A lifeline to the outside world
Former naval commander, Ajith Boyagoda, was captured and detained for eight years by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). During this time, the ICRC regularly visited him and his fellow detainees. In Colombo, he spoke to Claudia McGoldrick about what helped him to get through his ordeal.
Any naval commander who, in the midst of a civil war, sets out on what is supposed to be just a routine patrol, may nevertheless be reasonably expected to r un a certain degree of risk.
Yet little did Commodore Ajith Boyagoda know, as he sailed out of Colombo harbour on 18 September 1994, that he would be captured off Sri Lanka's north-west coast by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and spend eight long years as their highest-ranking detainee.
The 55-year-old former commander still maintains the composure and discipline instilled by his elite naval training in India and the United Kingdom. Smartly dressed in suit and tie, he recalls with calm deliberation the events around his capture.
" At the time, I was commander of the SLNS Sagarawardena with a crew of 42 men. We sailed from Colombo harbour on a routine patrol towards Mannar on the north-west coast. At around midnight on the second day, we were taken completely unawares when a suicide boat of the Sea Tigers rammed into our ship and exploded. Then a second boat rammed into us and the ship started sinking, so those of us who were able had to abandon ship fast. "
Amid all the confusion, the commander could only guess as to the fate of his crew. He would later learn that 20 were missing, of whom two were later confirmed dead, while 18 managed to escape. He and one of his crew were captured.
" There were two of us clinging to a life raft. The Sea Tigers were searching the waters with flashlights and firing randomly. The man next to me was killed. They eventually fished me out of the water, along with one other of my crew. I honestly feared less for my own life than for the fate of all my men " , says Boyagoda without any sense of bravado.
Boyagoda recounts that he and his colleague were initially taken to an LTTE safe house on the Jaffna peninsula, where they were adequately treated but not allowed to talk to each other. " It was during this time that the LTTE declared us as detainees to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) " , says Boyagoda. " I clearly remember the day of our first visit from the ICRC. Our guards told us to get dressed and shaved because it was a special day. It also happened to be my second son's sixth birthday. "
" The ICRC visits, which usually happened once every one or two months, became a lifeline for us, a kind of insurance policy against any ill-treatment. These visits were much awaited: we would always get a grand lunch that day, and the chance to have a smoke! " says Boyagoda with a smile.
" These visits were our only contact with the outside world. Not only did the ICRC bring newspapers and books, they also brought letters from our families, and allowed us to write letters in return. These Red Cross Messages really kept me going, especially since in eight years I saw my wife only twice and my three sons just once. "
The first such occasion was when Boyagoda, after six years of detention, went on hunger strike along with several of his fellow detainees to protest at the lack of progress towards securing their release. The ICRC visited regularly, and arranged for Boyagoda's wife and elder brother to see him. The second family visit, again facilitated by the ICRC, took place in 2002 around the time of the ceasefire between the two warring sides, and only months before Boyagoda's eventual release.
" I have no words to explain my feelings at seeing my children after so long. My youngest son, who was only one year old when I was captured, didn't know me at all and didn't want to come near me, he was too shy. It was a very emotional moment " , says Boyagoda pensively. " Hats off to my wife though, who managed to play both the mother's and father's roles for all those years and ensure that the children were properly educated and well looked after. "
After being moved to various places of detention over the years, the release of Commander Boyagoda and six other military personnel, in exchange for 11 LTTE detainees, finally took place in September 2002. The ICRC facilitated the handover at the Omanthai crossing point between LTTE and government-controlled territories.
" My wife, mother, my two brother and their wives all came to get me. It was only then that I learned my father had died two years earlier " , says Boyagoda wistfully. " On the one hand my release felt like I was born again, but on the other hand it took me a long time to get over the nightmare of what I had been through. "
" We basically survived because of the ICRC – not only because of the things they provided such as food, medicines and the Red Cross Messages, but also because we could bring our grievances to them as a neutral party " , says Boyagoda. " This was a huge consolation to us. "