“It’s sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” the Roman poet Horace wrote in his attempts to encompass the ethos of bravery. Many centuries later, his words seem no less relevant to our island nation. Horace wrote in an age of revolution, similar to the violence braved by Sri Lankan youth through the course of a 30-year long civil war.
A commemoration event to honour the recipients of “The Parama Weera Vibushanaya” gallantry medal organised by the Sri Lanka - United Nations Friendship Organisation was held on May 27, at SUNFO Centre, Moratuwa. The event was graced by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who laid the foundation stone for the erection of a monument to honour the gallantry medal recipients who made the supreme sacrifice during the conflict.
Established in 1981, the Parama Weera Vibushanaya (PWV) is the highest and most respected award for bravery, to honour selected individuals of all ranks of the Army, Navy and Air Force of Sri Lanka. It is awarded to recognise individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to one’s own life and security, with the objective of safeguarding the lives of one’s comrades or facilitating the operational aim of one’s force.
Prasad Polwatte, an accounting and banking professional, felt the need to pen tributes to those who made the supreme sacrifice for their motherland. In his book titled ‘29 Immortal Soldiers’ Polwatte preserves the memory and honour of the 29 PWV medallists of Sri Lanka. He pens, “War is harsh. War is brutal. War is Painful. Even amidst the brutality of war, humanity shines through in the form of heroic soldiers who would not hesitate for a moment to give up on their own lives so that the lives of other could be saved and protected. That determination is what makes a hero.”
Polwatte believes that a hero is selfless beyond belief, an attribute he notes of these 29 heroes. “During the three decades of war, many heroes emerged from the battlefields of the North and the East. These are men thanks to whose bravery we can breathe freely today,” Polwatte said.
Citing his inspiration to author the book Polwatte notes that it is many years of experience that resulted in the composition of this book. “I was employed at Lake House some time ago. I was not a part of the editorial staff but I was familiar with the profession. With the assistance of the editorial staff I used to write articles with the knowledge of my profession in finance. This was between 2008 and 2010 during the height of the war. After the war there was a peaked interest in narratives that involved the war. I am an old boy of Ananda College and there were many old Anandians who were directly involved in the war such as the Army Commander of the time Sarath Fonseka, Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda and all the second in line such as Kamal Gunaratne. In 2009 we did a small tabloid paper about old Anandians who had served at the forefront of the war in which I was also involved. Following this experience I thought of writing on ordinary soldiers and their sacrifices.”
Polwatte does not fail to note an interesting feature about the subject of his maiden book. “I must note that these heroes are all very junior soldiers. Yet these junior soldiers were very courageous to make such sacrifices. Most of the people know only about several acts of heroism, such as the story of Hasalaka Gamini. But the other deserving heroes remained unknown,” he said.
However his work is not only about the sacrifices of these soldiers. As Rear Admiral Dr. Sarath P. Weerasekara writes in the foreward, the author’s analytical mind has suggestively thrown useful guidelines for the future planners of the peace process. Polwatte reveals that he initially had no sketch of the book’s content. “I first drafted copy about the 29 soldiers with whatever information I had. I then wanted to begin with providing a background as to why this war began in the first place. Out of these 29 soldiers, from the inception -- that is from the 1980s only a handful of soldiers were awarded with this medal. After the fourth Eelam war a number of sacrifices were made note of, because the war was in its most brutal stage. Sacrifices such as these and acts of bravery became common and the awarding of the medal was more frequent,” Polwatte revealed.
Delving into the history of the awarding of the medal, Polwatte says that initially only 2nd Lt. S.U. Aladeniya and Lance Corporal Y.G.Gamini Kularatne, better known as Hasalaka Gamini were the recipients of this medal. Later many soldiers including those who were in the front lines of the Nandikadal and Puthukuddirippu battles were bestowed with this honour.
The compilation of the book is truly a noble effort on part of Polwatte, as all royalties are donated to the Ranaviru Seva Authority. The book was launched with assistance of the Ministry of Defence to which the families of the 29 soldiers were invited, while the commanders of the tri-forces were also present.
Asked of which sacrifice serves as the most memorable one, Polwatte says it is a difficult question to answer. “Everyone knows the story of Gamini Kularathne and Corporal Chandrasiri Bandara who performed similar acts of bravery. Bandara, when other soldiers were undoubtedly grappling with a fear for life, grabbed hold of a rocket launcher and fired at the enemy. His third attempt of attacking the enemy was successful in both stopping the enemy and taking his own life,” Polwatte explained elaborating the gravity of each sacrifice made by these soldiers.
However Polwatte also notes that there is one account of a brave hero that can be singled out. “Lieutenant Colonel A.F. Lafir, was a founding member of the Special Forces of the Army. He was the most senior and decorated officer of these 29 soldiers. He was also a pioneer in developing rapid deployment operations, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism warfare. Out of these 29, five soldiers were of the SF unit. They are trained with guerilla attacks and LRRP. (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol units)
They walk for days, weeks or even months, right into areas under the control of the LTTE and manage to identify where the leaders are nestled. These units go and
Many of these missions were successful, of which Lafir was a successful leader in development. The Army wanted to extend continuous moral support to the units there and Lafir volunteered to go to Mullativu. When the Army Mullativu base came under attack in 1996, the first landing of the rescue operation was led by Colonel Lafir. Admist heavy firing, Lafir was heli-dropped where he managed to establish radio communication with the besieged troops. He fought against the terrorists and was killed by shrapnel. This act was something rare for an officer of that rank. This kind of a sacrifice would have given a moral impact for an ordinary soldier as well,” Polwatte narrated.
Asked of the response of family members to Polwatte said the most families tend to have unresolved feelings about their loved ones. “I have met all the families who came to the book launch. Because he has been accepted as a hero, Hasalaka Gamini’s mother was very supportive. But the others were undecided about how they felt. Some felt that due recognition was not given to these soldiers. Some mothers were annoyed that their sons were killed in battle and their sacrifices were not recognised. My wife was involved in inviting and communicating with these families and whatever their feelings were, 27 families attended the event. I doubt they had any animosity towards me or my book.”
Polwatte believes that the untold stories of these heroes have to be recognised. “The literature of their bravery should be included in our history. Heroes emerge in every era and not only in the times of Dutugemunu or Walagamba. In a time when we are confronted with a majority of selfish individuals in this world, there are people who act selflessly and their heroism deserves to be recognised. These are the classic examples of such individuals,” he said.
Prasad Polwatte’s book ‘29 Immortal Soldiers’ is not only a heartfelt tribute to these heroes but also a tribute to those who envisioned peace throughout the 30 painful years of conflict. A must read for those who wish to comprehend the gallantry of noble servicemen and a timely reminder of the price of peace that was restored on our island nation.
Pix by Kushan Pathiraja