The Siege of Jaffna Fort during the Civil War in Sri Lanka- 1990

The Siege of Jaffna Fort during the Civil War in Sri Lanka- 1990

History

The Jaffna Fort is a pentagon-shaped fortress occupying fifty-five acres of land in the Jaffna city facing the Jaffna lagoon.  It is Sri Lanka’s lasting legacy of the country’s colonial past.

  • The Jaffna Fort was built by the Portuguese in 1618 by Phillipe de Olivera following the Portuguese invasion of Jaffna.
  • The Fort was captured by the Dutch in 1658 and expanded, to make it the country’s second-largest Dutch Fort.
  • In 1795, it was taken over by the British and remained under the control of the British garrison till 1948.
  • As the only large Military Fort in the country, due to the presence of only government and military buildings within its ramparts, it was garrisoned by a detachment of the Ceylon Army after independence in 1948.
  • With the onset of the civil war in July 1983, it came under siege on several occasions and was the scene of pitched battles. After the onset of the war, from 1983 to 1990, the Jaffna Fort was occupied by the Sri Lanka Army. In 1990, after a siege of 107 days (10th June to 26th September), the Sri Lanka Army gave up the Jaffna Fort and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) occupied it and held on to the Fort till 1995. Following a military operation code-named “Operation Riviresa”, the army took over the Fort once again after a fifty-day battle.
  • As a result of the war, there was much damage to the buildings in the Jaffna Fort.

“Forthe State, the Jaffna Fort was of symbolic importance to demonstrate its sovereignty over the Jaffna population, and as such the Sri Lanka Army was occupying the Jaffna Fort. For the LTTE, dislodging the troops from the Fort was of importance to pave the way for ‘liberation”.

Some important dates about the civil war in Sri Lanka

  • 23rd July 1983 – Fighting erupts in Jaffna with a landmine explosion in Jaffna
  • 30th July 1987 – Arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) and the Peace Accord
  • 10th October 1987 – Operation Pawan, a military operation by the IPKF to clear Jaffna of LTTE but strongly resisted by the “Tigers” with huge casualties to both parties
  • End of March 1990 – Departure of IPKF from Sri Lanka
  • End of March to 10th June 1990 – Talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE drag on, the guns remain silent, but the Army and the LTTE, prepare for battle.
  • 8th and 9th June 1990 – Policemen attached to the Jaffna Police Station withdraw to their barracks within the Jaffna Fort under threat from the enemy
  • 10th June 1990 – Fighting erupts between the two parties. That is the beginning of Eelam War 2……..

Preparation for battle during and after the departure of the IPKF

During the period of the Indian Military intervention by invitation, the Sri Lankan armed forces were modernized and strengthened with an increase in manpower. They were equipped with modern weapon systems and provided with sophisticated training in counter-insurgency warfare. The LTTE too had increased their manpower and fire-power and were now highly motivated by their successful resistance to one of the most powerful armies in the world, the Indian army.

Tiger Terrorists prepare for an onslaught

During the period of the ceasefire, the LTTE organized themselves well. They moved into strategically vital positions around the Jaffna Fort. These included the telecommunication building, the Jaffna library and post office, Duraiappa stadium, Regal theatre and other important areas close to the Fort. The terrorists built well-fortified bunkers, some underground and moved their weapons to positions around the Jaffna Fort. They positioned anti-aircraft guns around the Fort to threaten helicopter-borne supplies to the troops within the Fort. Palaly Military Base where the airport was situated was also surrounded to prevent the mobility of the troops and to cut off supplies to the main military base in Jaffna. Thus the two vital military centres in the Jaffna peninsula had been surrounded. The Sri Lanka Army had to respect the peace accord and hence did not retaliate although the LTTE were planning for battle.

Terrorist bunkers and concrete-lined tunnels

The LTTE Terrorists were determined to capture the Jaffna Fort at any cost as it was situated in the heart of the city, near the Pannai causeway that linked Kayts and Mandativu Islands to the West of Jaffna peninsula.

