A small battle, not many dead – part one

Twelve years ago this weekend, I found myself crouched inside a Sri Lankan Navy assault boat racing across Trincomalee harbour. The Battle of Muttur – the first significant urban fight of the renewed and final round of the island’s civil war – was over, the military said, and the media were being taken there as proof.

But it didn’t feel over, and as a 25-year-old reporter covering my first proper conflict, I had rarely been so scared.

I was  young, but getting accustomed to tough environments. My first posting after training with Reuters news agency had been in southern Africa with a range of challenging assignments, including a hemorrhagic fever outbreak in Angola. In my 10 months in Sri Lanka, I’d watched its four-year-old cease-fire unravel, often from the sharp end. I’d already lost count of the number of dead bodies I’d seen, and more than once bomb blasts, ambushes and other violent death had come uncomfortably close.

Not far south of the same place four months earlier, we’d been barely 200 meters from a Tamil Tiger rebel ambush of a police jeep, got caught in the trigger-happy aftermath. I’d walked across jumpy frontlines, extricated myself from messy confrontations.

Now, we were deliberately heading into what suddenly felt like considerable danger.

I was suddenly very aware of wearing very heavy body armour. It was UK-pattern camouflage, and I’d pulled my photographer’s jacket over it to try and look less military. If I wound up in the sea, there was no way I could claw it off in time to avoid plunging to the very bottom.

The sailors were nervous, and so were the other journalists. Aside from an Indian photographer from the Associated Press, I was the only foreigner. The local press corps have been covering this war for years, in many cases most of their lives. They knew when things were dicey.

The military reassurances that the town was safe suddenly felt distinctly hollow. The gossip amongst the press corps was that the president himself had demanded the media be taken to tell the story of a victory. The faces of the personnel with us suggested that might be premature.

The crew braced themselves against their machine-gun mounts. At this stage of the war, a Sri Lankan Navy Fast Attack Craft the size of a civilian  cabin cruiser mounted as many heavy machine guns along its length as a US or British destroyer many times its size. The reason was simple – the fights between themselves and the rebel Sea Tigers, the maritime wing of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, were increasingly frequent, and to the death.

Even now, they remain the bloodiest and most violent sea battles of the century.

Speed, skill, and raw weight of firepower were often all that decided who lived or died. I glanced up at the gunner standing above me. If the Tigers came out for us, and he fell, would any of the journalists – or myself, with my very limited university reservist training – take his place? I was utterly committed to the values of impartiality and objectivity that define good journalism, and Reuters in particular. But if it happened, this would be a fight with no quarter – two unarmed Nordic monitors aboard a similar vessel had been lucky to escape with their lives from a recent Sea Tiger assault.

If I had leaInrned one thing in Sri Lanka, it was that both sides were capable of colossal, often wholly unnecessary brutality. But if it came to it, I viscerally I wanted our craft – and those aboard – to be the ones to emerge the other side.

It was hot, and there was no escape from the sun. Stinging sweat poured down into my eyes from under my helmet. I wished we had brought more water. The bottle wedged into the pocket of my cargo trousers was already two thirds empty.

Beside me, a young lieutenant commander pointed out the Tiger positions on the other side of the harbour. They were known to conceal scores of suicide speedboats, some already sent out earlier that week to attack passing convoys. Then there were the small, hugely heavily armed speedboats of the Sri Lankan Special Boat Squadron, who would escort us to the beach.

The landing stage we had used for ferry crossings to the town only a few months earlier was under repeated Tiger fire, so we transferred to smaller fiberglass landing craft in the middle of the harbour. There was a moderate swell, and as I jumped between the craft I cursed my choice of armour once again.

The smaller boat headed hard and fast for the beach. Next to me, I was amazed to see my local Tamil videographer, George David, beginning to unbuckle his shoes to paddle ashore. He was a local wedding cameraman we hired to film for us, and I suddenly felt very responsible for bringing him back alive.

We leapt out as soon as the carbon-fiber prow of the assault boat hit the beach, sprinting for the treeline.

It was still barely 18 months after the 2004 tsunami, and it was impossible to see where the damage from that ended and that from the battle began. Spent cartridge cases and bloodied field dressings spoke to the ferocity of the battle.

At the small naval outpost by the landing stage, the small detachment of naval infantry and members of Sri Lanka’s elite Commando Regiment looked exhausted. They had been fighting almost continuously for five days. So had another group at the police station on the other side of town, both completely surrounded.

One or more of them had also gunned down 17 local aid workers for a French charity less than 24 hours earlier. Their bodies were still lying in the compound, and the military would be desperate to stop us finding them.

The small garrison had been unprepared for the sudden assault by massed rebel fighters. The Tigers had dominated the town while its ethnic Muslim minority population cowered in their homes or dug trenches in the gardens. They had been lucky the strong points had held, and their exhaustion and trauma was unmistakable.

From a hotel overlooking the harbour, I’d watched both sides shell the town furiously. The previous day, I’d been out on the road just south of it as 30,000 of its occupants walked south through frontlines and fire to escape. It had left the urban areas almost completely deserted – and anyone left in them, particularly the aid workers, incredibly vulnerable.

Now the Tigers had apparently withdrawn, although the military said pockets remained in the outer suburbs. They left behind their dead, several now lain unceremoniously by a ditch near the jetty.

Someone had pulled a few pieces of corrugated iron over them. When they removed it to show the corpses to the journalists, the smell was rank and unforgettable.

My crash and injury was almost exactly a month away.

To be continued

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