A Humanitarian Military Act in an Era of Horrendous Powerplays

Capt Elmo Jayawardena, in The Island, 24 March 2021,where the title is “The Pilot”

The UNHRC is in full swing. The ‘merchants of Geneva’ are getting ready to shoot their arrows of justice against the offenders of this planet. Of course, it is done democratically, by honourable people in Saville Row suits who sit around polished mahogany tables and determine by a count of votes who is guilty and who is not. That is the showpiece; but the truth could be so very different. Powerful people call the tune, and the theme is “You lend me your mule and I will remember you when it is your turn to take the stand. Then I’ll lend you my donkey.”

 SL Air Force’s “Marchetti”

We must try and remember the beginning of all this when the powers that were initiated the Treaty of Berlin in 1885 to carve out the African continent. The newer version of protecting human rights was born after the end of the Second World War in 1945 in San Francisco, and subsequently UNHCR dug its roots in Geneva in 1950. From 1885 to the present day, the essentials will rule and call the tune and the non-essentials will continue to contribute to the coffers. Grinning and cheering they will raise their hands and vote as they are instructed to do.

Human Rights matters are taken up and sent to a Jury where among the sworn prophets of justice there are those who are guiltier than those they judge.

The train was slightly late, that was the norm in those troubled times. The afternoon was warm and the ‘Pilot’ and his friend, both dressed in civilian clothes stood in a shaded corner waiting for the Yaal Devi to arrive. The two were on home leave travelling to Colombo. This was Anuradhapura in the early nineties, the country totally wrapped in a civil war that had divided the people in racial demarcations. Yes, there was a war on, call it by any other name if you wish, but the essence was the Sinhalese and the Tamils were killing each other, at times not even knowing what the fighting was all about.

The train pulled into the station and the usual jostle and bustle and the screeching cacophony broke the stillness and the silence as passengers grabbed at doors and leapt into the compartments. The ‘Pilot’ and his companion too joined the rush and boarded the train. They had made their reservation in an enclosed cabin with two long seats facing each other, the more comfortable type. There was a family already seated there, a father and a mother and a young daughter and a little boy, presumably the son. Another lady too was with them, perhaps a relative or a friend. They looked very tired, may have been travelling from Vavuniya where the Colombo train originated. The Pilot and his companion sat down and gave courtesy smiles to the people in front which were not reciprocated. The times were such when tensions ran high across all racial boundaries. People mistrusted everyone, especially if they were not of the same race.

That’s when the military men came into the cabin where The Pilot was seated, carrying out a security check of the passengers in the train. They wanted the bags of the family opened and were going through the contents. The girl was embarrassed and the mother too when some ladies’ underwear were pulled out and the father watched helpless as the soldiers continued their search, simply doing their job. The Pilot felt uncomfortable and politely told the soldiers to go easy as these people looked rather tired and frightened. Though in civvies, the soldiers may have recognised The Pilot to be a military man and they heeded his request. The bags were closed, and the soldiers left. The father of the family nodded to The Pilot in gratitude whilst placing the bags on the top rack. The whistle blew and the train hooted and started moving towards Colombo.


The Italian made SIAI Marchetti ground attack aeroplanes were stationed in the Anuradhapura Airforce Base. The single engine military plane was capable of carrying 8 rockets or 4 machine guns or 2 bombs up to a weight of 125 kg each which were cradled under the wings for deployment. The Pilot was a veteran who had seen a lot of the war. The going had been rough for those who fought on both sides. Heroes and Heroines alike had died, some for the country and some for the cause, either way they were all dead and gone. The survivors did not know when and where this madness would end, but they fought on till they too were buried in a shallow unmarked grave or given a military burial with a folded national flag and a gun salute.

The mission that afternoon for The Pilot was to take-off and fly to Pooneryn located on the west side of the Jaffna Lagoon. From there to locate the ferry that operated between Karativu jetty and Sangupiddy jetty and destroy it by bombing. The ferry linked the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland and was a prime water route of 4 km for people to travel between the peninsula and the mainland. It was believed that the LTTE too was using the Sangupiddy Ferry to transport their fighting men along with civilians as human shields. That morning the military had received information that there was a possibility of a large contingent of LTTE troops were being brought in the ferry from Karativu to Sangupiddy.

The Pilot was on the lead plane followed by his wingman. They took off on runway 05 in Anuradhapura and headed north westerly to the coast and turned right to track directly to Pooneryn. It was a clear sky they flew without a single cloud; the visibility was excellent. The Pilot and his wingman reached the target area and saw the Ferry loaded with people and ready to leave Karativu for Sangupiddy. The Pilot was at 3000 feet and he commenced the attack to drop the two bombs hanging under his wings to destroy the ferry. The two SIAI Marchettis screamed down in a dive at 220 knots to reach 1500 feet right where the ferry was. They were about to release the bombs.

