Short stories, Travel and Health Information
In the context of the recent resolution against Sri Lanka by the United Nations Human Rights Council (a body where Human Rights matters are taken up and voted on by a Jury representing a number of countries – among whom there are those who are guiltier than those they purport to judge), I am reproducing on my webpage this story written by my friend Capt Elmo Jayawardena.
Elmo, a well known author and former senior airline pilot, has given me permission to publish this story. It is a poignant reminder to all of us that there is a human side to this war – an aspect which those who get their information about these matters only from the popular media, as well as those who pontificate about human rights from offices in Washington, London and Geneva, fail to see.
As Elmo says “The truth could be so very different”
The train was slightly late, which was not unusual in those troubled times.
The afternoon was warm and The Pilot and his friend, both dressed in civilian clothes, stood in a shaded corner of the station waiting for the Yaal Devi express train to arrive. The two Air Force officers were on leave and travelling to their homes in the capital Colombo. This was Anuradhapura in the early nineties, the country totally wrapped up in a civil war that had divided the Sri Lankan people along racial lines. Yes, there was a war on, call it by any other name if you wish, but the essence was that Sinhalese and the Tamil people 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 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, a mother, 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, they may have been travelling from Vavuniya where the express train to Colombo train had originated. The Pilot and his companion sat down ion the long eat opposite the family and gave courtesy smiles to the people in front but these 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 started going through the contents. The girl was embarrassed and the mother too when some ladies’ underwear was pulled out; the father watched helpless as the soldiers continued their search, simply doing their job. Feeling uncomfortable, The Pilot politely told the soldiers to go easy as these people looked rather tired and frightened. Though he was in civvies, the soldiers may have recognized 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.
This was the time when the Sri Lanka Air Force’s Italian made SIAI Marchetti ground attack aeroplanes were stationed at the Anuradhapura Airforce Base. The Pilot was an experienced Air Force pilot, an expert at flying the Marchettis -those single engined military planes were capable of carrying 8 rockets or 4 machine guns or 2 bombs up to a weight of 125 kgs each which were cradled under the wings for deployment. He 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 which was located on the west side of the Jaffna Lagoon, and from there to locate the ferry that operated between Karativu jetty and Sangupiddy jetty and destroy it by bombing.
This ferry linked the Jaffna peninsula to the mainland and was a prime route of 4 km across the water for people to travel between the peninsula and the mainland. It was believed that the LTTE terrorist group was also using the Sangupiddy Ferry to transport their fighting men along with civilians as human shields. That particular 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 in 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 so they were able to fly 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 in 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.” This is what The Pilot told me afterwards. He made an instant decision and aborted the mission and pulled out of the dive; his wingman followed suit.
“There was no way I could bomb those civilians,” he said to me in a soft whisper as he recalled the incident. “We were at war, but not against innocent women and children,” .
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 session between them but mostly with monosyllabic answers. The Pilot kept up his side of the conversation, silent sans details.
“I am a doctor, and my daughter here has qualified herself to study medicine at the medical college. We are migrating to Canada.”
Maybe an hour passed, some biscuits 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 from Karativu 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, paralysed.”
“People were shouting, I also shouted “Jump, Jump.” but they didn’t, they just stood there.”
“Sir, you will not believe this – the bombs didn’t fall, I think they jammed, both aeroplanes. Some mechanism must have failed.”
The Pilot just listened to that story in stunned silence.
When The Pilot told me this story moons later, he looked away and softly told me “Whenever I recall that incident, something happens to me and I see that family sitting in the train opposite me 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 act of gallantry I ever did during my entire military career.
I am sure The Doctor must be practising medicine now in Toronto or Scarborough or Vancouver – or wherever in Canada he found the home and the peace he was yearning for. His young daughter by now would have graduated as a doctor herself and must be now walking the wards with a stethoscope across her shoulders.
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 universe to measure spontaneous and timely acts of human kindness such as what The Pilot and his Wingman displayed when they flew away from a military mission they were entrusted with – in order to save civilians.