by J. Godwin Perera
The date was the same as today -January 31. But the year was different. It was 1966. 25 years ago. My office was at Aitken Spence, Lloyd’s Building on Sir Baron Jayatilaka Mawatha (former Prince Street ),in close proximity to the Central Bank. That’s why this tragic incident is indelibly etched in my memory. As a matter of interest, Aitken Spence shifted to Vauxhall Street many years later. However on this morning I did not go to office as I had another appointment in another office at Maya Avenue.
I had been nominated to a special committee appointed by the then Minister of Industrial Development the late Hon. C.V.Gooneratne (He was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in June 2000) to develop a plan to accelerate the promotion of apparel exports. This meeting commenced on schedule at 9.30 am. Around 11 am we heard the unmistakable ‘Boom’ of a bomb exploding. As we looked out of the windows in the direction of Fort, we saw dark, black plumes of smoke rising to the sky. Someone exclaimed ‘That’s where the Central Bank is’ The meeting was abruptly terminated.
In haste we hopped into our cars to get either to our offices or homes. But by now the city was in panic. Vehicle drivers were impatiently tooting horns. Traffic jams had already formed. To proceed 30 feet it took no less than 30 minutes. Motor cyclists and three-wheelers with raucously blaring horns rode on the pavements. Yes it was indeed true. It was the Central Bank and adjoining buildings that were burning.
Those were days of deep anxiety. The LTTE was on the rampage throughout the country. No one knew what dangers lurked ahead. The risk was that of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For almost three decades Sri Lanka was embroiled in a war against the LTTE, described as one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. But this was 1996. It would take another anxiety ridden, fear shrouded, 13 years for the LTTE to be completely annihilated. During this dark period the pages in our nation’s history was splattered with the blood of thousands of innocent persons and thousands of combatants on both sides of the divide.
The LTTE even extended its ruthless arm across to India where former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 while he was campaigning for the forthcoming elections. Here in Sri Lanka while the war raged in the North and East, in Colombo high profile targets were selectively killed by suicide bombers. Amongst those assassinated were the Commander of the Navy, Admiral Clancy Fernando in 1992. President R. Premadasa in 1993. UNP Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in 1994. There were many more. Such a list would take an entire page of this journal.
The Central Bank was one of the many soft targets selected by the LTTE in their diabolical desire to create chaos and confusion, panic and pandemonium. Eleven years before this, on May 14, 1985, LTTE terrorists killed 146 civilians who were worshiping at the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura. On that fateful day of January 31, 1966, Colombo was like a city under siege. The seeming normalcy was unreal. No one spoke about it but it was there. Employees in both the public and private sectors diligently reported to work. No matter how one went to and returned from work, whether public transport or private vehicle everyone, yes, everyone, was exposed to the risk of being killed by the LTTE.
Meanwhile, known only to the highest level of the LTTE hierarchy a ruthless plan to create death, destruction and devastation was being unfolded. On January 29, an Elf truck (42- 6452) loaded with over 200 kg of RDX explosives, gelignite, dynamite and ball-bearings all of which had been cleverly hidden under coconut husks left Vavuniya. It had reached Colombo on the 30th and parked in a safe house. Then next morning after the usual rush hour traffic had lessened and commercial activity had settled down to its busy routine the Elf truck with its lethal cargo had driven along the city’s main roads, passing undetected through several check points.
Then on to Janadhipathi Mawatha and to the main entrance of the Central Bank. The time was 10.45 am. As gunmen in the truck traded fire with the security guards of the Bank, it crashed through the main gate and the deadly cargo was detonated. Half of the Central Bank building crashed and fires broke out on several floors. But that was not the end of the attack. Within a few minutes a three-wheeler arrived. It carried two LTTE cadres armed with automatic rifles and a RPG launcher which they fired indiscriminately all around them.
Since the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) is at the apex of the country’s financial system with the primary focus of maintaining economic and price stability and financial system stability to promote sustainable growth through policy stimulus and advice, the LTTE would have wanted to paralyze the country’s financial system and cripple the economy. Certainly much more damage and destruction would have been caused if the explosives laden lethal lorry had been able to enter further inside the Bank building.