Terrorists fire the first shots at the Fort

The Jaffna Fort had a total of 200 troops. Of this, 84 were from the Sixth Battalion of the Sinha Regiment of the Sri Lanka Army and the rest were young Policemen who had training in the handling of weapons and were sent to Jaffna, with this being their first appointment. Many of these Policemen were from the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Two of them, Sanoos and Mohideen were seriously wounded and I had the opportunity and privilege of treating them and saving their lives.

Sanoos and Mohideen being within the Jaffna Fort were eye witnesses to the entire event of the siege of the Jaffna Fort and they were able to relate to me their dangerous and frightful story of the siege.

On 10th June 1990, the first shots were fired at the Jaffna Fort. The next day a massive bomb exploded close to the main entrance which had a strong wooden door on the lagoon side of the Fort. However, they were unable to penetrate the army defenses. As the siege became more acute and the lives of the troops became endangered, the Sri Lankan military made many attempts to break the siege.

Operation Eagle 1 – 3rd July 1990

This was a Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) operation to re-supply and evacuate wounded services personnel from the Jaffna Fort held by the Army and besieged by the LTTE. In a well-planned operation, a Bell 212 Helicopter gunship expertly manoeuvred by the pilot of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) landed on the road bordering the Fort, adjoining the lagoon. This was perhaps the only site a helicopter could land. Landing a helicopter inside the Fort was out of the question as the enemy would have destroyed it with ease. They were able to provide the stranded troops with a few more weapons for defensive and offensive purposes. The injured were evacuated and another army officer joined the troops in the Fort. The entire operation was completed within a very short period under close air cover provided by Bell 212 Helicopter gunships with a .50 cal machine guns and rockets fired from the No 4 helicopter wing of the SLAF. Siai Marchetti fighter-jets carried out a bombing run that surprised the LTTE cadres and the operation was completed successfully.

Conditions become difficult for the troops within the Fort

However, within a short period, the conditions became difficult for the troops with each passing day. They were not only running short of ‘ammo’ but also food. In the meantime, the water and power supply to the Fort had been cut-off. The only available water was from a well within the Fort, but this was salty. There were no medicines or dressing at all for the wounded. The troops that were stranded had to fight on with no end in sight. The rampart gave them the much-needed protection against the barrage of enemy fire using all types of weapons, both conventional and improvised.

LTTE use Improvised weapons

Two improvised weapons that were used heavily in this battle were the “Pasilan 2000” and the “Baba Mortar”, both Tiger inventions. The Pasilan 2000 was a heavy mortar fired from a launcher mounted on a tractor. As the mortar was heavy, it was only effective at close range. They also used rocket-propelled grenades (RPG’s).

Conditions within the Fort become critical

The conditions for the besieged troops were getting worse day by day. The casualties were increasing in number. There were no doctors or paramedics within the Fort. The injured had to be kept in a bunker to prevent further injury. At least fourteen of the troops succumbed to their injuries and had to be buried within the Fort. The dry provisions that had been provided were gradually getting exhausted. They had to live on a meal of rice and dhal for many days and nights. Fish living in the moat were caught, boiled and consumed under desperate situations.

The soldiers stranded in the Fort were looking open-mouthed at the skies day-in, day-out hoping for an air-drop of some food. The Air Force attempted to air-drop food packets on many occasions, but most of it landed in enemy territory or the lagoon. Dry provisions such as rice that were dropped into the Fort were contaminated and the bags split open on being dropped from a height of over 6000 feet. The contaminants included shrapnel from mortars, debris and dirt including pieces of human flesh that were all over the Fort. One soldier later told me that “it was stinking to glory with human flesh and dead bodies all over”.

