Nineteen ’til I Die

2862324356_59ed9ed1d0_oLast night it rained. And I stood under my parents’ porch and smoked. The deluge of water on the tin sheeting drowned out everything — traffic, the neighbours, the sound of the TV. Just me and the rain and the dark, like it had been on that first night in December 1990. I stepped out from the porch, and the rain put out my cigarette in an instant. I spat away the shreds of tobacco and let the rain soak me. Remembering them, as I have done a hundred thousand times in the last eighteen years.

I can remember the ridged steel flooring of the Y-8’s cargo bay like it was yesterday, digging into my arse as I sit packed in with my platoon, flying to Palay.

I remember the smell of wet sandbags on that first night on the FDL at Elephant Pass. Looking out into the black ink beyond the perimeter. Here be Tigers.

And the ten-man patrols through knee-deep water, trying to be quiet. “Kata vahapang, huththo,

The hot, dusty days and wet, rainy nights. Mosquitoes. And being tired. So tired. Every day. All the time.

Sharing cigarettes and melted Edna chocolate on Christmas Day. Tang instant orange mixed with warm, brackish Jaffna Peninsula water.

And contact. Finally. What we’d lived for, longed for, suffered for. What we’d watched in movies and read about in books. Contact. Sex for virgins. With red tracers. And the elephant sitting on my back, squeezing the breath out of my lungs as I tried to hold my rifle steady. The hammer roar of 7.62-mm fire, gunflashes blurring the distant, running figures.

None of us were over twenty, most eighteen or nineteen. Ariyaratne, the section commander, and Dias, the machine-gunner; our parents, old men of twenty-four. Combat veterans of the Sinha Rifles. The hard core.

And the killing. I remember every single one. The blood, the eyes. The smell. I remember Rohantha getting hit by the .50. I remember the sixteen-year-old bayoneted girl with the long plaited hair come loose. I remember kneeling at a tube well and washing the crusted blood out from under my finger nails.

Down time. Sitting in abandoned tin buildings in the Saltern Siding. We’d strip down to OG shorts and slippers and our Death By Bullets T-shirts. We never talked about victory, about killing Prabha, or defeating the Tigers. Our personal goals were to survive, to do well, to not let each other or our regiment down. Sura talking about the XT-250 he wanted to buy. Husni and Sanjeeva talking about girls. Dias and I cleaning guns and talking about optics.

I thought I knew them all very well, but now I realize I didn’t really. And now, sadly, I can’t recall their faces in detail. And sometimes I have to think hard to remember all nine names.

Well, it looks like it’s over now. And I wish those guys were here to see it. I wish we could all go out for a drink and talk about EPS and catch up on our lives. But it’s too late for all that. It all took too long. I wish they were all in their thirties, like me. Maybe they’d have wives, and children, or not. I wish they could walk down the road and be offered kiri bath by the trishaw drivers. I wish they were alive.

For Section 2, Recce Group Charlie, 6th Sinha Rifles.
KIA, July 1991, Elephant Pass.

57 thoughts on “Nineteen ’til I Die

  1. Thanks, David. If you’re able to, please let us know how to contribute, directly to the welfare of their dependents etc. It’s the least we can do.

  2. No victory really ever feels like a victory unless fate, time and consequence goes full circle. A 30 year old battle has been won… but the war still rages on… Racism and apathy have merely bloomed in the ashes of this precarious wake.

    First time I checked your blog out… And your post is perhaps the most honest depiction of what shit is really like in the mud, the rain and the crimson of broken lives of the so-called ‘war’.

    Really, really provocative read…

  3. David, I really appreciate your post and it honestly is really toughing. I always wish if I inherited the creativity you have; in writing posts like this; but I am never been good at it. I do not have anything to disagree with you with regards to this post.

    But I have a question to raise for some of the people who commented here. I actually want to raise this question from all the bloggers who keep reminding us “war is bitter, war is bad, we don’t need war” bla bla bla…

    Here is my question.

    Don’t you all think you all are “enjoying” the pain of war? Like watching a sad scene of a soap opera? People watch soap operas, they watch sad scenes, and they shed tears. But that’s how they enjoy it. Don’t you think you all are doing the same thing here?

    No one truly enjoy the war. Not even me (and simmilar bloggers) who supported the war against LTTE. We supported the war; because we wanted to see an end to it soon . If we allowed another round of peace talks; the war would have dragged into another generation. Now that the war is over; we all are happy! Because we know that no one ever will have to be killed like those soldiers. We know that no one will ever lose their family, due to this cruel war.

    But; why are you all still soaking yourselves in the “sad scenes” of war? Crying like a 19 year girl who watch a sad scene on Bold & the Beautiful? Do you miss it a lot? Now that the war is over; do you feel that you don’t have a good “sad movie” to watch to entertain yourselves? A good topic to show off your intelligence, by arguing in public “war is bitter, war kills people”?

    Think about this…. “War is bitter”. It’s a truism. No one can ever say that “War is sweet”. None has ever said war is good, and we should always fighting some kind of a war against someone. So why are you all trying to prove a point, which is already universally accepted as true? Why don’t you see the brighter side of what has happened?

