Growing up as a war-child of the unfortunate generation that experienced a 30 year long conflict throughout our childhood and early youth, the STF for me was always the green bereted men, riding motorbikes with rifles slung over their shoulders. Watching the evening news, which was a daily ‘must’ in any household throughout these dark years, the image of the STF that was drawn in our minds was of those who could do what others failed to.
35 years since its inception, the country’s elite para-military unit of the Sri Lanka Police, the Special Task Force - commonly known by its acronym STF – has grown to perhaps the most specialized and versatile outfits of the island nation. Commemorating this remarkable milestone is a compilation of photographs in a form of a coffee table book titled Special Task Force 1983 – 2018: Celebrating 35 Years of Service to our Motherland.
The STF was thebrainchild of Captain Ravi Jayawardene, the intelligent and progressive former first son of Sri Lanka, and proudly bears its ensign and motto of ‘Victory Assured’. It was primarily formed to counter terrorist activities, which were not only growing in frequency in the early 1980s, but were also becoming widespread and taking the form of guerilla tactics. A highly skilled specialized unit was the need of the hour. From this initiation until present, the book chronologically documents the growth of the STF in photographs.
The black and white, and the sepia images record the Early Years to the initial Eelamconflict; the primary trainings by the British ex-SAS officers on military field craft, counter-terrorism search, handling explosives and first aid. Interesting is the blend of action images together with official group photos and pictures of the soldiers in-between operations. The camps located in the Eastern part of Sri Lanka, which was the stronghold of the STF, come to life together with photographs of post-terrorist acts, explosions, seized weapons and vehicles. Key moments in the history of STF such as the extension of the Eastern Command Centre to the South to clear the LTTE infiltration into the Yala Wildlife Sanctuary as well as relegation of the STF at the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) are documented in images.
During the second Eelamconflict,the STF continued to safeguard the East, even training during the ceasefire with the aim of bettering themselves in the path to indelibility. An image that made one curious was of a foreign gymnastic team with the soldiers, which turned out to be an ‘innovative twist to training’ by the late SSP Upali Sahabandu who brought this team of gymnasts to train the STF in enhancing their responsive capacities, which is pivotal in combat operations.
The pictures do not only speak of the victories. They also document the hardships these gallant soldiers underwent, of the many nights spent without a shelter above, of the strenuous days in the jungle with the bare minimum. A photograph bears witness to the unit undergoing training by the Veddas to survive in the forest. Turn to page 145 and one comes across an image of a row of pumpkins cut in half, very commonplace at first glance, but look closer and you find that inside it are arms and explosives; ‘one of the many ingenious ways adopted by the terrorists to smuggle arms and explosives from the North and East to the South of Sri Lanka’.
Beyond the Eelamconflict operations, the photographs bear witness to the growth of the STF, to an elite unit handling VVIP security, controlling hostage and riot situations as well as seizing narcotics. With the regaining of peace, the unit has sharpened its skills and even boasts of the first Para Jumper in the 150 years history of the Sri Lanka Police.
Such and more are the photographs, some perhaps obtained from personal ownership, that weave the collage of the proud 35 year long history of the STF. The book ends appropriately with Robert Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Rememberance : Lest We Forget, a tribute to the heroes who had made the ultimate sacrifice during the three-decade long conflict, and profile photos of each one of them;
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Special Task Force 1983 – 2018: Celebrating 35 Years of Service to our Motherland is available at the Head Quarters of the Special Task Force (you could contact the OIC Welfare) and VijithaYapa bookstores
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