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DateLine Sunday, 17 February 2008

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Exercise Desert Storm

No peaceful sights in the horizon other than some bushes which had dried up due to the heat. The marble coloured land stretched for miles and miles making the visitors fall madly in love with its natural beauty. And for some minutes, one is mistaken as the landscape and the environment are no different to that of the Middle East. But this land is not very far away from Colombo.


Pictures from Nagar Kovil and Muhamalai
Pix by Thilak Perera

We were at the LTTE Forward Defence Lines (FDLs). "Move to a lower ground", Col. Nishanka Ranawana, the Commandant of the 551 ordered, warning us about possible LTTE RPG attacks while walking on high ground.

I crept into a bunker. It was as 'hot' as the sun. "The life here is not..?" Col. Ranawana was trying to find the most powerful word to describe the life of the soldiers here.

He said during the rainy season it was "very hard" But none can match the morale of my men" he said giving a detailed description about the number of LTTE terrorists who were killed in the last few months." The LTTE has high casualties. They try to infiltrate into FDLs but we were able to kill them all", he said.

Unlike at other camps, the soldiers here engage in their activities silently. I was asked to see from a pair of binoculars. I saw a line of palm thatched fences and also a line of small bunkers. 'They are terrorists' a soldier who kept a sharp eye on LTTE infiltrations said. I tried my best to see one of them but the soldier said that they, mostly teenagers, were too short to be visible.

Twenty-year old Madusanka of Kandy, sweating from head to toe, with his gun aimed towards the FDL, and his colleague from Anuradhapura have been in the army for the past one year and both were happy and confident that they would fight well. Thanks to the training given to them. They said in their dreams they go home and always think of their mothers. The terrorists, who fight for a desperate cause, have separated many from their loved ones.

We left the sandy fighting ground, where decades ago 'Welikathara', the famous film directed by Dr. D. B. Nihalsinghe was filmed.

We reached the military base at this same 'Welikathara' location but some miles away from the camp. A small group of army soldiers was crawling and clearing land mines.

Another group of youth wearing ordinary clothes - track bottoms and t-shirts and wearing slippers but armed with guns were deployed to man some bunkers and the trench. While the army group, which cleared the path was retaliating another small group was crawling secretly.

The opposite group - the LTTE terrorists - started singing a popular Tamil song but dispersed as their leader came and scolded them. While they were manning their sentry-points at the FDL, two teams - one launched a 'Bangalore Tobibo' attack which cleared the FDL to remove land mines and the other team fired and entered the FDL. One soldier was injured but there was no time to give him first aid.

Another round of heavy firing was taking place amidst grenade attacks. Finally the military had destroyed the LTTE's FDL and killed the terrorists. While retaliating they gave some primary first aid to their wounded colleague. Dragging him while crawling they advanced to a safer destination.

This is not another episode of a war film but a live firing scene which took place to give better exposure of military operations before the young soldiers were deployed on attacks. This was the 'Exercise Desert Storm".

"This is a true scene of how the soldiers face an attack. This is basically live training where it is given for 30 soldiers for a period of 14-days. All the soldiers will undergo this training before being deployed", said Training Operations Officer Maj. Ananda Samarasinghe.

According to him, the whole episode of training which concluded in one hour will take more than six hours when attacking (real)terrorists.

When we reached the famous Nagar Kovil temple it was almost noon. No time for them to relax, the group which attacked the LTTE terrorists had just returned. The young Major explained about their attacks in the morning hours. He said that it was a success and was able to destroy several bunkers in the LTTE FDLs.

Corporal Jayasena who headed the eight man team said they launched the successful attack after 14-days of reconnaissance missions. The soldiers, who infiltrated into the LTTE's FDLs, destroyed several bunkers in their seven day long operation in which they also removed lots of anti-personnel mines and traps.

The famous Nagar Kovil temple is their main military base now. The tall statue of God and the beautiful wall paintings were full of bullet holes.

Some huge century-old trees were flat on the ground due to mortar attacks. "Some powerful group had invaded this village and had tried to take the villagers forcibly. Then suddenly a large number of snakes had surrounded the invaders and freed the villagers.

The myth says that in appreciation of the good deed of the snakes the villagers built this temple and started to worship snakes", said one Major who accompanied us explaining how the temple's name - 'Nagar' originated. After a nerve wracking journey through one of the toughest fighting grounds we end our day's mission in that yet beautiful land on the coastal belt.

Early next morning we embarked on our next mission -Muhamalai, where fire fighting was going on a few kilometres away from us. Soldiers there too had voiced the same opinion about the present military operations.

They all have a common goal to achieve. They all have a common wish and they are confident that they can defeat terrorism soon. Unlike in the past these young men are not 'forced' to die and there is no need to drag them into the battlefront.

What is the secret behind these successes - I asked a Corporal who had engaged in previous battles and witnessed the gravity of some of the wrong commands on the battlefronts of the past. He who wanted to be anonymous said those days a large number of soldiers deserted the army which recorded a high number of casualties. "But now the strategy of carrying out operations are clearly different. Young soldiers know that they will not die in losing battles", he said.

We noticed during our visit to these two battlefronts that the morale of these soldiers who said that they were happy to be a part of these successful battles, was high. It is evident from their views that properly led military would reach enemy targets strategically and the young men will not abandon their missions of defeating terrorism when they receive correct orders from the top military officials.

The high morale of these soldiers is not an outcome of overnight efforts but the results of well planning strategy to harness their potential, continuous training in environments similar to the present war situation, correct commands that comes from the top and the dedication of each and every soldier including those who command the troops.

The dedication of the commanders of each division, brigade and unit in the battlefronts are commendable. The era where the commanders go occasionally to the front-lines is over.

Starting from the top - the Commander of the Army Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to all his commanders who are commanding the operations are seen at the front lines. This has also motivated the soldiers to face the war courageously.

According to Col. Ranawana the success achieved so far with less casualties and deaths to the Army is mainly due to the remarkable change in the intentions of the whole military exercises in the North.

"Like in the past we do not want to capture more land and also we do not want to hold those captured areas. What we do now is to operate in small groups to bring more destruction to the LTTE and to kill more terrorists to reduce their manpower", he said. Suddenly Col. Ranawana announced of an artillery attack on the LTTE bunkers.

We saw an explosion and one half of the FDL disappeared under fire and black fumes. Definitely those who were manning the bunkers would have breathed their last. I wanted to run for my life and could feel my heart beat. I looked around. There was no fear on the faces of the young fighters. They were smiling.

****

With high confidence that they could end terrorism, most of the young soldiers do not fear the battlefront today. Never having thought of running away from the military they want more youth to join the military to end this blood shed.

Most of the brave young soldiers who had just returned from the frontlines of Nagar Kovil and Muhamalai after long operations shared their views even though they were tired.

Corporal Ratnayake and his team who had returned from an operation in Muhamalai said that the morale of our soldiers was high but the morale of the LTTE carders who were mostly minors deployed at the FDLs was very low.

Corp. Thilaka of the 6th Gajaba Regiment said they were confident about the battlefront and they would go ahead to the front-lines under the command of the Army Commander. "We will do our best to finish this war. We hope that terrorism would be defeated before the end of this year. We want support. We will fight for the unity and sovereignty of this country until we die", he said.

Corp. Shanth Kumara also appreciated the efforts of the Army Commander and said success was due to the idea of deploying small groups to destroy the LTTE terrorists. He said the soldiers would finish this war before next year and the morale of the soldiers is high and that this would help the military to launch more operations against the LTTE in the future.

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