But fortunately barriers had been constructed in front during the Governorship of the late Dr H.N.S. Karunatilaka. The fortitude and commitment of Bank officials from the highest levels to the lower levels was truly admirable. In fact on the very next day – February 1, all those who were not injured came to the Bank’s Centre for Banking Studies at Rajagiriya to work. It was ‘Business as Usual’ But let’s revert to that fateful day of January 31st
In an article ‘ Rising from the Ashes – The Central Bank’s Remarkable Recovery from the Terrorist Attack’ C.P.A. Karunatilake who was the Superintendent of the Currency Dept. provides a graphic description of the rescue operations within the Bank. ‘Despite an imminent danger to their lives there were many brave sons and daughters of the Bank who dared to go into the building in search, if any of their colleagues or visitors were trapped in, to help them out safely. Some officers were seen driving bank vehicles loaded with affected colleagues rushing them to hospital.
‘Since all the entry and exit gates at road level were blocked with rubble, the wounded had to be brought down through narrow stairways at the back of the building. A difficult task. Some were injured so badly that the rescuers could not even touch them and they were brought down on window curtains, as stretchers were not available. ‘
He provides the grim statistics that 41 Central Bank officers and visitors perished. Eight officials became totally blind, 11 were partially paralyzed, and a few hundred were wounded, some badly. Outside the Bank a shocked city watched helplessly. Clouds of black smoke wafted skywards. Fort became a scene of panic and pandemonium. The shriek of sirens, the screams of blood-soaked survivors, the roar of fires gone out of control, and the rumble and crash of collapsing walls, rent the air.
The scenes were reminiscent of the 1974 Award Winning disaster movie titled ‘Towering Inferno’ starring Paul Newman and William Holden. In this movie it was the world’s tallest building which was set ablaze due to explosions caused by short circuits and inadequate safety measure. It was a gripping movie which had the audience enthralled in a mixture of emotions chief of which was shock and sadness. But that was all acting. Here in Fort, it was real life. Shock. Sadness. Unbelievable but true. A day time nightmare.
While the Central Bank was the target of the LTTE, other buildings in the vicinity also suffered. Cargo Boat Despatch, Amro Bank, Air Lanka Reservations, George Steuarts, Mercantile Credit, Hotels Corporation and Ceylinco. Many roads in the vicinity like Chatham Street, Hospital Street and Canal Row were littered with glass. Cars parked here had become twisted metal. Mangled bodies littered the street. Personal belongings lay scattered. Blood soaked clothes were strewn around. It was like a battlefield.
But here were no soldiers. Here were civilians. Meanwhile raging fires engulfed Ceylinco which at one time was the tallest building in Fort. Its walls were crumbling. Employees were frantically trying to escape. Overhead helicopters were defying billowing black fumes of smoke and intense heat to drop aqua foam to douse the fires.
According to news reports 72 bodies had been recovered by Thursday afternoon. By Thursday evening bulldozers were removing the rubble and rescue workers were searching for more bodies. The final tally of this sad tragedy was – 91 killed, 1,400 injured and 100 had lost their eyesight due to the scattering shards of glass.
There is a saying in Tibetan ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength. No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.’
True. Very true. And hope was renewed and revived when a new Central Bank building, modern in architectural design, with state-of-the -art conference facilities, IT- incorporating the most modern equipment and appliances and a research library of international standards was officially declared open on August 27, 2000 by the then President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It coincided with the 50th Golden Jubilee of the Central Bank. With it there was ushered a new dynamic vision of development and sustainable growth in which the Central Bank would play a very pivotal role.
Sohan…adapting to the ‘new normal’
Surprisingly, the Coronavirus pandemic seems to have galvanised our entertainers into action.
True, most of the big bands are finding the going pretty tough, these days, as most public shows, like concerts, sing-along, and dances, have been put on hold.
Fortunately, we do have artistes who capitalise on unexpected situations to continue to keep the public, and their fans, entertained – of course, doing it differently
Band leader Sohan, of Sohan & The X-Periments fame, who is always innovative, when it comes to music, has hit upon a novel idea, in order to keep his band occupied, for the next three months.
He has decided to put The X-Periments into ‘recording mode.
