the future. I would not give in to LTTE demands that stem from certain Northern politicians, but would give what the people in the North want.

The commissioning of the Kokavil tower contributes immensely to strengthen the bond between the people of the North and the South,” President Rajapaksa’s voice reverberated in the far end of Kilinochchi.

The day the children of the North learn about Sri Lankan soldiers who sacrificed their lives and limbs to bring them a peaceful and secure future, is not far.

*************

A COMMENT from The Editor, Thuppahi: The author refers to a number of different events over a large span of time and clearly has limited knowledge of warfare. Nevertheless, some significant moments in the long history of the Eelam Wars are touched on.

While the recapture of Kokavil in 2008 may have been significant, the LTTE fighting strength and military capacity was still considerable and at times remarkably innovative. One instance was in early February 2009 when they blasted an irrigation bund to swamp the SL Army troops and mount a counter-offensive that saw them advance many kilometres. Readers need to visit Serge De Silva-Ranasinghe’s accounts of the war to comprehend these strands in the course of the war.

When Sriyananda speaks of the ” LTTE propagat[ing] hatred and anger among two friendly ethnic groups to draw them apart,” moreover, s/he really goes over the top. The ethnic competition in Sri Lankan political history has a long history and it was not only the LTTE who activated hatred. To gloss over the political events of the 1950s and 1960s and the impact of the 1958 pogrom in giving rise to Tamil militancy inclusive of the LTTE is misleading and simply naive. … And, THEN, there was the 1983 pogrom — yes in response to a Tiger ambush that killed soldiers, but a pogrom nevertheless, one involving (1) reprisals by the Army and Navy in the Jaffna area and Trinco; (2) sponsored state action in Colombo and maybe elsewhere and (3) widespread popular participation here and there.

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Filed under accountability, communal relations, historical interpretation, insurrections, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, military strategy, modernity & modernization, performance, politIcal discourse, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil Tiger fighters, transport and communications, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war reportage

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