Air Force bomb Tiger positions

The entire power of the Air Force was mobilized to systematically bomb the Tiger positions. The ‘Sia Machetti’ bombers, aircraft and helicopter gunships were utilized to pound the area and the buildings occupied by the Tigers to dislodge the siege. Thousands of locally made “Barrel Bombs” blasted the metropolis areas, reducing the houses and buildings to heaps of rubble. Some of these “Barrel Bombs” dropped from Y-8 transport planes fell inside the Fort.  This added to the misery of the stranded troops as they had to take cover in bunkers to avoid being injured by the explosion of their “own bombs”. Some sustained injuries. Artillery shells were fired relentlessly from the land and the sea at Tiger positions.  

Despite this massive bombing onslaught, the LTTE fighters held their positions deep underground in their solid bunkers. There is no doubt that there would have been many civilian and Tiger casualties as well as of people living in the vicinity. Their numbers are not known and will never be known. The Tiger casualties were treated at the Jaffna Government Hospital, funded by the State. The Forces had no access to this hospital, a rather strange situation.

Offensive raid on the Fort by a woman suicide bomber

While tightening the siege amidst relentless bombardment by the security forces from land, sea and air, the Tigers launched offensive raids on the Fort garrison in an attempt to over-run it. Women fighters also participated in these most dangerous and daring operations. One such offensive attack took place on 5 August 1990 during which a woman guerilla unit commanded by “Lt Sangitha” made a brave attempt to break-through the entrance of the Fort. This daring raid was foiled by the heavy resistance of the Sri Lankan troops. “Lt Sangitha” and three other women fighters died in this operation.

My turn of duty at the Palaly Base Hospital

While the Jaffna Fort was under siege and there was heavy fighting around Palaly Army camp, it was my turn of duty at the hospital. I together with an anaesthetist and another doctor flew to Palaly, Jaffna in a Y-8 transport plane to join a team of doctors from the army to attend to the casualties. That was on the 23rd of August 1990.

More injuries to besieged troops- Policemen within the Fort are injured

On 25 August, Sanoos, a Reserve Police Constable on guard duty at the entrance to the Fort was injured by a mortar blast. A colleague who was close to him died on the spot. A part of the left buttock of Sanoos had been ripped off. He was in agony and the impression he had was that he too would slowly but surely bleed to death like some of the others who had been injured earlier. Being a Muslim he started reciting the Holy Quran. There were no ‘pain killers’, leave alone antibiotics, saline or blood for the injured. Others in the Fort wrapped him in a sheet and took him to a bunker for safety until the arrival of the helicopter.

The Palali Army camp was informed, but helicopters could not land to evacuate Sanoos. He had to wait with this major injury for another day. Mohideen was another Policeman who had been stranded within the Fort. He too was injured but two weeks before Sanoos, Mohideen had a piece of shrapnel going through his left chest that led to the collection of blood within the chest. He survived for 2 weeks without any treatment.

Rescue Mission initiated

On 26 August, the Air Force carried out a rescue mission code-named “Operation Eagle 2”. Like an Eagle, the helicopter flew very low over the lagoon to avoid enemy fire. It could not land. As it came close to the Fort, and was stationary for a few minutes, Mohideen and Sanoos were carried and thrown into the helicopter by the troops. They were lying on the floor of the helicopter. They were in agony. Sanoos was helpless. He could not move his legs. The gunner of the helicopter gunship was holding on to him with one hand while firing at the enemy with the other. The empty shells from the gun mounted on the helicopter were landing on the body of Sanoos. These were red hot and added to the misery of Sanoos.

Mission successful

As the helicopter reached a satisfactory height to avoid being hit by Tiger fire, the gunner pulled him in further. A few minutes later the helicopter landed on Mandativu Island. The center for coordinating all military operations connected with the rescue attempt was situated on this island across the Jaffna lagoon. The two casualties were given “first -aid” after many days and thereafter transferred to the Palaly hospital by ambulance. They were lucky!