  4. VIC, I don’t think anyone commenting or blogging “misses” the war (though I sometimes do), or feels that there wont be anymore entertainment (though I wonder what we’ll talk about). The thing is, not everyone sees the victory in the war as the solution to all our problems, and so any optimism is still cautious. And while many are pleased, no doubt, by the victory, they also recognize what we have sacrificed for this victory. They also recognize that many of those sacrifices need not have happened if we had better leaders and more intuitive voters. Not all the sacrifices were in vain, but many were. And however great the victory, sacrifice is sacrifice — and I’m not sure Isaac got up from the altar feeling quite the same towards Abraham as he did before.

  5. Don’t really care for you as a person but i take my hat off to you and your platoon for your contribution.

  6. You’ve given us the other side of the story extremely evocatively. Hope they’re in a better place now.

  7. i don’t have any good words man… this just made me cry… may they rest in peace! you take care Davy! 🙂

  8. This is why I follow your blog. It’s rare to find writing on Sri Lanka’s war and especially rare for it to be written by a Sri Lankan. Excellent piece. I’m going to remember this for a long time.

    Thanks for writing.

  9. David,

    Hope you have heard about the Melbourne attack.

    Thank you for keeping the good posts going and for giving us black and white when we were sick of grey.

  10. David,
    Much respect for the sacrifice you and your brothers-in-arms made.
    Maybe you knew these guys a lot better than you think.

  11. Well writen David and it made me quite emotional too,hope you write more of this stuff it really brings you to the stark reality of war and sacrifice by the fighting men,as I have said before you really should write a new book too on this and dont forget to include the epic battle at jaffna fort

  12. Awesome, David!

    You know i too have a basic blog and basic meaning basic. Not a drop of your creative and writing talent. Simply awesome David, simply awesome.

  13. Very good post David thank you as it brings out the humane side of the fighting men

    normally when we think of an infantrymen in SL we think of rural youth (with few exception like you),how was it in your company were they all Colombo/Kandy boys? or rural ones? were they english speaking? did they talk of their families and sweethearts?

    Did you fight in the EPS seige? fi so please share the experiences with your readers ,when did u leave army?

  14. Mango, this is one way, through the Ranaviru Fund.

    Hey, Roshan, yeah I know, I visited your blog when you first started it up. Keep at it.

    Asterix, there were a few from the Colombo area in my battalion, and some from urban areas like Kandy and Kurunegala, but most were from very rural areas. Some had never travelled in any motor vehicle before joining the Army, except a bus or maybe a hand tractor. Some had never worn shoes til they joined the Army. Some who’d never worn long trousers. But there were guys with university entrance A/Levels too (which was more than I had). Almost none spoke any English. Yes, we often talked about our families and girlfriends.

  15. Good one Mate…ya only one I now so far who CAN account for battles at Epass…my kuddos to ya bro..! We lost a lot of good folks…didnt matter if they were illiterate or not ..they were Sri Lankans. I just hope we (or politicians) learned a lesson here….have far sighted goals…not short sighted bandaid solutions ! Good one David…do ya think ya can do “Platoon” type synopsis of your tour of duty ?

    God Bless Ya : )

  16. David, Thanks for the very real description of what you & many others went through due to war. Methinks its good for us to understand what soldiers…whether Sinhalese or Tamil go through due to war…cos right now “War” is being justified, romanticized & painted to be something so glorious…I have a very weird feeling that there might be a discourse constructed about war very soon…Warientalism…the way things r going its imminent. How about now we attack some of the very issues which caused the war…ethnic hatred, poverty, disillusionment…cos as we can see…its real!

  17. DB,

    The best article so far..very emotional as well..hope we will be able to switch on to other topics other than war from now on,but the sacrifices made during all these years cannot be just swept away quickly,,only time will tell….

  18. Great piece David.

    A quick aside – I was having a discussion with Australian human rights activist the other day about numbers of Tamils in the SL armed forces and Police. He was adamant that there wasn’t a single one in either. I couldn’t help but think he was wrong but I wasn’t sure of the numbers so I didn’t care to debate him.

    I figured if anyone might have an idea it would be you. Can you point me out to where I can source this info?

  19. Concentric, the number of Tamils in the regular armed forces are miniscule, and almost exclusively in the support services. But in the National Guard battalions and the Civil Defence Force (former Home Guard), there are substantial numbers of Tamils. Also, there are many Tamils in the police force, particularly in the Eastern Province, and more are being recruited. But I’ve no idea where you can get the proper statistical figures, sorry.

  20. Finally got around to reading this.

    Really great, honest post David. We need more of this honesty, people just saying it like it really is, rather than what they think they should be saying.

  21. Great post David. First time i’m visiting your blog, you’ve really shown that this ‘victory’ that they talk of, has more blood stain than what is revealed being one of the longest civil wars.

  22. You have silenced me…this does not happen often. I wish I had read this during the end of the war celebrations 6 weeks ago…I would have reblogged it. Bookmarked for next year.

  23. Wow David! You really took me on a journey there! Thank you very much for sharing an insightful, harrowing and reflective glimpse of your experience. As for your colleagues and all those who laid down their lives in this struggle, may they rest in peace. As for us who remain, I pray that we will learn from the past and renew our commitment to creating a more peaceful and better world for ALL.

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