by Brigadier (Retd) Sri Mudannayake
It is hard to imagine that 20 years have passed since General Denzil Kobbekaduwa, along with some of his senior commanders, fell victim to a buried explosive device in the Jaffna Peninsula. That fateful day was August 8, 1992. The incident shook the nation to its core and plummeted military morale to the lowest ever in nearly a decade of conflict.
It seems like the other day that the shocking tragedy befell the nation. The unfortunate war is now over, but the loss of a gentleman warrior lingers in our memories.
General Denzil, as he was respectfully and adorably known among the rank and file, was a man who conducted the difficult business of war fighting in an exemplary manner. Some argue that war is institutionalized violence. General Denzil did not see war that way. He did not promote war, but when driven to it, he fought with determination making sure that his troops respected the rules of warfare. It was common knowledge that even the adversary respected him for his humaneness. He did not conduct military operations with a feeling of vengeance. He waged war to achieve peace. The destruction, and the agony of non combatants caught in the conflict devastated him. He often spoke of the day when the war would be over and all communities could live happily in a reconciled Sri Lanka. His often quoted saying “Let’s not leave this to the next generation” is a reflection on how much he yearned for peace. Sadly though, he never lived to see the dawn of peace.
General Denzil possessed a mystifying aura of attraction. He drew respect and affection from the civil population particularly in areas affected by the conflict. When he was Commander North during 1990, he regularly visited remote villages under threat. Some of them were situated deep in the jungle on the fringes of hostile activity and were accessible through narrow jungle tracks. Despite the threat of land mines and ambushes he traveled to the furthest remote village to assess security and speak to the people. Such visits posed a security nightmare for his protection squads. When the jeep could not make it, he walked for miles along jungle tracks to meet the people.
It was deeply moving to see the response of the people. Men, women and children swarmed around him and touched him with great affection and some went prone to worship him. Gen Denzil was overwhelmed by their plight. He distributed clothes and food that he often carried during visits. The poor people in their own humble way offered whatever they had, and the General warmly accepted their hospitality. It was always a drama during the return journey. Message had spread rapidly around villages that General Kobbekaduwa had traveled towards the interior. As there was a single route to return, we had no choice but to take the same road back despite the risk.
People had gathered by the road-side near little hamlets and waited for the General. Few sweets and soft drinks were neatly laid on not so clean tables. The General always stopped and spent some time with the people. He patiently listened to their fears and anxieties and assured them of security and protection which was the primary concern. He discussed other issues like health and schooling for the children which he diligently followed up with government authorities upon returning to headquarters. He became deeply emotional during such visits and continued talking to villagers often forgetting the time of the day. He had to be gently reminded about the long trek back and the need to get out of high risk areas before dark. The people’s plight may have had a profound impact, and he kept silent during the return trip. Barring the odd question he threw at me while I drove the jeep, he remained pensive.
General Denzil’s love for the fighting soldier was phenomenal. The famous picture of the General holding a saline bottle of a wounded soldier being evacuated by helicopter bears testimony to his feelings for fighting men. The sheer pain and agony on his face was clearly visible. For him, Soldier safety, welfare and comfort came first, always and every time –his safety and welfare came last. “Your men” was the often quoted phrase whenever he addressed his subordinate commanders. I vividly recall an incident when battle tanks were first used in combat. Following an intense and long day of fighting in scorching heat, he watched tank crews collapsing due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. Tanks are tough stuff to fight with. Next day, by noon tank crews were provided with enhanced liquid nourishment. In the midst of a logistics nightmare of sustaining hundreds of troops in battle, I did not know how on earth high energy nutritional supplements arrived on the sand dunes of Elephant Pass.
Battle fatigue hits every soldier in combat, more so on senior commanders. On bad days it becomes worse. Even during intense combat, General Denzil never failed to provide words of comfort and encouragement to soldiers. A few kind words, accompanied by the usual smile on his battle fatigued face became oxygen for men in combat. His appearance on the front, and the commanding voice heard over radio transmissions provided great strength and confidence to soldiers. On the battle field, or in the operations room, burst of anger was not uncommon. Triggered by professional deeds or mis-deeds, it struck upon the victim like tropic thunder, but simply vanished within a few seconds. Never ever did one hear profanity during such moments – a very rare quality among men in uniform.
Soldiering under him was challenging, but not disappointing. He was a gentleman warrior and a wonderful comrade in arms. It was a privilege to have served under him. Above all, General Denzil was a shining example of a fine human being. He is gone, but not forgotten.
May He Attain the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana.