FOR SOMEONE WHO belongs to the Sri Lankan navy and is thus officially in opposition to the Eelam uprising, Commander Boyagoda is remarkably sensitive to the Tamilians he meets while on duty. He allows the Red Cross to conduct meetings with the local population, and whenever he returns from leave to visit his family in Colombo, he carries back medicines since there is hardly a headache pill available in Karainagar, on the island next to the Jaffna peninsula that he is in charge of.
After a rather uneventful two decades of war, Boyagoda considers an early retirement in 1994. He is at the time helming a naval vessel, one of the two largest in the rather smallish Lankan navy, when the ship develops engine trouble and anchors off the coast for a day of maintenance, which is exactly when the LTTE decides to strike. The dramatic battle scene that ensues reads like an Alistair MacLean or Mukul Deva thriller.
Boyagoda is spotted hanging onto a raft by an LTTE boat, and when it transpires that he is a navy commander, he is taken prisoner. On the Jaffna peninsula he is accommodated in a room measuring some ten-by-ten feet with a makeshift bed, but the food is decent: rice and two kinds of veggie curries for lunch and string-hoppers for dinner. In the early months, he is a high-status prisoner and becomes something of a propaganda star: as the highest-ranking prisoner- of-war, he is featured in Tamil Tiger broadcasts, which later get re-reported in Sinhalese media with all the distortions that can be expected of such a situation. While in isolation, he reads in the Colombo newspapers that a naval Board of Enquiry finds him guilty of negligence, and the loss of one of the navy’s two biggest warships becomes his personal fault—in fact, many consider him to be a traitor. He doesn’t get a chance to defend himself, which is perhaps one of the reasons he later decided to publish the book under review.
Meanwhile, the Tigers try him for war crimes against Tamilians— specifically with regard to ‘barbecues’ during which boats filled with Tamil refugees trying to escape the Sri Lankan mainland would be doused with petrol by navy personnel and set on fire. Tamil civilians who know Boyagoda as an upright officer make representations on his behalf, so ultimately he is cleared.
Eight years go by and Boygoda’s captors eventually relax. If a guard has to bring his kids along to work, he might ask the prisoners to mind them
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Nevertheless, once he has been milked for whatever propaganda value he had, he is sent to a regular prison camp where other Sinhala soldiers are kept, sometimes three of them stuffed into a three-by-ten foot cell, and they also get chains welded around their legs. The food is frequently just watery rice kanji, with not a grain of rice in it. It is at this point that Boyagoda himself realises the importance of the occasional Red Cross visits—they bring letters from family, a certain acknowledgement that one is a human with an identity, and packs of cigarettes that are puffed down.
Years go by and his captors eventually relax. If a guard has to bring his kids along to work, he might ask the prisoners to mind them. Eventually, they are given the key to their own cell so as to be able to lock themselves in at night and open the prison in the morning. (The camp is in the middle of a jungle in a Tamil-dominated area, so the risk of anybody making a run for it is small.) After eight years in captivity, when Boyagoda is finally swapped for a high-ranking Tiger known as Kennedy, who was serving a jail term for blowing up a Sri Lankan air force craft, the prison guard is in tears. This is perhaps the strangest story I ever read about life in a war prisoner camp.
By way of personal reminiscence, the book serves as an excellent account of the Sri Lankan war—it raged for so many years that it almost seemed a natural part of life in South Asia and it certainly became a major part of Boyagoda’s.
One minor issue: Port Said, to which Boyagoda travels during his days in the navy, is, according to the book, a Red Sea port, when a sailor should know that it is at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal. It is only a 169-kilometre error, but wrong nevertheless. However, I hope that the book gets all the domestic Sri Lankan facts right because it is a very compelling read.