Wars are terrible things. They kill people, destroy their property and livelihoods. They also destroy people’s souls. Horrendous atrocities are committed against the defenceless, often in the name of the highest ideals, and often by men – and nowadays also women – who have rarely shown deliberate cruelty towards their fellow human beings or even animals before they donned a uniform or took up a cause. War also turns the unarmed into passive monsters, regaling in the death and destruction of the enemy, gloating over body counts and encouraging their armed heroes to kill.

But war also produces heroism, struggles against odds that seem so astounding that surmounting them seems humanly impossible. Soldiers sacrifice their lives to save their friends and civilians, survive despite horrific wounds and refuse to yield when everything seems lost. Such men and women rise to the status of national heroes, praised and worshipped by their people.

The war in Sri Lanka also produced plenty of examples of such cruelty and courage. Shocking butchery of the helpless was matched by stunning bravery. Over a dozen Sri Lankan soldiers have won the highest military honour in Sri Lanka, the Parama Veera Wibushana, in honour of deeds that defied odds and often logic. They included corporal Gamini Kularatne who stopped an enemy ‘tank’ single handed and 2nd Lt. K.W.T. Nissanka who charged rebel assault troops with grenades in hand despite being severely wounded. The Tigers had their own heroes; countless nameless young men and women who launched themselves against the overwhelming firepower of the enemy and leaders who led from the front. At Ananthapuram in 2009, ‘Colonel’ Theepan’, the legendary rebel commander, the bane of the army at Muhamalai, refused to leave his cadres when the opportunity was there and died with them, earning the rare honour of being one of the few, if not the only Tiger commander whose bravery was publicly, if grudgingly, acknowledged by the Sri Lankan defence officials.  These were brave souls from across the ethnic divide, who showed that courage, like cruelty, knows no ethnicity.

But courage comes more easily to the armed than the unarmed. With a gun, a grenade or even a knife a fighting man feels more reassured, more willing to face danger than a man who has nothing but the mercy of the enemy to count on for his survival. If the armed man – or woman – is trained to fight and kill or has a cause to die or kill for it is even easier to overcome fear and face death. For the thousands of civilians who were caught between two fires, there was no such source of strength than their own will to survive the cruelty, depravity and humiliation visited upon them. This too took courage.

There is however, another, special kind of courage. The kind of courage that makes the absolute difference between life and death, the kind of bravery that is demonstrated only because you fear an enemy worse than death: your conscience. Often, it is to be found among the small people for it is they who stand to lose the most by giving into their conscience. To the great, courage is often like arms to the soldier. It comes with the territory.

The war in Sri Lanka had its fair share of such courage too, stirring in its nobility, astonishing in its simplicity, and I might also add, shamefully banished into obscurity. Let me describe two such moments that should have stirred nations but found only a passing mention in the media.

The first occurred during an army rampage in Mannar in December 1984. This was the height of the Tamil militants’ ‘offensive’ against the government forces and a landmine attack near the Jubilee Junction on the Mannar-Medawachchiya Road killed a soldier and wounded six others. As it was customary at the time, the army went berserk, shooting civilians in homes and vehicles. They came across a CTB bus packed with mainly Tamil civilians and the soldiers, their thirst for revenge still unquenched, ordered the passengers to alight so that they could be mowed down freely. The bus conductor, a Sinhalese named Kuda Devage Jayasena protested, saying he was responsible for the lives of his passengers. He would not allow them to be butchered. But the soldiers were in no mood to listen to such reason. They shot the conductor first before murdering the Tamil passengers and the Muslim driver. Altogether about 90 people were reportedly killed that day, the soldier who died in the landmine blast and the bus conductor who stood up for his Tamil passengers the only Sinhalese to die.

The second incident, no less poignant than the first, occurred several years later at the height of the second Ealam War.  The Tigers were frequently attacking public transport between Akkaraipattu and Potuvil in order to deter Muslims from travelling between the two towns. Sometime in 1992 they attacked one CTB bus and killed 14 of the passengers, 12 Muslims, one Sinhalese and a Tamil. The Tamil passenger, a man named Rajakulendran, was ordered to alight so that he could be spared. But the brave man refused, choosing to stay with the rest of the passengers. The Tigers promptly dragged the man out and shot him dead before mowing down the rest of the passengers.

Such bravery, such courage, makes us feel small and insignificant. Two simple, probably impoverished men had made the supreme sacrifice standing up for what they believed was right, when many of us, even those of us who would show tremendous courage and daring with arms in our hands would have shrugged our shoulders and stepped aside, salving our consciences with the rationale that it is stupid to intervene when we can achieve nothing. Surely, such acts of bravery belong to the heroes who risk their lives on the field of battle, not to insignificant civilians who should be happy to be spared their lives during such a savage strife?

