Sri Lanka’s first combat deaths since 2009: Families mourn fallen UN peacekeepers | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka’s first combat deaths since 2009: Families mourn fallen UN peacekeepers

Polonnaruwa : The road leading to Pulasthigama, Polonnaruwa the hometown of Captain Wasantha Dinesh Jayawickrama is lined with white flags and large cutouts bearing messages of condolences as a mark of respect to the fallen hero. In his village troops and people were seen hurriedly putting up tents and clearing the sides of the roads in preparation for the soldier’s final journey.

At his partially constructed home,surrounded by those close to the family, his mother U.D Pemakanthi is inconsolable. “During the war I gave three of my children to the Security Forces and when they returned home safe after its end I thought I could finally stop worrying” she said.

As relatives tried to console her, she cried out asking to see her son. “I will only believe he is gone if I see his face” she wailed.

On January 25, Captain Wasantha Dinesh Jayawickrama of the 11th Light Infantry Regiment and Corporal S.S Wijekumara of the 1st Mechanised Infantry Regiment were part of an armoured convoy returning from a mission in Douentza, Mali when around 6.25 am it was hit by a fatal improvised explosive device (IED) explosion. The duo, part of Sri Lanka’s first 200 strong United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping contingent to war torn Mali laid down their lives on January 25 while another three soldiers were critically injured. A decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, the Sri Lanka Army had suffered its first combat related deaths in the post war era.

Dinesh, the eldest in the Jayawickrama family had joined the Army in 2007, and several years later all three of his younger brothers had followed him to the Armed forces. According to his uncle Gamini Jayawickrama, a retired Army Staff Sergeant and an injured war veteran most members of the Jayawickrama family are today members of the Army and the Police.

Coming from humble beginnings as paddy farmers in the area, Gamini said it was he who influenced Dinesh to join the Army. “I spoke highly of the Army so that he would be interested in joining in and encouraged him by taking him for physical training lessons,” he said.

 

According to Gamini, it was his way of repaying his older brother, Dinesh’s father, who raised his 11 young siblings when their father died at a young age. Shaken by the news of an attack on UN peacekeepers in Mali on Friday, a visit by some Army officers and the Police confirmed their worst fear.

“Dinesh was our pride as he was the first family member to become an officer in the Army,” Gamini said adding that he is still unable to come to terms with his much loved nephew’s death.

Dinesh has now been posthumously promoted to the rank of Major by the Sri Lanka Army in honour of his ultimate sacrifice.

Cannot be a coward

According to his family Dinesh had many wounds from battle prior to this fateful end. Engaged in combat during the last stages of war in 2009, an enemy mortar had caused severe injuries to his legs.

“My son had over 200 stitches on both sides of his legs but he still got back on his feet only to return to battle,” Pemakanthi said. “He said he cannot be a coward when I implored asking him to find a different job” she recalled.

He had also made two tours to Haiti as a UN peacekeeper and returned safely each time.He often hid the harshness in Mali from his family and friends. On a rare occasion he had revealed to his brother how he spotted an IED lying in wait for his convoy, saving himself and other troops.

Though Major Jayawickrama was expected to return in December 2018 after serving 12 months in Mali, the delay in the deployment of the next batch of troops meant he and Corporal Wijekumara had to stay on for several more months. But his eventual return was going to mark a very important occasion for the Jayawickrama family.

“My brother was to marry in March and preparations had been made” Dinesh’s youngest brother, Hasitha said. Always putting his family first, Dinesh had put off his marriage until he felt the family was financially secure. “He was the jewel in our palms that just slipped away,” his mother said with tears pouring down her face. “We were not lucky enough to have him for long”.

Father of two

Almost 120 kilometres away in Rawa Ela, Polpithigama there is little hustle and bustle at the home of Corporal Wijekumara. A road tarred hurriedly just several days ago leads to the house, with the single cut out placed at its entrance.

In the partially constructed Wijekumara home, his wife, 30-year-old wife Sunethra Malkanthi sits mutely as she clings tight to their youngest daughter aged just three. Relatives revealed overcome with grief Sunethra has been in and out of hospital since receiving the news of her husband’s death.

According to his wife, Wijekumara, a father of two had been looking forward to returning home in February.

“He wanted some clothes so I sent him a parcel recently along with some food,” she said. Enclosed within was also a list of goodies his two daughters had eagerly asked their father to bring along on his return. The parcel sent lovingly from home remained unopened back at base camp when Wijekumara met with the tragic incident.

“He called me around 30 minutes before the attack on their convoy,” she said adding that he often called home to inquire about their well being.

“Sunethra said she did not know the situation in Mali was dangerous as Wijekumara had never revealed the difficulties he faced. For the soldier with a service of over 16 years in the Army, this was the first time he was serving as a UN peacekeeper. Following his death, the Army has now promoted him to the rank of Sergeant.

“Our hopes and dreams were sky high” Sunethra reminisced as she recalled the plans the couple had discussed during their many long distance phone calls. According to her Wijekumara had wanted to complete the work on their home soon.

Though compensation for his death has now been offered by both the UN and the government, her main worry is the safety of her children. “They are girls and still so small, I keep wondering how I will keep them safe without their father” she said.

Safety of troops

Visiting the homes of the soldiers, State Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene called the recent attack in which Jayawickrama and Wijekumara lost their lives as ‘an unfortunate incident’.

According to the State Minister, Mali remains in a volatile situation at the moment making the threat of risk high for troops deployed there. “It is peace enforcing rather than peacekeeping they are engaged in at the moment” he said.

While noting that Sri Lankan troops have the expertise to face these situations, Wijewardene said, however, discussions will be held with the UN and the Army to improve the safety of troops serving abroad.

More importantly while Sri Lanka has been part of UN Peacekeeping missions since 1960, the recent deaths of both Major Jayawickrama and Sergeant Wijekumara have drawn focus to the service and expertise offered by the Sri Lankan Security Forces to peacekeeping missions around the world. The Army also receives part of the remuneration given to the troops for their service. Despite the Security Forces and Police being highly sought after for UN peacekeeping missions following the military’s victory over the LTTE in 2009 various elements in recent times have attempted to block Sri Lankan troops from being deployed abroad. However despite these attempts State Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene says Sri Lankan troops have rendered an exemplary service to peacekeeping missions in countries affected by armed conflict and therefore troop deployments will continue.

“Not only have our soldiers provided their service, they too have benefited in return by gaining experience while also becoming strengthened economically,” he said.

The last rites of the two officers are scheduled for February 6 with full military honours.

The duo will also most likely be honoured with the Dag Hammarskjöld Medal, which is posthumously awarded by the United Nations to military personnel, police, or civilians who lose their lives while serving in a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

But for the families of the fallen, it is of little consolation. “What use do I have for medals?” Pemawathi asked when she was given the news. “All I want now is my son back”.

 
 

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