“I saw people jumping to the sea and women and children on the ferry deck standing like statues, frozen with fear. They were clinging to each other watching the two aeroplanes diving towards them,” that’s what The Pilot told me. He made an instant decision and aborted the mission and pulled out of the dive and his wingman followed suit.

“There was no way I could bomb those civilians,” he said to me in a soft whisper. “We were at war, but not against innocent women and children,” The Pilot concluded.

The two SIAI Marchettis made a climbing turn and headed south towards Anuradhapura and landed with their bombs still cradled under their wings.


The Colombo train gathered speed and one could notice the passengers easing to a relatively relaxed mood as the distance increased away from the war-torn north. The Pilot noticed more details about the people sitting in front of him. It was obvious they were a family, father, mother, daughter and son and the additional lady could have been a relative. It took a while for the father to greet the Pilot with a smile and then he spoke softly.

“Thank you Sir, for speaking on our behalf to that officer. We are tired, tired of everything that has happened in this country. We just want to go somewhere and find a new home and live in peace.”

As the minutes ticked, the train rolled and the companions in the cabin made feeble attempts to foster a Q and A but mostly with monosyllabic answers. The Pilot kept his side silent sans details.

“I am a doctor, and my daughter here has qualified herself for medical college.”

“We are migrating to Canada.”

Maybe an hour passed, some cream crackers were shared.

The Pilot said a few things and the Doctor reciprocated.

“It was very difficult for us to leave, it’s our home, but such is life.”

They had left Jaffna about five days ago and found their way to Vavuniya to catch the Colombo train.

“We almost died.”

“How, what happened?’ asked the Pilot.

“We were very lucky Sir,” the Doctor said softly.

“We were on the Ferry about to cross the lagoon to Sangupiddy. Two planes came screaming down to bomb us. I even saw the bombs hanging under the wings. I took my son and jumped to the shallow water. I saw my wife and daughter just standing and looking at the planes, paralyzed.”

“People were shouting, I also shouted “Jump, Jump.”

“They didn’t, they just stood there.”

“Sir, you will not believe, the bombs didn’t fall, I think they jammed, both aeroplanes. Some mechanism must have failed.”

The Pilot listened to that story in stunned silence.

Whenever I recall that incident, something happens to me and I see that family sitting in the train and relating what happened to them. I feel so incredibly relieved I aborted the bombing and went away. To this day I still value that as the best gallantry medal I received in my entire military career.”


I am sure the Doctor must be practising medicine in Toronto or Vancouver or wherever in Canada he found the home and the peace he was yearning for. The young medical student would have graduated and must be now walking the wards with a stethoscope straddling her neck.

Good luck to you both. I like to think that through some freak chance you will read this article and realise why the bombs did not fall. It certainly had nothing to do with a mechanical malfunction, but because the plane was flown by a decent human being.

As for The Pilot and his Wingman, I salute you both and I am privileged to have written this story. Wherever you are flying aeroplanes may your skies be blue and safe.

I am sure there must be some scale in the UNHCR to measure spontaneous and timely acts of kindness such as what The Pilot and his Wingman displayed when they flew away from a mission to save civilians.

As for lending mules and reciprocating with donkeys, isn’t that still very much in vogue in the higher echelons of power?



 Ben Bavinck with Tiger Boys at Pooneryn 


The title I have imposed is a cumbersome political ‘work’. As usual, Elmo’s title is brief, catchy and appropriate … and as attractive as his prose.

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One response to “A Humanitarian Military Act in an Era of Horrendous Powerplays

  1. Shan

    Just Take a few nations that have Voted in Favour of the so called Human rights Mexico, where there is killing by Government security forces (extra judicial killings) and Drug cartel on a daily basis. Armenia who recently had a full scale war with Azerbaijan, where Armenian soldiers have supposedly committed crimes (But refuse to investigate). Brazil who’s right wing president have created a hostile environment for minorities and people of colour, given security forces power for extra judicial killings in the favelas. Also the usual rogues of the NATO Alliance who have gone around the world committed crimes in the name of war on terror. Donald Trump exposed his nations, the NATO alliance and UNHCR a political motivated cesspool as he said it. Shortcomings. Sri Lanka is by no means a champion of democratic human rights, but so are the said nations who voted for the resolutions.

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