The injured reach Palaly Hospital

Sanoos and Mohideen reached Palaly hospital around midnight. Both were extremely ill, with serious injuries which could have killed them if there was any further delay.  Mohideen had a blood transfusion, intravenous saline, antibiotics and a tube was inserted into the chest to drain the blood that had collected within the chest cavity.

What about Sanoos? A part of his left buttock was gangrenous. He also required blood transfusion and a strong antibiotic to overcome the infection followed by surgery.

At surgery, the gangrenous tissue of the buttock was cut-off until red, bleeding and contracting muscle was evident. This indicated that all dead tissue had been removed. This dead tissue could have resulted in serious infections like gas gangrene or tetanus. These are the basic principles of war surgery which I had learnt many times over while treating battler casualties.

With further treatment their condition improved gradually and I decided to transfer them to the Military Hospital in Colombo after five days. My turn of duty at the Palaly Hospital had come to an end by then and I decided to accompany these two casualties. A Y-12 transport plane was arranged and as usual, the patients and the surgeon had to lie on the floor of the aircraft en-route to Ratmalana. I followed them up at the Military Hospital and the General Hospital, Colombo and I was happy to see them recover completely.

Battle continues

As the existence of the besieged soldiers became precarious and the fall of the garrison became imminent, the Sri Lankan forces launched a massive combined operation to dislodge the siege. On 13 September 1990, 4000 troops with the assistance of the Air Force and Navy mounted a huge operation from Mandativu Island to destroy the Tiger positions. It was a bloody battle. The Tigers stood firm against a continuous barrage of bombs and artillery shells that pounded their positions from every direction. Fierce fighting flared up when the Sri Lankan troops attempted a sea-borne landing across the Jaffna lagoon. Tiger gunfire destroyed several naval crafts and scores of soldiers were killed on the spot. A propeller-driven bomber that was used at that time called Siai Marchetti (warrior) was also shot down over the lagoon. As the security forces casualties mounted, the operation was suspended.

Withdrawal from the Jaffna Fort

The Government decided to give up the Jaffna Fort on 26 September 1990. All the weapons, ammunition and vehicles that were within the Fort were destroyed before the withdrawal. This coincided with the death anniversary of Tiger ‘martyr’ Thileepan. Sri Lankan troops withdrew from the Fort and the Tigers hoisted the “Ealam flag” over the Fort, signifying their victory and heroic resistance in this legendary battle. They occupied the Fort for nearly 5 years until they were dislodged in another major military battle code-named ‘Operation Riviresa’. On 5 December 1995 the Sri Lankan troops captured the Fort once again and hoisted the national flag. In this un-wanted war, this is the way the pendulum has been swinging at different times.

Sanoos – A War Hero

I first met Sanoos, the Policeman injured in the siege of the Jaffna Fort when he was admitted to the Palaly Hospital, Jaffna on 25th August 1990. At that time he was critically ill. He recovered completely served the Sri Lanka Police once again until his retirement. He has been in contact with me since then for over 30 years. Today he is my friend.

These photographs were taken  at Arugam Bay, Pottuvil in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka close to his home town – 29th September 2020

References

  1. Wikipedia
  1. In The Line of Duty: the life and times of a surgeon in war and peace (pages 110 – 117)

 Gamini Goonetilleke

Acknowledgement – I wish to thank Mr Sanoos for giving me the consent and the support extended in writing this story.

Dear Reader, you might also like to read our next story about Please click this link : Overcoming barriers to enter war torn Jaffna under rebel siege / Part 1 and also another post as an image gallery ‘WAR FRONT / 2’


One thought on “The Siege of Jaffna Fort during the Civil War in Sri Lanka- 1990

  1. A vivid description of the capture of the Jaffna fort by the rebels and recaptured by the Srilankan army. Such details would not have been known to us if not for this description by you. We thank you for that. You did your best in treating the soldier with the gangrenous buttocks. I fail if i do not mention again your humanitarian attitude in your duties. Thank you.

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