Restoring Salawa | Sunday Observer

Restoring Salawa

Last year, on June 5 the residents of Kosgama and subsequently the entire nation were filled with paranoia when the ammunition depot of the Army suddenly erupted into a raging inferno sending out a volley of explosions. To a nation that was relishing total peace after three decades of bloody conflict where terrorism was defeated, the noise of exploding ordnance came as an alarming surprise. Perhaps, those most alarmed were the soldiers within this massive base, who wisely adhered to their evacuation drill.

Over the next few hours the people could only watch from a safe distance.

A year has gone by and to many, outside of this area, the incident is a fading memory.

During the incident the Army assisted by the Navy, Air Force and Police Special Task Force responded with responsibility, with the primary aim of minimizing human casualties. Aided by the Fire Brigade they bravely doused the raging inferno. One must remember that such a vast incident spread over a large area (at night) is not easy to control; especially, with unexploded bombs and shells scattered around. The men of the Engineer Regiment had to undertake a very dangerous task as they began to walk and assess the damage and tabulate the live ordnance.

The next step of safely moving this ordnance fell on the shoulders of the Army’s Chief Field Engineer, Major General Dananjith Karunaratne. Aided by officers and over 200 sappers they set a plan in motion to seek and secure the ammunition. One must remember, the intense heat had already primed and semi armed some types of explosives.

Zero casualties

These sappers displayed the highest form of courage as they willingly walked into fields and clusters of trees where an assortment of explosives lay. While the Army has specialized de-mining dogs that can pick up the scent of explosives the Engineer Regiment did not use these dogs, as they did not want to put the innocent animals in harm’s way. Maj.General Karunaratne recalled those intense days “Our sappers did a brilliant job, encountering the highest level of danger.

Removing live ordnance is a high risk task. Our soldiers faced health hazards as the air was polluted. Some were dizzy and vomiting. Yet, they pressed on and continued with clearing the fields”.

After many days the Engineer Regiment had cleared all traces of ordnance with zero casualties, which is indeed an achievement. They began the second phase of the operation with clearing rubble. Earth moving machines and manpower were used, with support from the Engineer Services Regiment. Even months later when the villagers needed help to clear rubble the army sent their bulldozers and dump trucks to assist.

Another senior officer who was a first responder to the scene was Major General Sundantha Ranasinghe, Commander SF- West. (Incidentally, he is the officer who also coordinated the flood relief operations in the past 2 weeks). Maj. General Ranasinghe said, “We immediately set up a cordon of 500 metres and then extended it to 1Km. The army initiated our contingency plan.

The OIC Kosgama Police also helped us in clearing the road. By 1 am the explosions had ceased although there were sporadic blasts”. SF- West mobilized two battalions (4 SLLI and 10 SLNG) to set cordon and control the initial panic as people were alarmed and afraid. Army Commander Lt. General Chrishanthe de Silva had also arrived on the scene and began giving instructions to his senior officers.

Looters

By the next morning, with clear light, Maj. General Ranasinghe and the Army Commander went inside the camp (which was not fully cleared) to assess the damage. The area was sealed off and the Engineer Regiment was mobilized. One of the issues the military had to deal with was looters who had made use of the vacant houses, which is pathetic.

This seems to be a common trend in emergency/ disasters in the island. As people suffer and deal with loss, others only desire to loot. The Military Police was on the scene to register and verify house owners.

Within 48 hours of the incident the SF-West managed to reopen the road for public transport. No sooner it was done than there were inquisitive sightseers from Colombo and other areas who had to be dispersed. This again is a bad Sri Lankan mindset that has to be changed. Maj. General Ranasinghe recalls having to deal with angry residents who used abusive language. They were stressed and confused. It is interesting to note how people react in any given situation.

While this was a massive incident of grave consequences these were the people who once proclaimed “jayawewa” to the gallant troops.

Over the next few days clusters of people gathered near the camp and made various demands: some fair some unfair, inspired by petty political motive. Subsequently, the army on a request gave five acres of their own land to set up a new section for the residents of Salawa. At present, 35 shops are being built by the Army for the people.

I made a visit to Salawa on Thursday to see firsthand the progress made over the past year. We visited the small village of Anandagama, bordering a plantation. A man was standing in his garden.

When we asked him, he said that he too was a victim of the incident. Anton, 56, a mason by trade, lives with his 85 year old mother. He showed me the inside of his home, which had been mildly dilapidated even prior to the incident. A hole in the roof is evidence of shrapnel. However, he claims he has received only Rs 6,500 and shows us his bank savings book as proof.

He claims he was hassled by the local Grama Sevaka. On the other hand, he points towards some large newly built houses, alleging that these folks gave falsified estimates and got compensation ranging from Rs 4 lakhs to 10 lakhs.

As we drove around we did see some houses which were newly built with modern design. Another small house still had a blue tent given by the army, the tent being used now as a kind of store.

Monetary claim

We stopped for breakfast a few hundred metres away on the main road.

The talkative cook very candidly points to the house next door and says, this residence lost a few tiles but got a much bigger monetary claim. Using this money the family had set up an eating house and rented it.

In all disasters (floods, landslides, Tsunami) it has become a trend for people to put higher claims of their losses in spite of existing vetting systems.

In the aftermath of this incident the army helped civilians by setting up tents and providing medical care to those in need. In addition, cooked food was also provided. To date, the Army has repaired and restored 1,042 homes (source Army Media).

In addition, 104 homes of the Ranaviru Village that were also affected by the incident were repaired. After liaising with the Grama Sevaka and other district officials the military identified 898 schoolchildren and set about stitching school uniforms for them.

Additional troops were deployed to clear wells and also clear 245 acres of paddy land. With the collective help of the villagers the military was able to make these paddy fields ready for planting. Steps were also taken to restore water and electricity supply.

The Salawa incident clearly shows two sets of people: those ready to rush and help others in a spirit of altruism and the second disdainful group of people who capitalized on the situation and inherited fraudulent prosperity. 

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