Short stories, Travel and Health Information
The tall good-looking army officer rose from his chair, came around in front of his desk and extended his hand to Deborah Roth.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Roth” he smiled, motioning toward one of the leather-covered armchairs by the window. “Please take a seat.”
He turned to the sergeant who had met the woman at the front entrance of the military hospital and had accompanied her through the security checks. “Thank you, Tissa. I will call you when the lady is ready to return”
Sergeant Tissakumara stiffened to attention. With a “Thank you, Sir!” he turned about and left the room.
“Miss Roth, may I get you some tea?”
“Yes please, if I may. White with no sugar, thank you”
Major general Ranasinghe got up and spoke into the intercom on his desk. “Joseph, bring us up a pot of tea – with milk and some biscuits please.”
He returned to his chair, and turning to Deborah, said “My old friend Professor Jayatilleke said you were keen to meet me. So how can I help you?”
“Well,” she began, “as the professor would have told you, I work for Human Rights Watch. My reason for seeking a meeting with you is that he said the best person who could shed light on this matter that we are concerned about would be yourself, the Director-General of Sri Lanka’s army medical services. As you are not only a senior army officer but also a respected medical man, he felt that you would be someone we could trust.”
The general looked at her. “That is very kind of Professor Jayatilleke to say so,” he smiled, “but tell me, how did he think I could assist you?”
“We at Human Rights Watch were rather perturbed,” Debbie continued “when we learned that your new president had recently granted a special presidential pardon to a convicted killer – a man who had been convicted of the massacre of eight civilians, including children, during the civil war. The special pardon was granted even after his death sentence had been upheld by your Supreme Court. You will be aware that I am referring to the case of Staff Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, who was sentenced to death for the Mirusuvil massacre.”
There was a gentle knock on the door, followed by the entry of a smartly dressed mess waiter bearing a tray which he set down on the low table beside the pair. Major general Ranasinghe poured tea for his visitor and, offering her the cup, picked up the jug of warm milk.
“Say ‘When’,” he said, courteously turning to pour some into her cup. “It is always difficult to judge just how much milk is needed to enhance the flavour of a good cup of Ceylon tea.”
She thanked him and helped herself to one of the Lemon Puff biscuits – cookies, she would have called them – on the plate.
After they had both sipped on their tea, he looked quizzically at her.
“So, what you are asking me to do, Miss Roth, is to provide an explanation for what our president has done – which goes against what you people at Human Rights Watch believe is legally and morally correct?”
“That is exactly right!” she exclaimed. “We were incredulous when we heard about this. When I spoke to Professor Jayatilleke – someone in your country whose counsel I have trusted over the years – he said the best thing I should do would be to talk to you. As you know, it was he who set up this meeting.”
The Major general took another sip of his tea, stood up, and walked over to the large fifth floor window which overlooked the Galle Face Green and the expanse of the Indian Ocean beyond. He stared at the vista before him before turning back to Debbie Roth.
“I can understand your predicament, Miss Roth,” he said gently. “On the one hand you have this situation of your own President Trump who, despite the opposition of the Pentagon, pardons a US Navy sailor, Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted of war crimes. On the other hand you have the situation of our democratically elected president (who I may point out to you was elected with a large majority, unlike President Trump who received just 46% of the popular vote against 48% for his opponent) pardoning a soldier who had similarly been convicted of war crimes.”
“How do you people handle such a situation?” he continued. “Are you at HRW able to censure President Trump just as you are finding fault with President Rajapaksa – or does Human Rights Watch only focus on Third World countries where we do not have the same access as the US does to the world’s media?”
Before she could respond, he turned around.
“Let me tell you a story, Miss Roth. It is not a true story and any resemblance you may find in it to persons living or dead is purely a coincidence. But my story may give you some understanding of why things happen in our corner of the world the way they do.”
“Many years ago, the Sri Lanka Army launched Operation Vadamarachchi – at the time the biggest military operation it had ever undertaken.”
