Thursday, June 6, 2013

1998 at Kokkilai: A Tour That Was Impossible!

Thennamaramwadi fishing settlement at the Thissapura-end of the Kokkilai lagoon (1998).

It was 1998, and the war against LTTE was heated up. It was only two days after the LTTE blew up a vehicle bomb in front of the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy. I was on my way from Kandy, heading north, towards Padavi Sri Pura. That was the last Sinhala village before Welioya, which was bordering Mulaitivu controlled by the terrorists.

I was with Hetti, my batch mate at the Teachers College, who was from Padavi Sri Tissapura (a little beyond Sri Pura). We were in a small Delica van, which we got into from Anuradhapura with a few others who were heading for the same destination. Those days after 3.00 pm, the only means of transport from Anuradhapura to Padavi Sri Pura were Delica vans operated by private van owners. They would load their vans from Anuradhapura Bus Stand and speed up along the deserted road via Medawachchiya, Kebithigollewa, Padaviya, and finally to Sri Pura, a distance of about 80 kilometers within a couple of hours.

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The next day Hetti and I had breakfast from his home. Hetti called Gamini, one of his good friends who was a navy officer working at China Bay camp at that time, to join us. When Gamini arrived, we set off to Thennamaramwadi, a place on the land-side of Kokkilai Lagoon, where there was a small temporary fishing settlement of the fisher folk from Negombo and Chilaw. Those people came to this war-beaten area to fish when the waters are rough in their home seas, putting their lives at grave risk. Thennamaramwadi was also the landing site of the Sri Lanka Army motor boats that come from Kokkilai Camp which was located right on the other side (the sea-side) of the lagoon. The Kokkilai army camp was on the Mulaitivu side of the lagoon-mouth. It was surrounded by water on three sides and the jungle of Mulaitivu on the fourth. The army boats came to Thennamaramwadi mainly to take essential supplies like food, beverage and fuel to the camp.

Three of us (Hetti, Gamini and I) were waiting for a boat from the Army Camp!

Set off to Kokkilai Camp in an army motorboat. (From Left: a soldier, Gamini, a soldier, a soldier, Hetti). Thennamaramwadi ferry is straight behind and fading in the horizon.

Finally it came. Gamini, the one having connections started talking to the soldiers in the boat. He said that he is from the China Bay naval base, and introduced us as his good friends who would like to visit Kokkilai army camp and see the bird sanctuary. The soldiers called their camp by military communications equipment. After long conversations and verifying Gamini’s identity from China Bay naval base, the Brigadier who was in-charge of the Kokkilai camp permitted us to come!

Near the wrecked helicopter.

Gamini, Hetti and I got into the boat. There were three soldiers in-charge of the boat. They had automatic weapons with them, to use in case of an LTTE attack. Three of us were strictly advised to lie down in the boat and keep our heads down, if we happen to come across a speeding LTTE gun-boat crossing the lagoon. The boat briskly took us away into the lagoon. Thennamaramwadi ferry was seen smaller and smaller every second. Our boat was pushed forward by a 40-horsepower outboard engine.

Fallen hero: SLAF MI-24 attacked by LTTE, floating in Kokkilai Lagoon (1998).

The soldiers became friendly with us on this 45-minute journey to the other side of Kokkilai Lagoon. They said that it was just a few days after a deadly attack launched by the terrorists to get the Kokkilai camp. They were even surprised that under such unfavourable conditions the Brigadier allowed us into the camp. The soldiers explained us how hard they fought with the enemy to protect the camp which was ever important for the security of Tissapura and the adjoining villages, and the Pulmoddai Mineral Sands Corporation. They had a secret to show us. They took us around a few small islands in the lagoon to show us an SLAF MI-24 helicopter gunship floating in the lagoon. It had taken an LTTE missile fire from Mulaitivu jungle, while flying over the lagoon. After shooting down the helicopter, LTTE had tried to drag it to their area. However the army boats were guarding the wrecked helicopter round-the-clock.

Once we landed on the other shore, the soldiers took us to the Brigadier. He welcomed us warmly and facilitated us to go to the beach, and see whether there are any birds left! Mulaitivu and Pulmoddai are on either side of the mouth of Kokkilai Lagoon. The camp was on the Mulaitivu side. Those days the lagoon mouth was shut by a natural sand-ridge that occurs once in every year. We walked on the beach of pitch black mineral sand called ‘monazite’ which is purified into Ilmanite (Iron Titanium Oxide) at Pulmoddai Mineral Sands Factory. We crossed the sandy ridge over to the Pulmoddai side, but the soldiers who accompanied us said it was not a good idea to walk about at that place because LTTE cadres might be watching us. Therefore we turned back. On the way I saw a few migrant cranes fishing in the shallow water. That was all what remained in a once-a-bird-sanctuary. Though we could not see any more birds, the journey gave us great memories that still live in our minds.

Thanks to Hetti, Gamini, the soldiers and other officers of SL Army because, if not for them this tour in Kokkilai Lagoon would have been impossible in 1998.