Commodore Ajith Boyagoda became the highest-ranked prisoner to be detained by the LTTE on September 19, 1994 after the Tamil Tigers attacked Sri Lanka’s biggest warship. He was held prisoner of war for eight years, living with his declared enemy. This is an excerpt from Commodore Boyagoda’s book “A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka”, as told to Sunila Galappatti.
By Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as narrated to Sunila Galappatti
They untied me and led me out of the boat. Two men walked up to me: one was in charge, the other was acting as his translator. They asked me—in Sinhala—whether I was wounded. I said I was not and I also introduced myself as Commander Boyagoda, the Commanding Officer of the ship they had attacked. They seemed a little taken aback by that—surprised.
Then there was a wait, but I didn’t know what for. Other cadres, both men and women, came out to investigate their catch. They were full of curiosity now. One of the guys who had been on the boat spotted my gold chain. He said ‘thangam thange’, ‘hand over the gold’. He tugged at my wedding ring. I told him it was too tight now to take off and that it was my wedding ring. But I took off the chain, with a priest’s talisman on it, and gave it to him. I gave him my watch too—which would have been of no use by then.
We waited a little longer and then I saw a jeep approach in the dark. A man got down, a hefty fellow. The interpreter said ‘He’s Soosai.’ This was such a familiar name to me and now I was meeting the man. He came and shook hands with me. I said, in English, ‘I have heard you so many times over the net, I am glad to meet you’. I don’t remember his reaction—at most he nodded his head. He pointed me to his jeep. I was to get in and he would drive me away.
We were given lunch packets of rice and curry. I ate all of mine but Vijitha could barely eat at all. He was scared and he was worried about his wife and newborn daughter. ‘Now they’re going to kill us’ he said. I said I doubted it but, if that was so, there was no point worrying about it until they drew their guns. Still, Vijitha fretted, as he would do for some time to come.
Eventually Soosai arrived. This time he was dressed in full camouflage uniform and looked much more impressive than he had done the night before. Today he was wearing a pistol in a holster and carrying a T56. He lifted his weapons and said ‘gifts from Premadasa.’ With him was a cameraman who was going to film our journey for the Tigers’ propaganda arm. I saw this footage years later, in captivity. By then it was like a movie; a disconnected experience of watching yourself in a film.
By boat we crossed the vast Kilali lagoon that separates the northern Jaffna peninsula from the rest of the island of Sri Lanka. It was dark by the time we arrived on the opposite shore. Another camouflaged jeep was parked there and we were put into it. Again Soosai tapped the body of the jeep and said ‘gift from Premadasa’. I knew we were on the peninsula but I had not been outside a naval base there since 1983. So there was no way I could recognise the terrain in the darkness. We moved in silence. I could see the odd lamp. We may have driven a long way to go a short distance. We stopped at a house and Soosai went in. When he returned it was without the cameraman and he was dressed again in a sarong and t-shirt. I kept feeling that he reminded me of a mudalali in a hardware shop.
LTTE Chief V Prabhakaran (left) with Sea Tigers Head Soosai (Image courtesy: LTTE)
We were brought to another house and told to get out of Soosai’s jeep. Here another man appeared. He was a very smart guy with a crew cut and an air of authority. He must have been in his mid thirties; about the same age as Soosai. ‘I am Selvaratnam,’ he said, in English. He introduced Soosai again. ‘He is our Commander of the Navy’ he said, indicating that Soosai and I were men of the same trade. Selvaratnam—Sasikumar by his nom de guerre—was the head of the LTTE’s reconnaissance unit and military office. He was to be my custodian for the next nine months and a powerful figure in my captivity.
Selvaratnam and his assistant Reuben now put us in another jeep and drove us on. We arrived at the house where we were going to stay. There was a room for me and a room for Vijitha. Inside, a towel, toothbrush and tube of toothpaste was laid on each makeshift bed. There were plates of food already served. They had been expecting us. Selvaratnam showed us our rooms and then ran through a few instructions. He said we were to stay inside. He said there was no point trying to escape; it wouldn’t be easy to do without being caught. He said we were not to speak to each other. But he was friendly in his instructions. He said not to worry, peace talks were coming and we would be going home very soon. It was less than 24 hours since we had been captured. I was not as disoriented as I had been the night before but still far from normal. I wanted more rest. Vijitha was given dinner in his room and I was given dinner at the table in the hall. Then we were told to go to sleep.
Commodore Ajith Boyagoda (right) speaking to a Sri Lankan Army officer after his release (Image courtesy: Tamilnet)
Another thing that happened while we were at Periyamadu was that Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup. We knew Sri Lanka had made it to the final because the guards had come to tell us. They were excited too. Even the LTTE made an exception for cricket. They would not call it the Sri Lankan team— they never used the new name of the country—but they supported it. They were big fans of Sanath Jayasuriya and Arjuna Ranatunga. It was a source of great pride to them that a Tamil player, Muttiah Muralitharan, should be one of the new stars of the team.
On the day of the final, the guards on duty made a point of frequently coming to our cell doors. By doing this, they could allow us also to catch the commentary on the pocket radios they carried. They’d come and update us on the score. You ask me if I remember any moments from the match? Not really; we didn’t hear enough for that. But it was still one of our most exciting days in captivity. Sri Lanka had never been in a World Cup final before. Most of us were cricketers ourselves. When Sri Lanka won, the guards cheered with us.
But mostly days just passed. That’s how it was. Then, one day they would come and say—get ready, come out, get into a truck. They’d drive you away. Then you’d know you’d left.
Excerpted with the permission of Harper Collins India from “A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka” by Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Gallappati
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Cover image courtesy: Wikimedia/Qz10