Soldier saves child from burning wreckage | Sunday Observer

Soldier saves child from burning wreckage

Major Sajith Sudusinghe rescues the child after the Sainthamaruthu attack
Major Sajith Sudusinghe rescues the child after the Sainthamaruthu attack

On April 27, an Army officer walked out of the wreckage of a house that had been the centre of a gun fight and explosions all night. In his arms, he carried a curly haired child in purple shorts. “Sir, Sir,” the soldier shouted, to get the attention of his senior officers, trying to explain that he needed cover to get the child to safety. A subsequent video inside an army ambulance shows the same officer gently wetting the injured child’s lips, on the instructions of a medic, as the baby murmured “appa”.

The images and video tugged at the heartstrings of people around the country, especially after police revealed the little girl rescued that day was the daughter of the terrorist mastermind Zaharan. For a decade since the war, the armed forces have been under a cloud of allegations about atrocities committed during the final phase of the war, even as accountability for those abuses have proved elusive, casting a long shadow on officers who had nothing to do with the crimes.

Major Sajith Sudusinghe’s actions on April 27 was a fitting reminder that Sri Lanka’s highly trained armed forces are also filled with soldiers who can be gentle and humane even in the heat of battle.

Major Sudusinghe of the 3rd Battalion of the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment (VIR) joined the army in 2003. On April 26, during the raid of the house in Sainthamaruthu, he had been one of the first officers on the scene.

Major Sajith Sudusinghe

“We were told an explosion had also taken place there” Sudusinghe recalled. Reaching the location with just six soldiers around 8.00 pm Sudusinghe and his group were fired at by the terrorists believed to be family members of ZahranHashim. “They fired indiscriminately in all directions,” he said adding that the troops were initially unable to judge where the volley of gunshots was coming from.

While some men at the house had engaged in a shootout with the Army, two other explosions from within the house had followed. Then, Sudusinghe says there was silence. But senior officers decided to wait until first light to enter the house, in case of further attacks and fearing injuries from the blaze at the house.

Major Sudusinghe returned to the scene at 8 am the next day.

As the house continued to blaze, the troops were unable to enter to clear and secure it. Instead, they had decided to go around the back. “We could hear soft moans coming from within and a soldier ran out shouting that someone was inside,” Sudusinghe said.

Taking the lead, the Major looked through a window, bracing for an attack.

“A woman was lying on her side with a small child next to her” he recalls. Taking a risk, the troops had broken down the grill of the window. Approaching the child Sudusinghe says she was motionless. “Her eyes were wide open and she just kept staring at me,” he said. Sudusinghe had initially thought the child was dead. “She then suddenly called out saying Amma Amma” he recalled adding that the child appeared to be shocked and traumatised.

The little girl had been caught in the crossfire, three explosions and laid on the floor of a burning house for nearly 12 hours.

Calling out to the troops Sudusinghe, himself a father of two young children, carried the child out of the burning house.

It was hours later that Major Sudusinghe learnt whose child he had rescued from the flames.

This has mattered little. The soldier is more overwhelmed by the response he received on social media.

He believes the army’s decision to exercise restraint during the raid may have saved the lives of the woman and child they rescued the next morning. Th military had urged residents to come out of their homes, fearing the explosions could cause mass casualties. But terrified neighbours barricaded themselves inside their homes for the night. Even though the military suspected more houses in the area may have been harbouring terrorists, they decided not to clear the area that night.

“We heard fans working and other signs of life so we decided not to fire,” he said.

As sounds from the main house also died down, the troops had withdrawn till morning.

According to Major General Mahinda Mudalige, Army Commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake had advised the troops to leave the clearing and securing of the area till morning.

“If we did not pull back at the time more innocents could have died given the situation,” he said.