“On the morning of the offensive, because the bridge across the Thondamanaru lagoon had been blown up by the LTTE, platoons of infantry from the Gajaba Regiment had to wade across the lagoon – only to find when they reached its eastern shore that they were in a heavily mined open area where they came under withering fire from the enemy. Many soldiers were killed in that attack. In fact, of the lead platoon of 34 men, seven were killed outright while 21 were injured.”
“Among those injured in the first wave of infantry that crossed the lagoon was a young army Captain who was now trapped, lying face down in that minefield with his left leg shattered. From the water’s edge he was seen by one of his soldiers, one Lance corporal Ratnayake who, with no thought for his own safety, crawled through that minefield, inching his way across the coral strewn beach, until he reached the wounded officer. He then proceeded to drag him back, metre by painful metre, to the safety of the water’s edge.”
“Our medics then took charge of the wounded Captain and he was eventually evacuated to the field hospital in Palaly – which is where I met him. He was resuscitated and I operated on his shattered leg that very evening. He had suffered a compound comminuted fracture of the lower end of his femur and had lost a lot of blood. If not for that young Lance corporal he would without a doubt have lost that leg – and probably his life.”
“Although he was left with one leg slightly shorter than the other, the Captain, I am happy to say, recovered in due course. He returned to his regiment and went on to serve with distinction in the war. He even rose to be commanding officer of his regiment – but then, disillusioned by the way the politicians at that time were conducting the war, he resigned his commission and migrated to the US.”
The Major general momentarily returned his gaze toward the blue waters of the Indian Ocean stretching out beneath him.
“You see, Miss Roth,” he said, facing her again “in military conflict, we see the best and worst in soldiers come out. Soldiers in any modern army are highly trained. Governments spend large sums and vast resources converting these men into very effective killers, trained in fact to commit legalised manslaughter – and when they efficiently do the job they are trained to do and the war is over they are hounded and hung out to dry.”
“But we also see these same soldiers – men who would not hesitate to pull a trigger and kill another human being if given the order to do so – risking their own lives to save others, not just their own comrades but also civilians who end up in harm’s way.”
“I am sure you would have heard that saying attributed to George Orwell who pointed out that people like you and me can sleep peacefully in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.”
He looked at her with a half-smile on his face and, selecting his words carefully and delivering them calmly, he continued.
“If I may also quote John Le Carre, Miss Roth, we need soldiers who kill so that the great moronic mass of a country’s civilian population can sleep soundly in their beds at night. We need them to do their job for the safety of ordinary people like you and me.”
He paused – which allowed Debbie Roth to eagerly ask “Did I hear you say that the Lance corporal who saved the Captain’s life was called Rathnayake?”
The Major general evenly met her gaze. “You may have done so, Miss Roth, but you may remember my stating before I started my story that it was not a true story. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.”
He returned to the leather armchair.
“And if you had noticed that our President walks with a slight limp due to his left leg being shorter than his right, I have absolutely no idea how to explain that.”
He smiled – and in some strange way Debbie’s mind flashed back to the occasion when as a little girl she was gently told by her father “Darling, I have absolutely no idea how the tooth fairy comes through our tightly closed windows.”
Debbie sat back. Professsor Jayatilleke had been right in asking her to talk to the Director General.
“But General, what I can’t understand is why the president pardons a soldier who is a convicted killer even if he did save his life many years ago.”
Without immediately responding, the army doctor looked deep into her eyes until she was forced to look away.
“Then I am afraid, Miss Roth, if you cannot understand that, you can never hope to understand the principles and code of honour that we soldiers live by.”
He rose and extended his hand – just as Sergeant Tissakumara appeared at the door, ready to escort her out.
This short story is a work of fiction, a figment of my own imagination – and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely co-incidental.
If you liked it – the first short story written during my days of Corona-induced Isolation – please leave a comment. In fact, please let me know even if you did NOT like the story – because critical comments will help me improve my next effort!
Thank you for your interest.
11 April 2020