Perhaps it was stupid and meaningless for nothing has come out of those heroic acts of sacrifice. The passengers were killed anyway and the sacrifice of Jayasena and Rajakulendran simply sank into obscurity, inspiring none. No monuments stand for them, no roads are named after them and no plaques mark the places where they fell. But then, why has it been so? Why is it that such noble acts go unnoticed? How many of us who know of Kularathna, of Nissanka, of Theepan, know about these men, men who died simply because they believed in our common humanity? If they had died charging enemy trenches or tanks their names would echo in our ears like thunder but as they were little people who died for the ‘lesser’ cause of their conscience they are never heard of. We do not know if they were young or old, where they lived, or who they left behind. We don’t even know what they looked like. We only have their names. The story about Jayasena appeared in an article of military atrocities in Mannar in the Saturday Review[1] and to the best of my knowledge, nowhere else, while Rajakulendran’s sacrifice was tucked away in page 7 of the Veerakesari.[2] No doubt, many people who read these reports would have been stirred, but only for a few seconds before moving on to other more ‘important’ parts of the stories, the savagery of the perpetrators of the massacres.

I have nothing against celebrating heroism in battle but I also believe that courage and heroism of the kind displayed by those two simple souls must also be recognised, especially by a nation that is cries itself hoarse about reconciliation and the need to emphasise our common humanity.  Are there many better ways to remind ourselves of the cruelty and courage that binds us than to remember and appreciate the selfless sacrifice of a poor Sinhalese bus conductor who died defending his Tamil passengers and an obscure Tamil who fell refusing to abandon his Sinhala and Muslim brethren?

[1] ‘Mannar Tragedy’, Saturday Review, 22.12.84, p.3.

[2] The incident is alluded to in Ben Bavinck, Of Tamils and Tigers: a Journey Through Sri Lanka’s War Years, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa 2011) p.253.

  • Siva

    Wonderful article.
    I think the “Arrogance of power” written by Rajan Hoole mention the Rajakulendran and the massacre of the muslim by the LTTE.

  • Sonali

    Articles such as these make us ponder… ponder on the futility of it all, but at rare instances such as the cases of Jayasena and Rajakulendran, be filled with wonderment at obscure events such as these, which make all the difference, even though, ironically, they don’t. Thank you for sharing.

  • luxmy

    I can’t thank you enough – you’re simply marvelous.
    We need to make sure that the politicians don’t kill off the common humanity binding the various ethnicities in Sri Lanka by the politicians and their cronies. But then these politicians are voted in by the people.

  • silva

    This article shows that we all have inherent humanity in us and the society has constructed a mechanism by which some people are easily dehumanised. So education in schools and other places have a duty to see that the inherent humanity is not destroyed by destructive mechanisms.

  • Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    They were the Gods! The very best among men!

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

    • wijayapala

      The tragedy is that it is the best of people who do not survive these events of history.

    • Ward

      They are Gods indeed.

  • Walter

    What I understand from this article is first
    The Government has and is lying about the atrocities committed by uniformed personel.
    Of course so much of news has filtered down that’s why the question of War Crimes is alive and kicking.
    An elected Government cannot condone these outrageous murders. they themselves are complicit.
    Banda was a complicit of the 1958 riots.
    Mrs.B murdering the Jvp.
    J R Jayawardena, Premadasa and Lalith and Gamini were also complicits during the 1983 riots.

    Now coming to the minorities taking up arms against an elected Government.
    They must be punished individually.
    However what does one do when your rights have been usurped.?
    Can any body find an answer

  • Beautiful.Thank you!

  • rita

    Thanks very much – we desperately need more of them: Jayasena and Rajakulendran.

  • Thank you for compelling us to remember, Channa, that entangled with the rusted barb wire, burning rubber and rotting muck that made us unleash so much violence on ourselves, are also these rare threads of gold that the fires could not consume…

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    I like to relate the heroic action by William. William, who had a tea shop at Madhu junction off Mannar-Vavuniya road, was in a bus in Mannar that was traveling towards Madhu Junction. It as soon after the 1983 pogrom started. The Army stopped the bus. Asked the Muslims and Sinhalese to get down and started shooting the Tamil passengers. William protested and tried to stop the soldiers. They shot him dead. All of those in the bus were either dead or seriously injured.

    William was from Minuengoda. He was fair, short and a wonderful person. In the late 1940s my father hired him as a domestic worker. Soon he became part of the family and a friend of my brothers and I and children in Athiady, Jaffna. My father seeing his industriousness employed him as a conductor in his bus company – Northern Omnibus Company (NOB). Soon his integrity and industriousness promoted him to Inspector. After the Bus companies were nationalised, William continued to work with the CTB till the time of his death. The last time I saw him was when he treated me with Tea and Vadai and introducing me to his friends and neighbours and how he helped me during my school years. My brothers and I miss him.

