Sunday, April 13, 2014

The exodus from Koggala

Several miles towards Matara from the city of Galle, one arrives at the village of Koggala. It is in fact a strange ‘hybrid’ between a village and a city. A Free Trade Zone with some factories, several hotels and an airstrip give the air of modernization to the area. But, just beside these modern buildings, one can observe the villagers, fishing, farming, engaging in trade, gathering firewood and carrying out the chores of the normal village life.
Koggala railway station is a lonely place most of the time (Pic by me)
If you travel by road or rail to Matara, the Koggala airstrip appears to your left. It is a unique place, where the airport, rail track, road and the sea are all seen at a glance from left to right. Perhaps the proximity to all possible transport modes must have been a reason for the British decision to construct an air strip in Koggala. Most importantly, to the south of the airstrip, there was no other prominent land until one meets Antarctica. The airstrip at Koggala could have played a vital part in surveillance, and it turned out to be so. It was a plane which took off from Koggala which alarmed the British of the impending Japanese attack on Ceylon.

The story of the Koggla airstrip is not a happy one. In 1942, the British ordered 1000 families of the Koggala area to vacate their homes within 24 hours. For the military, it was a simple order to give, despite the fact that the families evicted were also subjects of His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom. Taking whatever they could pack, the villagers left their homes and lands to the mercy of the British authorities and left to find shelter with a relative or a friend in other areas. Almost all their homes were destroyed by the British, with the exception of a well known house today, the ancestral home of renowned writer Martin Wickramasinghe.

Despite the fact that the Japanese threat was real, the removal of families without giving them any alternative was not acceptable under any circumstance. The shock of losing their lands and livelihoods was too much for the innocent villagers.

Sri Lanka has seen a number of forced evictions after the event in 1942, especially during the Eelam War. First, the Sinhalese who were living or working in Jaffna and elsewhere were forced to leave. Some of them lost their jobs, some their lands and in some cases people even lost their lives. The government was unable to protect them from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE ‘liberated’ many of these people from further suffering by cold-bloodedly massacring them. The history of the Eelam War is dotted with instances of massacres of innocent villagers by the LTTE.

The next turn was that of the Muslim community in Jaffna. In 1990, the LTTE ordered them to leave the peninsular in 24 hours, carrying whatever they could. It was an order similar to that of the British in Koggala in 1942. Many Jaffna Muslims still live as refugees elsewhere in the island.

More recently, in the latter stages of the war, the LTTE forced immense difficulties on thousands of Tamil people in the Wanni, whom the organization claimed to represent. They took their children to fight for a lost cause and even killed the parents if they resisted. In the final days of the war, the LTTE forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes to an uncertain fate. These people were used as a human shield by the LTTE leadership which was trying to buy time so that the international forces could perhaps ‘compel’ the Sri Lankan government to agree to a cease fire. If the LTTE had not resorted to this ‘tactic’ the war would have ended several weeks-if not months-before May 2009.

Today, none of these stories are being heard in international forums on human rights. Furthermore, former colonial masters have now become the leading proponents of human rights. The former colonial societies have been subjugated in a colonial mindset which has been cultivated throughout the colonial period and even thereafter. In this state of mind, questioning their former masters is anathema. Therefore, smaller countries are usually reluctant to rise against the overbearing power of the Western nations. It is in this backdrop that the stories of innocent people, like the refugees of Koggala, do not get reported.


  1. Considering the impounding Japanese terror and the swiftness and ruthlessness of their attack, I think Brits needed Koggala air strip built very quickly. Do you know when they started building it?

    After the fall of Singapore in February every one knew Ceylon was next. They even predicted a full scale invasion to happen on 31st March. So they must have been desperate for an additional airstrip in south. But I'm not justifying the forced eviction. Just saying it was a wartime necessity. Were they compensated properly; that I don't know.

    In my opinion their most heinous act during that time was not warning the public about the Japanese threat even after the presence of the Jap fleet was confirmed, either out of disregard or to avoid panic. Ultimately civilian causalities numbered 85 dead.

    1. There is no debate as to the necessity of the airstrip. The British were totally desperate and after the fall of Singapore they were humiliated as well.
      As per what the people say, the locals who were evicted were not compensated properly. That is the issue.
      As for keeping things secret, උන් දැනුත් ඒක කරනවනෙ :). So, no surprises there.

    2. By the way, I could not find the exact date in which this happened.