At the end of a war it is not unusual for disputes to emerge among the victors on the military and political ingredients that contributed to their final success and, even more specifically, on who deserves credit for the victory. Such disputes have been much in evidence in Sri Lanka since the military defeated the LTTE about 14 months ago.
Moreover, it is invariably the leaders of the successful operations against the enemy – especially, the coup de grace – who are accorded recognition as heroes of the war. Past failures and setbacks tend to be forgotten in the post-war euphoria. Perhaps the most “forgettable” among the episodes of failure in the course of the ‘Eelam Wars’ were the debacles at Mullaitivu (July 1996) and Elephant Pass (April 2000) at which the losses suffered by Sri Lanka included many thousands of men-in- arms and large hauls of battle-field hardware.
This is intended to spotlight a true hero of one of these episodes - a man who laid down his life in a partially successful attempt to save the lives of several hundreds of his comrades-in-arms under circumstances of almost total despair.
The occasion for this tribute is the 14th death anniversary of that hero, Colonel Azlam Fazly Laphir. He was posthumously awarded ‘Parama Weera Vibhushana Medal’ - the highest military honour in Sri Lanka for battle-field gallantry. He, it should be noted, is the senior most officer of the Sri Lanka Army to be so honoured, and one of the very few commanding officers to die while leading his men in the battle-field.
Born in Matale in 1958, he completed his school education at St. Anthony’s College, Kandy. In accordance with the wishes of his father, the late Dr. Laphir, who wanted his son to become an engineer, on completion of his schooling, young Fazly secured a scholarship to proceed for his higher studies in Libya. However his lure was in an entirely different direction which was to join the Sri Lanka Army - at that time, a relatively small but glamorous outfit.
From the very outset, his army career was featured by dedication, skill and exceptional overall competence. He was one of the pioneering officers in the first Gajaba Regiment. When Lt. Col. Vijaya Wimalaratne inaugurated the ‘Special Forces squadrons’ scheme to counter the intensifying threat posed by the guerrilla war tactics of the LTTE, Fazly was appointed the officer-in-charge of the first such unit which had several skirmishes with the fledgling militant groups in the north among which the most successful was the operation in Ambuweli in 1983. He was a founder member of the ‘Thirty-Five Gang"/"Combat Tracker Team" formed in 1985. He was a member of the “Rapid Deployment Force” formed in the 1980s. As a pioneer member of the First Regiment of the ‘Special Forces’, Fazly’s involvement extended to all its aspects including even the design of the cap, badge and insignia. His reputation for physical courage earned him from his colleagues the affectionate nickname of “suicide express”. One of the memorable demonstrations of his willingness to risk his life against almost insurmountable odds is found in the annals of the rescue mission he took part in across the Jaffna lagoon to reach the troops besieged in Jaffna Fort.
Over time, he acquired a mastery of the ‘military geography’ of the Jaffna peninsula. This, according to well informed sources, turned out to be invaluable in the re-establishment of government control over that region in 1995. Meanwhile, he was also involved in strengthening the army camp at Mullaitivu which was mainly intended to control the LTTE smuggling operations along the north-east coast.
His fateful day came when the army camp at Mullaitivu was surrounded by the terrorists on July 18, 1996. Mullaitivu was of strategic significance to the Tigers because of its central location along the northeastern seaboard. Although a massive SL Army garrison had been placed in its command area of 8.5 kms, the camp was vulnerable to enemy attack, being relatively isolated - the nearest main army camps being at Weli Oya 35 kms to its south and Elephant Pass 55 kms to its north across hostile forested terrain. The Tigers surrounded the camp and launched their attack at 1.30 a.m. An operation code-named “Thrivida Pahara” launched by the SL Army to defend Mullaitivu was severely handicapped by the fact that no reinforcements could be dispatched to Mullaitivu either by land or sea because of the impenetrable blockade by a large number of Tiger battalions armed with heavy artillery and a large Sea Tiger force. It was in this situation of total despair that Fazly volunteered to lead a “do-or-die” air-borne rescue mission manned by 275 combatants of the “Special Forces” under his command.
Fazly was stationed at that time at the Maduru Oya camp. From there he and his men were taken by helicopter via Trincomalee to Alampil (5kms south to the Mullaitivu base) around 4.30 p.m. on the same day. As expected, they encountered stiff resistance from the LTTE. Earlier reinforcement operations by the Sri Lanka Air Force and the Navy had been thwarted, the resulting damage included damage to two helicopters and the gun-boat ‘SLN Ranaviru’ which was blown up with its entire crew of 36.
Some of the most fierce fighting of the entire Eelam War took place over the next few hours. Landing helicopters on open beaches was excessively risky, so Fazly and his troops descended to the ground using ropes amidst heavy firing. Both in the hazardous task of descending and re-grouping as well as in the deadly close-encounter combat against several thousands of well- armed Tigers, Fazly is reported to have displayed such extraordinary leadership skills that his men persisted with their task, achieving a fair degree of success and causing heavy losses to the LTTE forces. They advanced amidst fierce mortar fire but lost communication with the rear.
Fazly at their vanguard was fatally wounded by shrapnel that pierced his brain in the morning of July 19. He succumbed to his injuries and his body was evacuated three days later.
Heroism shown by Fazly in the annals of Eelam Wars, and especially his commitment in the battle of Mullaitivu was unique. We mourn the fact that he was not destined to enjoy with us the fruits of victory. The least we must therefore do is to accord to him an everlasting place in our collective memory.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lays down his life for his friends.”
Dr. Saman Nanayakkara