    This tragic but heroic event was related to a group by a witness to the event, who at that time lived in Madhu. He knew William but did not know my relationship to William. When I asked him to describe William and his appearance he was accurate and knew William had a tea shop at the Madhu Junction where he lived.

    I hope Chana would collect such heroic humanaitarians who put the value of other’s lives before their own. A monument with their names should honour them.

    • rita

      Thank you, Ethir and Channa.
      Let us bring out the stories of such Sri Lankans – it will inculcate a sense of fairness to ALL citizens leading to true reconciliation.

      • rita

        That will evaporate the ‘otherness’ from the island.

      • silva

        Ethir. thanks.
        Channa, pl continue your noble task of throwing light on inherent humanity bracing reckless politicians and government.
        Educationists, pl pl pl take note.

      • Punitham

        I’m choking (surely so many others are) – the thought of sharing jackfruit curry from the South and the palmyrah fruit fritters from the North in oversqueezed rooms in the university residential halls in Peradeniya in the 60s !!! But later on in the 80s my cousin and his friends got nearly killed after losing one of them to the student mobs in the very same halls. ….
        So many thoughts of hindsight of ”if only we did this…”, ”if only we did that….”, it woudn’t have turned out this way.

    • channa

      Thanks Ethir and everybody else. It would be a truly worthwhile project if we can do it.

    • ” Greater love has no one than this..

      that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jesus Christ).


    Humans with the qualities of gods, would not always stay with us,

    They fade away with the wind and time to Haven.

    Because we are sinners.

  • Rohini Hensman

    Two heroes who should certainly be remembered and celebrated by those who have an interest in the future of our country! I collected many such stories when I was doing my research on refugees and displaced persons. Some are told in fictionalised form in my novel ‘Playing Lions and Tigers’, which includes an eerily similar incident to the Rajakulendran story, which I had not heard about when I wrote it!

    • theja

      After the death of so many of our fellow countrymen haven’t we yet learned a lesson? War brings so much of suffering to the world and still we go on celebrating our victories annually. At least if we get on with reconciliation in a positive manner we can justify all these sacrifices made by heroes. What has happened to the Paradise Isle? And where is the Dharma which is believed to be our foundation?

  • Austin Fernando

    Thanks for reminding the readers of the heroes other than those who carried arms and ammunition. Excellently written and look forward for more of these. I wish Sinhala and Tamil media editors would consider translating this article to be read by their readers who are afforded only killer heroes in many an instance.
    Austin Fernando

  • Kumari Janus

    I appreciate this article.
    Now a question to all written above before the warmongers pitch in.
    Winning the war, Could you all raise a voice for winning the peace?
    why don’t you raise voice -at least with a signed declaration- about on-going colonization, military encroachment and humiliation of living people and desecration of dead people in the Tamil speaking areas with your tourist mode and enthusiasm and establishment of business ventures?

    Until it happens, people like me can see this sort of writings as a diffusion and distraction of the real original problem that has long been existed. Is this in a way getting peace with your Guilty Conscience by asserting you are not part of such horrendous acts? In such case, How can this verbose feel-good article a solution? Or, could we move one step ahead to discuss and declare how can (re)solve the problems rather than lamenting further?

    • Punitham

      ”Let us not close our eyes to the vast human rights abuses that continue to occur in Sri Lanka just as many average Germans did when they pretended the Holocaust never happened. … What the President did do immediately after the last election was to change the constitution so that he could be President for life and the critical civilian posts such as that of the head of the police, the elections commissioner, etc, would be decided by the President as opposed to an independent body as the Sri Lankan Constitution had mandated till then. ….” – Ruling Rajapaksa dynasty must be held accountable for the atrocities they are responsible for, *Viresh Fernando, 19 March 2012, An Open Letter to Fellow Sinhala, Canadians, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/4813

    • Padmavathi

      @Kumari Janus—You are missing the point of this very humanizing article. The point of the article was to show that both the Sinhalese and the Tamils (and Muslims also) sacrificed for this war and of course both sides committed atrocities. But the problem right now is people like you. A. The Tamil “Diaspora” and former LTTE supporters who call for human rights not for the sake of human rights or justice, but for political gain or for revenge. B. The Sinhala nationalists (a.k.a. MR’s core voters) who gloat over the military defeat of the LTTE and turns a blind eye to atrocities committed by the armed forces of a democratic state. What Sri Lanka needs right now is not this polarized debate on human rights, but the promotion of human rights and justice regardless of ethnicity, because right now there are many rights being violated in this country, and corruption is abound and it affects everyone on the island.

