A long watch

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“I didn’t want to die so I had to live. I wanted to live. I wanted to leave”

Commodore Ajith Boyagoda as told to Sunila Galappatti

A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka is an unusual book for an avid reader on Sri Lanka’s conflict, or perhaps any violent, protracted war. Weiss, Harrison, Pratap, Balasingham, Tenduf-La and more recently Subramanian and Mohan have all written books on Sri Lanka’s war. From Amirthanayagam’s poetry to Munaweera’s beautifully evocative prose, I’ve read more books than I can fully remember or count on our conflict – from varied perspectives, embracing different genres, separating fact from fiction or sometimes combining both. None comes close to Galappatti’s recounting of Commodore Boyagoda’s story. Though I read it cover to cover recently, the appreciation of content and prose took time. It is, stylistically, an easy read. The lucid prose, the distillation of conversations held over many years, makes for a compelling page-turner, but then so is any decent airport fiction. This is emphatically not airport fiction. A Long Watch is something else, and to describe it risks the appropriation of Commodore Boyagoda’s incredible story to fit what loosely put would be a liberal-democratic perspective of war and a federalist approach to conflict transformation. And therein lies the rub. The disservice to both Galappatti and Boyagoda in simply framing this book in a way that makes it partial to how civil society has critiqued the conflict, and projected durable solutions to it, is that it is so much more. The Commodore’s story is a profoundly moving, humane one. But here again lies another danger. It is possible to read the story from the lens of the Stockholm Syndrome, rendering the brutality of war and the parties to it, of which my generation was almost born convinced, toothless and a mere stylistic backdrop to what is an exclusive, and by extension, extraordinary take on being a prisoner of war. It is in navigating this terrain that Boyagoda and Galappatti have done something quite remarkable – to present a story of an individual in a manner that confronts us with an inconvenient truth. There is a deep humanity in our worst enemies, and there is life, happiness, trust and even joy, enmeshed even in the worst cycles of violence.

A Long Watch begins, unsurprisingly, with Commodore Boyagoda’s entry into the Navy and the reasons that contributed to the decision. It is not surprising to find anecdotes of shipman’s life. It is however refreshing to see, throughout the book, Boyagoda’s keen observations and wit on a range of things, like for example, the difference between a Colombo crow and a Kandy crow, his poignant yet revealing brushstrokes of the capital city in the 70s and the LTTE’s take on cricket during the ’96 World Cup. Boyagoda’s self-deprecating honesty throughout is refreshing: “At the time we thought it was a superb coincidence that we were all Sinhala Buddhists. We had that majority feeling”. The change in outlook, independent of and indeed, predating his capture by the LTTE, is evident by the end of the book. From the early life in the Navy dealing with smuggling to the transformation of the service into what it is today, the book offers remarkable insights around life at sea, and indeed, on land. For example, I found it particularly interesting to discover the reason why sailors salute with palms inward, and read about Boyagoda’s assistance towards Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pada yatra in the early 90’s against enforced disappearances by the then UNP government, now deeply ironic. The book is sprinkled with these random insights and personal asides, adding authenticity and breaking, to great effect, what could have otherwise easily been a somewhat monotonous, linear retelling of a singular life story. From the escalation of violence in the North to Boyagoda’s actions during the bheeshana yugaya the book speaks overwhelmingly of loss – not just of lives, but of ways of interacting, travel, communal relations and trust – the ephemera of ordinary life eviscerated by war, to be missed sorely only by those who knew what life was before an all consuming violence.

“Perhaps when you are ordered to destroy things, you develop an instinct to spoil everything”. The most controversial aspects of the book for the defence establishment in Sri Lanka come from passages that deal with the Navy’s and indeed Army’s violence against the Tamil, civilian population. The same sick mentality that gave rise to ‘yudde saha sudde’ by the Army especially in Karainagar, and the ‘barbecue ekak daanawa’ by the Navy are, over time, what gave rise to the the despicable acts towards the end of the war and by Sri Lanka’s armed forces. On the other hand, Boyagoda also flags, as clearly and indeed at greater length, the degree to which others protected the dignity of those in their care and caught in conflict, and measures taken to maintain trust and respect in trying circumstances, in the rare understanding that no military victory could ever ensure a lasting peace if hearts and minds were lost.

The events leading to his capture are quickly dealt with, taking us to the core of the book – life as a prisoner of war under the LTTE for eight long years. Stripped of command responsibility and the trappings of rank, Boyagoda’s inner struggle with captivity is masked by interactions with his captors. Through him, we see them and in a light that will immediately rile many who have endured much worse in captivity, or at the hands of the LTTE. Boyagoda makes no excuses – this is his story, and not some grand tale of braggadocio or bravado against insurmountable odds. Boyagoda’s story is to live, somehow, hour to hour, stretching into days, months and years. From cricket and cooking to chains and confinement, this is war from a POW’s perspective. Brutal violence is never far away – from the cries of men tortured to the indignity suffered. Boyagoda’s story however is around survival, and how through eight years, he interacted with those from the LTTE who were in fact also prisoners of war, seeking escape but unable to do so.

Boyagoda’s reintegration into society, upon his release from captivity, frames the last part of the book, and for me is the most compelling part. From tasks like using a toilet at home to how he interacted with family, from attempts to use him as a political prop to the struggle to clear his name, from the cacophony of inaccurate media reports to the pin drop silence from the Navy around what he endured, the dramatic shift from captivity to freedom places Boyagoda, at first, in new prisons of isolation, frustration and loneliness. How he overcomes them is remarkable.

Where does Boyagoda end and Galappatti begin? The decisions around inclusion necessarily embrace exclusion – is Galappatti’s book the same as Boyagoda’s story? We may never know, and it is frankly, an unnecessary exploration. We have here a book that connects hearts and minds and not through some sickeningly melodramatic palaver. Boyagoda’s tone is disciplined, moderate and principled. Galappatti’s presentation is with a light touch, profoundly sensitive and deeply authentic. Boyagoda notes that his “story began and ended in two completely different countries” and that caught between the two, he didn’t know his way. A Long Watch may help him find his way, but it helps us more as an essential book around a war that remains cloaked in myth, propaganda and fear. Boyagoda’s significant courage in retelling his story thus must surely be matched by our own, to not ever revisit what gave rise to our war. He offers some humble advice in this regard. We can do far worse than listen with an open mind and heart.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 22 May 2016

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