Says Sohan: “I’m getting them involved in doing in-house recordings at my home studio.”
And, what’s more, I’m told that Sohan has found a secret sponsor, so the boys will be paid, too. Obviously, it’s a win-win situation and that makes Sohan extra happy!
The veteran artiste/entertainer went on to explain that the main CD will contain cover versions of his favourite songs, and will also include a duet with his daughter Erandika who is scheduled to be in Sri Lanka, hopefully, in May. She is currently in the States.
The song, Sohan has in mind, is that immensely popular golden oldie, made popular by the late Nat king Cole (and daughter Natalie Cole) – ‘Unforgettable.’
Clifford Richards will be seen in a virtual concert, along with Corrine Almeida, and Sohan
The second CD will feature Sohan’s original songs, both western and oriental.
Sohan will be working with Shobi Perera, Kumar de Silva, Rajiv Sebastian, Roshan de Silva, Chrys Wikramanayake, Rukshan Perera and Damian Wikkramatillake on his novel project, while Krishantha de Silva, who manages Sonexco Enterprises, will take on the role of coordinator.
Although this project will keep The X-Periments, busy, one day of the week will be designated as ‘recording day’ and they have a deadline of three months to complete this project, said Sohan.
There is also a possibility of Sohan inviting a few of his friends to join him in the vocals but that will depend on the materiel he decides on.
“There is no point in hanging around, waiting for work. Musicians have to innovate and create work to keep going, during these challenging times.”
Sohan is also working closely with Corinne Almeida and Clifford Richards and has an idea of doing a virtual concert, with the same line up that was featured at the Valentine show, called ‘Love at the Edge.’
Rajitha, of Misty, is helping them with the technical details of the show,
No doubt, things are looking a bit rosy for Sohan & The X-Periments, and Trishelle..
The guys are also working with Benjy and Aquarius, on a mega event, for Richard de Soysa, to be held at Nelum Pokuna, which is scheduled for mid- May, of 2021, and will feature 10 leading artistes ..
Remembering Dr. Neville Fernando
This tribute is in remembrance of my father-in-law, the late Dr. Neville Fernando who would have celebrated his 90th birthday on 9th March 2021. He passed away unexpectedly on the 4th of February 2021 due to the deadly COVID-19 virus.
His birthday will be remembered with an almsgiving to the priests at the Kotikawatta temple to invoke merits on him to attain the Supreme bliss of Niravana. Religious observances on his birthday were an annual occurrence even during his lifetime.
As I ponder his memories, being ‘no more’ is the saddest thought that crosses my mind. I suspect that if you are reading this you understand what I mean logically. Death means that our loved ones never grow a year older, although logic does little to clear up our confusion when his birthday continues to happen year after year.
His memories and deeds throughout his life brought back towards the day I joined his family, when I was just a medical house-officer at the Nawalapitiya Hospital in 1982, through the marriage to his only daughter. Even then he was known to be a real legend and an honest politician. Today, I am in this position as a cardiologist due to his encouragement, loving care and continuous assistance in whatever means. My mind is full of memories of those loving moments shared together. He was a loving, kind and straight gentleman. I may also use the words handsome and charismatic leader. He will inspire us throughout our lives. His pleasant disposition will charm anyone and uplift our mood.
He led a good life and now has a left a good legacy of four children( three boys and one girl) whom any father would be proud of, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren loved by everyone. He is now no more and no one can fill the void nor bring back the warmth and love he exuded.
We all have courage and we have our convictions, but rarely have the courage of our conviction. His kindness and compassion were his key attributes that made him so special. He had been a good general practitioner before coming to Parliament defeating a formidable leftist politician Leslie Goonewardene who represented Panadura for decades. It was a landmark victory for the UNP in 1977. He was a kind and compassionate doctor who served the rich and poor alike in Panadura for many years and was sought after by his patients for his well known ‘athguna’ (healing hands). This is where he earned his loyal fan base to enter into politics.
Among many things he achieved in Panadura establishing the “Kethumathi” Maternity Hospital, the only one of its kind outside Colombo, helping Sri Sumangala Girls College expansion programme, starting Agamathi Girls school and Janadhipathi Boys School and self funding the Sri Saugatha Vidyalaya Pirivena building at n the Rankoth Viharaya temple in Panadura. Likewise he helped many Buddhist temples during his tenure.