  • ManoR

    Mani was a student at Royal. Happy go lucky, laid back lad and also a rugby player for under the 17 team. He and a bunch of students were studying at Hindustan institute of Aeronautical and Engineering technology. (HIET) After the July violence in Sri lanka some of the Tiger Tamils and their backed in Madras were looking to attack Sinhalese students in Madras and chase them out.(all those Sinhalese came back to Sri lanka in a hurry because of fear and becaue they were chased away). A group went to the house where Mani and his Sinhala friends house(I have stayed there)looking for the Sinhalese and they were hiding behind. Mani was a tough guy and was not afraid of anyone. He went to the door and refused to let the thugs in. Mani was Tamil. The thugs shot and killed him through the side of the door at point blank range but because of his act the young Sinhalese kids were saved. A young wonderful Tamil who couldn’t care less about Separatism sacrificed his young life to save his Sinhala friends. Very soon after that, almost all the Sinhalese students who were studying in Madras moved back to Sri Lanka before completing their studies. I stopped flying back via Madras after that.

  • Punitham

    ”So many thoughts of hindsight of ”if only we did this…”, ”if only we did that….”, it woudn’t have turned out this way”.

    With what has been going on in the last three years how many Jayasenas, Rajakulendrans and Williams are needed to make up for ”a strong Southern lobby to push the Rajapaksa regime to come up with constructive proposals”?

  • Nimal

    I cannot exactly remember how it has been written. I read it may be 35 years ago. In Tarzi Vttachi’s book “ Emergency 1958” he mentioned that one Sinhala trade unionist affiliated to then left party, cannot remember the name, protected many Tamil workers in his house and when Sinhala thugs came to attack them he has said that they could kill him not the Tamils. Unfortunately he has to sacrifice his life. If somebody has this book please let us know his name. We should treasure names of these people.

  • ranjit de melranjith-de

    i went on a fact finding mission in june 2010 with a ngo to mannar,jaffna and the wanni.in mannankulam we met the catholic priest fr.james pathmanathen.this is what he told us regarding the army, during the last stages of the war.fr. james was also a captive of the tamil tigers,like thousends of innocent tamils in this very small land space,and infact he was shot from behind by the tigers.according to fr. james during the very last stages when the tamil civillians started running towards the army,the tamil tigers started shooting them in the back.the soldiers without thinking about the dangers for them, came running ,picked up the injurd and the injured on their shoulders, went running back to the army area.one may talk much about the atrocities of the army,but this is a fact and these soldiers were also brave.i do hope fr. james wont deny this. ranjit demel berlin, colombo

  • Thank you for writing this.

    Even though it was about the Civil Rights movement, Toni Morrison’s words in her novel Paradise, seem fitting for this context:

    “Twenty, thirty years from now,…all sorts of people will claim pivotal, controlling, defining positions in the rights movement… What would not be gainsaid, but would remain invisible in the newspapers and the books… were the ordinary folks…Yes, twenty, thirty years from now, those people will be dead or forgotten; their own small stories part of no grand record or even its footnotes, although they were the ones who formed the spine on which the televised ones stood.” (p.212)

  • ranjit de mel

    when i go through the comments,i do see all are proud of these brave individuals.there were many tamil politicians and individuals,who were killed by the ltte,for critizising the atrocities of the ltte.i would like to mention the name of a tamil brave politician,who luckily is still living. wheather in s.l. or abroad he was allways critical of ltte,and never endorsed the atrocities of the ltte.he is hon. mr.ananda sangahari,the charismatic tulf president.the tna during the time of prabahakaram,was the mouth piece of the ltte.tna including mr.sambandan never said a word against the ltte,were they cowards. ranjit de mel berlin colombo

  • Free Thinker

    Channa, I am speechless. A brilliant article. Indeed, sacrificing your life becomes the supreme sacrifice when it is done to defend your conscience.

    If there were more Sri Lankans like you reconciliation would become that much easier. Unfortunately our education and political systems are churning out people who are intolerant and xenophobic. This, coupled with a autocratic regime does not augur well for this island paradise.

    Albeit, at a different level, I know of a close friend whose precious Volkswagen car was burnt while she was trying to save a Tamil friends Mercedes. Not once in the past so many years has she mentioned this incident with regret.

    Lets salute all Sri Lankans (be they Sinhala, Tamil, Muslims or Burghers) who risked their lives to protect others and stood up against injustice.

  • Kumari Janus

    Lets salute all Sri Lankans (be they Sinhala, Tamil, Muslims or Burghers) who risked their lives to protect others and stood up against injustice.
    I salute these people, but I will never ever call myself sri lankan as I do not feel so. Interestingly people indirectly force on the people who were born in that island. If one wants to salute these people who risked their lives to protect others and stood up against injustice, please let any individual to decide if she wants to be a sri lankan or not. Do not try to enforce it with “Lets salute all Sri Lankans (be they Sinhala, Tamil, Muslims or Burghers).”