Army deserters return | Sunday Observer
A week-long general amnesty:

Army deserters return

Privates Asitha Akalanka and Supun Kumara being interviewed. Pic By Rukmal Gamage
Privates Asitha Akalanka and Supun Kumara being interviewed. Pic By Rukmal Gamage

When early this month the Ministry of Defence announced a week-long general amnesty for military personnel, soldier Asitha Akalanka knew he had to return. Four months ago he had come home having decided not to report back to work. Now a deserter, 28-year-old Akalanka is unemployed amidst mounting personal problems.

Akalanka had joined the Sri Lanka Army’s Electrical and Mechanical Engineers regiment in September 2014. The benefits received by military personnel had attracted him to the military. “I felt my future would be all set if I join the forces,” he said. According to Akalanka, he had never imagined that he would end up as a deserter five years down the line.

“I left because of a marital dispute” Akalanka revealed adding that perhaps for the first time he felt overwhelmed and uncertain about what course of action he should take. “I felt immense pressure and decided to go home to resolve these issues” he added.

But once home, Akalanka said he was in for a rude awakening. Now an Army deserter and unemployed not only society but also his family treated him differently going to the extent of insulting him. “I then realised the importance of my job,” he said. According to Aklanka, life became difficult and his marriage had further deteriorated. “When I was at the camp my seniors helped me to face problems but at home, I am left to face them all alone” he added.

Having heard about the general amnesty Akalanka decided to return. “I felt stupid to have left the Army in that manner and decided to return to work,” he said.

Like Akalanka, 485 other army personnel rejoined the forces during the amnesty period while seven army officers and 6,091 other rankers who were absent without leave (AWOL) reported back during the time. According to Military Spokesman Brigadier Chandana Wickramasinghe, 13 officers and 8,024 other rankers had reported back between February 5-12. Among them were 774 sailors, six officers and 1,159 from the Air Force.

Along with Akalanka was 23-year-old soldier Supun Kumara of the Sri Lanka Electrical and Mechanical Engineers regiment. Supun, a talented motorcycle racer of the Army had gone absent without leave for eight months before reporting back to work during the amnesty period.

“My mother fell sick and there was no one to take her for treatment,” he said explaining why he had to stay back. Being cash strapped, Supun had to sell his racing motorcycle to make ends meet. “I wanted to come back before but I was afraid about the charges I would have to face and also that I would not be able to represent the Army at races again,” he said. But now having reported to work and deciding to stay on, Supun said he feels he has made the correct decision.

Despite popular belief that only male soldiers go absent without leave, the Sri Lanka Army also revealed that a number of women soldiers had returned during the Amnesty period.

R.D.D. Swarna, a 24-year-old from Ethimale, Moneragala had been absent without leave for four months before reporting back to the Sri Lanka Army Women’s Corps recently.

She had joined the Army in 2018 due to the severe hardships faced by her family. Her invalid father and a younger brother with a severe neurological condition needed constant medical care.

According to Swarna joining the Army had made taking care of her family easier. But realising that her mother was suffering from cancer was a tough blow to the family already in dire straits. “I did not know what to do and I had to take my mother for treatment,” she said.

Coming to know that the mother’s terminal illness was incurable had devastated Swarna. Deciding to stay back to care for her family had been a difficult decision but one that Swarna at the time felt she had to make. But like other deserters, Swarna too had found herself in a difficult financial situation. “I realised if I opt for a job in a private firm I would not receive the same salary and the benefits,” she said. According to Swarna, she had been waiting for the military to declare an amnesty period as she was desperate to return.

Swarna was among the six women soldiers who decided to rejoin the Army among the 131 Women’s Corps personnel who reported back during the Amnesty period. Around 672 Women’s Corps personnel continues to be absent without leave.

According to a high ranking officer at the Women’s Corps military personnel often go absent without leave mostly due to personal problems as opposed to issues faced within the military. “Women, especially after marriage find it difficult to balance their personal and professional lives in the military,” she said. “For example if one is transferred to Jaffna, she could come home only once a month which put themselves in serious family issues thereafter” she said adding that understanding these issues the Army also makes arrangements for its personnel.

“For example, we try to position the women with young infants closer to home during the first three years after childbirth” she said.