He also started an industrial zone in Modarawila, Panadura which was an abandoned marshy area before that. He had provided the first computer lab and two acres of additional land to expand the Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya which is spoken with gratitude by the students of his alma mater. He did not expect anything in return.
He was a fearless ,principled and honest man who opposed JRs’ motion to takeaway Mrs.Bandaranaikes’ civic rights as he never wanted to compromise his basic human qualities over politics. Very soon he left the Government before any attempt to expel him and formed a small party with few other honest politicians. Later he joined SLFP on the invitation of Mrs.Bandaranaike and worked in the party as an Assistant Secretary for the progress of the country.
He was a maverick par excellence ,an entrepreneur ,extraordinaire and a businessman with a foresight. As one of the pioneers in the hospitality industry, he built hotel Swanee, subsequently he started JF and I, one of the most modern printing and packaging factories in the country to date. He also pioneered a porcelain factory called “Royal Fernwood Porcelain” in Kosgama. Which provided so many employment opportunities and in time to come, helped to economically develop the area.
Continuing his political career, he entered Parliament again as an SLFP opposition member. Later on in 1994 he decided to give up politics.
His divestments in the Porcelain factory enabled him to purchase Asha Central Hospital which was developed with latest equipment and brought to international standards. This is the time I had to take a difficult decision to leave the Government as a Consultant Cardiologist and join Asha Central Hospital in 1998 to help him in his endeavour. He developed and managed Asha Central Hospital till 2007 and subsequently sold it to start his new venture SAITM or South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine with the encouragement of the then Min.of Higher Education Wishwa Warnapala.
Infact I was very much concerned about the new development because of the past experience in the country with the North Colombo Medical College. He always used to tell “every child should have the right for a decent education either in a government or non-government organisation”. His main vision was to give a higher education opportunity for the students .Therefore apart from medicine he also established nursing, engineering , IT, management programmes with the help of esteemed academics who believed in his vision. He established the Dr Neville Fernando Teaching hospital (NFTH) in Malabe to provide clinical training for his students at the medical faculty .It was a impressive state of the art hospital with 1002 beds and latest medical equipment . All of this was done during his 80s which was a remarkable achievement.
SAITM gave him immense pride and a lot of pain at the same time. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to give so many scholarships to deserving students (close to Rs.600 million scholarships during his time).In addition to saving a tremendous amount of foreign exchange he was also able to give an opportunity to students to stay in Sri Lanka with their parents, without having to go overseas for their education leaving behind all family and friends.
However, he had to face many obstacles during this period and was socially and politically crushed due to SAITM. With time, he made a decision to give the NFTH to the Government in return for the clinical training of the medical students of SAITM. In 2017 SAITM was closed down by Maithripala Sirisena who gave in due to the heavy opposition made by the unions against private medical education.
At 89 years of age he was an avid Facebook warrior and used to keep abreast of what was going on in the social media. He was a big cricket fan and never missed watching a cricket match day or night.
Writing about this unique personality cannot be limited to a few words. His life is a monumental story full of new chapters. He dreamed big and his dreams were of public service, even when he was no longer a politician. He yearned to make this country a better place for people to live in, even in his eighties.
May his journey of Sansara be a short one and may he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!
Dr Mohan Jayatilake
Boogie Night with Suzi
Yes, music lovers, get ready to boogie the night away, this Saturday, March 13th.
From 9.00 pm to 10 pm, you would be given the opportunity to see Friends’ former female vocalist, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger) boogie away on Facebook, on Talent Network Group (TNG).
Suzi is excited about this new scene, which will be live streamed, worldwide., and she plans to belt out songs from the Friends’ era (’80s and ’90s), country, and rock ‘n’ roll.
She is already working on her repertoire and says she will make ‘Boogie Night with Suzi’ a real exciting event.
TNG is a Dubai-based project, administered in Dubai, with moderators, worldwide.
And, that means, the whole world is going to see Suzi boogie away.
Several local artistes have already been featured on TNG.
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